This obsession with being vigorously economical is a utilitarian approach to language; when coming from a journalist, that’s understandable. Last year, ABC journalist Sarah Ferguson said of a Four Corners episode about the ABC’s own senior management challenges: “I shouldn’t use adverbs because they’re bad for the language, but it’s extremely fair.”
But we look to novelists, do we not, to provide a beat; a pause to reflect on what it means to be human. Rather than fixating on pace and purpose, they provide us with depth. They take an English-lover’s approach to language, rather than a mathematician’s.
You can learn basic grammar and vocabulary at any age. That explains my “good enough” French. But there’s also an enormous amount of low-frequency words and syntax that even native speakers might encounter only once a year. Knowing any one of these “occasional” words or phrasings isn’t essential. But in every context — a book, an article or conversation — there will probably be several. They’re part of what gives native speech its richness.
In other words, no matter how many sentences I memorize or words I circle, there will always be more. “You can get pretty good pretty quickly, but getting really, really good takes forever,” Dr. Hartshorne explained.
Smith is not going to ride out this tumultuous political moment artistically, as if she were a car parked under an overpass during a storm. She’s delivered a bracing if uneven novel, one that, like jazz, feels improvised. “Spring” is tendentious at times, but it taps deeply into our contemporary unease. It’s always alive.
Life bursts through all of Oliver Sacks’s writing. He was and will remain a brilliant singularity. It’s hard to call to mind one dull passage in his work — one dull sentence, for that matter. At the end of this book, and very near the end of his life, in “Filter Fish,” he even manages to give gefilte fish, of all things, a wonderful star turn: “In what are (barring a miracle) my last weeks of life — so queasy that I am averse to almost every food and have difficulty swallowing … I have rediscovered the joys of gefilte fish. … Gefilte fish will usher me out of this life, as it ushered me into it, 82 years ago.”
Over the years, Shakespeare’s art has been praised for many things. But to the best of my knowledge, it has never been singled out for its classicism. In the famous judgment of Shakespeare’s rival and occasional drinking partner, Ben Jonson, the Stratford man had “small Latin and less Greek.” For Jonson, Shakespeare’s accomplishments were of a different order: the gift, not of painstaking study, but of natural talent and the determination to represent the experience of the world in all its complexity. As such, he was a true original — one who, moreover, showcased the confidence, flexibility, and newfound dignity of the English language. In the later 17th century, John Dryden saw in Jonson’s vision not only a vindication of modern literature as against that of the ancients, but an elevation of English drama above the heavily classicizing French canon of Molière, Corneille, and Racine. It was precisely Shakespeare’s lack of interest in decorous formality that set him apart. Like Homer before him, he might occasionally nod or go a bit far, but like Homer he had embarked on a voyage of poetic discovery. The Romantics were irresistibly drawn both to Shakespeare’s works and to the idea of their author as a prodigy of imaginative freedom, and as Bardolatry became a global religion over the course of the long 19th century, the popular image of Shakespeare as a genius of transcendently natural creativity took hold.
In truth, Jonson had a point. Relative to many of his contemporary poets, dramatists, and historians — the showily erudite Jonson foremost among them — Shakespeare can by no means be thought of as learned. The rub is that what could be described as having “small Latin and less Greek” in the early 17th century would, translated to the 20th or 21st centuries, look saturated in antiquity. Shakespeare had probably read and digested more Greek and Roman literature than most present-day Classics graduates.
Go towards starshine
& meet me at dusk.
A world without dogs is impossible to imagine. Our relationship with them predates the written word, agriculture and civilization. They were our hunting buddies, bed warmers and, sometimes, if not much else was around, our dinner. As dogs crept into our homes, surfing kitchen counters and sleeping on the sofa, our focus was practical: managing the animal with which 60 million American households share space. (That’s about 13 million more households than the number cohabitating with the next most popular pet — cats.) Until surprisingly recently, most dog books were assiduously pragmatic: how to choose them, train them and care for them.
But the new millennium is different. “Marley & Me,” the 2005 mega-best seller by John Grogan, marked a subtle but important shift in how we think about dogs. It begins as a hilarious account of dog ownership in the 1990s. How do you get a large, muscled carnivore to sit nicely at a restaurant, remain tranquil during thunderstorms and not poop on the beach? But by the end of the book, Grogan is almost entirely concerned with his Labrador Marley’s interior life — the way he thinks, feels and apprehends the world. “I dropped my forehead against his and sat there for a long time, as if I could telegraph a message through our two skulls, from my brain to his.”
I talked to a Girl Scout troop about math earlier this month, and one of our topics was the intersection of math and music. I chose to focus on the way we perceive ratios of sound wave frequencies as intervals. We interpret frequencies that have the ratio 2:1 as octaves. (Larger frequencies sound higher.) We interpret frequencies that have the ratio 3:2 as perfect fifths. And sadly, I had to break it to the girls that these two facts mean that no piano is in tune. In other words, you can tuna fish, but you can't tune a piano.
With Princess Bari, Hwang challenges the hegemony of Western norms and myths in world literature, which rarely uses Eastern myth in its storytelling. Anglophone novels and poems default mostly to Ovid’s Metamorphoses or the Bible for symbols, metaphors, and allusions, and novels such as Princess Bari can usher in a more balanced representation of the world. In Hwang’s probing, compassionate work, Western readers unfamiliar with Eastern philosophy and culture will experience new takes on folkloric wisdom born of the enduring collective imagination.
Consider the atlas — what it lends a reader, and what it withholds. The atlas has none of the quiet hubris of the standalone map; it doesn’t ally itself with one fixed perspective, doesn’t emphasize one facet of reality over another. More suggestive than assertive, the atlas is a collection of takes on a place, an anthology of ways to see a world.
If there’s a narrative analogue to the atlas, the debut memoir of T Kira Madden is a luminous example. Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls, Madden’s lyrical portrait of her Florida childhood, is nothing short of astonishing. The book spoils us with stylistic and structural novelty from start to finish. It’s a song of self at once stunningly variegated and yet somehow powerfully unified.
It is this intimacy that Anna McDonald, the protagonist of Mina’s latest murder mystery Conviction, is craving. Anna listens to the first episode in the kitchen of her elegant house in Glasgow’s West End: the podcast is a twisty tale of a sunken yacht, family annihilation and a super-rich heiress. Then it dawns on her that this story revolves around the death of a man she once knew, who links her back to a crime she has been running from for more than a decade. Conviction is Mina’s 15th book since her 1998 debut Garnethill, but to describe her as a crime novelist can seem limiting. She is also a playwright, for stage and television, and is currently adapting the lesser known Brecht play Mr Puntila and His Man Matti for Edinburgh’s Lyceum. She has scripted many graphic novels, becoming the first woman to write 12 instalments of the comic-book series Hellblazer, and is planning a second series of a roadtrip for Sky Arts in which she and Frank Skinner explore Scotland in the footsteps of Boswell and Johnson. She’s writing another novel, based around notorious murders of sex workers in Glasgow in the 1990s, while a top secret true crime project will be revealed later this year.
“I’ve got a little bit too much on,” she concludes. “But it’s great isn’t it? I think it’s really important to remember to be grateful. The longer I go on I realise what a miracle it is to have a career as a writer.”
When he checked in at the front desk on the night of Feb. 28, 1982, John Belushi was a time bomb, a waste site, a mess. Sweaty, flabby, edgy, pale, disheveled, worn to a stump at the age of 33, he had called ahead to reserve his favorite bungalow, No. 3, one of the ones Al Smith had purchased that stood close to the private entrance on Monteel Road. Like other members of the extended Saturday Night Live family, Belushi had been introduced to Chateau Marmont by the show's producer, Lorne Michaels, who stayed there when he was a comedy writer for a variety of TV shows and who liked to joke that he moved around the place as his fortunes in the business ebbed and flowed: "I lived all around in the hotel, moving from room to room. If I had the money, I moved to a larger suite. If not, I took a smaller one."
Belushi had been in residence at the hotel for more than a month earlier that winter, at first in a suite in the upper floors, No. 69, only to abandon it when he and his neighbors found one another noisy: them complaining about Belushi's music and carousing, him being woken by their crying baby. He moved to a penthouse, No. 54, and then, after a visit from his wife, Judy, who found the setting depressing — "Are you sure you want to stay here?" she had asked him, after finding a quaalude on the floor of his room — he moved into the bungalow, with his script drafts, his research materials, a new stereo system, and the rest of his belongings. He was going to get a movie written. He was going to create a hit.
Tony Leys is a newspaperman. He has covered murders. He has worked the copy desk. He has knocked on doors and taken verbal battering. Most reporters evolve to become editors, but Leys, bored behind a desk 20 years ago, did the opposite. After spending much of his career assigning stories—as city editor, state editor, politics editor—he returned to writing them. His beat became health care, and he owned it, reporting with soul-wringing realism on the flaws of the American medical apparatus. He has won numerous awards, including two years ago for reporting on the impact of Medicaid privatization, as told through the eyes of poor, suffering patients, and last year for authoring a stellar package of Sunday print edition stories about mental health.
There will be no such series this year. Not because Leys has lost his job, but because he’s being reassigned—sort of. He’ll continue to cover health-related stories. But for the next 10 months, his priority will be covering presidential politics. Leys is used to this. It happens every four years. Because this is Iowa. Because this is the Des Moines Register.
One truth goes to the heart of death in our community: You can’t fall out of love with something. Having known two of the three men who died on Howse Peak, I know that climbing made them feel alive. The question is — could we feel alive enough if we stopped? Most climbers think not.
It's always tempting for writers to loudly telegraph their characters' motives, desires and fears; it takes a special kind of talent, and an implicit trust in an author's readers, to let stories quietly speak for themselves. Croley manages to pull this off in each of the stories in Any Other Place. It's a beautiful collection and a remarkable debut effort from an author with a rare and compassionate understanding of the human condition.
It is obvious that Li has a keen intellect, but this novel also has devastating emotional implications as Li says something very profound about grief.
This is an exciting and sobering account of how freedom, which was never in the internet code in the first place, can be effectively curtailed with the tools that were supposed to liberate us. Towards the end of the book, Griffiths shows how China has in turn helped Russia with its own efforts at internet censorship, and is now exporting the same technologies to Africa. These are alarming developments, to be sure; yet at the same time western liberals increasingly demand that Twitter, Facebook, YouTube et al become censors themselves, removing certain kinds of content, and deleting the accounts of users. Griffiths quotes Xi Jinping as saying: “Cyberspace is not a domain beyond the rule of law. Greater effort should be made to strengthen ethical standards and promote civilised behaviour.” Well, it should, shouldn’t it?
What everybody knows about John Hersey is that he wrote “Hiroshima,” the one widely read book about the effects of nuclear war. Its place in the canon is assured, not only because it was a major literary achievement but also because reporters haven’t had another chance to produce an on-the-scene account of a city recently blasted by a nuclear weapon. Yet Hersey was more of a figure than that one megaton-weighted fact about him would indicate. Born in 1914, he had an astonishingly rapid ascent as a young man. Because he was a quiet, sober person who lived an unusually unflamboyant life by the standards of celebrated American writers, it’s easy to miss how much he achieved.
“We’re telling everyone to prep as if they’re going into surgery,” joked Joe Russo, one of the directors, in an interview with ComicBook.com. “Don’t have any water or anything to drink post-midnight the day before you see the film, and you’ll be fine.”
So in the United States, most audiences will have to steel themselves for three uninterrupted hours. But theaters across the world have taken control of the remote and hit pause roughly halfway through. Avengers fans in countries including Egypt, Italy, Portugal, Switzerland and Turkey all reported having an intermission during showings this week.
Intermissions were once a regular part of the American moviegoing experience, even with films that were not “Gone With The Wind”-sized (three hours, 58 minutes) epics. The reason was partly practical: Theaters needed time to swap out film reels.
When I first stepped foot in Brooklyn, I remember being utterly shocked at how empty it was. Closed shops. Few to no pedestrians. Warehouses with broken windows. Each stood as a vestige of a bygone era. But nothing in its renovation and extreme gentrification over the past 10 years pointed to which groups of people had once trampled the streets, which businesses occupied these empty lots, and what type of lovers frolicked on benches. In When Brooklyn Was Queer: A History (St. Martin’s Press, 2019), Hugh Ryan opens up this Pandora’s box, allowing new and old queers to discover the borough that birthed so many of our contemporary notions of gender and sexuality, and which gladly became the founding mother of our terminology.
As a child, I squeezed extra hours of reading from each day by switching on the tape deck after lights out. I didn’t like surrendering my active mind to sleep, but I could let unconsciousness catch me unawares. Decades later, driven to desperation by insomnia, I unearthed old cassette tapes from my childhood bedroom and discovered that their comforts still worked on me. So I did the only logical thing and subscribed to Audible, the Amazon subsidiary with a near-monopoly on digital audiobooks, and before long I was catching up on contemporary fiction while I swiffered my floors every Sunday, speeding through classics while my dog decided where to pee. It’s a little embarrassing to admit how much this habit has come to mean to me. I’m sleeping better, but it’s not only that. The precise elocution of the practiced actor-narrators is often the only human speech I hear all day. I was lonelier than I realized before it entered my routine.
