Sandwiched between Russia and Turkey, Georgia is a small country with celebrated cuisine, gorgeous landscapes — and a scarcity of world-renowned tourist attractions. One of the few it does have, unfortunately, is the man born Ioseb Besarionis dze Jughashvili, the son of a cobbler who became one of humanity’s greatest criminals.
This has presented a quandary for Georgian officials. How, if at all, does a country market a homegrown monster to the rest of the world?
Yearning for the idealised pub of yore is not, however, a new pastime. It’s probably almost as old as pubs themselves. Indeed, reminiscing about how a given pub used to be is a staple of pub conversation. The nostalgic lament is, after all, practically a symptom of inebriation.
Seventy-three years ago George Orwell wrote his famous essay about his favourite public house, the Moon Under Water. He listed 10 qualities possessed by this pub, only to reveal at the end that no such pub existed. It was an ideal he’d wished into being.
In fact the terrorists, opposed to both artificial intelligence and the uplift of nonhuman species to sentience on the grounds that the universe belongs to humans and humans alone, are more faction than mere cell. A civil war erupts across human civilization between the humanists and the transhumanists, crashing the extrasolar colonization project and indeed technological human civilization as such. When the ark ship Gilgamesh returns to Kern’s World 2,000 years later — built by the bedraggled descendants of the Old Empire on a brutalized, ravaged, and poisoned Earth, who have hacked together advanced spacefaring technology from the ruins without being able to understand or replicate it — they are the last survivors of the human race, seeking the only place in the universe humans might be able to live. And Kern’s World is that place: successfully and stably terraformed, humans can live there in the open air unaided, our last refuge in all the universe.
Except the whole place is now overrun with superintelligent giant spiders, who were infected with the uplift virus after the accident and have built their own civilization in the meantime — and who are protected from orbit by the immortal computer intelligence of Avrana Kern, who has determined in the intervening centuries that she likes the spiders better than people.
Google “40-year-old white man” and you’ll invariably come across William Dameron’s photograph. The image — he lies on a pillow staring into the camera, a hand held to his forehead — is indexed near the top of some 10 million search results. He looks to be in his mid-40s, graying handsomely at the temples. A wedding ring can be seen on the appropriate finger (an important compositional element, this). As far as selfies go, it is unremarkable. But as Dameron himself later discovered, this was the appealingly Everyman image that cyberthieves had selected for a global catfishing operation. His face — here listed as “Dieter Falk on the social network VK in Berlin,” and there as “Peter, an I.T. consultant in Melbourne” — was used on dating sites around the world to scam women (and a few men) into believing they’d found love. For Dameron, this discovery held a kind of cosmic irony. “For most of my life, I had pretended to be someone I was not,” he writes in “The Lie,” his debut memoir, “and now I had become the one others pretended to be.”
For many in book publishing, the departure marks the end of an era, when authors having meetings at the Flatiron was a rite of passage.
“My publishing life was born and raised in the Flatiron,” said Louise Penny, a best-selling crime writer who even has a Flatiron charm on her keychain. “Behind the breathtaking and famous facade was a rabbit warren, some might say rat’s nest. Books and files were piled everywhere.”
The literary agent Christopher Schelling is equally nostalgic. “Symbolically it means something,” he said of Macmillan’s move, recalling how he often warned his writers that the conference rooms inside the Flatiron were definitely not as stylish as the building’s exterior. But that this was part of the fascination of the place.
The everything bagel is the king of bagels. On this there should be no argument. In the same way that it combines all of the key bagel toppings—sesame and poppy seeds, dried garlic and onion, and coarse salt—it’s also a combination of ancient traditions and new fads, Eastern ingredients and Western techniques. With cream cheese and lox, it creates, more or less, the perfect bite.
There are, however, arguments about who invented the everything bagel, and none of them are particularly compelling. Several New Yorkers have staked their claims as its inventor, including restaurateur Joe Bastianich, but their claims are more like how my mother-in-law half-jokingly claims that she created the concept for the Pixar movie Cars. (“What if the cars in the parking lot came to life and could talk?”)
Sameer Rahim’s debut novel is a tender, pin-sharp portrait of a marriage and a community. It is a wonderful achievement; an invigorating reminder of the power fiction has to challenge lazy stereotypes, and stretch the reader’s heart.
This is a book almost relentless in its pursuit of some of the worst crimes that are, even now, going on through the cracks of "polite society". Although the story is told with compassion, it leaves one wondering and covertly looking around. In short, The Dangerous Kind is disturbingly relevant.
The effort of self-transformation is generally regarded as an improving journey, whatever its vicissitudes may have been. The writer Yiyun Li, who left China in 1996 as a trained scientist and set herself the task of becoming instead an American novelist, might appear to belong to that narrative of success. For an immigrant writer, the psychological problem of lost links can be meaningful terrain; likewise, the abandoned homeland can be fruitfully considered, from a safe distance. Yet creativity is no fortress, and even language—as Li has proved—is a bridge that can be burned. You can unlearn your own language as a stratagem for escaping the rudeness of memory, but events will still pile up, with or without an identity willing to organize them.
One of my favorite exclamation marks in recent poetry is in the poem “Undressed” by Kristen Tracy from Half-Hazard. “Part of me wants to throw this ring back,” a woman narrates, “but part of me is happy to have a diamond. / Is love sad?” There is a part of her that wants “to chew the ring up // and die,” and it is that part of herself that most attracts her: she wants to “mend its mittens / and kiss it on the mouth.”
She wavers. Does she want to stand at the altar? Could she really share a closet? She hears the “clamor of my lover’s / shoes” traveling across the floor, and “they vibrate in my ring.” There’s no way his steps could cause such shaking “unless my lover travels like / King Kong,” but the implication is clear: he’s home now, and she’s taken out of the reverie. In the poem’s penultimate line, Tracy adds a parenthetical: “(I think I love this ring!). It is an interjection within her thoughts. A push back against the part of her that doesn’t want to get married. It’s a perfectly timed injunction against the self; a demonstration of how an exclamation mark can make an entire poem work.
The universe is kind of an impossible object. It has an inside but no outside; it’s a one-sided coin. This Möbius architecture presents a unique challenge for cosmologists, who find themselves in the awkward position of being stuck inside the very system they’re trying to comprehend.
It’s a situation that Lee Smolin has been thinking about for most of his career. A physicist at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Canada, Smolin works at the knotty intersection of quantum mechanics, relativity and cosmology. Don’t let his soft voice and quiet demeanor fool you — he’s known as a rebellious thinker and has always followed his own path. In the 1960s Smolin dropped out of high school, played in a rock band called Ideoplastos, and published an underground newspaper. Wanting to build geodesic domes like R. Buckminster Fuller, Smolin taught himself advanced mathematics — the same kind of math, it turned out, that you need to play with Einstein’s equations of general relativity. The moment he realized this was the moment he became a physicist. He studied at Harvard University and took a position at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, eventually becoming a founding faculty member at the Perimeter Institute.
The day after Earth Day at the New York Botanical Garden was one of those spring stunners when half the city had come out to get their nature fix after a long, gray winter. Couples lolled on the lawns and shot photos of babies beneath blossoming crab apples. Parents pushing strollers past Azalea Garden and up Daffodil Hill eyed me suspiciously as I sidled up to a scraggly bare tree beside the path.
Amid 250 acres of gorgeous organisms, this specimen was the homeliest of the bunch. Twelve feet tall, with spindly gray branches and raw cankers shredding its trunk, it was not likely to be featured in any baby photos that day. Yet I had come all the way from Vermont to see it. The draw for me wasn't looks; it was the fact that the tree was alive at all. Here was a 10-year-old American chestnut, one of the first in a century to make it that long.
But this sort of quest shopping is occasional. More often, a trip to the mall is social, padding out getting food with a friend into a whole afternoon. As I wrote last year, Viennese architect Victor Gruen, creator of the suburban American shopping center, said “A mall is a public space … committed to intensive urban activity.” He thought the suburbs needed places of public life and human concentration, and he wasn’t wrong. What has gone wrong over the decades is the loss of the mix of uses his art-filled, small- to medium-size centers cultivated. The same stores began showing up everywhere, and the shopping centers became boring.
All malls aren’t dead—but the ones that are thriving are doing so because they are becoming more like the city. They offer a hybrid retail experience, now centered on food rather than fashion, born of the 21st century.
The attendant smiles and says, “come watch the movie.”
If you lay on the floor before the lights dim they make you get up, but if you wait until it’s dark they don’t care what you do. From opening to close, the same film plays every sixteen minutes. In rural, rustic France, wooden carts bustle past soaring, fairytale castles. The fields are dotted with pristine white sheep. Female attendants who work at Epcot, France wear long, russet skirts and peasant tops that tie delicately at the throat. The attendant asks the audience to enjoy this introduction to her home. She says “home” like you might mouth a packet of Splenda. The panoramic screen reveals a view of rocky ocean cliffs and even more soaring castles and cyclists and more sheep and women carrying oversized baskets of bread. Every sixteen minutes the same country road winds along valleys sprinkled with tiny yellow wildflowers.
Places people like to fuck at Disney: The Haunted Mansion, It’s a Small World, and the sixteen-minute movie in Epcot, France. Stains dot the theater seats, the curtains, and the floor where you can lay if you wait until the lights dim. Only after the lights dim, the attendant says. Not a second earlier.
Live a Little is a meander of a novel that nonetheless feels urgent – not least because one fears either of its two central characters might keel over at any point. But for all its moments of bleakness, and the occasional flicker of genuine terror, it’s rarely less than bitterly funny in its determination to face up to the obliteration that awaits us all.
On a sofa in the corner of the room, a cat is purring. It seems obvious that the cat is an example of life, whereas the sofa itself is not. But should we trust our intuition? Consider this: Isaac Newton assumed a universal time flowing without external influence, and relative time measured by clocks – just as our perception tells us. Two centuries later, Albert Einstein dropped the concept of universal time, and instead introduced a concept of time measured only locally by clocks. Who before Einstein would have thought that time on the Sun, the Moon, and even on each of our watches runs at slightly different rates – that time is not a universal absolute? And yet today our cellphones must take this into account for a GPS to function.
Science has made amazing strides, uncovering a deep and often counterintuitive understanding of physical reality. We understand a lot about the atoms in the human body and the stars in the night sky: much more than we do about the individual human as an example of life. In fact, life scientists continue to debate the exact definition of life. It was Aristotle who first said that life is something that grows and reproduces. He was fascinated by the mule, a cross between a horse and donkey that is always sterile. But just because the mule was sterile, you couldn’t call it dead. The debate is endless: some say that life must metabolise, that is, take in compounds, turn them to energy, and release some waste. But do jet engines qualify? In short, there is no theory and therefore no measuring apparatus that can confirm or refute our assumption that the cat is alive and the sofa is not, nor even that you are alive as you read this.
“How Many Psychologists Does It Take ... to Explain a Joke?”
Many, it turns out. As psychologist Christian Jarrett noted in a 2013 article featuring that riddle as its title, scientists still struggle to explain exactly what makes people laugh. Indeed, the concept of humor is itself elusive. Although everyone understands intuitively what humor is, and dictionaries may define it simply as “the quality of being amusing,” it is difficult to define in a way that encompasses all its aspects. It may evoke the merest smile or explosive laughter; it can be conveyed by words, images or actions and through photos, films, skits or plays; and it can take a wide range of forms, from innocent jokes to biting sarcasm and from physical gags and slapstick to a cerebral double entendre.
Even so, progress has been made. And some of the research has come out of the lab to investigate humor in its natural habitat: everyday life.
In the introduction to Three Women, Lisa Taddeo writes that to find the three characters whose sexual lives she portrays in detail she drove across the country six times. The country is the United States, the time the second decade of the new century. It is an era of new language and technology in American sexuality, but this is not a book that tries to map higher order narratives. Instead it is a minute journalistic account of the defining sexual relationships in three people’s lives. Taddeo chose her subjects for their honesty and openness, and perhaps for what she perceives as their ordinariness.
Under handbag economics, states are required to restrict their expenditure to what the taxpayer is deemed to be able to afford. States must not try to increase their spending by borrowing from the (private) financial sector or by “printing money” (although the banks were rescued by doing so by another name – quantitative easing, the creation of electronic money).
The ideology of handbag economics claims that money is to be generated only through market activity and that it is always in short supply. Request for increased public expenditure is almost invariably met with the response “where’s the money to come from?” When confronted by low pay in the NHS, the British prime minister, Theresa May, famously declared, “there is no magic money tree”.
So where does money come from? And what is money anyway?
Suppose you were to mash up three of the greatest of all children’s fantasies: J.M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan,” J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” and T.H. White’s “The Sword in the Stone.” This may be hard to imagine, especially for an adult, but something like E.A. Wyke-Smith’s “The Marvellous Land of Snergs” would be the result. Deliciously irreverent in its narration, silly and spooky throughout, and charmingly illustrated by Punch artist George Morrow, this neglected masterpiece remains as winning today as when it was first published in 1927.
What in the actual fuck. I thought journalists, even just culture journalists, were supposed to be brave. I thought they were supposed to risk their lives, even just psychologically. I thought they were supposed to shout and swear and beat their breasts — fuck everything else. At the very least I thought they were supposed to tell the truth. If any of that’s true, I don’t know what the hell all the people around me are doing. All the people who, I’ve been told again and again, don’t want to bite the hand that feeds, even though the food is shit and the hand is an asshole. I’m ashamed that I was tricked into believing they were better than so many of the people they report on, that their conspicuous support for unions and an industry full of undervalued workers was anything more than a performance. I didn’t think journalists, even just culture journalists, were supposed to be cowards.
The Mississippi Delta is one of the most beautiful regions of the U.S., but it's also historically been one of the most troubled. Residents of the area — the birthplace of the blues — have had to contend with deeply entrenched racism, poverty and the effects of climate change that have made farming difficult. As one character in Chanelle Benz's The Gone Dead explains, "This is all meant to be a flood plain. The Atchafalaya wants to swallow the Mississippi and the Mississippi wants to join it. So this place is all longing and water and ghosts."
It's the ghosts that interest Benz, the Memphis-based author of the acclaimed 2017 short story collection The Man Who Shot Out My Eye Is Dead. Her debut novel is a powerful look at a region constantly haunted by its past, and the residents who are forced to choose whether to confront it or forget it.
Haddon is the author of several other novels and, among other things, a book of fantastical short stories and a collection of poems. With “The Porpoise,” he is attempting his most daring project yet: a retelling of “Pericles” — and thus a retelling of the retelling of the story of Apollonius — set in both the present and the past; in reality (so to speak) and in myth.
But it would be a mistake to think of this novel as simply a contemporary version of Shakespeare like, say, Jane Smiley’s “A Thousand Acres,” which took “King Lear” and brought it to a 20th-century Iowa farm. Haddon is playing a longer, more complicated game. It takes time to see what it is.
And yet, “Very Nice” is not a text that reveals itself at the last minute as metafiction or parable, in the lazy manner of those “it was all just a dream” stories. It’s not a trick, with the reader as its patsy, and though very funny, it’s not a joke at the reader’s expense. Okay, one spoiler: The last word of the book is “laugh.” I bet you will.
As a writer, Keane reminds me a lot of Ann Patchett: Both have the magical ability to seem to be telling "only" a closely-observed domestic tale that transforms into something else deep and, yes, universal. In Keane's case, that "something else" is a story about forgiveness and acceptance — qualities that sound gooey, but are so hard to achieve in life.
I'd never been called a dingbatter until I went to Ocracoke for the first time. I've spent a good part of my life in North Carolina, but I'm still learning how to speak the ‘Hoi Toider’ brogue. The people here just have their own way of speaking: it's like someone took Elizabethan English, sprinkled in some Irish tones and 1700s Scottish accents, then mixed it all up with pirate slang. But the Hoi Toider dialect is more than a dialect. It's also a culture, one that's slowly fading away. With each generation, fewer people play meehonkey, cook the traditional foods or know what it is to be mommucked.
Located 34 miles from the North Carolina mainland, Ocracoke Island is fairly isolated. You can’t drive there as there are no bridges, and most people can’t fly either as there are no commercial flights. If you want to go there, it has to be by boat. In the early 1700s, that meant Ocracoke was a perfect spot for pirates to hide, as no soldiers were going to search 16 miles of remote beaches and forests for wanted men.
Webster saw himself as a saviour of the American language who would rescue it from the corrupting influence of British English and prevent it from fragmenting into a multitude of dialects. But as a linguist and lexicographer, he quickly ran into trouble with critics, educators, the literati, legislators and much of the common reading public over the bizarre nature of his proposed language reforms. These spelling reforms – for example, wimmen for ‘women’, greeve for ‘grieve’, meen for ‘mean’ and bred for ‘bread’ – were all intended to simplify spelling by making it read the way that words were pronounced, yet they brought him the pain of ridicule for decades to come.
In our world, weather forecasts are so ubiquitous that we treat them as notable only when wrong. It’s easy to forget what a crucial role they play, and to overlook the monumental achievement they represent. But Andrew Blum’s new book, “The Weather Machine” (Ecco), asks us to pause and marvel at the globe-spanning networks of collaboration required to turn the weather from something we experience to something we can predict.
It wasn’t always possible to be so complacent. Wartime made the stakes of weather forecasting especially plain. Sometimes, as with D Day, visibility was important; at other times, cloud cover and fog could help conceal a position. Alongside the battle for land, sea, and air, then, a quiet war over the atmosphere was being waged. The weather war even had its own clandestine undercover missions in search of mundane treasures like data on temperature, pressure, and wind speed.
One summer, I tried fishing on Lac Catherine, a small lake in Quebec near the village of Entrelacs. Around this privately owned body of water is a deep band of forest and only three habitable structures, including the two-room cabin that my husband and I rent for a month each summer and the capacious log home of the owners, our friends Anne and Arne. They live there year-round and use some of the 121 hectares of forest to make maple syrup in the spring. Come summer, local fishermen sometimes pay them a fee to drop their lines in Lac Catherine. Usually, they leave a few hours later with one or two or three small trout. This alerted me to the fact that, technically, evidently, there were fish in the lake—fish that other people caught. So I was happy when a friend of our son, an experienced angler, showed up at our cabin one day. I would learn his secrets, I schemed, and catch a fish at last.
Roberto was in his early thirties, a lifelong fisherman from Brazil, where, he tells me, they sometimes fish with worms called minhocuçu that are three feet long. Now we’re talking! He arrived at our cabin with his partner, Madeleine, their three-month-old baby, Celeste, and a large, heavy tackle box that appeared to come a very close second to the baby in its significance for Roberto. First, he presented the baby to us, coaxing laughter out of her by flubbing his mouth against her belly. Then he brought his tackle box into the cabin and placed it reverently in the centre of the room. When he opened it, a three-tiered bleacher expanded into jewellery-box compartments packed with lead sinkers, bright feathery lures, and hooks that ranged in size from a comma on a page to a pirate’s prosthetic metal hand. “Those are for carp,” Roberto said, “which can get very big in Brazil.”
I met the Petersons just moments before their ceremony. The Portland, Oregon-based couple decided to dress casually for their wedding. The groom was in dark denim jeans and a blue button-down top that featured small embroidered tacos, while the bride donned a short, form-fitting mustard yellow dress that showed off her large, striking tattoos. There were no tuxedos, no veils, no flower girls. This wasn’t the first time either of them had gotten married, nor was it the first time either of them had gotten married in Vegas.
“I just wanted to have a wedding that was non-traditional, but also wanted to top both of our previous weddings,” explained Breanna when I asked her why they chose the Taco Bell chapel.
Claire Lombardo's The Most Fun We Ever Had probably won't be the most fun you'll ever have (I hope not, for your sake), but it's a wonderfully immersive read that packs more heart and heft than most first novels. Lombardo, a Chicago native and recently minted University of Iowa MFA graduate, has crafted an intricate multigenerational saga about the vicissitudes of a passionate but not perfect marriage over a 40-year span. Her capacious novel also encompasses the "vast hormonal hellscape" the couple has spawned — four cattily close, constantly sparring grown daughters trying to figure out their place in the world as they measure themselves against their mother and each other.
Once, my very best darling, the sea
and the land were all one mass
and the light was confused and hadn’t found
a place to rest. And, Megan, love,
An adult shad has 1,300 bones,
but that’s not why I always order it:
I remember fingers of white flesh, flaky-fried,
or a sac of red roe slapped into a pan
with a pat of butter,
A few summers ago, Stefano Piraino was walking along the rocky shoreline on a small island off the coast of Sicily when he spotted a washed up jellyfish. Naturally, he tore a piece off and popped it into his mouth.
“After a few days in that state they lose their stinging cells, and the UV radiation from the sun should have killed any bacteria,” he said. “But still, I wouldn’t recommend it.”
Like an increasing number of researchers, Piraino, a biologist at the University of Salento in Lecce, Italy, is interested in turning huge blooms of jellyfish from the unlikely menace they often are into something useful.
But finding room to appreciate the site and its symbolism was tricky. At three places, young travellers were staging lengthy amateur photo shoots, striking poses and monopolising swathes of space. (Art-covered walls like the “Insta-worthy” angel wings mural in tourist-smothered Nashville commissioned by Taylor Swift command massive queues of visitors.) Locals and fellow travellers alike both had to manoeuvre to get around the self-involved spectacle.
To be fair, this style of staged influencer photo is apparently wearing thin with the Instagram set. Still, the idea of securing proof of your trip, making it (and you) look fantastic and then beaming it out to everyone you know is a driving force of over-tourism.
“The question is, do you want to go to a place – or show people you’ve been to the place?” says Eduardo Santander, executive director of the European Travel Commission.