There have been plenty of debates about whether the phenomenon of Instagram poetry is “good” or “bad” for poetry in general. But aesthetic judgments about Instagram poetry, whether positive or negative, may be less interesting than the contexts for poetry—ones we often don’t talk about—that are revealed in our reactions to it. The rise of Instagram poets makes more visible the different poetry worlds that contemporary poets occupy, whose boundaries are not just aesthetic, but economic and institutional as well.
By categorizing light skin as the norm and other skin tones as needing special corrective care, photography has altered how we interact with each other without us realizing it.
The adage that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture” has been ascribed to Elvis Costello, Laurie Anderson and Thelonious Monk, among others. Undaunted, in “Why You Like It” Nolan Gasser attempts to explain the ineffable ways music produces sensations in listeners’ brains: its power to move people to tears, evoke awe and induce involuntary toe-tapping. Plus the odd proclivity of sad songs to seem uplifting.
And what now of dreaming?
We’ve failed the planet has published our failures.
Norris is the famous New Yorker copy editor who wrote “Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen” a few years ago. That book — a record of her equally passionate relationship with punctuation — gave us a rich example of her noble predilection for knowing everything there is to know about a single subject. If Isaiah Berlin were alive today and able to read “Between You & Me,” I am certain he would have considered Norris a perfect candidate for inclusion in the category of hedgehog, his term for a person who works to know one thing completely, as opposed to the fox, who pursues many things superficially.
Over a period of nearly 40 years, which has included countless trips to Greece, Norris’s experience of the country and all things Greek has remained ever fresh: Very nearly she believes it her destiny. In an oddly brooding way, it’s almost as though she thinks Greece has been there from the time she was young to rescue her from herself.
By day, she researches the poetry of John Donne as a fellow of All Souls College, Oxford. But in the evening, when Dr Katherine Rundell wants a bit of comfort, she reads Paddington. “As an adult, the thing I love about Paddington is that the structure Michael Bond has built into his books is one of hope. Things which appear to be negative turn out to be just cogs in the greater machine. I think Bond sees life as miraculous – and that’s in the structure of the book.”
In her own forthcoming work, Why You Should Read Children’s Books, Even Though You Are So Old and Wise, Rundell argues that children’s literature offers unique insights and distinctive imaginative experiences to adults. “Defy those who would tell you to be serious,” she writes, “those who would limit joy in the name of propriety. Cut shame off at the knees... Plunge yourself soul-forward into a children’s book: see ifyou do not find in them an unexpected alchemy; if they will not un-dig in you something half hidden and half forgotten.”
While his colleagues remember the terrible noise of this lifeline breaking, Lemons himself heard nothing. One moment he was jammed against the metal underwater structure they had been working on and then he was tumbling backwards towards the ocean floor. His link to the ship above was gone, along with any hope of finding his way back to it.
Most crucially, his air supply had also vanished, leaving him with just six or seven minutes of emergency air supply. Over the next 30 minutes at the bottom of the North Sea, Lemons would experience something that few people have lived to talk about: he ran out of air.
I have, today, been to zero restaurants and have encountered sushi multiple times. I got a can of tomato paste at Whole Foods, and there was sushi. A coffee, at midnight, at my local bodega: sushi. I walked past a Target, and I did not go in, but if I had, there would have been sushi.
Despite various evidence to the contrary, such as all the climate news and…actually all news, it is a glorious time to be alive. The evidence for this is prepackaged sushi. It’s everywhere, all the time: in airports and train stations, at grocery stores, at sports stadiums, at Walgreens. I like consistency, so I find this reassuring: Yes, the quality varies, but the little plastic black-bottomed box, the line of fake grass, the petals of pickled ginger—they are almost always there.
Chipotle took a known commodity among Mexicans that suddenly turned trendy in the hands of white Americans, for white Americans. But Chipotle proved no gateway to pique Americans into learning about other types of burritos. Instead, the Mission variety came to dominate burrito culture in the United States — and endangered other styles in the process.
This is a lyrical, often narrative collection rich with allegory. Slipping into this collection feels like peeking behind a curtain of a dark fairy tale. One in which Maleficent and Cinderella’s step mother take the shape of an older woman telling the speaker, “I think of young women like you as a present / for my husband.” The speaker then asks if Disney villains have committed crimes beyond growing old and becoming replaceable. Even in a world of fairy tales, the speaker finds herself something to be opened, something to be used: “I am an object to be unwrapped, opened, slipped into for a fortieth birthday.” This objectification in multiple realms shows its inescapability in this collection.
A novel is not a scratch card or a buried archeological treasure; it has no prior existence waiting to be uncovered. The novelist, like the wayfarer in Antonio Machado’s poem, has to make the way by going. In the case of my novel, Lux, the going took seventeen years. It began with that single word, Lux, written in a new notebook on 30 December 2000. The word had a charge that I felt might lead me on into a story and into a world. It was the name of the sixteenth-century poet Thomas Wyatt’s beloved falcon, to whom he addressed a poem while in prison. He envied her her freedom and felt the difference between her loyalty and the conduct of his fair-weather friends. The name plays on the light of its Latin meaning and also on the luck that was such a fugitive feature of Thomas Wyatt’s eventful life.
Last fall, at a party, my husband and I and two friends decided to start a “Stupid Classics Book Club.” It began as a joke, and then struck us as a genuinely good idea. The project of this book club would be to read all the corny stuff from the canon that we really should have read in school but never had. None of us were English majors, so we’d missed a lot. I pulled out a notebook, and we spent the next hour and a half in a corner, coming up with a list of “stupid classics.” As we went, we had to figure out exactly what we meant by “stupid”—we did not mean lacking in intelligence, or bad. For me, “stupid” meant relatively short, accessible enough to be on a high school syllabus, and probably rehashed into cliché over time by multiple film adaptations and Simpsons episodes. The quintessential example was Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Anything too long or serious—Proust, Middlemarch—was excluded from the list, even if we all wanted to read it, due to failing those criteria. We did not assume any of the classics would actually be stupid.
We were wrong on that last count.
One woozy afternoon, the former department chair admitted that they had, in fact, hired one of my junior colleagues by mistake — the secretary confused the two lists of candidates and called to offer him the job, and the chair was too gentlemanly to withdraw it — but that I shouldn’t worry: they actually had wanted me. But what they wanted me for was unclear. Junior faculty, at that time, had no courses of their own. They “precepted” for senior faculty. It really didn’t matter what our dissertations had been on. We were the grading faculty. Colleagues who were ahead of me in years of service got their pick of whom to serve as “preceptors”: the charismatic Chaucerian, the baronial Americanist, the aristocratic Shakespearian. Someone, perhaps the very secretary who had called the wrong candidate, found out that I had done the English philology degree at Oxford. And so, as a tenure-track TA, in the interview suit I wore every teaching day for the entire first semester, I was assigned to “precept” the history of the English language.
It was Google Street View, of course, a function I had used a few times for apartment hunting, but which had only just come to this region of Russia. It was magic. I clicked and clicked. I wandered around Vorkuta for hours, past the fading Soviet propaganda painted on the ends of buildings, past last year’s snow heaped in the center of parking lots. I saw the Palace of Culture, an empty playground, the stack of a coal plant, satellites clustered on rooftops like mussels at low tide. I saw litter, graffiti, cell phones clamped to ears, the price of popsicles, pastel dumpsters, and the trash truck emptying them.
The buildings in Vorkuta are spread out, as though the town is trying to compete in breadth with the sky, so its pedestrians are left with long distances to cover. An old woman walked down one street, the closest buildings small behind her. A plastic bag dangled from each of her hands. Ilya would pass her on his way to school, I decided, and just like that I fell back into my novel’s world.
Another reason why there’s no bus shelter in front of Tony’s Barber Shop is the street design. Figueroa is a major artery with five travel lanes, two parking lanes, modest sidewalks, and storefronts that come right up to the edge of the property line. You can’t install a shelter here without disrupting underground utilities near the curb (a right-of-way controlled by multiple city agencies), violating the Americans with Disabilities Act (which requires four-foot clearance for wheelchairs), or blocking driveway sightlines. The same goes for street trees. On this block, shade is basically outlawed.
Sidewalk inspectors forced Cornejo to take down the canopy in the summer of 2015, just before the worst heat wave in 25 years rolled through Los Angeles. A spokesperson for the Department of Public Works said sidewalks have to be “safe and secure,” and he pointed to a section of the municipal code prohibiting “obstruction in the public right of way.” Never mind that Cornejo’s shelter, open at both ends, let pedestrians pass freely. It was deemed a safety hazard. You could argue that the law should be more flexible, and that as temperatures rise in this sun-baked city, the meaning of public safety should evolve. But in fact the city code had been revised to be more punitive, so that violators could be fined and repeat offenders charged with misdemeanors under the city’s “overgrown vegetation enforcement program.” The hardline approach was pushed by councilmember Greig Smith, who wanted to promote the “aesthetic value” of “tidy and attractive” neighborhoods like the ones in his district, an affluent, car-dependent part of the San Fernando Valley.
I have no serious rebuttal to any of these objections. They’re mostly true. I’m a single black gay man, and therefore an unlikely champion of the American romantic comedy: What’s in these movies for me?
And yet here I am, in a state of panicked rumination: Who are we without these movies? Romantic comedy is the only genre committed to letting relatively ordinary people — no capes, no spaceships, no infinite sequels — figure out how to deal meaningfully with another human being. These are the lowest-stakes movies we have that are also about our highest standards for ourselves, movies predicated on the improvement of communication, the deciphering of strangers and the performance of more degrees of honesty than I ever knew existed — gentle, cruel, blunt, clarifying, T.M.I., strategic, tardy, medical, sexual, sartorial. They take our primal hunger to connect with one another and give it a story. And at their best, they do much more: They make you believe in the power of communion.
The Mexican-American neighborhood is home to the perfect flaky tortillas at Doña María Mexican Cafe, scratch-made in flour or corn, and ready to be folded around eggs with the fine threads of dried beef called machacada. It has the off-menu roasted tamales at the Original Alamo Tamales, with blackened husks and caramelized edges of masa and meat. And there’s Taqueria Chabelita, where the owner, Isabel Henriquez Hernandez, makes pinto beans whose smoky intensity comes not from pork fat, but from a slow char in a hot pan.
For Mr. Medrano, who grew up in San Antonio with generations of relatives on both sides of the Rio Grande, this is all his comfort food, his culinary heritage, his comida casera, or Mexican home cooking.
Just don’t call it Tex-Mex, he said. He prefers to describe it as Texas Mexican, which is also how he describes himself.
The unreliability of memory; the ways we talk to ourselves and to each other; how we can act as detectives in our own lives, combing the past for clues; how places can seem clearer from afar than when we are there — all these themes are touched on in Savas’s spare, disarmingly simple prose. She writes with both sensuality and coolness, as if determined to find a rational explanation for the irrationality of existence, and for the narrator’s opaque understanding of herself.
I’d gotten in touch with Kris on Facebook through a friend of a friend. Lately, driving the familiar backroads, I had been stirred by memories of how it felt to be young and queer (and closeted) in West Virginia in the nineties and early two-thousands and I wanted to connect with the current generation of rural LGBTQ youth to see what life was like for them today. I remembered lying low in the back seat of the bus, nose in a book, listening to the kids around me talking about “that lesbian doctor in town.” Fucking pussy-licker, an older kid said. That’s why my dad told my mom we can’t go there no more. And something had leapt inside me. I’d never paid much attention to the local lady doctor when I passed her at the grocery store or laundromat; now I wanted to get a better look. I was maybe nine, not even old enough to fully understand my own desires, but I knew without knowing that this conversation had something to do with the way I felt around certain girls. And I could sense the palpable hatred that wreathed that word lesbian.
Upon returning to my hometown, though, some twenty-odd years after that bus ride, I kept seeing signs that perhaps, even in rural Appalachia, the times had changed. There was an advertisement on Facebook for a local queer film festival, an Appalachian photo essay that included an image of two teenage girls publicly kissing, an Instagram account dedicated to queer Appalachians interested in creating their own zine, and talk in the county seat of an LGBTQ protection ordinance. I myself never came out until after I left West Virginia, and now that I was back home my queerness was fairly invisible. I was married to a man, and most of my neighbors and coworkers at the local community college where I taught had no idea that before I fell in love with my husband I had dated only women. It was a privilege that I felt uneasy about and I couldn’t help but wonder what life would have been like for me if I had never left West Virginia. I couldn’t help but wonder if I would have felt comfortable moving back home if my partner were a woman. I reached out to a friend, the only publicly out lesbian I knew in the area, to ask her what she thought life was like for rural LGBTQ youth these days. She told me I should talk to a guy named Kris, and so here I was, lost in my own hometown, looking for him.
Fiction is a portal to a deeper understanding of myself, and when I went through it the first time, I knew I would write fiction the rest of my life. Fiction allows me the freedom to conjure up scenes, add details from my life or my mother’s, alter them—whatever is best for telling a story. It’s the ultimate tag sale. I used the frayed sofa in one house and snippets of gossip around mahjongg tables during meetings of the real Joy Luck Club. I resurrected the horrifying sound of a neighbor girl screaming as her mother beat her in the bathroom. I carried into many stories the hopes and expectations of my parents: to practice hard to become a concert pianist; to be American enough to take advantage of opportunities but Chinese in character; to marry a generous, kind man without spots on his face. My rejection of their expectations went into the mix, and, as the story evolved, a broken bit of my self-esteem surfaced.