Juliet Escoria’s autofictive debut novel, “Juliet the Maniac,” is a worthy new entry in that pantheon of deconstruction. Told in a series of fragments spanning the teenage years in which bipolar Juliet’s life unravels, it is a narrative that insists on its own severity.
Midnight Chicken, a new cookbook by British author Ella Risbridger, probably could teach me some new techniques, if I were to read it like an instruction manual. I have my eye on Risbridger’s recipe for bolognese (it involves an ox cheek and four squares of dark chocolate), although it strikes me as something better cooked on a chilly November day than in June. And her recipe for labneh reads beautifully simply: “I promise you this is as simple and good as it sounds,” she writes, “and I would never lie to you about cheese.”
But reading Midnight Chicken that way would be a waste, because everything about this book begs to be savored and enjoyed. It’s a beautiful book, and I mean that in multiple senses.
In its May 27, 1950 issue, The New Yorker published Roger Angell’s short, whimsical piece about “the decline of privacy,” a development “speeded by electronics” that was subtly reshaping politics, relationships, and the national pastime. “At a recent ball game,” he reported, “a sensitive microphone at home plate picked up the rich comments of one of the team managers to the umpire and sent them winging to thousands of radio sets, instantly turning the listeners into involuntary eavesdroppers.”
This was among the first bits of baseball-related writing Angell did for the magazine. In the decades that followed, he would file dozens more pieces about the sport — a knowledgeable and oft-anthologized roster of player profiles, World Series wrap-ups, and state-of-the-game “summer essays.” His most recent baseball piece — a funny item about an angry Houston Astros pitcher who surrendered a 440-foot home run and proceeded to punch himself “in the chest and then in the jaw” — was posted on The New Yorker’s website on May 2, 2018.
It’s 11:59 p.m. on New Year’s Eve, 1999. Do you know where you are? For most, the minute before what was supposed to be the Y2K disaster – a technological screw-up that represented the apocalypse we all deserved – was spent drinking, partying, perhaps eyeing the television screen hoping that things would turn out okay. (Thank god social media was not yet a thing.) Myself, I was in the basement of a friend’s house, rewatching The Matrix on VHS for the umpteenth time. Before I paint myself as an incurable nerd, I should note that I, too, went to a house party earlier that evening ... but all I wanted to do in the last hours of 1999 was watch movies. So I did.
It turns out, 20 years later, a lot of people felt the same way.
By way of encouragement, the editor sent her some nonfiction classics, among them Thy Neighbour’s Wife, Gay Talese’s notorious 1981 exploration of sex culture in 1970s America (Talese, a pioneer of “new journalism”, ran a massage parlour as part of his research; during the writing of the book, he stayed at a clothing-optional resort). Taddeo, conscientious but curious too, went to see Talese, by then in his late 70s, at his home in New York. It was the first of what would turn out to be several false starts. “He said the only way I could come close to matching his so-called masterpiece would be if I went out and slept with married men. Well, I wasn’t going to do that.” Nor was she tempted to write about the porn industry. “I did travel to the San Francisco ‘porn castle’ [a former armoury owned by a company called kink.com], and it was really wild. I mean, it was full of women having sex. But it just didn’t seem that interesting to me.” In California, however, something shifted inside her. “At my hotel, I had an epiphany. I realised that I wanted to explore the desire behind intimate acts, not sex per se. The trouble was, I needed not only to find subjects, but subjects who were amenable to the idea of me writing about their desires.”
Some people travel with a particular objective in mind: to find the past in the present. It’s an impossibility, of course — you never truly succeed, because the present is so very present. But in a wayward, fast-moving world, a focus on history can root you, and offer perspective. This was my idea on a recent trip when I set out to find New York’s origins.
William Hazlitt recorded many peculiarities of his teenage idol Samuel Taylor Coleridge, among which was the habit of walking zig-zag fashion in front of his companion, “unable to keep on in a straight line” while endlessly, brilliantly, talking. Unlike William Wordsworth, Coleridge was said to prefer composing his verses while on uneven ground, “or breaking through the straggling branches of a copse-wood”, terrain he considered more likely than a smooth, uninterrupted surface to foster the making of poetry.
Looking back three decades, it's hard to remember when Murray, Martin, Murphy and Aykroyd weren't part of the American scene. De Semlyen's welcome flashback reminds us why their very names still bring a smile to our faces.
Your electric sander? That saber saw
we couldn’t drag you from those weeks
you knotty-pine-panelled the basement,
rigged above your new wet bar the revolving
Schlitz sign scavenged from old Pat and Matt’s?
As the American film industry shifts under the pressures of technological change and new leisure habits, one might be tempted to see the Woolsey Fire as another allegory — this time for the smoldering end of the systems Vadim saw emerge from a previous Hollywood’s metaphorical ashes. Change is once again afoot in Hollywood, and some old models are surely fading away. But we need not be so imaginative as Vadim to link the changing “environment” of the motion picture industry with the warming of our world and its promise of stronger fires and greater destruction. Nor is the link simply metaphorical. The film industry has long had its own part to play in the climate-changing work of global warming and the terraforming transformations to a Southern California landscape that burns and burns and burns again. This is Hollywood self-immolation, and it’s been a long time coming.
In her new life of Henry VI, the pious and luckless last Lancastrian king of England, the historian Lauren Johnson aims to capture him as "an evolving individual struggling in an extraordinary situation". If, despite her efforts, Henry VI remains the "shadow king" of her title, this has not stopped Johnson from producing an involving account of a still undersung saga.
The photographs in Fred Sigman’s book Motel Vegas were commissioned in the mid-1990s in order to record the signage of once-thriving motels on Fremont Street in Las Vegas. Frame and brief were later expanded to include the motels themselves, many of which had fallen on — or were in the process of falling into — hard times. The pictures were exhibited in 1997 but the 22 years — almost a quarter century’s worth of future — between that show and the publication of this book have lent a neo-archaeological dimension to the undertaking. It’s consistent with the larger tendency whereby components of modernism become a source of lament.
“The World of Nineteen Eighty-Four ended in 1989,” historian Timothy Garton-Ash declared optimistically in 2001. Communism, fascism and European imperialism “were all either dead or mortally weakened. Forty years after his own painful and early death, Orwell had won.”
If only. Orwell’s portrait of a world in which the truth is irrelevant and the powerful rewrite the past is, regrettably, not at all out of date. “I hesitate to say that Nineteen Eighty-Four is more relevant than ever,” British journalist Dorian Lynskey writes in his alarming exegesis of the novel’s significance and enduring impact, “but it’s a damn sight more relevant than it should be.” Indeed, the most powerful pages of “The Ministry of Truth” quote Orwell in the 1940s describing a state of public affairs all too familiar today.
A few weeks ago, I drove down a back road in West Virginia and into a parallel reality. Sometime after I passed Spruce Mountain, my phone lost service — and I knew it would remain comatose for the next few days. When I spun the dial on the car radio, static roared out of every channel. I had entered the National Radio Quiet Zone, 13,000 square miles of mountainous terrain with few cell towers or other transmitters.
I was headed toward Green Bank, a town that adheres to the strictest ban on technology in the United States. The residents do without not only cellphones but also Wi-Fi, microwave ovens and any other devices that generate electromagnetic signals.
The ban exists to protect the Green Bank Observatory, a cluster of radio telescopes in a mountain valley. Conventional telescopes are like superpowered eyes. The instruments at Green Bank are more like superhuman ears — they can tune into frequencies from the lowest to the highest ends of the spectrum. The telescopes are powerful enough to detect the death throes of a star, but also terribly vulnerable to our loud world. Even a short-circuiting electric toothbrush could blot out the whisper of the Big Bang.
This is going to sound like a dream I had, but it’s true: I once travelled 200 miles to taste a “doughnut burger”. Instead of just one patty of ground meat, there were two, with bacon and untold gunk in between. More to the point, instead of a bun, there was a doughnut. The story was that there were as many calories as you ought to eat in a day, in this single burger, so how would you feel at the end of one of those?
The answer is, I felt fine. But the journey of the burger bun mystified me. Every year since the mid-70s, it has got higher, fluffier, more golden – unless it is charcoal, in which case it has got more sinister. Every year it has looked more like a gourmet item in its own right. And this increasing perfection has gone hand in hand with sweetness, so that you end up with a bun that is basically not very bread-like, that you would hesitate to eat at home because you would be thrown into confusion about whether you were having breakfast or high tea.
The handsome investigator that Kate Atkinson introduced in 2004’s “Case Histories,” played by Jason Isaacs on the BBC series, hasn’t appeared in a new book since 2011. If you haven’t met him yet, this is a fine place to start.
The sociologist and law professor Mark Osiel would like to draw your attention to a peculiar, perhaps even paradoxical, aspect of our legal system: We often grant people rights that we hope they will not exercise, or that we trust they will exercise only sparingly, because the behavior that is authorized is at odds with our common morality. Osiel calls these “rights to do wrong.”
Consider the law of personal bankruptcy, which gives you a right to absolve your financial obligations. Exercising this right could help many Americans who are struggling to make ends meet, but relatively few take advantage of it, because declaring bankruptcy is widely thought to be shameful. Indeed, our bankruptcy system implicitly relies on this informal discouragement. If the social stigma were to disappear, Osiel notes, bankruptcy law might “quickly become unsustainable, economically and politically.” Instead, we have a system — part legal, part extralegal — that succeeds in doing what legislation alone could not easily be drafted to do: getting people to declare bankruptcy only when they feel they really need to.
David Eimer, a former South-East Asia correspondent for the Daily Telegraph, a British newspaper, tries to capture this quicksilver place in “A Savage Dreamland”. He is an intrepid reporter. He takes the reader down dirt-track roads, on the back of motorbikes or in a shaky bus on which his neighbour vomits up his curry; into rat-infested cinemas in Yangon; and around dilapidated colonial buildings and the bombastic military museums of Naypyidaw (the soulless capital built by the armed forces in 2005).
All publishing houses have archives, but for anyone interested in 20th-century literature the archive of Faber & Faber is a fabled treasure house. This is the firm that was, as Toby Faber puts it, “midwife at the birth of modernism”. In 1924 Faber’s grandfather, Geoffrey Faber, aspiring poet and fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, had been installed as chairman of the Scientific Press, recently inherited by another All Souls fellow, Maurice Gwyer. It published mostly books and journals for nurses. Geoffrey Faber renamed it and started making it into a literary publisher. Within his first year he had installed TS Eliot as a fellow director and acquired his backlist.
Webb’s book at times reads like a thriller in which the ending looks bleak. But she affords us a clear, jargon-free view of the power and potential of AI — and how we as citizens should seek to influence its development — before a coming superintelligence shapes human lives in ways we cannot yet imagine.
“Libraries are not musty, fusty museums that are just filled with books that nobody even wants to look at — they are exactly the opposite,” she said. “They’re vital, robust, thriving institutions that are very much part of the modern world.”
Libraries may have been threatened decades ago, Orlean said, when the internet came into widespread use and seemed to put the entire universe of information at people’s fingertips. But rather than rejecting technology, libraries embraced the internet and transformed themselves into digital hubs as well as physical spaces to gather, learn, work and connect.
Every morning for 20 years, Karl-Heinz Martens steered his yellow mail truck through the narrow streets of Eutin, a market town arranged around a little castle in northern Germany, near the Baltic Sea. On his route, Martens would drive through miles of farms and fields before disappearing into a deep, enchanted forest, where he unlocked a gate using a special key and reversed into his parking spot—as all mailmen do—facing outward to ensure a quick exit. As he crunched into the woods carrying his mailbag, his tidy beard and glasses were sometimes flecked with snowflakes or sleet, and every morning, just before the clock struck 12, he arrived beneath a towering oak.
“People used to memorize my route and wait for me to arrive because they couldn’t believe that a postman would deliver letters to a tree,” Martens told the press, who called the now-retired mailman the “messenger of love.” The Bräutigamseiche, or Bridegroom’s Oak, is the only tree in Europe with its own mailing address. Every day the 500-year-old tree receives dozens of lonely-hearts letters, and singletons arrive from near and far to reach into a small knothole in the trunk, hoping to find a match. The tree is believed to possess magical matchmaking powers.
I didn’t notice you at first, not even when I held the door open, but as you moved past me with a thank you, I glimpsed your cream macramé top, the one I almost kept when I cleared out your closet. Beautiful. It stood out against the dull T-shirt and jeans, the scuff of that stranger’s sneakers. You disappeared into the store. Passing the shelves of wine in front, I noticed the empty spots that always appear after a weekend. I was at the fountain drink machine, pressing my foam cup, when, suddenly, you were beside me, smiling, asking what kind of ice. Is it crushed? I moved my cup quickly and let the pieces fall, pointed to them. Ah, no, you said. Cubed. But ice is ice. I understood this, standing beside you.
The night of your funeral, I reasoned with every quick glass of chardonnay that as long as I didn’t sleep, I was still living in a day in which I had seen you. I kept only the corner lamp on and stared at the couch where you’d huddled for months under a red blanket, gripping that silver tumbler, crunching ice in your teeth. It was as if you were gnawing your way out of grief.
The high-profile death of the gorilla Harambe, who was shot dead in 2016 at the Cincinnati Zoo after a young boy fell into his enclosure, sparked a massive outcry—and conversation—about what is still one of the most hotly contested debates involving animal welfare. Just this past weekend, activists turned up at the Bronx Zoo to demand the release of Happy the elephant, chanting in unison that “Happy is not happy.” Indeed, the idea that keeping animals in captivity is morally acceptable has long been questioned by those who argue that zoos infringe upon animals’ freedom. In recent years, an increase in research on the ethics of captivity has helped to dispel the misconception that critics of zoos are simply anthropomorphizing the animals they say they’re trying to help.
But not everyone agrees. Robin Ganzert, CEO of American Humane, recently penned an essay in USA Today arguing that zoos “protect animals and restore endangered species, even as some activists seek to dismantle these arks of hope.” Is she right? Should animal advocates and conservationists be rallying around zoos?
Van Gogh referred to this work as a “repetition” of the London painting. But art historians and curators have long been curious to know how different this “repetition” is from the first. Should it be considered a copy, an independent artwork or something in between?
An extensive research project conducted over the past three years by conservation experts at both the National Gallery and the Van Gogh Museum has concluded that the second painting was “not intended as an exact copy of the original example,” said Ella Hendriks, a professor of conservation and restoration at the University of Amsterdam, who was the lead researcher on the project.
A few decades earlier, the telegraph marked a change in the speed of communication that dwarfs anything observed in our lifetimes. In our supposedly accelerationist epoch, smartphones and the major online monopolies have been around for more than a decade, and much trumpeted “innovation” has consisted of attempts to rebrand taxi or hotel businesses as technological breakthroughs. Yet books and articles constantly tell us that the world really is speeding up. What is the truth?
I had never created man before so I invented my son first as a dream body. In order to create the dream body I must first believe in the force of opposites, a terrible tension of what has existed and the struggle yet to come. And it is true, that I had a notion of him for many years; for generations my imagination traveled in search of him.
More than half of my life has been lived in translation. I moved to America when I was eighteen, and although my mother tongue is Spanish, I am so fluent in English that I talk like a native speaker. When you live between languages, the conversion of meaning is an arithmetic in loss. The transference of what I want to say pours from one container into an incompatible receptacle. Inevitably, something is lost. I am used to thinking of something in Spanish, for example, which then comes out strangely in English, or cannot be said in English at all, not in the same way. I am used to being understood sufficiently, rather than fully.
Why do you hate the waiting room?
Because of the way it looks? What’s it like? Do you remember? If pressed, could you rattle off, say, your five favorite waiting rooms with a list of their primary, secondary, tertiary, and quaternary features? Then, would it be possible for you to throw in the dates and times you visited them? You think there aren’t detectives who can check up on these things? You think they haven’t already checked up and we’re now interested in seeing if you decide to lie? But, seriously, does a waiting room ever stick with you? If you left this waiting room right now, walked around the block, and returned, would you be able to state with certainty that it was the same waiting room? If it were different, would you notice? If it were the same, is there a chance you might think it was different? Have you, in the end, either consciously or unconsciously, accepted the fact that there’s a template in your mind labeled Waiting Room, and that’s all you’ve got no matter how disparate the places might actually be? Does it bother you that somehow a number of your experiences have taken place in an unidentifiable void? Or, without thinking about it, do you just sit there, surrounded by who knows what, and, innocuous activities notwithstanding, do you just sit there and wait?
There are multiple histories about how the Chinese zodiac system came to be. The 12 Earthly Branches ordering system — which encompasses understandings of time and astrology — is prevalent in several Asian cultures, and is based on a 12-year cycle that just about lines up with the orbit of Jupiter. The most prevalent accompanying myth describes a race in which animals competed to be the first to reach the Jade Emperor; the Emperor would name one year for each animal in the order they completed the race. Variations of the myth unfurl different ways in which the animals ended up in their final order, with the narratives corresponding to the accompanying “personality traits” of each animal.
But no one seems to know where the zodiac placemat came from, or which illustrated version might be the first. The original artist’s name was either never on or was erased from the current versions of the designs. “I’m not sure who originally created these placemats,” says Kian Lam Kho, a food writer, cookbook author, and co-curator of “Chow: Making the Chinese American Restaurant,” an exhibit currently on display at the Museum of Food and Drink in New York City. “But the Chinese zodiac has been a common cultural symbol among non-Chinese in the U.S. for many years.”
I had only a vague idea of what to expect when I boarded the Celebrity Summit in April for a weeklong excursion to the Caribbean. Olivia, a groundbreaking women’s record label turned lesbian travel company, named for the hero of a Dorothy Bussy novel, has catered specifically to lesbian vacationers since its maiden voyage in 1990. When I reached out to Olivia, the company offered me a press ticket for one of their Celebrity-partnered cruises so that I could get a sense of how it’s become one of the most successful lesbian companies of all time. I generally expected to meet some nice older ladies with interesting life stories, to explore the tensions of intergenerational lesbian culture and the fraught future of lesbian spaces, to laze about on a beach in the Virgin Islands and get to say I was swimming and sunbathing “for work.”
What I didn’t expect was everything else that would happen to me — and is still happening to me — thanks to this one little week in my otherwise pleasantly uneventful life.
My entire wardrobe was Canal
Street original, knockoff chic,
adolescent sleek in my double XL
Empathy, we argue, is the force behind our capacity to understand works of art. Think of what happens when you are confronted with an artwork. We maintain that, to understand the piece, you use your own conscious experience to ask what could possibly motivate you to make such an artwork yourself – and then you use that first-person perspective to try to come to a plausible explanation that allows you to relate to the artwork. Your interpretation of the work will be personal and could differ significantly from the artist’s own reasons, but if we share sufficient experiences and cultural references, it might be a plausible one, even for the artist. This is why we can relate so differently to a work of art after learning that it is a forgery or imitation: the artist’s intent to deceive or imitate is very different from the attempt to express something original. Gathering contextual information before jumping to conclusions about other people’s actions – in art, as in life – can enable us to relate better to their intentions.
But the artist and you share something far more important than cultural references: you share a similar kind of body and, with it, a similar kind of embodied perspective. Our subjective human experience stems, among many other things, from being born and slowly educated within a society of fellow humans, from fighting the inevitability of our own death, from cherishing memories, from the lonely curiosity of our own mind, from the omnipresence of the needs and quirks of our biological body, and from the way it dictates the space- and time-scales we can grasp. All conscious machines will have embodied experiences of their own, but in bodies that will be entirely alien to us.
There are few books for those of us on the other side of fertility. There’s a whole literary genre, the coming-of-age novel, that details with wonder and reverence the moment in which girls become sexual, and yet both male and female writers have been reluctant to take on menopausal characters. As I entered my own transition, I began reading the whole tiny canon of menopause literature. In Edith Wharton’s book Twilight Sleep, fifty-year-old Pauline Manford is so obsessed with staying thin and avoiding wrinkles that even her daughter compares her to a “deserted house.” Menopausal Rosalie Van Tümmler in Thomas Mann’s The Black Swan thinks her period has come back because of her infatuation with a younger man. On the night of their rendezvous, Rosalie begins to hemorrhage from her vagina, eventually slipping into a coma on a bed soaked with her own blood. The original German title of Black Swan was Die Betrogene, “the betrayed.”
Pathetic. Depressed. Doomed. These examples may seem extreme, but I could not find a single story that did not equate menopause with disease and death. I’m all for darkness, but these stories made me feel hopeless. I’d just about given up trying to find a book that would honor both the physical struggles and the spiritual complexity of the change when I came across Break of Day, by the French writer Colette.
Paul Celan starts a late poem with the entreaty: “NO MORE SAND ART, no sand book, no masters.” That line seems to renounce his first book, “The Sand From the Urns,” and to argue for silence in the face of what is most difficult to bear. (Celan, a Jewish survivor of World War II, felt the concern personally.) It also gives Ariana Reines the title and epigraph for her new collection, “A Sand Book,” which remains in dialogue with Celan even as it updates his themes for the internet age.
Because the night I gave birth my husband went blind.
Hysterical, I guess you’d call it.
One afternoon a little over a year ago, I got a brief and mysterious e-mail from a man named Jackson Taylor. It was sent from a personal Gmail account. “I am heading up a new literary fellowship here in New York,” he wrote. “You have been secretly nominated for a spot in the inaugural group—and I was wondering if I might have a moment of your time to speak by phone? The fellowship begins in April but won’t be publicly announced until June.” Before I had a chance to respond, my cell phone rang: it was Jackson. He said he was travelling and sounded out of breath, but I heard something about a “congress of writers” that would teach skills and speak truth to power. If I showed up for twice-weekly sessions for two semesters, I would receive ten thousand dollars. The program’s benefactor, Jackson told me, was the family foundation of Leonard Riggio, the executive chairman of Barnes & Noble. They had “deep pockets,” he said.