A phrase that often came up for us was that we didn’t want this collection to seem “like a scrapbook,” filled randomly with miscellaneous writings, as anthologies and posthumous collections sometimes do. This is where sequencing the pieces became crucial. We wanted this book to have its own narrative arc, to give a suggestion of Oliver’s entire life’s path.
But even more broadly, Gingerbread is about stories — who tells them, who hears them, and what they mean. It’s only when Perdita embarks on the perilous journey to Druhástrana, with the aid of a poison-laced hedgehog-shaped gingerbread, that Harriet begins to unfold her life story. As it turns out, gingerbread, the food, is sort of the ideal vector for storytelling, because gingerbread is all about making up stories. It’s been used over the course of its history as a vessel for meaning: It’s been luxurious and refined; comforting, treacly, and homey; threatening and insidious. As it’s become established in different cultural contexts, rituals and stories have sprung up around it. Back in Druhástrana, Harriet Lee spent some time working on a gingerbread farm, where one team was tasked exclusively with “concocting gingerbread lore,” inventing stories with titles like Gifts of the Four Wise Men: Gold, Frankincense, Myrrh + Gingerbread. The gingerbread exists; the narratives develop later.
Leila S. Chudori’s 2012 novel, Home, translated from the Indonesian by John H. McGlynn in 2015, uses food as a mechanism to create and sustain intimacy during political exile and as a method of resistance against the imposed narrative of the dictatorship. Set mainly during the New Order government rule of Indonesia, the book, which spans a period of thirty years, begins in Jakarta just before the 1965 September 30 Movement, during which an organization of the Indonesian National Armed Forces killed six army generals in a coup d’état. The president at the time, Sukarno, and his government quickly blamed this on the Communist Party of Indonesia and began a genocidal massacre and imprisonment of communists, those suspected of relations with communists, and ethnic Chinese Indonesians.
Machines Like Me manages to combine the dark acidity of McEwan’s great early stories with the crowd-pleasing readability of his more recent work. A novel this smart oughtn’t to be such fun, but it is.
What is death,
but a letting go
In The Order of Time, physicist Carlo Rovelli challenges our concept of time. Time passes more quickly the closer one is to a gravitational mass (like a planet or a star or a black hole). This fact is popular in science fiction. A space traveler might return to Earth to find that her friends and family have aged more than she has. Even at different altitudes on Earth, time is different. Rovelli writes that if identical twins separate early in life and live one in the mountains and one below sea level, then they will find in old age that the one below sea level has aged more, being closer to the center of the planet.
Time, Rovelli claims, is not linear. It is a gravitational field. If he is right, time is like everything else in the universe and must be made up of extremely tiny particles. There is no past or future; we only experience it this way.
So why, my grief asks, can’t we change times simply by changing our perceptions? Rovelli suggests that our linear experience of time is due to thermodynamics. The second law of thermodynamics dictates that the total amount of entropy in the universe can never decrease, only increase. For us, or at least in our section of the universe, time operates in only one direction.
There’s something that people do, but not everyone does it. It involves a hamburger, a shelf, and a lot of time. It goes like this: buy a hamburger from McDonald’s, then just leave it on a shelf to see if it rots. (Spoiler Alert: It doesn’t. It quickly dries out and without moisture, mold won’t grow.)
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately as a metaphor for submitting. Not writing itself (although a book that lasts is comparable to a burger that won’t rot) but submitting. The act that follows writing but precedes being published, assuming success is the end result. (Spoiler Alert: It usually isn’t.)
And so, finally, we come to the elephant in the room. If writing a book is like climbing a mountain, has he crested the peak of the final volume of LBJ? Is he on his way back down the other side? This is delicate, I know, but does he feel the clock ticking? His eyes close once again. “I have a long way to go,” he says. “I can hear the clock ticking, but the important thing to me is to ignore it. If I was to rush, what would be the sense?” The responsibility of his project – a project to which he has devoted almost half his life – never leaves him. “Almost all the people involved are dead now. They’re leaving you to tell the story, so you’d better get it right.”
Its story is simple: Santiago, an imprisoned Uruguayan radical, longs for freedom, while his exiled wife, daughter, father, and friend struggle to make use of theirs. Benedetti rotates between characters, all of whom speak in monologue form. There are few dramatized scenes, and not much affection or warmth. Benedetti cuts out sensory detail, as if not only Santiago but his family were confined to a concrete cell. The result is profoundly lonely. In style and structure, “Springtime in a Broken Mirror” reproduces the isolation that its characters feel.
Most books on conducting fall into one of two camps. There are the collections of popular anecdotes — Arturo Toscanini’s tantrums, Leonard Bernstein’s orgiastic wriggles and dances on the podium, Fritz Reiner’s and Pierre Boulez’s bland seriousness in summoning thrilling performances from their ensembles. And then there are the practical guides, chock-a-block with musical excerpts, baton techniques and methods of counting time — all valuable to musicians, of course, but somewhat forbidding to the general audience.
And now Mark Wigglesworth, a British conductor who has led orchestras across much of the world, has come up with something unusual: a deft, sensible book of meditations on the craft of conducting, written with grace and humor, unfailingly light in spirit but sometimes profound in its utterance. “The Silent Musician: Why Conducting Matters” may be read straight through or picked up and put down at leisure, always with profit. It calls to mind a spirited bar conversation with a new friend, somebody you’ve asked to tell you about this most mysterious of musical professions and how it works.
edge by edge
We live in an age of untimely surfacings. Across the Arctic, ancient methane deposits are leaking through “windows” in the Earth opened by thawing permafrost. In the forests of eastern Siberia a vast crater yawns in softening ground, swallowing thousands of trees; local Yakutian people refer to it as the “doorway to the underworld”. In the “cursed fields” of northern Russia, permafrost melt is exposing 19th-century animal burial grounds containing naturally occurring anthrax spores; a 2016 outbreak infected 23 people and killed a child. Retreating glaciers are yielding the bodies of those engulfed by their ice many years before – the dead of the ongoing conflict in Kashmir, or the “White war” of 1915–18 in the Italian mountains. Near the peak of San Matteo, three Habsburg soldiers melted out of a serac at an altitude of 12,000ft, hanging upside down. At Camp One on Everest in 2017, after a period of unseasonal warmth, a mountaineer’s hand appeared, reaching out of the ice into which he had been frozen. Gold miners in the Yukon recently unearthed a 50,000-year-old wolf pup from the permafrost, eerily preserved right down to the curl of its upper lip.
Spring bulbs push themselves up into flower far earlier than a century ago. Last August’s heatwave in Britain caused the imprints of long-vanished structures – iron age burial barrows, Neolithic ritual monuments – to shimmer into view as parch marks visible from the air: aridity as x-ray, a drone’s-eye-view back in time. The same month, water levels in the River Elbe dropped so far that “hunger stones” were revealed – carved boulders used since the 1400s to commemorate droughts and warn of their consequences. One of the stones bears the inscription “Wenn du mich siehst, dann weine” (If you see me, weep). In northern Greenland, an American cold war missile base – sealed under the ice 50 years ago with the presumption that snow accumulation would entomb it for ever, and containing huge volumes of toxic chemicals – has begun to move towards the light. This January, polar scientists discovered a gigantic melt cavity – two-thirds the area of Manhattan and up to 300 metres high – growing under the Thwaites glacier in west Antarctica. Thwaites is immense. Its calving face is the juggernaut heading towards us. It holds enough ice to raise ocean levels by more than two feet, and its melt patterns are already responsible for around 4% of global sea-level rise.
Prince’s “Erotic City” was one of the most played songs at dance clubs in the mid-`80s. If I were with my friend, Angie, and the DJ played this infamously dirty B-side, we’d be on the floor immediately after that first sexy note — a lone string plucked and whammied, dreamlike. Prince was the bond in our friendship, one that started when we were horny teenagers and has lasted in some small way or another throughout the years. Even though we live in the same state, we don’t see each other much. I guess you’d say we’re more like Internet friends these days. We chat about parenting, old friends, or jobs. But back in the day it was pretty hot and heavy, and it seemed like the good chemistry between us was heavily influenced by our love for the one and only Prince Rogers Nelson. Which is why it felt oddly appropriate when Angie messaged me on Instagram last year to see if I wanted to go see Prince’s most popular backing band, The Revolution, at the Crystal Ballroom in Portland. “It would be a cool flashback if you wanted to go,” she wrote.
When it works, Flowers Over the Inferno works nicely indeed, and when it doesn't, you are left with enough goodwill to pat it on the back. Italy offers a nice break from all those northern European thrillers, and I did love the closing sentence of the book. I'd buy this book a drink, but maybe not a whole meal. Sometimes, however, that Aperol spritz is all you need, especially in summer.
Nothing really happens—it is the classic quest without a cause. It is too empathetic and clever a book, but it is often too smug in its own beauty and ingenuity. Much like the GPS of a car that Less is driving, which—“after giving crisp, stern directions to the highway, becomes drunk in its own power outside the city limits, then gives out completely and places Arthur Less in the sea of Japan.” And yet, words melt and ooze and re-form in a masterful, aesthetic sequence that will have you reading till the very end. It is soothing and humorous, cantankerous and upbeat, and above all, melodious.
In The Noise of Time, Julian Barnes examines the relationship between art and power, or, more specifically, between individual creativity and a controlling state. The novella is a fictionalized biography of the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich, covering his personal and professional life under Stalinist rule. It is structured around the composer’s three “conversations with power”—episodes that bring him and his art into contact with the state apparatus. Through these “conversations,” Barnes’ novel asks how and whether art can survive under such conditions.
“Why all the middle-aged men, Mike?” my writing professor asked me one afternoon during my junior year of college. She was curious (concerned? baffled?) why, in the two semesters we had spent together, my stories were often about white men twice my age. While my peers wrote about college and high school kids doing college and high school things, I veered toward chronicling the failures and half-measures of middle-aged men. My professor asked whether I had ever thought to write about my own life, my unusual background—my mother is Korean and my father is Appalachian. I remember feeling squeamish at the thought. It had occurred to me, but I wasn’t ready to write about it. I told her maybe I would when my parents had passed on, but that wasn’t the only reason. In many ways, I had never fully felt half Korean, which is an odd thing to say, to be fully half of something. But what I mean is, I identified then as mostly white and Appalachian and my being half Korean, though undeniable in my features, seemed secondary. What seems extraordinary about our lives to others is often ordinary to ourselves. I could see why my professor might see the fertile ground in such stories, but they held little appeal to me.
Around this same time, I came across a short story set in India in a national magazine. I disliked the story and thought that the only reason it had been published was because of its unique setting. It was as if our struggles back home, all the poverty and hardship in Appalachia, were givens, not worth reading about—surely not the stuff of the stories that the New York publishing world seemed to crave. In the late days of the twentieth century, at the small state college I attended in Bowling Green, Kentucky, there was not a lot of talk about agency, representation in literature, or appropriation. I could have been wrong about the exoticism I perceived in that story in the magazine, but I don’t think so. It made me think that if I wrote about my parents, myself, what it had been like to grow up half Korean in a town with an ugly racist past, my stories would be published only for that content and not for their prose. I feared that if that happened, I would be trading on my heritage and exploiting it. So I hunkered down into white male characters and the white male writers who taught me how to write about white men.
In general, psychological and behavioral-economics research has found that when people make decisions about what they think they’ll enjoy, they often assign priority to unfamiliar experiences—like a new book or movie, or traveling somewhere they've never been before. They are not wrong to do so: People generally enjoy things less the more accustomed to them they become. As O’Brien writes, “People may choose novelty not because they expect exceptionally positive reactions to the new option, but because they expect exceptionally dull reactions to the old option.” And sometimes, that expected dullness might be exaggerated.
Knowing that expectations can sometimes deviate from reality in this way could help inform the decisions people make about how they spend their leisure time. “I think the biggest application of the finding is for people to spend more time considering why they prefer a novel option over a repeat option,” O’Brien wrote to me in an email. Doing so could save them time and might make them just as happy. “Before getting caught in a one-hour Google rabbit hole for ‘best tacos near me,’ it might help to consider the possible value of simply returning to the great taco place from yesterday (and trying new things [on the menu]),” he added.
In Tamil, folk stories and fairytales, the sort that grandparents tell grandchildren before bed, often begin, “In that only place…”. In another Indian language, Telugu, stories start “Having been said and said and said…”. In English, of course, it is “Once upon a time…”.
Chitra Soundar, an Indian-British author and storyteller, was thinking about her grandmother’s stories, which always began with the classic Tamil opener, when she asked people on Twitter to share how stories began in their languages.
There’s been speculation for years about the end of the era in which humans can reach the pole. Even back in 2007, expeditioners were already remarking that the Arctic ice was markedly thinner and more treacherous than it was in the 1980s. That’s made it nearly impossible for more hardcore expeditioners to do the “proper” pole trip, in which they ski from northern Canada, Russia, Greenland, or Alaska to the pole, carrying their own gear with no outside support. While there were seven such expeditions between 2005 and 2010, there has been only one since then, which was completed in 2014 by Larsen and his partner, Ryan Waters. After that trip, Larsen predicted they would be the last people to do so. “North Pole expeditions are going the way of the passenger pigeon,” he told National Geographic a year later. In 2017, a pair of explorers tried to prove them wrong, but had to abandon their mission after one got severe frostbite.
A story of cultures in simultaneous conflict and concord, The Parisian teems with riches – love, war, betrayal and madness – and marks the arrival of a bright new talent.