To reduce Once More We Saw Stars to a “grief memoir” is to do it a categorical injustice. The book transcends the despair of mourning, ushering into its pages familial unity, bona fide romance, ontological disillusionment, existential triumph, dilating dexterously between experiences specific and universal. With propulsive sentences Greene sails what could have proven an unnavigable story forward, laying to, masterfully, to relish in the sublime. “Grief at its peak has a terrible beauty to it, a blinding fission of every emotion,” he writes. “The world is charged with significance, with meaning, and the world around you, normally so solid and implacable, suddenly looks thin, translucent. I feel like I’ve discovered an opening.” With generosity and journalistic command, Greene shares this opening he has discovered with all of us.
So when I hear the term “soap opera,” the first thing that comes to mind isn’t evil twins or sudden amnesia but rather the effort that it takes to create four new narratives each week, something like 260 hours of television a year, and to do it a way that keeps an audience invested for decades, for an actual lifetime. This is not something that can be done with narrative trickery. Story is needed. And for story you need plot.
At a Television Critics Association panel earlier this year, no less a luminary than Meryl Streep referred to HBO’s “Big Little Lies,” unironically, as “a piece.” As in: a piece of art, not a piece of . . . you know.
Who would have ever dreamed that television would one day be spoken of with such unadulterated reverence by Meryl freaking Streep?
This is a world that Emily Nussbaum willed — and, to some extent, wrote — into being. From her graduate school days vouching for the underrated excellence of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” to sweater-vest-wearing culture snobs; to New York magazine, where she immortalized her appreciation for the full range of high-to-lowbrow pop culture by creating the Approval Matrix; to the New Yorker where, in 2016, her vibrant, incisive analyses of an ascendant medium won her a Pulitzer Prize for Criticism.
The important answers probably don’t lie in the ocean but on land, in Malaysia. That should be the focus moving forward. Unless they are as incompetent as the air force and air traffic control, the Malaysian police know more than they have dared to say. The riddle may not be deep. That is the frustration here. The answers may well lie close at hand, but they are more difficult to retrieve than any black box. If Blaine Gibson wants a real adventure, he might spend a year poking around Kuala Lumpur.
Much of consequence happened in 1969, which means that this year is chockablock with golden anniversaries: the moon landing, Stonewall, the Manson murders. But do not neglect the fact that 2019 also marks a half century of Jazzercise.
The leaders of Jazzercise, Inc., know what you’re thinking. “When you hear Jazzercise you think legwarmers and leotards, right? Or a workout for your Mom but not for you?” the company’s Web site says. “It’s true that we were the original dance party workout. But today the leotards—and the 80’s—are long gone and our classes are way too hot for legwarmers.” Countless workout fads have come along since the heyday of Jazzercise: Tae Bo, Pilates, Zumba, boxing, spinning, pole dancing. And yet Jazzercise persists: today, according to the company, there are more than seven thousand franchises, serving roughly two hundred and fifty thousand customers in twenty-five countries and grossing somewhere between ninety-five million and a hundred million dollars per year. It’s big in Japan.
When the American photographer Vivian Maier died at the age of 83 in 2009, impoverished and alone, no one knew who she was. The 150,000 pictures she had taken on her beloved Rolleiflex during her lifetime – street portraits, mostly – had never been published; many of her negatives had never even been printed. But all that changed in 2009, when a collector who had acquired a portion of her archive put the images online. Ever since, she has been both a popular enigma and a celebrated artist, her photographs widely exhibited and increasingly expensive to buy. In 2013, she was the subject of an Oscar-nominated documentary, Finding Vivian Maier, and now we find the bare bones of her life at the heart of a playful, tricksy and sometimes exasperating novel by the Danish writer Christina Hesselholdt.
Neal Stephenson’s new novel, as his veteran fans will soon discern, is a sequel to his earlier book, “Reamde,” though it’s not touted as such in the marketing material. The reason for this omission might be that, despite featuring the same cast, “Fall” is as different from “Reamde” in tone and purpose as possible. Leave it to this master trickster to have us board a cruise ship we expect to voyage to Club Med, but which instead delivers us to the Twilight Zone.
Spend some time thinking about human nature and you’ll inevitably end up grappling with contradictory evidence for what makes us tick. On the one hand, human history is replete with examples of cooperation, problem-solving, and altruism. On the other, humans have been responsible for genocides, slavery and family separation, and indifference or inaction in the face of suffering. Thinkers from Aristotle to Thomas Hobbes, Philippa Foot, and John Gray have attempted to grapple with our essential nature as a species, asking whether we are capable of improvement. In the mid-20th century, the human sciences entered the discussion. As historian Erika Lorraine Milam details in Creatures of Cain: The Hunt for Human Nature in Cold War America, influential researchers believed they could trace humanity’s goodness — or awfulness — to our evolutionary past, our environment, or our genes.
When I tell people I wrote a book with my dad, they usually look at me with a mixture of curiosity and pity. Some confess they could never imagine doing that. Others ask how it went, in the same hushed tone you use at funerals. But one writing student of mine, who is several decades older and seemingly far wiser than I am, responded differently.
“It must be nice to think of the legacy you created with someone who means so much to you,” she said.
This was a beautiful sentiment, but it was not the way I, or my dad, ever thought about the collaboration.
A man walked down the street in Miami Beach the other day. He appeared preoccupied, a bit hurried, as you might be too if you were about to take a risk that no man ever had.
He had a bronze shaved head, a set of wide and sloping shoulders and a vault for a chest, but it was his left leg that left a question in his wake. Emblazoned on his calf was a rainbow-colored tattoo of a topless mermaid inside a hammerhead shark.
There was a story behind it, of course. It was almost—oh, if only it were—a myth. It was full of mystery and death, magical twists and turns, but whenever it twisted and turned too much, one had only to remember the simple question that began it: What's the half-naked woman doing inside the hammerhead shark?
There is no way to know for certain whether my mother’s death was the good death she wanted. But her willingness to think it through left us with less guesswork than most — and provided a good map for me as I tried to figure it out.
I am not sure I could ask for anything more.
The Irish writer Joseph O’Connor is still best known for his 2002 novel, Star of the Sea, but in 2016 he wrote a radio play, Vampyre Man, about the real-life relationship between Bram Stoker and the two greatest stars of Victorian theatre, Henry Irving and Ellen Terry. It is easy to imagine these three magnificent characters refusing to be abandoned on the airwaves, and O’Connor has given them an appropriately grand stage in the breathtaking Shadowplay.
One of the best ways to get know a country is by talking to its people.
NPR correspondent Frank Langfitt, who has covered China and other countries over a span of nearly two decades, proves this in latest book, The Shanghai Free Taxi: Journeys with the Hustlers and Rebels of the New China. The book is a master class on how to chronicle a changing country through the personal narratives of its citizens.
Family secrets are as old as families. The reasons for keeping them haven’t changed much. To cover up a lie. To protect someone. To avoid social stigma. While revealing secrets can cause harm, so too does deceit.
This is part of what makes Arthur Caplan, a professor of bioethics at New York University, extremely uncomfortable about how direct-to-consumer genetic testing companies market themselves. “They treat finding out information about your DNA or genetics or heredity as kind of a lark, or a sort of fun, light activity,” he said.
It’s not in these companies’ interests to talk us out of giving them money, and there are no laws telling them they have to warn customers that a test might damage their families or unsettle their sense of identity. Caplan advises against using online DNA services, but urges people to really think hard about it if they’re going to do it anyway. As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention puts it: Think before you spit.
So, what exactly is this magic panacea? In 2014, Time magazine put a youthful blonde woman on its cover, blissing out above the words: “The Mindful Revolution.” The accompanying feature described a signature scene from the standardised course teaching MBSR: eating a raisin very slowly. “The ability to focus for a few minutes on a single raisin isn’t silly if the skills it requires are the keys to surviving and succeeding in the 21st century,” the author explained.
But anything that offers success in our unjust society without trying to change it is not revolutionary – it just helps people cope. In fact, it could also be making things worse. Instead of encouraging radical action, mindfulness says the causes of suffering are disproportionately inside us, not in the political and economic frameworks that shape how we live. And yet mindfulness zealots believe that paying closer attention to the present moment without passing judgment has the revolutionary power to transform the whole world. It’s magical thinking on steroids.
Erik Martiny, author of this hilarious and vividly written first novel was, like his narrator, born in Cork, Ireland and grew up speaking French at home. This dual heritage inscribes itself on every page of this Bildungsroman. It may be that Martiny’s bilingualism in both language and culture allows him a more than ordinary awareness of the potential playfulness and variety of English as spoken in Ireland. He may also just be inordinately gifted. In any case, the novel abounds in verbal play with choice renderings of the speech patterns and pronunciations of Corkonian school kids, interspersed with diction that ranges high and astonishingly low. Martiny plays all 88 keys of his piano with gusto.
This is a delightfully quirky, heart-warming celebration of the “messy, smudgy, imperfect beauty” of a past analogue era of ink, paper and mechanical keys. As a succinct note puts it: “i love it when you talk typewriter to me”.
And yet there’s no cultural consensus on whether summer reading is “a thing.” “The term is so ubiquitous that its definitions are a point of contention,” Michelle Dean wrote in the Guardian, in 2016. Authors do not necessarily love the category. For every writer who embraces the term, Allison Duncan wrote, in Vulture, “there’s another who is wary of a genre considered superficial, often in highly gendered terms.” Taffy Brodesser-Akner, the author of the novel “Fleishman Is in Trouble,” recently expressed puzzlement on Twitter that her book was being described as a “beach read.” “I am confused as to why our taste for what we like would change in the location we read it, or the season,” she wrote.
“Books for Idle Hours,” a new history by the academic Donna Harrington-Lueker, unpacks both the constructedness of “summer reading” and its gravitational pull.
I first read “Slaughterhouse-Five” in 1972, three years after it was published and three years before I published my own first novel. I was twenty-five years old. 1972 was the year of inching slowly toward the Paris Peace Accords, which were supposed to end the war in Vietnam, though the final, ignominious American withdrawal—the helicopters airlifting people from the roof of the American Embassy in Saigon—would not take place until three years later, at which point, by way of a small footnote to history, I had become a published writer.
I mention Vietnam because, although “Slaughterhouse-Five” is a book about the Second World War, Vietnam is also a presence in its pages, and people’s feelings about Vietnam have a good deal to do with the novel’s huge success. Eight years earlier, in 1961, Joseph Heller had published “Catch-22” and President John F. Kennedy began the escalation of the United States’ involvement in the conflict in Vietnam. “Catch-22,” like “Slaughterhouse-Five,” was a novel about the Second World War that caught the imagination of readers who were thinking a lot about another war. In those days, I was living in Britain, which did not send soldiers to fight in Indochina but whose government did support the American war effort, and so, when I was at university, and afterward, I, too, was involved with thinking about and protesting against that war. I did not read “Catch-22” in 1961, because I was only fourteen years old. As a matter of fact, I read both “Slaughterhouse-Five” and “Catch-22” in the same year, a decade later, and the two books together had a great effect on my young mind.
But by the time my baby was four months old, my fear had been realized: I hadn’t written in nearly half a year. I cried at the kitchen table, exhausted from her bad sleep and unpredictable naps and the guilt of feeling as though something was missing.
Then, one day, she napped. And then she napped again. Over time, it became two naps a day, at least an hour each. During those finite windows, I chose writing over my own rest, over cleaning, over exercising, sometimes over dressing or eating. It felt like a delicious secret.
Every day, at 5pm, the gentle melody of the children’s song Yuyake Koyake chimes across the Minato area of Tokyo from a loudspeaker – one of hundreds dotted across schools and parks throughout this megacity of 37 million people.
The daily jingle does more than signify the arrival of evening. It is a test for the system that is designed to save Tokyoites from what would be one of the worst natural disasters in recorded human history: an earthquake striking the centre of the most populous city on Earth.
To lug the weather station to top of the world had required parceling its pieces out among the members of their team. And among the coils of guy-wire, aluminum poles, and various scientific instruments, there was supposed to be two short sections of metal tubing that connect the wind sensors to the main structure. The men searched and re-searched the packs, but it was nowhere to be found. They stared at each other, both simultaneously turning over this fact in their oxygen-deprived brains and seeking a solution.
The reason any of this was worth the effort, risk, and cost is because only Mount Everest and a few of its Himalayan cousins are tall enough to reliably pierce the Central Asian jet stream—one of the narrow bands of powerful winds that circle the globe at high-altitudes, influencing everything from storm tracks to agriculture growing seasons. For climate scientists, there are few more pressing phenomena to understand than the jet stream, and the weather station would provide scientists an important new tool with which to gather data about it.
Friedrich Nietzsche announced the “death of God” and thereby entrenched the end of belief in the supernatural in our science-centered modernity. Yet he ironically described the ancestry and lineage of scientists as distinctly occult and supernatural. “Do you believe,” he asks in The Gay Science, “that the sciences would have arisen and grown up if the sorcerers, alchemists, astrologers and witches had not been their forerunners?” Peter Bebergal’s Strange Frequencies: The Extraordinary Story of the Technological Quest for the Supernatural continues Nietzsche’s philosophical questioning. He provides a series of vignettes featuring contemporary technologists of various disciplines whose motivations, subjects, and data derive from anomalous phenomena. Bebergal paints a marvelous portrait of the links between what the Enlightenment mentality framed as two very incompatible epistemologies: technology and the supernatural. As he argues, the pursuit of the supernatural appears to be inextricably linked to innovative and extraordinary technologies, and the question that motivates his research is: “Why has technology not pulled us completely away from the magical?” His answers drive this enchanting and provocative book.
Can liberalism be rescued from this lexical and political morass? Should it be? Adam Gopnik has no doubts on that score. In A Thousand Small Sanities, he sets out to offer both a definition of liberalism and a heartfelt defense of it. Gopnik does so in what has by now become his trademark style, honed over 30 years as a staff writer for The New Yorker: engaging, conversational prose; a wry sense of humor; a seasoned eye for the telling anecdote; and a great deal of learning, lightly worn. The book is nothing if not enjoyable to read, and it amply reflects the author’s exquisitely good intentions. Despite the pleasures of the prose, A Thousand Small Sanities is a perfect illustration of the cul-de-sac in which mainstream American liberalism now finds itself. The book is worth reading, above all, because it exemplifies a seductive, well-meaning, but oddly apolitical outlook and language that still may have the power to tempt Democrats away from the progressive policies they need to embrace in 2020.
Crampton mixes history with memoir, giving snapshots of her own love affair with the Thames alongside snippets of literary, political, ecological and social history relating to the river. Though the estuary is her ultimate focus, she starts her journey in Gloucestershire, at the source of the Thames, and gives a mini-tour down the river, heading through Oxford before reaching London and then beyond to Tilbury and Cliffe, Sheppey and Hoo, the Nore and the open sea.
Recently, reading that same great text soon after my mother died, I found myself reversing the myth in my head: I, the daughter, was the enraged and grief-stricken one. It seemed wrong for spring to have come while my mother remained in Hades. This and many other matters Greek I can imagine discussing with Norris, on some small Greek ferry, nursing an ouzo, as yet another island emerges from the haze.
“Taken from the wild to assist human labor, these highly intelligent Asian elephants experience great disruption to their individual lives. Shell views their plight with sympathy but, in the end, subscribes to the view that future conservation of the Asian elephant may well depend on just such an arrangement. He tacks back and forth between worrying over a human-elephant relationship that "can sometimes be harsh or even abusive" and admiring a system that gives the elephants "substantial periods of time in the forest every day to roam and mate with a considerable degree of freedom."
This might have been the end were it not for one fatal yet obvious flaw. It takes him as long as two years to hit upon the uncomfortable realisation that his research contains a mistake. The SUSHI gene he thinks he has found just happens to occur in higher frequencies in Asian populations. So it wasn’t the gene that made people better at using chopsticks; it was that people who used chopsticks for cultural reasons tended to share this one gene a little more often. He has fallen headlong into the trap of assuming that a link between the use of chopsticks and the gene is causal, when in fact it isn’t. The spell is lifted and the magic is gone.
Like all good fairy tales, there was a moral to this story.
Although not everyone could see it.
My parents’ social life in Bosnia (and therefore their children’s) regularly featured a bunch of their friends getting together for a lot of food and drinking and singing and laughing. Nobody would ever call that endeavour “dinner” – the activity revolved around food, but could never be reduced to it. In Bosnian, the verb that describes such an activity is sjediti, which means to sit, as the whole operation consists of sitting around the table, eating, drinking and being together for the purposes of well-earned pleasure. If I want to invoke an image of my parents being unconditionally happy (not an easy task), I envision them with their friends at a table, roaring with laughter between bites of delicious fare and sips of slivovitz (damson or plum brandy) or grappa.
This would sometimes last for a whole weekend: sometimes we would go to Boračko jezero, a modest mountain-lake resort, to join my parents’ friends and their families for 1 May, the socialist Labour Day. The inextricable part of the fun and joy there was the presence of others, and the spirit of abandon reigned from morn to midnight and beyond. But the central, inescapable bonding ritual was spit-roasting a lamb that would then be shared by all. There, as everywhere we lived, food was meant to be shared, which is why it is never permissible to eat while someone else is watching and not eating. Food is other people. We hate eating alone, just as we hate being alone.
Last Sunday morning, during parental small talk at a kids’ birthday party in Brooklyn, one dad told me he had just “cobbled together” summer camps for his child, to which I replied that camps in the area are very “cobble-able.” Sensing a prime opportunity, his eyebrows rose. “Cobble Hill,” he said, referencing a nearby neighborhood.
Then we paused, heads shaking with a smidgen of shame. We knew what had just happened. Dad jokes had been committed.
What is it about procreating that turns men into miserable comics? In honor of Father’s Day, I’d like to float a theory while also making the case for the virtue of our much-mocked brand of humor.
But Recursion doesn't just ask you to consider the power, it wants you to see the consequences. All of them. It wants you to see the damage that travels in the wake of such choices. The bodies. The nightmares.
And then it asks again: Still, knowing what you know now ... would you?
It’s okay. I, too, have failed
at the expected, have sputtered
and choked like a rusty valve
The typical response among Clevelanders of the era was to shrug. Leading up to the 1969 fire, there was utilitarian attitude toward the Cuyahoga. It was a natural resource to be exploited and managed for commercial purposes, like timber or coal or oil.
The mentality can be traced to the city’s founding. Moses Cleaveland, who stepped off his bateau after a Lake Erie voyage and plopped his boots on the Cuyahoga’s banks more than 200 years ago, would have recognized the moneymaking potential of the river. It was inhospitable then — two men in Cleaveland’s party, searching for food, found only a snake, which they boiled and ate — but its location between the mercantile East and the raw goods of the pioneer West made it ripe for development. “The junction of these two, the river and lake, had to be the site of a city,” Plain Dealer columnist George Condon wrote in 1967.
Beef noodle soup is widely considered the national dish of modern Taiwan, assembled from the island’s tumultuous history, celebrated with an annual festival in Taipei and fought over in a cooking competition with multiple winning categories. But it is only one of countless dishes that make Taiwan’s cooking remarkable and rewarding.
Much of its cuisine can be traced to somewhere else, but — like the United States — Taiwan has experienced so many transformations of demography and sovereignty, technology and taste, that the food now has its own identity.
“We call them Bunnies because that is what they call each other,” explains Samantha Heather Mackey, the narrator of Mona Awad’s new novel, “Bunny.” “Seriously. Bunny. … Bunny, I love you. I love you, Bunny.”
Awad does so many things right in “Bunny,” her follow-up to her 2016 debut novel, “13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl.” “Bunny” functions perfectly as both a dark academic satire and a creepy horror novel, and Awad threads them both seamlessly — she can make the reader laugh out loud in one paragraph, and cringe with fear in the next.
That deft orchestration of absurdity and existential dread distinguishes Ciment's style. That's why the situation of Ciment's latest novel, The Body in Question, is so perfectly suited to her powers as a novelist. She's writing here about jurors — bored, drowsy and horny jurors — sequestered together as they serve on a gruesome high profile murder case in Central Florida. The droll and the horrifying mingle in the flat air of the courtroom and the limbo of the juror's lounge.
Please don’t let the obscure source material of “The Porpoise” scare you away. I promise its intimidating tangle of backstories will yield to your interest, and its structural complications will cohere in your imagination. The result is a novel just as thrilling as it is thoughtful.
Writing a woman character who enjoys a life of pleasure “without ruination,” says Gilbert, is what first drew her to Vivian’s story. “I wanted to talk about how you can survive your own consequences, because I think there’s a generalization in classical literature that women’s consequences cannot be survived,” Gilbert says.
We joke briefly about being thrown under the wheels of a train à la Anna Karenina, or shunted off to a convent for bad behavior. “I think there’s a story that runs in our own lives, which is like, it’s OK to have a certain season of your life when you’re young and and where you’re sexual,” she says, “but then you had really better settle down into a heteronormative, monogamous relationship.”
“I didn’t want that to be the ending of the story, either, because I think that most of the sexual lives of most of the women I know are just more complicated than that,” she adds.
In her popular novel, Convenience Store Woman, Japanese author Sayaka Murata tells the story of Keiko Furukura, a worker at an unnamed convenience store who is struggling to find a place in a traditional society due to her status as an unmarried 36-year-old with a blue-collar job.
However, the true star of the unorthodox character’s story is her workplace, described as a tiny ecosystem, aimed not only at providing consumers nourishment, but also infusing their lives with new sources of joy.
Big Sky is laced with Atkinson’s sharp, dry humour, and one of the joys of the Brodie novels has always been that they are so funny, even when the themes are as dark as child abuse and sex trafficking.