But for all its success, quantum mechanics has one tiny problem: No understands it.
To be more exact, even a century after its birth, no one really understands what quantum mechanics is telling us about the nature of reality itself. That open and uncertain territory is the focus of Lee Smolin's new book Einstein's Unfinished Revolution: The Search for What Lies Beyond the Quantum.
His fascinating stories have much to say about our shared history and culture: from the waves of invaders, such as the Normans, who shaped the architecture of our cathedrals, to the memorials commemorating dimly remembered heroes, and the ancient and modern artworks celebrating the sacred in life. “Art is absolutely fundamental to a cathedral,” a priest tells him in Salisbury: “It’s what this place is about: moments of creative surprise.”
At some point, the impossibility of paying attention to the discrete category “birds” became apparent. There were simply too many relationships determining what I was seeing—verb conjugations instead of nouns. Birds, trees, bugs, and everything else were impossible to extricate from one another not only physically but conceptually. Sometimes I would learn about a relationship that involved many different kinds of organisms that I would never think were associated. For example, a 2016 study showed that woodpeckers’ holes helped disperse fungi throughout the trees, which in turn softened the wood and made it easier for other animals to find homes within the trees.
This context, of course, also included me. I remember going for a walk near my parents’ house once and hearing a scrub jay shrieking in a valley oak tree. It was such a good example of a scrub jay shriek that I was about to get out my phone and record it, when I realized that it was shrieking at me (to go away). As Pauline Oliveros writes in Deep Listening, “When you enter an environment where there are birds, insects or animals, they are listening to you completely. You are received. Your presence may be the difference between life and death for the creatures of the environment. Listening is survival!”
As I have worked with my own gang of eccentrics to build a print magazine, UHF has been an enduring inspiration. It is one of the great parables of egalitarianism, a story of why collectivism will triumph over self-interest. Set aside the humor, which some people will love and some people will hate. The central lesson of UHF, whether Weird Al intended it or not, is that socialism is good.
Of all the germs kids are exposed to on the playground, there’s one they freak out about more than any other: cooties.
The word first appeared during World War I as soldiers’ slang for the painful body lice that infested the trenches. It went mainstream in 1919 when a Chicago company incorporated the pest into the Cootie Game, in which a player maneuvered colored “cootie” capsules across a painted battlefield into a cage. The cooties concept has been evolving ever since.
In her study of European political development over more than 200 years, Berman, a professor of political science at Barnard, shows that the story of democracy in Europe is complicated. The ultimate goal, she believes, is liberal democracy, with elections, respect for the rule of law, individual liberties and minority rights. But that’s a rare, and hard-won, achievement. A step forward is often followed by a step back.
From the hearth, focus:
the earth, hot and still
in its instance.
I started writing this essay in order to understand what fiction is made out of. The question is sort of like the one that always gets asked at the end of an author event, perhaps by a cute old lady whose sweater has a schnauzer on it: Where do your ideas come from? I was accustomed to thinking of most novels the way Nabokov wanted me to, or as Flaubert did—he once wrote that the most beautiful books depend “on nothing external . . . just as the earth, suspended in the void, depends on nothing external for its support.”
Then something happened to change my thinking. I realized that the real world is full of people who, presumably, have feelings about being appropriated for someone else’s run at the Times best-seller list. In drafts five through seventeen of this essay, I was mostly concerned with them: with the experience of opening a book and finding yourself in its pages, and with comprehending the precise nature of that violation. In drafts eighteen through eighty-four, I realized that the stakes of this piece are less aesthetic or ethical than metaphysical. When an author plants a made-up character in a novel, that character gains breath, agency, life. But when an author plants a real person in a novel, she metes out a kind of death. Reading lightly autobiographical fiction—which is to say, most début fiction—or its cousin, autofiction, or really any and all fiction, becomes a matter of parsing degrees of realness. It’s sticking your hands through ghosts. I suppose one could reintroduce both ethics and aesthetics here. Is moving someone down the existence scale from “human person” to “character” anything like murder? Is moving someone up the scale anything like art?
Machines Like Me is not, however, science fiction, at least according to its author. “There could be an opening of a mental space for novelists to explore this future,” McEwan said in a recent interview, “not in terms of travelling at 10 times the speed of light in anti-gravity boots, but in actually looking at the human dilemmas.” There is, as many readers noticed, a whiff of genre snobbery here, with McEwan drawing an impermeable boundary between literary fiction and science fiction, and placing himself firmly on the respectable side of the line.
On the face of it, it is as absurd for McEwan to claim he’s not writing sci-fi as it is for him to imply that sci-fi is incapable of approaching these themes interestingly: alternative history and non-human consciousness are established sci-fi motifs, thoroughly explored in defining genre works such as Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? But genre is as much about what you keep out as what you let in, and science fiction – as well as being a label in its own right, suggestive of a certain tone and content – functions as a kind of insalubrious “other” against which literary authors can demonstrate their superiority.
In fact, if we look closely, it’s apparent that evolutionary psychology is due for an overhaul. Rather than hard-wired cognitive instincts, our heads are much more likely to be populated by cognitive gadgets, tinkered and toyed with over successive generations. Culture is responsible not just for the grist of the mind – what we do and make – but for fabricating its mills, the very way the mind works.
I’m sitting in a small glass soundproof booth. A microphone, suspended from the ceiling, hangs in front of me. This is huge and round, like a luxury showerhead covered with fine metal mesh. Below it, on a slanting surface, lies the glowing screen of an iPad. This contains my most recent novel, “Dawson’s Fall.” When you write a book, you know every word of it. If you are an obsessive, you have rewritten and reconsidered every one of these words, hundreds of times. It should be easy to read them aloud.
My publisher wrote me about an audio version, sending an actor’s audition tape. An actor seemed necessary for this complicated narrative. It’s set mostly in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1889, but the main character (Dawson, my great-grandfather) is English and grew up in London. He came here to fight for the Confederacy and lived the rest of his life in Charleston. He married Sarah, my great-grandmother, who was from Baton Rouge. They both spoke French, and they hired a French governess so the family could speak it at home. There are other characters, too, local friends and family, each with their own way of speaking. It’s a hot linguistic mess.
In graduate school, a female classmate told me I read like a girl. We were at a house party. Curtis Sittenfeld’s novel Prep had recently been released in paperback, and I mentioned that I’d read it over the summer and enjoyed it. “Really?” my classmate said. Her face began at surprise and then traveled toward disapproval. “I don’t know any other men who liked that book.”
Or maybe I was only imagining disapproval. She was one of those people who likes to amuse themselves at parties by playing armchair psychologist. On another night, drinking canned beer in someone’s patchy backyard, she referred to me as “one of our program’s alpha males,” a claim so absurd I did an actual spit take. A couple of months later, at a post-workshop dinner, apropos of seemingly nothing, she turned to me and said, “I bet you were popular in high school.” That time, at least, I knew I was being insulted.
I long to be in Japan in the autumn. For much of the year, my job, reporting on foreign conflicts and globalism on a human scale, forces me out onto the road; and with my mother in her eighties, living alone in the hills of California, I need to be there much of the time, too. But I try each year to be back in Japan for the season of fire and farewells. Cherry blossoms, pretty and frothy as schoolgirls’ giggles, are the face the country likes to present to the world, all pink and white eroticism; but it’s the reddening of the maple leaves under a blaze of ceramic-blue skies that is the place’s secret heart.
We cherish things, Japan has always known, precisely because they cannot last; it’s their frailty that adds sweetness to their beauty. In the central literary text of the land, The Tale of Genji, the word for “impermanence” is used more than a thousand times, and bright, amorous Prince Genji is said to be “a handsomer man in sorrow than in happiness.” Beauty, the foremost Jungian in Japan has observed, “is completed only if we accept the fact of death.” Autumn poses the question we all have to live with: How to hold on to the things we love even though we know that we and they are dying. How to see the world as it is, yet find light within that truth.
Pickle's Progress is a deeply weird novel that succeeds because of Butler's willingness to take risks and her considerable charisma — she's a gifted storyteller with a uniquely dry sense of humor and a real sympathy for her characters, even if they're not traditionally likable. It's not a perfect book, but it's a promising fiction debut from a writer who seems incapable of not going her own way.
Nothing better illustrates the change in our understanding of dinosaurs than the discovery of why they went extinct. Forty years ago, no one knew that an asteroid had smashed into what is now the Yucatán peninsula, ending the Mesozoic era. Similarly, 20 years ago, it was very much a minority position that birds should be classified as dinosaurs, and that dinosaurs had thus not been entirely wiped out. Benton is excellent on both these recent developments, but he is most interesting of all on an unsolved puzzle. We know where the dinosaurs went, but how and when did they originate? As one of the world’s leading authorities on the mass extinction that marked the start of the Mesozoic – an event even more devastating than the one that ended it – Benton provides the reader with an outline, but can do little more than that. The ancestral dinosaurs remain undiscovered. “This is a chapter,” he writes, “that will definitely need rewriting in ten years’ time.”
During his career, a network of libraries linked bookmen to one another. Jonson, for example, used Francis Bacon’s library, and John Florio used the Earl of Southampton’s. Shakespeare probably knew John Bretchgirdle’s clergyman’s library in Stratford and printer Richard Field’s working library in London. Shakespeare referred to libraries as “nurser[ies] of arts” (in The Taming of the Shrew) and characterized them as treasure troves and cure-alls. Titus Andronicus invites Marcus Andronicus and Lavinia to “Come, and take choice of all my Library, / And so beguile thy sorrow.” The Tempest seems to have been written late in Shakespeare’s life. Many scholars have read it as his theatrical farewell, and the sorcerer Prospero as his alter ego. Prospero tells Miranda, “Me, poor man, my Library was dukedom large enough,” and later confesses: “Knowing I loved my books, he furnished me, from my own Library, / With volumes that I prize above my dukedom.”
Doubtful oral traditions have come down to us as well. One anecdote concerns Ben Jonson, with whom Shakespeare seems to have maintained a complex relationship of mutual affection and perpetual jousting. The anecdote sees Jonson “in a necessary-house” (in other words, on the lavatory) “with a book in his hand reading it very attentively.” Shakespeare notices Jonson thus engaged and says he is sorry Jonson’s memory is so bad he cannot “sh-te without a book.”
Over the decades, many names have passed into everyday parlance. Charles Dickens’s miser Scrooge has become synonymous with tight-fistedness and a hatred of the festive season. And when scientists discovered that pining for a lost love can be physically addictive, they dubbed it the “Miss Havisham effect” after the tragic, jilted recluse in Great Expectations.
Superconductors haven’t seen widespread commercial applications due to their cost, the effort required to produce them, and perhaps reluctance by old-school companies to adopt such a radically new material, reports IEEE Spectrum. But a room-temperature superconductor could drastically decrease energy costs and might end up in new technologies that scientists haven’t even dreamed of yet.
Now feels like a turning point: lanthanum hydride is the closest a room-temperature superconductor has felt to reality. But visiting with Geballe at the Geophysical Laboratory, it was hard to imagine the slivers of the material—smaller than the width of a human hair—fashioned into a wire or used in any technology at all. Nor is that the point. Materials scientists are working at the boundary of the present and the future, performing grueling, hands-on research hoping to develop substances that might not even have any applications.
From a younger generation facing personal crises to the dilemmas of the ageing but vibrant Posy, Riley brings us a cast of exquisitely drawn characters and as you slip effortlessly into their lives and share their hopes, dreams and fears, prepare to be intrigued, moved to tears… and ultimately uplifted.
If you value the power of online relationships, be it through fandom or ones that helped you to keep you connected to old friends, add Starworld to your to-read list. As someone with friendships made entirely possible by online communication stemming from fandom, it is a sober reflection on what a gift it is to have that space to share in the joy, drama, and eventually grow close enough to take the scary step of moving apart from the thing that brought you together.
Robert McKee has built an empire out of his screenwriting manuals – it’ll cost you close to $1,000 to attend one of his seminars. Storr’s superb exploration of the enduring appeal of the novel feels like it could do something similar – offering a smart, fascinating exploration of the science and psychology behind our most sophisticated art form that also works as an effective how-to guide.
I don’t want to sound unreasonable
but I need to be in love immediately.
I can’t watch this sunset
on 14th Street by myself.
Dave Thomas wasn’t the first fast-food kingpin to pen (or hire a ghostwriter to pen) a book of tepid tips, self-congratulation and grumpy-old-man rants. He’s not the last, either. The sub-genre has waxed and waned in popularity, but altogether there have been dozens of these opinionated bios, presenting the well-earned wisdom of a man who invented a better hamburger or pioneered “30-minutes-or-less” pizza delivery.
Read enough of these, and patterns emerge. Even the funkier philosophical tangents have a similar ring. So here, in essence, is what the men who built America’s fast food industry — most of whom are dead now — want you to know about how our world works, and how to get the best of it.
While my father read out loud to us every night before bed (my childhood memory of one book he read — Jack London’s The Call of the Wild — disturbs me to this day), my mother was the one who spent her afternoons and evenings selfishly, joyfully, and openly reading to herself. I often returned home from kindergarten or elementary school to find her in her bathrobe (she called it a “housecoat”), stretched out on her bed or on an extendable Barcalounger-type chair in the living room, reading a well-creased mass-market paperback. There was usually a Salem cigarette smoldering in one hand and a glass of icy Seagram’s 7 in the other. While she read, she laughed out loud, sometimes so loud I could hear her as I came up the front stairs; at other times, she grew so absorbed by her book that she left our dinner burning in the oven, and we would have to call one of the really bad home-delivery options, such as Chicken Delite.