Time is running out with respect to many of these environmental threats, and as we in the late-twentieth century witness the frightening portents of the beginning of the end of industrial civilization, we are still groping for the answers to many difficult questions about what life after industrialism will be like and how we will adapt to it. As an art critic in the 1990s, I am no longer interested in writing art reviews, or catalogue essays. Rather, I am concerned with understanding our cultural myths and how they evolved; how artists are now addressing the changes that must be implemented in our consciousness and our society.
Happily, Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World suggests a cure of sorts to our postmodern predicament. Newport approaches his topic with an unapologetically aggressive and practical method that is sure to strike many as drastic. This is exactly what drew me in about this book: it pulls no punches, insisting on radical behavioral changes if we are to have any chance of re-establishing an intentional approach to our digital lives. “In my experience,” writes Newport, “gradually changing your habits one at a time doesn’t work well — the engineered attraction of the attention economy, combined with the friction of convenience, will diminish your inertia until you backslide toward where you started.” A 30-day “digital declutter,” where we impose severe restrictions on the technology we use, is ground zero for the battle. The first part of the book sets up the problem and walks us through this detox process; the second half suggests what we should do with our new minimalist selves.
Several years ago, I found myself among those assembled to hear Gary Snyder weave questions of nature, the natural world, the wilderness, and the wild with poetry. Of all things Snyder said that evening, one of the most memorable was, in fact, the simplest. As he mulled over the idea of “wild” and the word’s various meanings in our wonderfully versatile English language, he also offered the Chinese definition of the term—in his translation, “self-maintaining.” A wild plant or animal, in other words, knows how to take care of itself.
This appears to be an excellent way to think about the concept of “wild,” until you realize that the longer you look at the definition, the more it begins to shift under the gaze. Is this sense of self-maintenance not also a mark of the way the individual exists within the contexts of various social systems? The “wild” creature also exists within the ecological systems of which it is a part. So how are these two ideas to be reconciled?
During Ramadan, many people sleep through the daytime—the hours in which they are required to fast—and wake up a few hours before sundown, when they are free to break their fast. They’ll stay up all night, stuffing themselves with as much food as possible before the sun rises. Then it’s off to bed, repeating that cycle for a month.
People can’t spend all night eating, though, and that leaves them with plenty of time to kill during the hours they normally spend slumbering. Lots of people sit around in roadside cafes and drink tea, or eat sweets at night markets. Groups of boys and young men play cricket, shouting through the night at every big play.
Others choose to go climbing.
Reviewers, novelists, and Russell herself have credited the strange frequencies passing through her stories to the writer’s supposedly weird home state. There certainly is some truth to that, though only as much as there is to the idea that Stephen King’s novels are terrifying because Maine is kooky, or that Flannery O’Connor’s fiction is so disturbing because she grew up in Georgia. What’s most unusual about Russell’s work is how paradoxically comforting it is, particularly right now, when it takes no great leap of the imagination to picture a world, orange or otherwise, without our species. This is not misanthropy or defeatism. Russell is scared, too, but her new book stands as a reminder that worrying about the future and grieving it are not the same thing.
How far would you go to get away from a narcissistic mother?
If you're 20-year-old Betty Braithwaite, you'd rather face the London Blitz than go back home. But then Betty's mother heads straight for the bombs to fetch her back.
In the last few months, these two venerable food journalists — Levine, the cult figure; Reichl, the titan — have released books that lay out the vastly different paths they followed in the years after they shared that rollicking, invigorating trip in Brooklyn.
“Save Me the Plums” — an allusion to William Carlos Williams’s sweet stanzas — depicts Reichl’s own wild ride as editor of Gourmet magazine, back when its parent company, Condé Nast, still had clout, glamour and enough bank to hire Frank Gehry to design its cafeteria. “Serious Eater: A Food Lover’s Perilous Quest for Pizza and Redemption” tells Levine’s story of launching Serious Eats with a $500,000 investment from his brother.
Few things bother Nell Freudenberger more than the way girls and women are still so often held back from studying science. For her new novel, Lost and Wanted, which follows Helen, an eminent theoretical physicist and single mother, as she mourns the death of her closest friend, Freudenberger set out to teach herself as much physics as she could. Growing up in New York City, she was, like so many other young women, encouraged to believe she didn’t “have the right kind of brain for it”. After doing badly in a maths test in her teens, she was told by a teacher that she might as well quit, and by the time she reached Harvard, hoping to study medicine, she was so far behind that “I couldn’t even take a remedial math class”.
Abandoning the idea of medical school, she travelled in Asia after college, teaching English for a year in Thailand, and then found early success as a writer, publishing her first story in the New Yorker in her mid-20s after being discovered during an internship there. She hopes her own two children will keep going with maths, “especially my daughter”, but fears they won’t. “It breaks my heart,” she says of the new book, “to see people on social media, especially women, saying: ‘I’d like to read this book but I’m a little intimidated, it sounds like it might be hard.’ Please give it a chance. It doesn’t have to be my book; you can read any of the books in the acknowledgments, just read one and prove to yourself that you can understand it. Someone has told you you can’t.”
The central irony of my life remains that my stutter, which at times caused so much suffering, is also responsible for my obsession with language. Without it I would not have been driven to write, to create rhythmic sentences easier to speak and to read. A fascination with words thrust me into a vocation that has kept me aflame with a desire to communicate. As a little girl, I hoped my stutter would let me into the secret world of animals. As an adult, given a kind listener, I am privy to something just as elusive: a direct pathway to the human heart.
When I try to recall what mourning feels like — the immediate aftermath of a death, I mean, the days and weeks, and months that follow — I can only grasp the edges of memories. Grief can be a kind of deadening, a latching onto the past in order to fill in the gaps left by the person who has died or exited our lives. Yet life goes on, no matter how absent from it a mourner may feel. It's in this precarious emotional space that Kristen Arnett's debut novel, Mostly Dead Things, is set. But lest you cringe at what sounds like a difficult read, this isn't a depressing book: it's darkly funny, both macabre and irreverent, and its narrator is so real that every time I stopped reading the book, I felt a tiny pull at the back of my mind, as if I'd left a good friend in the middle of a conversation.
It would be easy to dismiss City of Girls as joyous escapism, and God knows there’s little enough of that around right now. But look more closely and what you’ll see is an eloquently persuasive treatise on the judgment and punishment of women, and a heartfelt call to reclaim female sexual agency. “At some point in a woman’s life, she just gets tired of being ashamed all the time,” says Vivian as she looks back on her life. “After that, she is free to become whoever she truly is.” Let’s hope Gilbert is right.
Richard J Williams begins his study in what was once one of the greatest trading cities on earth: Venice. He feels that, as someone who knows art history, he should relish the experience of walking around its architectural splendours. Instead he admits: “I hate Venice” – a city that clings to the image of gentle decay and aestheticised ruination that first attracted 18th-century tourists. Prevented from modernising by its heritage status, it is today defined by the circulation of tourists: “The true spectacle of the contemporary Venice is the tourist industry itself.”
In this slim and insightful book, Williams explores cities as the function of financial, social and political processes rather than as the result of “design and intention”. His focus is on the cities that aim to attract capital from across the world with glitzy shopping malls, bars, restaurants and galleries that feel disconcertingly similar from Beijing to New York.
When was the future invented? It’s been with us so long now that we might believe that we’ve always tried to imagine what was coming, how society would change and how people would live in new ways in times to come. But we haven’t. Homeric heroes looked to the past, not the future, to understand their lives; biblical figures too looked back to their fathers and their fathers’ fathers to work out the right way to live. Religious prophecy was, for most of human history, as close as we got to trying to imagine the future—and those prophecies had to be kept usefully misty, so that the prophet could never quite be proved completely wrong. For much of human history, if people imagined the future at all, they imagined it to be essentially continuous with the past and the present.
Like all historical theories, this is debatable, but the future as we understand it probably began roughly at the same time as the Enlightenment, the “long 18th century”—from around 1685 to 1815, a time of rapid scientific discovery and political change. The French Revolution and then the American War of Independence carried with them a promise of a new “humanism”—a belief that the old orders could be swept away by will, determination, and the willingness to fight for a better future. It’s then that the idea of progress was invented: things wouldn’t just carry on being as they always had been, and neither would they inevitably fall off from a past mythical Golden Age. The Enlightenment gave humanity the idea that we might make things better, that perhaps there was some inevitability to this, that we would discover more, find better ways to live, treat one another with greater kindness, and eventually build a kind of heaven without the need of gods to hold it up.
This is the curious thing about reading goals—they are essentially homework that people make for themselves. Like homework, reading challenges can feel like pointless busywork for those who aren’t feeling intrinsically motivated to read. Or they can bring a sense of learning and accomplishment.
It’s not always a numbers game, either. Browsing the forum for this year’s Goodreads reading challenge, I found that a lot of users, in addition to pledging to read a certain number of books this year, had other goals as well, seemingly intended for self-improvement or to broaden their horizons. Some wanted to read more books by authors of color, or more classics. One woman wanted to read 100 biographies and/or memoirs before she turned 40.
In an era when the happy ending may seem elusive, naive or, at the very least, ill-suited to the realm of serious literature, it is natural to long for a conclusion that, if not exactly happily-ever-after, is happier than expected. To that end, perhaps the most memorable feature of Breanne McIvor’s debut collection of short stories Where There Are Monsters is that, even if a shadowy quality simmers throughout, so many of her stories feature characters who are intrinsically kind and good, or capable of rising above the difficulties or legacies bequeathed them. Those who cannot are most often quite literally, well, monsters — beings possessed by a darkness deeply rooted in the folklore of Trinidad — and even then, the desire to override the evil impulses buried inside flickers with a desperate, if inadequate, humanity.
Day’s previous book, Cyclogeography, about his former life as a London cycle courier, was a richly rewarding account of a two-wheeled subculture, with its special way of reading the city as “a moving, zoetropic flicker of life”. In Homing, too, Day draws us into the esoterica of an unfamiliar world – one fixated on bird lineage, wind direction and the armchair cartography evoked by the names of liberation points such as Thurso, Berwick and Barcelona – and makes it inviting to non-initiates. Pigeon racing emerges as genially competitive and pleasingly arcane. The peer approval of master flyers, with nicknames such as “Woodo” and “Big Johnny Pigeon”, is much prized.
As the years pass I find myself wondering more and more if what I remember about my childhood are the events themselves or merely a memory of those events. There is a half-awake feel about these memories, a sense of being twice-removed, as if somewhere along the way the direct chain of cause and effect had broken, replaced by a more vaporous connection. Still, I am aware of something deeper that is just beyond my grasp. Events don’t seem only distant in time, they seem more like scenes from a movie that keep flashing through my mind that I struggle to place because I’m no longer sure I’ve even seen the film. Yet I am aware of myself as a player in those scenes. The more I try to wring meaning from these memories the more I realize that the way to do it is to unveil the universals that lie beneath them. Only then will they reveal themselves as more than a collection of unrelated episodes grown hoary with time.