In “Baby, I Don’t Care,” one of the most unusual and persuasive books of poems I’ve read in some time, Minnis is not merely conducting a droll séance with the help of Turner Classic Movies. (She thanks TCM in her acknowledgments.)
As anyone who is familiar with her four earlier collections is aware, she’s a provocative thinker about gender and poetry and the erotics of dislike.
“This is a list of cultural touchstones, the things that define Jewishness,” she said. “How could we not include the one thing that is the most taboo, the most charged?”
So, bacon belongs here, alongside shrimp cocktail and cheeseburgers, in the entry for “treyf” — foods that are never acceptable for Jews who observe kosher laws, such as pork, shellfish and any combination of meat and dairy at the same meal.
Summery over the last few years, sparrows casting
Quarter and eighth notes on the mulberry leaves,
There is a scene toward the end of Ian McEwan’s new novel, Machines Like Me, when the narrator, Charlie, is pushing his lifelike prototype robot, Adam, in a wheelchair through a demonstration in Trafalgar Square. The demonstrators are protesting about everything under the sun – “poverty, unemployment, housing, healthcare, education, crime, race, gender, climate, opportunity”. The suggestion being presented by McEwan and his narrator, however, is that here, unnoticed in their midst, is the one thing they should be most concerned about: a man-made intelligence greater than their own.
There is a Cassandra tendency in McEwan’s fiction. His domestic dramas routinely play out against a backdrop of threatened doom. Since the portent-laden meditation on war and terrorism, Saturday, in 2005, he has also turned his gimlet attention to climate change in Solar. The opening lines of that novel – “He was running out of time. Everyone was, it was the general condition…” – have sometimes sounded like his fiction’s statement of intent. The New Yorker called his work “the art of unease”.
It was perhaps, I suggested to him one afternoon a couple of weeks ago, therefore only a matter of time before he got around to the looming ethical anxieties of artificial intelligence.
Literary pilgrims to Paris, however ardent, tend toward crises of faith. A whole genre has flowed from the deflated hopes of writers who once believed the muse to be Gallic, living in a garret, and partial to Americans abroad. Of course, American writers don’t have a monopoly on disappointment about Paris. Tourists from around the world complain about the rude shock—now dubbed “Paris Syndrome”—of their fantasies crashing into the city’s prosaic reality. It’s a lesson in the perils of idealization.
For those of us who live in the French capital, it’s more complicated, as are most long-term relationships. I regularly cycle through devotion and disillusionment, witnessing how the city’s beauty and the ugly commodification of that beauty coexist, how its idyllic myths mingle with its sometimes bloody history. I’ve also come to see how the city is like any other, with the same simmering cultural tensions and socioeconomic issues as any metropolis.
Fifty years ago, in April 1969, I ran my first road race, and it was no local fun run or 5K. I decided to run the biggest road race there was: the Boston Marathon. I had no idea if I could finish the 26.2-mile grind, but I thought I should at least give myself a big challenge.
I chose Boston in part because I didn’t know any better, and mostly because the world of running was very different back then. There were few runners and fewer races — only a handful of marathons across the country.
Back then, Boston did not require runners to meet a qualifying standard. I was 34, and to run Boston you only had to send the race organizers $2 and a physician’s letter stating that you were healthy enough to run 26.2 miles. Since my longest training run had been 13 miles, I’m not sure how my doctor established my readiness, but he did.
Back in the early 2010s, Beijing comic artist Yan Cong (a pseudonym that translates to “chimney”) was told by printers that they wouldn’t wouldn’t publish any of his books with nudity in them. Both irritated and inspired, he decided to respond to the censorship with an anthology in which all the main characters were nude. Naked Body, published in Chinese in 2014, highlighted the humour, loopiness, horniness and astonishing breadth of the Chinese alternative comics scene. It is finally due to be published in English this year.
I Am God is an almost outrageously charming book. In the first of his seven novels to be published in English, Giacomo Sartori takes a simple, playful premise and sets the universe crazily spinning. The Italian writer has conjured up a delicious, comical stream of omniconsciousness: a pensive diary by the original omniscient narrator, God. Sartori’s God, a being of authentic complexity and paradoxical humanity, of both otherworldly dignity and satirical absurdity, is an irresistible character. He is also in love.
Appeasement, the fatal delusion that Nazi Germany could be contained by buying it off with concessions, was the most momentous British mistake of the 20th century. In the memorable phrase of Lord Hugh Cecil, it was like “scratching a crocodile’s head in the hope of making it purr”. All involved had their reputations blighted to the grave and beyond. It vindicated the anti-appeasement minority, notably Winston Churchill, who had grasped that the real choice was between “war now or war later”. The alleged lessons have been invoked in many subsequent crises, from the Korean war to the Syrian conflict. Memories of appeasement inform and misinform Brexit arguments. The story has relevance in our own age as dictatorships once again confront the democracies.
So it is timely to take a fresh look at what happened in the 1930s. The tale is a complex one, with many moving parts and personalities. To this tricky challenge, Tim Bouverie rises superbly. His narrative is well constructed and fluently written. He excels at capturing the atmosphere and conveying the debates in the dining clubs, drawing rooms and society playgrounds of interwar Britain. He addresses the issues with clarity of expression and judgment. There are convincing sketches of the principals along with a seasoning of entertainment from a cast of eccentric and gruesome secondary characters in the plot. The author is unsparing about the guilty parties while always careful to put them in context.
Wandering, particularly within urban spaces and typically in the romanticized, intellectual mode of Baudelaire, is a trope that many writers return to. It seems that so much can be seen and felt on these isolated treks. I do my best thinking while in motion—ever since I was a child, I would slip into a shifted mental plane when moving where stories would come more easily than when I sat motionless in front of a blank sheet of paper. As I grew older, however, and found myself walking city streets on evenings when the days were short and cold, I would often set out, only to find myself the lone person on the street. R.O. Kwon recently wrote in The Paris Review about the reality of being a woman walking alone: choosing certain streets over others, parking as close to your destination as possible, and sometimes, alternatively, paying for a cab when where you want to go is within walking distance. The concept of “freedom of movement” assumes that one’s body is accepted in the space it wants to move through, and that one’s body has a safe place to rest once it is done with its wandering. On the other hand, for some, wandering is less an activity for leisure or intellectual exploration than a means of survival.
I used to live with many others in the cliffs above a flooded seaside resort. I found the book by chance when exploring an attic above the waterline. I’ve been poring over it since: Lost Objects, a collection of stories by Marian Womack. The book has changed me. What intrigues me so much about it is the way that, though it was written very early in the drawn-out throes of the planet (I write now from the depredated future, unsure for whom I am writing or why), it seems uncannily prescient. Lost Objects differs from other fictions of ecological collapse from those early days in its subtlety. In these stories, climatic change is not figured as dramatic upheaval, but slow creep. You see, the problem with climate change literature was that it was difficult to shape potent fiction from what was an incremental process, with none of the inherent drama of nuclear holocaust, virulent disease, plagues of sores, giant hailstones, or seas of blood. Things deteriorated so slowly. Of course, there were warnings, but too few heeded them. To overcome the flat narrative trajectory of climatological disaster, writers addressing it tended to give their ecological crises an unlikely urgency and violence, to conform to human expectations of plot, or to set their fictions in compelling and alien aftermaths. They were also generally tied to an anthropocentric perspective, more interested in the psychological metamorphoses of human beings under apocalyptic pressure — reducing the catastrophe to a catalyst for human change — rather than change on a universal scale.
As digital data systems continue to expand, our human memories seem more anecdotal than ever. Transcultural communication reveals the subjectivity of our local thought systems with intensifying clarity. The analogies we use to move between cultures and disciplines, or between artificial intelligence and human consciousness, come to seem ever more far-fetched, like metaphors. To float in seas of such associative, anecdotal knowledge can make one feel passive. Blumenberg describes the appeal of this mode of thinking in ways that humble but also empower his reader. He helps us see its philosophical usefulness without obscuring its limits. Lions and Blumenberg lead us into his writing with gentle whimsy. Hopefully, they will inspire readers to reach for his more challenging works as well.
In October 1876, an intense young man with vague but fervent dreams of becoming an urban missionary went to preach a sermon—his debut in the pulpit—at a Methodist church in Richmond, on the southwestern fringes of London. This foreign drifter, still unsure of his path in life, walked from his nearby lodgings along the River Thames on a day of radiant autumn colors. He adored long contemplative walks, and wrote wonderfully about what he saw and felt on them. In a letter, he captured for his beloved younger brother the river as it “reflected the large chestnut trees with their load of yellow leaves and the clear blue sky, and between the treetops the part of Richmond that lies on the hill, the houses with their red roofs and windows without curtains and green gardens… and below, the grey bridge with tall poplars on either side.” He also transcribed to his brother his homily in church, with its message that “We are pilgrims in the earth and strangers—we come from afar and we are going far.”
Vincent van Gogh had, at that point, made no more art than a few crude sketches. Four more years would pass before the Dutch pastor’s son, who had already tried his hand at picture-dealing, school-teaching, book-selling, and evangelism, would pursue his vocation as an artist. Yet, from his teenage years, he had painted in words, with all the rhapsodic power of a voracious reader steeped in the fiction and poetry of three languages: Dutch, English, and French. The sixty or so surviving letters that Vincent wrote to his brother Theo or, less often, to his anxious parents during the three years he spent in England (from 1873 to 1876) sparkle with scenes that, you feel, only Van Gogh could have honored in paint, from the light of the street-lamps “reflected in the wet street” of a rain-soaked seaside town to the twilit view from a muddy hillside “covered with gnarled elm trees and shrubs” toward “a beautiful little wooden church with a kindly light at the end of that dark road.”
Virginia Woolf once noted that all Shakespearean criticism was autobiographical: the Bard’s works are a mirror in which critics see themselves. Adam Smith, the famed 18th-century economist, comes in for similar treatment, as he’s variously been portrayed as a rabble-rouser, a Marxist, a heretic, a bumbling professor, a Scottish nationalist, a rampant capitalist, a bore, a Tory and a mummy’s boy. He has been embraced with gusto by Republicans and Democrats, Brexiteers and Remainers, central planners and free marketers.
Today, we mainly remember Smith for his landmark work of political economy, The Wealth of Nations, and we regard him first as an economist and second as a philosopher. But during his lifetime, ‘economics’ existed neither as a profession nor a discipline, and he saw himself among other things as a serious literary scholar. He helped pioneer the academic study of English literature; he lectured on the arts of writing and rhetoric; and he took his most powerful rhetorical device—one that became his catchphrase and the most overused metaphor in economics—from Shakespeare.
On March 8, 2016, the cast of Nerds, a musical based on the lives of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, was working up a sweat inside an Eighth Avenue rehearsal studio. Previews at Broadway's Longacre Theatre were just two weeks away, and the ensemble was running through a big gospel number called "Think Different," a nod to the iconic Apple advertising slogan. They made it all the way to the song's rousing final lyric — "Liiiiiiive yoooour dream!" — when they noticed the creative team had left the room.
"I was like, 'Where's Casey?' " says actor Kevin Pariseau, referring to Casey Hushion, the show's director. "Then the door opened and she entered in tears, just sobbing." Right behind Hushion was Carl Levin, the show's lead producer. "I don't know what the vacuum of space feels like," says Pariseau, who played IBM president Tom Watson Jr. in the show, "but it probably feels a bit like what happened the moment that door opened."
What happened was that Levin dropped a bombshell. "Stop! Stop what you're doing!" he told the actors. "We've lost a major investment. The show is off. It's not happening."
A good memoir says what happened, not how to live. To read (or write) a memoir as a kind of self-help book is fundamentally to misunderstand the project. It is the job of a literary memoirist simply to write down her experiences with as much art and truth as she can muster. In her debut memoir, “Running Home,” Katie Arnold does an admirable job of trusting the everyday material of her life. Arnold, an ultrarunner and contributing editor at Outside magazine, could easily have opted for a different approach, one that solely focuses on the extraordinary aspects of her life as an elite athlete and adventure writer. Instead she writes a story exploring how her growing preoccupation with running has been intertwined with loving and losing her father. She takes the risk of being ordinary, and therefore human.
In this powerful work of reportage, Chernobyl and its aftermath emerge as the Soviet Union’s last stand, containing all the pathologies and passion of that social experiment now lost to history: “hubris,” magical thinking, grotesque disregard for individual life, gaping inequity between the political class and the rest in a supposedly classless society, and sheer bloody-minded communal courage.
The flowers were assembled, beginning with their stems.
The flowers feared us, our longings, our appetite.
The flowers were made for the low in the lake.
Flowers whisked with force.
Flowers as cheap poetic device.
It all started with my balls. I was in Southern California and my right ball was slightly sore. At the beginning I thought the pain might be caused by the heavy keys in the right hand pocket of my trousers banging against my testicle as I walked along the street. So I moved the keys into my jacket pocket. The pain stayed for a while and then it went away and then it came back. I was doing readings every day, selling my melancholy stories to the people of Orange County and places south. I wondered, some days, if there might be a doctor in the audience who, if I made a suitable announcement at the end of the reading, could make this pain in my right testicle go away. But I didn’t want to make a fuss.
When the readings were done, I went to LA and ignored my balls. Then I went to London and looked them up on the internet. It was clear what I had. The right testicle was painful but not swollen. But the veins around it had decided to swell up a bit. The internet made clear what this condition was called.
My son was born twice: first on a warm, late June afternoon in a busy east London hospital, and again five years later at a small children’s nursing home in Queens, New York.
I was six-and-a-half months pregnant when I was diagnosed with pre-eclampsia. On the day it happened, I had done a series of unremarkable things: shopping for bread, editing a story, calling my parents in Bangladesh. In the afternoon, my midwife came over for a routine visit. She checked my blood pressure and saw that it was high, so she asked me to pee on a stick. When I returned it to her, she told me to pack a bag.
It took us 10 minutes to get to Homerton hospital, where the slightly harried doctor on duty told me that the only cure for pre-eclampsia was delivery. I had trouble understanding how delivering a baby 10 weeks early could be classified as a cure, but I was not given time to argue. They prepped me for surgery, a needle in my back, compression socks on my feet. I lay down on the operating table and my husband cradled my head in his arms. I felt no pain, only pulling and tilting and rocking, as if someone had tied me down and set me afloat. Then, a silence I could have sworn lasted hours, but must have only been a few minutes, after which I heard a soft cry. A nurse gave me a brief glimpse of my son’s swaddled form before whisking him away to the neonatal intensive care unit. I didn’t know then that I wouldn’t see him again for three days, that he would be in the hospital for two months, and that, once released, he would refuse to eat for five years.
“Everybody thinks basically that the method you learn in school is the best one, but in fact it’s an active area of research,” said Joris van der Hoeven, a mathematician at the French National Center for Scientific Research and one of the co-authors.
The complexity of many computational problems, from calculating new digits of pi to finding large prime numbers, boils down to the speed of multiplication. Van der Hoeven describes their result as setting a kind of mathematical speed limit for how fast many other kinds of problems can be solved.
The most striking thing about Caroline Knox’s latest poetry collection, Hear Trains, is the way it savors and explores the nuances of language. Composed in a way that is reminiscent of eighteenth-century commonplace books, where information, quotations, and random facts were stored for the writer to revisit later, Hear Trains invites readers into a love affair with words. In the title poem, the speaker leads readers through the complexities involved in the word sault: “So sault means ‘jump,’ as in / sauter in France, but not / in New France! In Old France / the l dropped out.”
That’s the ultimate charm of Working: it’s a reminder that we should care less about whether or not the work gets finished, and more for everything Caro has given us so far.
The dragonflies hatched last night,
twin-winged ghosts in porchlight
still world-wet and spinning,
unsure whether to chase the bulb
My shrink says I’m on Twitter too much and that it stirs up my anxiety. And while I don’t disagree with her, there are things I enjoy on there—Darth, for instance. But the reason I find myself returning to the site routinely called a “hellscape” by its users, is Ruth Reichl. I want to know what she’s having for breakfast and what the animals outside her window are doing. Her tweets represent some of the happier moments of my day.
As I write this, Reichl has tweeted: “Pewter sky. Snow melting in rain. Three deer nibble the grass. Feels like fall. Roast beef hash; fried egg. Waiting for spring.” This moment of calmly observed beauty appears in my timeline between several tweets about whatever horrible thing a politician did or said and a few mentions of whatever famous person is canceled now.
I could, in other words, do my best to scare you silly. I’m not opposed on principle — changing something as fundamental as the composition of the atmosphere, and hence the heat balance of the planet, is certain to trigger all manner of horror, and we shouldn’t shy away from it. The dramatic uncertainty that lies ahead may be the most frightening development of all; the physical world is going from backdrop to foreground. (It’s like the contrast between politics in the old days, when you could forget about Washington for weeks at a time, and politics in the Trump era, when the president is always jumping out from behind a tree to yell at you.)
But let’s try to occupy ourselves with the most likely scenarios, because they are more than disturbing enough. Long before we get to tidal waves or smallpox, long before we choke to death or stop thinking clearly, we will need to concentrate on the most mundane and basic facts: everyone needs to eat every day, and an awful lot of us live near the ocean.
The Boston Marathon course looks like it should be fast. You start out in the distant suburb of Hopkinton—elevation 490 feet above sea level—and then cruise steadily downhill until about mile 9. The finish line has an elevation of a mere 10 feet above Boston Harbor. Fans pack the sides cheering you on. The route is pretty straight, west to east, with few 90-degree turns of the sort that slow your momentum. The road is asphalt, which is more forgiving than concrete.
So when the gun goes off Monday morning for the 123rd running of the race, everyone should feel good about hitting a personal best, right? Of course not. As every veteran marathon runner knows, Boston is slow, wicked, and tempestuous. It’s a wonderful course if you want to experience camaraderie, history, and emotional uplift. It’s a terrible course if you want a personal best.
My friend used to joke that if I were the subject of a biopic, it would just be a montage of me ordering the same thing, over and over, at different Starbucks. He was right. My Starbucks habit feels like the spinal cord running through my life, holding it together as I move from place to place, from school to job to job to graduate school.
By a strange twist of fate, I read this book while on a visit to the Falkland Islands, where the British victory over Argentina in the 1982 war feels as though it might have happened last week. Outside Port Stanley, on treeless uplands whose names ring distant bells – Goose Green, Mount Harriet, Tumbledown – the conflict is still unofficially memorialised by chunks of crashed war planes and the wires of field telephones from a pre-digital age. Machines Like Me, Ian McEwan’s new novel, also turns in part on the Falklands conflict, eternalising a version of that year’s events, though in the book’s fictional world things have turned out rather differently.
“The Alarming Palsy of James Orr” starts with a nod to one of the most recognizable plot openers of all time: An ordinary man wakes up one morning to find that he’s been transformed overnight by a grotesque affliction.
By beginning his first novel on such a blatantly Kafkaesque note, it’s as if the British writer Tom Lee is announcing on Page 1 that he’s forgoing all subtlety when it comes to his central metaphor — physical disfigurement as a product of bourgeois dread, a sum of the daily spiritual paper cuts that aspirational living can inflict.
Maybe it was you
Maybe we’re marching to the store
Maybe we’re coming back from the ballpark
Maybe we’re plump robins shopping in your birdbath
The beauty of novel writing is that you never know what your story truly is until it is read and absorbed by strangers. Until there is a human mirror to reflect the meaning of your words, the author lives in a state of naiveté. Only a reader can navigate the unconscious force of your words, and come to private conclusions you will, for the most part, never know about. The writer must surrender to the reality of this gap in connection. And that’s not a bad thing because there are infinite stories to tell, and, interpretations we never imagined.
The problem with Paul Varjak syndrome, of course, is that humans are inconsistent. It would take a combination of rare talent, extreme self-editing, and a trust fund for someone to only publish truly brilliant books. (And they’d probably still produce some mediocre stuff—they would just have the option not to sell it.) Yet while reading book coverage, browsing bookstores, and having conversations with friends, it becomes clear that there is a halo around certain faces. Why?
On a recent Sunday, I got up around 8 o’clock, made some coffee, and got into the car to drive 25 miles for bread. The bread was sold out, so I got tacos nearby instead, served on thick and soft corn tortillas. I accompanied them with a too-chunky green juice and a creamily soft cheese flan, scooping up the bitter caramelized sugar beneath with a plastic spoon. Because I live in Los Angeles, trying this food at any other time of the week could mean spending an hour and 15 minutes in traffic one way — likely both.
On Sunday morning, the freeways worked like they were supposed to, speeding me from one dot in the city’s amoeba sprawl to another. We pay for our most memorable dining experiences in either money or time, and for most of us, time is the more viable option. When no one else is awake, you can score a sort of temporal discount. My move: Knowing that weekend mornings are the best time to go really far, really fast, for the specific goal of eating something new.
At Rothera, the population of more than 100 Antarctic researchers and support staff plummets to around 20 when winter hits and cuts the base off from the outside world. Sunlight is a fleeting and peripheral commodity. For about two months each year, the sun never comes above the horizon. Working at Rothera means total isolation from family, friends, and normalcy.
It also means no local produce, no easy delivery of fresh meat, and no trips to the market to purchase herbs, garnishes, or trending ingredients. But that doesn’t stop seasoned chefs from spending anywhere from six months to many years in an Antarctic kitchen. Why? Because cheffing at Rothera gets to the core of why they cook.
The corner of Prince Street and Broadway, in the SoHo neighborhood of Manhattan, is one of the busiest pedestrian walkways in New York City. Dean & DeLuca, the upscale grocer, is on the southeast corner, while the Prada flagship anchors the northwest, and the two shopping meccas, along with the Apple store farther west on Prince, keep the foot traffic high.
Roaming there for the past six years, stalwart through the relentless rise of iPhones and Instagram, has been a street photographer named Jean Andre Antoine.
Like a fisherman working a tributary to a great river, Mr. Antoine sets up shop just outside the bustle, halfway down the block on Prince. On all but the days of harshest weather, he is out there leaning against the pinkish brick wall of the Dean & DeLuca building, which he uses as a backdrop in many of his photos. He sets his cameras and film on the fifth window ledge in. He calls the spot “the office.”
A recent report hardly painted a rosy picture of the gender balance in Hollywood: Just 4 percent of the top 1,200 movies from the last 12 years had been directed by women. Deep in the report, another jarring figure leapt out at me. Looking at the most lucrative films from 2016 to 2018, researchers found that just four of the 276 key grips working on those films were women.
A few questions popped to mind. Who were these women? What are their work lives like? And what exactly are key grips?
Normal People is a nuanced and flinty love story about two young people who "get" each other, despite class differences and the interference of their own vigorous personal demons. But honestly, Sally Rooney could write a novel about bath mats and I'd still read it. She's that good and that singular a writer.
Spoiled for choice, Ruth Reichl frets over a major career choice. Should she accept her dream job as editor in chief of a magazine she has loved since childhood and risk becoming a corporate creature? Or stay put in her imperial post as restaurant critic for The New York Times?
We know the ending to this foodie fairy tale, but it’s still fun to read “Save Me the Plums,” Reichl’s poignant and hilarious account of what it took to bring the dusty food bible back to life with artistic and literary flair through the glory days of magazine-making — from 1999 to the day in the fall of 2009 when she was informed that Condé Nast had decided to close Gourmet’s pantry for good.
Small and charming at about 200 pages, a quick spritz instead of a deep dive, “Working” is like the antithesis of Caro’s labor-intensive oeuvre, making it strangely reassuring proof that he is, well, working.
This is a matter of life or death, probably death.
Your bullet is very close to my heart.
You're way off base, darling.
Let's put some ice on our fingers.
By ice, I mean diamonds.
The truth is that the nature and proper scope of satire remain an enormous problem, one that is not going to get any easier to resolve in the political and technological future we can all, by now, see coming.
A decade ago, Dr. MacPherson and a collaborator formulated an equation describing how, in three and higher dimensions, individual bubbles evolve in live foams — the fleeting foam at the meniscus in his champagne flute, for instance, or the more enduring head on a pint of beer.
Researchers of all stripes have written “many thousands of papers” on bubbles, Andrea Prosperetti, a mechanical engineer at the University of Houston, has estimated. Bubbles entice for their seeming simplicity, which approaches the existential.
“Bubbles are emptiness, non-liquid, a tiny cloud shielding a mathematical singularity,” he wrote. “Born from chance, a violent and brief life ending in the union with the nearly infinite.”
“When Vietnamese coffee arrives in the United States, it's no longer Vietnamese coffee,” Sahra Nguyen remembers being told during a visit to Vietnam. Having just returned from another trip, she tells me, the specialty coffee scene is booming. But in the United States, she says, Vietnam’s coffee culture hasn’t translated: here, the country’s beans make up nondescript coffee blends, its identity ignored.
The daughter of refugees from north and south Vietnam, Nguyen grew up in Dorchester, Massachusetts, a neighborhood in South Boston that’s home to much of the city’s Vietnamese population. Still, when she learned that Vietnam is the world’s second largest producer of coffee, it came as a surprise. “I was like, why didn't I know that? Everyone I talk to is like, oh my god, Vietnam is? I've never heard of that,” Nguyen says.
Trust Exercise is fiction that contains multiple truths and lies. Working with such common material, Choi has produced something uncommonly thought-provoking. Trust me.
In the autumn of 2017, about 250 walruses in Russia, having climbed up to rocky slopes overlooking a beach, just walked over the edge.
Usually, gravity is no enemy of the walrus. When these animals encounter hard surfaces, they rise up to meet them, hauling their two-ton bulks onto floating pieces of ice. When they fall, they flop off those low platforms into the accommodating water. So you might imagine that a walrus, peering off a tall cliff, doesn’t really understand what will happen to it when it steps off. It doesn’t expect to plummet for 260 feet, cartwheel through the air, bounce off the rocks, and crash abruptly. Climb, plummet, cartwheel, bounce: These are not walrus-associated verbs.
Ask a New Yorker about their opinion regarding trains and you will likely get an earful about the sputtering subway system or the less-than-reliable commuter rail lines that stretch into the suburbs.
But few New Yorkers have ever glimpsed, or even heard of, the New York & Atlantic Railway, a freight train that would seem more familiar rumbling across the Great Plains, not chugging through crowded city neighborhoods in Queens and Brooklyn, bearing cars loaded with food, scrap metal, construction materials and even beer.
Now the little-known railroad’s profile is about to get much bigger.
Lisa See, like the waves of the ocean, lulls readers into a state of hypnotic ease as she teaches them the ways of Young-sook’s matriarchal home town. She is a master of portraying the intricate details of life on the island, describing Jeju with such precision that readers find themselves fully immersed in Young-sook’s world. Perhaps even more astounding is the skill with which See encourages readers to forge deep emotional investments in each character, breaking readers’ hearts and urging tears with each shocking turn of events.
The Old Drift offers a view of human history characterized by generative mistakes, from Dr Livingstone's fatal calculation about the source of the Nile to evolution itself: "Don't forget evolution forged the entirety of life using only one tool: the mistake ..." To err is human, we hear again and again. But the second half of that maxim, the part about forgiveness, isn't mentioned. You get the sense it might be beside the point to Serpell's youngest generation of characters, with their scalding assessments of injustice and cruelty by those in power. They're not here to forgive. They're here for the revolution.
The study of criminal justice is the study of power, and as a veteran legal journalist, Bazelon has long been concerned with this theme. Her last book, “Sticks and Stones,” explored the culture of bullying and painted a nuanced portrait, rejecting a simple dichotomy between blameworthy bullies and innocent victims. “Charged” is considerably less balanced — in, say, its discussion of plea-bargaining, which Bazelon (convincingly) asserts is used to excess without sufficiently acknowledging its necessary role in the system, or of pro-prosecutor rulings by the Supreme Court, which she analyzes almost entirely from a public-policy perspective with little focus on their legal reasoning. This could cause readers who do not share Bazelon’s politics to dismiss her core argument. But to the extent that it’s a polemic, “Charged” reflects its author’s passion for her subject. “As a journalist,” she writes, “I’ve never felt a greater sense of urgency about exposing the roots of a problem and shining a light on the people working to solve it.”
A particular light in February,
singular in the sheen of ice upon the hill,
the ground cover grain or rayless yellow,
was sent to me in a photograph by someone thinking of me then,
a man walking in hills, I occurred to him, I
If you imagine you received everything you ever wanted, you can be assured of one thing: you would not be happy. In fact, you would be in hell.
Remember the time you got so angry you wanted someone to die? Or perhaps you just wanted to hit them, or hurt them somehow? How about all those times you are driving or waiting in line, and feel so impatient you just want to scream profanities? Maybe you have suffered so much you hit points where you thought, “I don’t want to exist anymore.” Each of us can think of our own examples. It just takes a dose of honesty and we can rest assured, we will still be forgetting a lot.
If you really got everything you wanted, you would find out your desires destroyed you. You would have screamed those profanities. Then what? You would have said that horrible thing to the person you love, and watched in their face a flicker of love and trust that your words snuffed out, forever. Maybe, God forbid, your hand would have flown out to its target of enraged desire, and you would look at the bruised face of … who? Can we face ourselves enough to answer?
But as a statement about generational experiences, Alter was basically right. If you were born around 1980, you grew up in a space happily between — between eras of existential threat (Cold War/War on Terror, or Cold War/climate change), between foreign policy debacles (Vietnam/Iraq), between epidemics (crack and AIDS/opioids and suicide), and between two different periods of economic stagnation (the ’70s and early Aughts). If you were born later, you experienced slow growth followed by financial crisis followed by a recovery that’s only lately returned us to the median-income and unemployment stats of … 1999.
Dalí envisioned a huge Hollywood production for Giraffes on Horseback Salad, complete with music by Cole Porter. While the project never did get the green light, there is a now a soundtrack to go along with the graphic novel — including music, complete with a faux Groucho. And so just maybe, up in some dreamy surrealist heaven, the real Groucho — along with Harpo, Chico and Salvador Dalí — is smiling down.
As Antoine wisely puts it: “Self-righteousness is deeply satisfying – and cheap. How many of us can be sure that we wouldn’t have tried to find a way to manage in the war?” The irresolvable mystery of this story, in common with all great fiction, is the human heart.
Much more than a whodunnit, this is a rich evocation of British history, a thoughtful, character-led story told by an accomplished writer whose richly rewarding narrative immerses the reader in an uncomfortable world.
While finding yourself in literature may sometimes be painful, it remains necessary and vital. Representation, these writers show us, can both highlight shared histories and inspire a new generation.
I was made from Hawaiian Punch ice cubes
chicken breasts & cauliflower ear Sir Newton’s
Law of Motion drilling double leg takedowns
The other night, I saw two raccoons fucking on my neighbour’s roof. I was just going up to bed, happened to glance out the window, and there they were. The male was mounting the female from behind, her tail was stretched straight out backwards, his front paws were scrabbling at her sides, and he seemed to be struggling a bit, starting and stopping, as if unable to get a satisfactory rhythm going. They were on the very peak of the roof, their bodies silhouetted in pure black against the deep midnight blue of the sky, and above them was a slim, bright fingernail moon.
Now this, it occurred to me, is the sort of thing one could write a poem about. I would introduce a few comparisons—the sky as blue as a woman’s velvet dress, say, and the moon standing out against it like a link in a bright silver necklace. Too high flown? Too literally connected to the dress? Something more prosaic—perhaps the moon was like the bright curved indent a badly aimed hammer leaves on metal. Yes!
The Lyell Glacier hangs at a severe angle off the mountainside. To slip and fall can mean a long, fast plummet. Stock wore crampons on his boots and carried an ice ax as he stepped onto an ice field riddled with sun cups, bathtub-sized depressions that forced him to walk along blade-thin ridges between them. Standing at the edge of the dark patch, Stock got a terrible feeling.
“I just knew. That’s bedrock. Your wishful thinking that that’s debris can’t possibly be right. The next thought was, If that’s bedrock, there can’t be much glacier left.” Letting his eye roam the periphery of the ice and visualizing mountain contours beneath the main mass of the glacier, Stock struggled to form a mental model in which the glacier maintained significant volume. He could not picture more than about 20 or 30 feet of thickness. Given the Lyell’s melt rate, it would disappear in four or five more years of drought. The shock of this realization forced Stock to confront what the data had been hinting at: The Lyell was no longer a glacier at all. Put another way, the Lyell Glacier was already dead, and Stock was the last person ever to study it.
With help from a deeply sly sense of humour and the beautifully rendered landscapes that sometimes seem to be the only genuinely no-bullshit presences in the story, he always produces a burst of emotional colour, accompanied by a bittersweet warmth we can all recognise. It’s the literary equivalent, perhaps, of the yeasty fug of humanity he invites us into: the fights, funerals and extramarital sex; the declining pain of one or another kind of injury, physical or psychic, sustained or handed out. These lives are framed by love, or “what love became when it hardened into history”.
It’s quite a leap from North Lanarkshire to South Africa in the early 20th century; but in a continuation of the style developed through his memoir, Barr’s first novel is distinguished by its compassion, its wisdom and its remarkable sense of poetry.
I needed to curl up with a good nook. And not just any nook.
I was after a comfortable place to read at home, with gentle light, proper padding and a place to rest my tired wheels. Maybe some coffee nearby, and Brahms, played at a whisper.
Basically, what I wanted was a reading womb.
Despite lacking text of any kind, this book told even a child that it was meant to be leafed through from start to finish. The momentum begins on the first page, where a draftsman is seen drawing a horizontal line that will, during its transit across seven pages, undergo mutations that make it a geometer’s X-axis, the waterline attaching a domed Venetian church to its reflection, a railway trestle, a roofline, and, finally, the first of many labyrinthine flourishes. The book introduced by that manifesto soon impressed me as unique, and it still does. The Labyrinth adds up to something—not a narrative but something authorial, more journal than story. Between its covers lives a mind making itself inhabitable—a mind, moreover, that has been around, a mind that is about things.
Cosmopolitan, which has the highest circulation of any Hearst magazine, was taken from a sleepy literary journal to a sensational pro-sex feminist magazine by its longtime editor, Helen Gurley Brown, who worked there from 1965 to 1997. She stepped down at age 74 and became editor in chief of Cosmo’s international editions until her death in 2012 at 90.
Cover lines, long thought to compel buyers to pluck a magazine off a crowded newsstand, were always a main ingredient of Ms. Brown’s success. Hers (often written by her husband, the Hollywood producer David Brown) were especially breathy and enticing: “World’s Greatest Lover — what it was like to be wooed by him!”
Now, cover lines are mere adornment to the print product — something that may be thought of as a loss leader for a brand aimed at women aged 18 to 34, possibly the most mobile-phone-obsessed demo there is. Ms. Pels hopes Hearst will come up with a way to easily let readers subscribe by text and pay with Venmo.
The invention of the ball pit (or “ball crawl,” as it was first dubbed) is widely attributed to Eric McMillan. Born in England and an industrial designer by training, McMillan moved to Canada and worked as an exhibition designer for Expo ’67 in Montreal. In 1971, he was appointed chief designer of Ontario Place, an ambitious project that included a park, theme park, and the world’s first IMAX theater on newly built artificial islands just off the Toronto waterfront. Ontario Place was a visionary project, but it was missing something.
“One of the ‘mistakes’ was the project’s lack of child appeal,” McMillan notes on his website. Striving for a more kid-friendly environment, the designer created The Children’s Village, a massive playground unlike any other, where youngsters could climb huge rope nets and soft pyramids, crawl through hanging tunnels, and jump on an enormous air mattress. “The Children’s Village opened in July 1972, and it was an amazing success,” McMillan writes. “People loved it, and it quickly became the top attraction at Ontario Place. Suddenly I became the world’s expert on child’s play.”
The Burger King in Mattoon, Illinois, is not your typical Burger King. You won’t find Whoppers or chicken fries on the menu, and while there is a drive-up window, it won’t resemble almost any other modern drive-thru with a two-way speaker. Instead, you’ll find fresh burgers with beef straight from the meat market, a single window, and employees who run out to cars with a paper and pencil in tow when the line gets too long (a la Portillo’s, fellow Midwesterners). The biggest difference, though, is that this Burger King isn’t affiliated at all with the fast-food chain owned by the $28.65 billion Restaurant Brands International group, and it’s the one restaurant in the U.S. with a trademark that Burger King’s parent company has been unable to wrest away.
Ernie Drummond, the owner of Mattoon’s Burger King, says that people sometimes do get confused when they first visit, expecting traditional fast food with pre-made burgers and heat lamps. Instead, they’re met with a homey small-town feel and a burger that goes onto the grill fresh when you order and requires a little more of a wait than those at other Burger Kings. But customers, especially the students from the nearby Eastern Illinois University, get used to it, and after a few weeks of puzzled looks in the fall, everyone knows what to expect.
Pouring the liquid into my plastic cup, it’s thick, and creamy, and steamy. “The locals still call it ‘pearl tea,’” culinary guide Ai-Jia Yu tells me, adding, somewhat mysteriously, and without further explanation, “they also call it Kung Fu tea—but not the martial art.” Soon enough, the small balls of silicone rise to the surface, and as the ice melts in my cup and the tea rapidly cools, I get ready to tip back a glass of bubble tea, in its very birthplace.
I am no stranger to bubble tea. Attending school in Montreal, I made frequent trips to the city’s one-street Chinatown and a small, very unpretentious restaurant there (I once saw a mouse scurry across the dining room) became a Friday night mainstay for me. My friends raved about this peculiar beverage but, a small-town kid, at first I couldn’t understand the allure—cold tea, sucked through a giant straw, big enough to inhale those chewy, mostly tasteless gobs of silicone. But eventually, when my workload at university got heavy, it became my comfort drink (and food).
When I decided to walk I didn’t consider the difficulties involved in walking the longest national train in England. Or that covering the 630 miles of the South West Coast Path carrying a rucksack on my back containing only the bare minimum for survival, might be the hardest thing I had ever done. I hadn’t thought about how I could afford to do it, or what I’d do afterwards. I didn’t realize then that the path involved ascent equivalent to climbing Mount Everest nearly four times, or that I’d be wild camping for nearly 100 nights. It just seemed like the best response to the hammering of the bailiffs at the door.
It was the end of one of those weeks that you believe happen to someone else, not you. A financial dispute with a lifetime friend had led to a court case that culminated in us being served with an eviction notice from the house we owned—our home and business of 20 years. Just days later my husband, Moth, was diagnosed with a rare neurodegenerative disease, CBD. A terminal disease that has no cure, or treatment. My world and all that kept me stable slipped from beneath my feet.
“He who walks lives longer,” he writes, but that is “only half the truth”. The other half is that the act of walking also slows down time, and forces you to consider your surroundings. “The mountain up ahead, which slowly changes as you draw closer, feels like an intimate friend by the time you’ve arrived.” Walking, in other words, prolongs the experience of life, as well as life itself.
Outpost is a book about “the romantic, exploratory appeal of cabins and isolated stations”, places far from the noisy world where people can find clarity and connect with nature. Thoreau retreated to a cabin at Walden Pond, Massachusetts, and Dylan Thomas had his “word-splashed hut” at Laugharne. Inspired by Thomas, Roald Dahl built a writing cabin in his garden at Great Missenden. Richards visits this “denspace”, still redolent of coffee and tobacco smoke, which Dahl memorably described as “a place for dreaming and floating and whistling in the wind, as soft and silent and murky as a womb”.
Wonderfully plotted, with elegant prose, witty dialogue, homages to German Expressionism and a strong emotional charge, this is a bittersweet ending to a superb series.
“Sunny day flooding” is flooding where water comes right up from the ground, hence the name, and yes, it can certainly rain during sunny day flooding, and yes, that makes it worse. Sunny day flooding happens in many parts of Miami, but it is especially bad in Sunset Harbour, the low-lying area on Miami Beach’s west side.
The sea level in Miami has risen ten inches since 1900; in the 2000 years prior, it did not really change. The consensus among informed observers is that the sea will rise in Miami Beach somewhere between 13 and 34 inches by 2050. By 2100, it is extremely likely to be closer to six feet, which means, unless you own a yacht and a helicopter, sayonara. Sunset Harbour is expected to fare slightly worse, and to do so more quickly.
Thus, I felt the Sunset Harbour area was a good place to start pretending to buy a home here. Amazingly, in the face of these incontrovertible facts about the climate the business of luxury real estate is chugging along just fine, and I wanted to see the cognitive dissonance up close.
Blue remains the favorite color of Westerners, who most prefer to be dressed in navy (once a symbol of rebellion, now a symbol of conservativism and boating club seriousness). Color may change its meaning and its symbolic association, but the underlying structure of reality built (and then painted) by a Divine Creator remains a firm constant throughout time and space—the protests of postmodern blue devils notwithstanding.
My life has made me four different people. Three of which I love. I’m a father of three, a creative writing professor, and a novelist. The problem is I could not figure out how to do all these things in the same place. So when I leave the house to go to teach my classes, I have to travel from my home in Chicago through the heart of Illinois, to Peoria, 182 miles away, essentially making my fourth role in life that of a long haul trucker.
The deal is my wife made it clear she wants to live near her family in Chicago. She has built her own company, and my children get to grow up doted on by grandparents, aunts, uncles, and a built-in community who love them. To have a dream job of working with vibrant, passionate young writers, I drive to a classroom that is very, very far away. When I started doing this I was not a father with the bone-deep knowledge of how hard childrearing is and how painful missing any of it can be. When the kids came, instead of staying overnight as I had planned, I began doing round trips, spending six hours a day in the car several times a week, and this has become my routine, for the last seven years.
Chicken wings aren’t good, yet the ones at Ponderosa Steakhouse in 1999 were delicious. The chain of buffets was founded in 1963 by Dan Blocker, who played Eric “Hoss” Cartwright on Bonanza, and enjoyed its peak popularity when TV Westerns were still big. Ponderosa was the name of the ranch on Bonanza. When I was 5, as I was in 1999, I did not care about these facts — I had no concerns at all, personally, and Wikipedia did not exist, generally — but I deeply cared about Ponderosa Steakhouse. I begged to go there.
Most of this love affair was actually with the ability to play grown-up and select my own food and carry my own stuff — and serve my own ice cream! — but I stand by it. A buffet is a glamorous idea; it provides you with the otherwise difficult-to-accomplish joy of eating many small servings of many different delicious things all at the same time, regardless of whether they are meant to be served together. Yet the Ponderosa Steakhouse in Canandaigua, New York, is now a parking lot for a Starbucks.
“The great millennial novelist”—the mantle has been thrust, by Boomers and Gen Xers alike, upon the Irish writer Sally Rooney, whose two carefully observed and gentle comedies of manners both appeared before her twenty-eighth birthday. With this mantle have come prizes and money. Nearly every review has mentioned at least the prizes.
Such verbal raptures may ensorcell seventh graders and leave older readers occasionally feeling that they need to lie down. But the fecundity of Alison’s writing is of a piece with her larger mission: to turn narrative theory into a supersaturated mindfuck of hedonistic extravaganza. It is a special kind of literary criticism that can make the reader appear to herself a prune, or a prude. For Alison, reading is “motionless movement.” Her book takes the shape of a roller coaster.
Wonderfully plotted, with elegant prose, witty dialogue, homages to German Expressionism and a strong emotional charge, this is a bittersweet ending to a superb series.
“Boy Swallows Universe” hypnotizes you with wonder, and then hammers you with heartbreak. The events of Eli’s life are often fatal and tragic, but fate and tragedy do not overpower the story. Eli’s remarkably poetic voice and his astonishingly open heart take the day. They enable him to carve out the best of what’s possible from the worst of what is, which is the miracle that makes this novel marvelous.
The title might put you off: “Chronicles of a Radical Hag (with Recipes).” A little cutesy, a little long-winded. But even if Lorna Landvik’s latest novel might also be described as a little cutesy and a little long-winded, it has substance and purpose.
Several hundred copy editors descended on Providence, Rhode Island, this past weekend for the annual conference of the American Copy Editors Society (ACES), now trending on Twitter as #ACES2019. (We can dream, can’t we?) If you have ever been a copy editor among copy editors, you know the joy of being in the company of your fellow-nerds, and hearing them speak out loud of things that normally stay inside your head: arguments about singular “they,” musings about whether or not to capitalize a proper name that begins with a lowercase letter (d’Anjou, for instance) if it occurs at the beginning of a sentence. (I say yes, but perhaps I am insensitive.) When I first became aware of ACES, in 2014, the organization was holding its conference in Las Vegas, and I pictured copy editors at play, pulling the arms of slot machines that featured rows of commas instead of cherries. At this year’s opening reception, the entertainment was a pencil embosser—both a machine and a man feeding it handfuls of pencils, which came out saying things like “I THINK, THEREFORE I EDIT.”
My first exposure to Greek mythology was at the Lyceum—not the famed Lykeion in Athens, where Aristotle and his pupils strolled around as they discussed philosophy and beauty, but a movie theater on Fulton Road in Cleveland, where my brothers and I spent Saturday afternoons. The Lyceum was classic as opposed to classical: popcorn in red-and-white striped boxes, a stern lady usher who confiscated the candy we snuck in from outside, buzzers under the seats for a gimmicky thrill.
Every week, the Lyceum showed a double feature, usually a horror movie—The Mummy, Godzilla, The Creature from the Black Lagoon—paired with something mildly pornographic (and highly educational). At one Saturday matinee, I laid eyes for the first time on the Cyclops. The movie was Ulysses (1955), starring Kirk Douglas as the man of many turnings. In a way, it, too, was a horror movie, full of monsters and apparitions: a witch who turned men into pigs, sea serpents, Anthony Quinn in a short tight skirt.
One complicating factor when it comes to creating art about suicide is the fact that many of the features that make for a “good story” are also those known to contribute to suicidal behaviors: heightened emotions, heroic or sentimental portrayals of suicidal characters, and, above all, depiction of the suicide itself. The worry—of public-health officials, researchers, doctors, and parents—is that when works embrace these elements, fiction might bleed into reality.
Putting words down in a certain way allowed me to breathe a little better for a while. It is not to be underestimated. I find breathing difficult. It is as if my sense of entitlement really was so far out that I didn’t always know how to do it as a wee kid. Having such an extreme upbringing means it’s a physical legacy that has stayed with me. I will inflate my lungs like a puffer fish. I’ll do it like I’m reading a manual that tells you how to do so. I’ll often be reduced to breathing through my mouth. It is my least favorite way to obtain oxygen.
Weary city workers will have a new way of passing the time on their commute once the UK’s first short-story vending machines are installed at Canary Wharf this week.
Tokyo Ueno Station is a social novel, but in more of a magical than a strictly realist sense. History can’t be reduced to dates on the calendar, but is grasped at elliptically. The text is full of line breaks, as if with each new paragraph Kazu is making a new attempt to understand the past, and with every new line it slips further away.
In Brown’s poems, the body at risk — the infected body, the abused body, the black body, the body in eros — is most vulnerable to the cruelty of the world. But even in their most searing moments, these poems are resilient out of necessity, faithful to their account of survival, when survival is the hardest task of all: “So the Bible says, in the beginning, / Blackness. I am alive.”
What’s most important about Spectacle is not the spectacular events that drive Steinberg’s narrators toward a kind of vivisection (by way of self-scrutiny). Instead, the spectacle is introspection itself — an internal magnification like reading glasses for the psyche. It is precisely what these women choose to focus on, and what they willfully ignore, that makes Spectacle such an interesting and powerful read.
Naming a book is a bit like naming a child. The title is the book’s given name, what it goes by. The author’s byline is the book’s surname, which it has in common with every other book by that writer. And the subtitle? It’s the book’s middle name. That is, it’s not what anyone calls the thing, but you’re stuck with it forever, so you might as well pick something good.
What if you could make a list of everything Mark Twain ever read and of every book he ever owned? Dr Alan Gribben, cofounder of the Mark Twain Circle of America, has spent the last 45 years doing just that. But why? For more recent authors such as Philip Roth or John Updike, the idea of chronicling their reading isn’t unusual: Roth willed his book collection to Newark Public Library in New Jersey; Updike’s went to Harvard University’s Houghton Library. But Roth and Updike were both a different sort of writer. They lived in our era, and on land. As a steamboat captain, Twain – real name Samuel Langhorne Clemens – lived on the river, his life and work in constant motion as he authored travelogues, time-travel novels and adventure stories about runaway slaves. Would he have wanted a list out there, nailing down the precise location of every book he had owned?
‘There is no design-free world,’ writes Iris Bohnet, a behavioural economist at Harvard, in her book What Works: Gender Equality by Design (2016). The material world in which individuals engage every day is shaped and reshaped through design – for better or worse. When entering a space, people have long been expected not only to compensate for but also to overcome their disabilities. But sometimes, no amount of ingenuity can overcome the mismatch between a given individual and a given space – and then, exclusion is the result.
As I read Blossoms in Autumn, a collaboration between the Belgian writer Zidrou and the Dutch artist Aimée de Jongh, I thought more than once that it was not quite to my taste. I found the dialogue a little cheesy; I hate the fact that the arc of its plot suggests a woman can consider her life a failure if she has not had children. In the end, though, these things didn’t really matter. Sometimes, a book pierces your heart like an arrow in spite of its faults and Blossoms in Autumn was, in my case, one of these.
What The Other Americans lacks in artistic consistency, it makes up for in narrative energy and political engagement. Speaking as a reader, that's more than enough to make me stay.
You are a car, you are
at the edge
On a first viewing of Allan Sekula’s photographs one is struck by their luminescence: cool-toned images that seem to give off a heated light. Whether it’s the deep blue of the sea, the indigo of a shipping container, or the soft shade of well-worn denim, the imagery of Fish Story forms a captivating narrative of the world of global trade, dissecting our imaginations and manipulations of the sea. The work illuminates an urgency around hotly relevant contemporary conditions of our relationship to oceans and the way their vastness shapes our societies. Sekula, whose project lasted for over a decade, navigates the complicated environs of a globalizing world and aims to show us the inherent awkwardness of the shipping industry’s containment of behemoth spaces. First presented in the early 1990s as a series of gallery installations, this critical work has now been brought into print by MACK Books.
When we look at photographs we see the way light plays on a scene, and bear witness to a moment distant from ourselves. Shadows and highlights force the eye to move. Situations are gleaned. But less often, when we see an image within the context of, say, the bizarre and brutalist structures of globalization, the eye strains to the edges, looking for more information. Which companies operate these vast fleets of cargo ships carrying our commodities across thousands of miles? What is it like to weld steel plate in a shipyard’s metal shop? Fortunately, Sekula provides a rich textual backdrop to his photographs in Fish Story. Like an exhibition catalogue, this book is part collection of academic and poetic texts written by the artist, and part photo essay exposing the hidden lives and spaces surrounding shipping ports. Each image carries the feeling and knowledge that the sea surrounding these spaces and individuals is vast, mysterious, and forever beguiling. Meandering through Sekula’s writing, a deeper portrait takes form, revealing the philosophical and logistical loci of global consumption. Fish Story is a foundational text for an inquiry into how the sea exists in our contemporary conceptions of the world, and how the spatial logic of the oceans has continued to act as a site of intense conflict, geopolitically, financially and artistically.
The word spring uses almost everything that the mouth can do, from front to back. It hisses the S, shuts it up with pursed lips and then explodes it with the P, releases the flowing RIN with the tongue touching the roof of the mouth, and closes the word from the top of the throat with the guttural G. It is fun to say, a roller coaster ride for the mouth, and it has been said almost unchanging for many thousand years. But not until the last few hundred years has it meant simply a season of the year.
And so it is with cookbooks. We could look up that recipe online, but there’s an intangible joy about pulling a book from the shelf and finding a page smeared with tomato sauce and annotated with scribbles in the margin. It might be anachronistic, it probably doesn’t make financial sense, it certainly won’t taste better but in that moment it just feels right.
In this novel, which teems with lives, the versions of their friendship in which those errors didn’t occur seem to exist alongside the versions that did, and these alongside relationships with various partners, children, siblings, parents and colleagues. Reading it, I was moved by intimacies near and far, real and imagined, lost and found in all the echoing corners of the expanding universe.
With her third novel, Lost and Wanted, Freudenberger takes another impressive plunge into a different sort of foreign culture: theoretical physics. In doing so, she joins a select group of novelists — including Richard Powers, Alan Lightman, Barbara Kingsolver, and Allegra Goodman — who travel across literature's borders into science, writing what has been called fi-sci, as opposed to sci-fi.
Like all architecture, abandoned and ruined spaces are animated by what people want from them. They can be massive economic boons or cynical attempts to cloak a neighborhood’s rapid socioeconomic transformation. They can also be powerful symbols and drivers of community engagement.