Here's something to think about as you sip your latté (or your piña colada) while listening to Beyoncé (or Mötley Crüe): Just how important to the English language are accented characters? And will they withstand the test of time?
I usually skip past “Starry Night” when I’m at MoMA: too crowded, too familiar. But even art critics need the odd refresher course — so as an adieu to MoMA’s Taniguchi era, I committed to spending half an hour with the museum’s most popular painting. I went at the worst possible time: late Friday afternoon, when the museum offers free admission. It was mobbed.
Many city dwellers have all but given up on seeing a night sky glittering with countless cosmic specks. We settle for a sprinkle here and there, if we’re lucky, or the moon. Even outside dense urban centers, light pollution has become inescapable for most people on Earth, and things aren’t getting any dimmer. Some light-loving crusaders have proposed adding more artificial light—even an artificial moon—to the night sky, raising an uncomfortable but intriguing question: what if we gave up on the stars altogether?
What if, instead of sentencing ourselves to many more years of starless night skies, we constructed a new one, furnished with artificial objects launched high into space, engineered to do the twinkling instead?
In a story, as in a house, there is a door to open and a door to close. Replace “houses” with “people” (and other objects), and the answer will be the same. A novel is a container, whether it holds a gingerbread house or a gingerbread girl. Some stories are easy to “open,” others not. Once we are invited through the opening, an exceptional guide like Oyeyemi points us in the direction where answers come in questions. Oyeyemi’s characters are readers too, and in their reading, of their lives and one another, we see ourselves more clearly.
At the end of Life with Picasso, as Picasso tries to prevent Gilot from leaving, he sneers, "'You imagine people will be interested in you? ... Even if you think people like you, it will only be a kind of curiosity they will have about a person whose life has touched mine." Reading Life with Picasso exclusively as art history or feminist history would fulfill Picasso's cruel prophecy. The book's intellectual heft is in its art criticism, even as its emotional arc lies in Picasso and Gilot's unequal romance. Only by appreciating both can readers accord Gilot the respect she deserves.
When Labov moved to New York City in the early 1960s, he noticed that some working-class New Yorkers sounded different from middle and upper-class dwellers. One feature stood out to him: the pronunciation of the r sound, which working-class people tended to drop. Labov suggested that the difference in pronunciation can be linked to a speaker’s class, as our social differences manifest in speech. To show this, he chose three department stores—a high-end Saks Fifth Avenue, a middle-class Macy’s, and a now-defunct discount store S. Klein’s—and spent several hours pestering employees with questions.
“He’d go up to employees working in the store and say something like: ‘Excuse me, can you tell me where to find men’s ties?’ ” explains Cecelia Cutler, professor of linguistics at the City University of New York. “The employees would say ‘fourth floor.’ Or they might say ‘fauth flaw’—with no r.” Labov would rush around the corner, pull out a notebook, and scribble, marking whether the person used or dropped the sound. He always chose questions that lead to a single answer, “fourth floor,” and in two days, surveyed 264 people. “He found that the working-class store had the greatest rates of r dropping,” says Cutler. People in the discount store dropped the r sound eight times more often than in the luxury store.
It was a little dramatic, but as she spoke, I realized what set Madonna apart: Her career had not only been about ambition, or ratcheting up achievement. It had been one long process of meaning-making, of understanding herself through her art. Some of it wasn’t for public consumption anymore; she might not tell us as much about herself as she used to. But she was always crafting a narrative, whether the story was about young women’s empowerment or biblical salvation, being reborn in sweat on the dance floor or in motherhood.
Most of us realized, as we aged, that we couldn’t make the puzzle pieces of our lives fit and made peace with that. Madonna kept reaching into the past to discover more and more about herself. There was no one truth, only the deepening of your own understanding. At one point, she said to me rhetorically: “What is the truth? Your truth when you’re 18 is not going to be your truth when you’re 28 or when you’re 38. Life is not black and white. It’s gray, and one minute you’re going to feel so strongly and believe in something so strongly, and then maybe you won’t in five years.”
Like many other residents, the Vallons were lured to this small city on the lower Colorado River by the low cost of living, the nearby casinos, and the outdoors opportunities. Craig and Denise were educators, and Craig liked to give talks costumed as Jedediah Smith, the legendary Mojave mountain man who helped blaze what would become part of the Oregon Trail. After his retirement, Craig enjoyed sitting in the back room of the house, which was stuffed with hunting trophies, and watching the river flow by through floor-to-ceiling windows.
In the spring of 2015, Craig began to notice a few moth-like insects flitting around under the lights outside. They were about the size of houseflies, dull brown in color with long fuzzy wings, big black eyes, and whiplike antennae. With each passing evening, their numbers grew. Soon they became an uncountable mass, a swirling, kinetic cloud that hung over the river’s edge like a new state of matter.
Simply calling these stories “horror” wouldn’t be right not only because they shift from genre to genre but because that label is too grandly boisterous for what is, in many cases, an extremely intimate sort of unraveling. Indeed, the title of this collection might make it seem that Evenson has turned his inimitable talent to the fate of the “world” at large—focusing, perhaps, on the ruin of public discourse, global order, or ecosystems. But instead the “world” repeatedly undone belongs to one character or maybe two, minor key visitations of reality fraying in ways undetectable to someone standing even at arm’s length. These precise calibrations are paradoxically extending in their own right, as the act of turning away and turning inward evokes everything lurking just out of sight.
The evolutionary history of bone reaches back much further in time than the scant few million years that hominins have walked bipedally and that Homo sapiens have spread around the globe. We share the same basic skeletal structure with other members of the vertebrate phyla and have for over 400 million years. For centuries, philosophers, scientists, and natural historians have looked to bones to help explain similarities between different groups of organisms as well as variation between members of a particular species. Because bone preserves so well over long periods of geologic time, it is one of the most omnipresent materials in the paleontological and archaeological records. Skin and muscle, for example, usually decompose, while an organism’s bones gradually turn to stone over millions of years. Consequently, what we know about the deep past is built in no small part out of the bones that scientists have found and the narratives they have spun around them.
In a society that appears as “an immense collection of commodities,” to borrow from Marx, what distinguishes a work of art from being merely a part of this collection, especially those works like novels, films, and records that circulate in mass production but make aesthetic claims? Or do we reject this distinction and accept the insight offered by what we now broadly call “postmodernism,” which among other things laid bare art’s status as a commodity no different from the pandering kitsch from which it distanced itself?
For Nicholas Brown, these two interpretations are not necessarily at odds: “We are wise enough to know that the work of art is a commodity like any other,” he wryly notes at the outset of his new book, “[w]hat is less clear is whether we know what we mean when we say it.” Like Kaufman, Brown is interested in how, given the limits of a totalizing market that demands “the Hollywood thing,” the work of art is still possible today.
While grabbing more bags from the basement, overhear one of your co-workers mentioning to a customer that the book they are buying was written by a bookseller at this very store! Hear another co-worker chime in that the book is “amazing,” and feel so much warmth in your heart that you could cry. Then hide under the basement stairwell until you are certain the customer has left the building.
As much as I’d love to paint a pretty picture of myself, curled up peacefully in my window seat, I don’t read there, or on any of the couches or armchairs in the living room or the bedroom or the den. I read in bed. I lie down on my side, beneath a down comforter, with my rat terrier Moochie tucked into the crook of my legs and her chin resting on my knee and my Kindle glowing. And, while Moochie snores, I will fall into the world of my book.
Blame a one-word culprit: search. Todd Stocke, senior vice president and editorial director at Sourcebooks, said that subtitle length and content have a lot to do with finding readers through online searches. “It used to be that you could solve merchandising communication on the cover by adding a tagline, blurb or bulleted list,” he said. But now, publishers “pack the keywords and search terms into the subtitle field because in theory that’ll help the book surface more easily.”
I’ve walked for days, even months and years, in Boston, New York City, London, Paris, Moscow, Vienna, Rome, Sydney—all beautiful, unique cities with varying grades of walkability. I went to Denver partly because all the books I’d read about walking tended to orbit around either these world-renowned cities or hiking and mountain climbing. “What about New York?” people invariably asked me when I talked about the lack of walkability in the United States. Sometimes they’d bring up Chicago, every now and then Boston. It’s so easy to turn to New York City and its fellow high-profile cities and ignore the rest of the country, the rest of the world. Yet all over the United States, towns and cities are quietly regaining their right to walk. From health initiatives like the Walk with a Doc program to the surprising removals of Futurama-inspired freeways in cities like Dallas, Texas, and Rochester, New York, to Atlanta’s one-billion-dollar commitment to walking and biking infrastructure over 25 years, walking is making a comeback. A slow, step-by-step comeback, as might be expected of such an endeavor, but with the strength one would also expect of a movement seeking to reclaim our free-striding bodies’ rights to our public spaces. I went to Denver to find how at least one lesser-discussed city was reshaping itself around the pedestrian.
This year, for the first time in my life, I have fasted for all of Ramazan. The Quran says during Ramazan you’re supposed to “eat and drink until the white thread of dawn appears to you distinct from the black thread of night.” And then fast until sunset—no food, no drink. The black thread/white thread part fascinates me, eating in the predawn morning until it’s light enough outside to tell the white thread from the black.
Nowadays there’s an app called Muslim Pro (a hilarious name) where you enter your location and it tells you exactly what time to stop eating. But I like to imagine a time when someone was sitting outside eating bread and cheese alone in the dark, checking and rechecking their two threads. They’d eat a bit more, yawn a bit, and then, suddenly, rubbing their eyes, they’d catch a gleam of light against the white thread and shout “Stop! Stop!” to their family inside.
That’s probably not how it ever worked.
The result of all this cleverness and torment is a highly enjoyable absurdist comedy about love and desperation, and male geniuses who are feted, and female geniuses who are ignored – and how despite this invidious state of affairs, we might at least agree that book reviewers are the worst people of all. That is, apart from novelists.
Passion, Gilbert never tires of informing us, that's the stuff of life. Not money, not the Darwinian struggle for survival, certainly not the family you are born with — passion is our raison d'etre. It's what makes us feel we are rocketing through the streets of New York City during the best days of our lives.
By the time Hans and Margret Rey went to the bicycle shop, the only one left was a bicycle built for two. It was June 11, 1940, in Paris. The radio was announcing that the city would not be defended from the approaching Nazi army. The couple didn’t have a car; none of the trains were running; two million Parisians had already fled. Hans and Margret tried out the tandem bike but realized that they couldn’t manage. They instead bought spare bicycle parts, which cost them as much as they had been paying for a month’s lodging at a nice hotel—the manic inflation of exodus. Hans somehow built two bicycles that night. The couple left the next morning porting some food, a little clothing, and the drawings for a children’s book about a perilously curious monkey.
Two hours later we found our mother in the room, the curtains drawn. She was lying on a bed low to the ground, the mattress thin as if for camping, a mat on each side in case she rolled out. She couldn’t roll anywhere. She could barely move. She could barely breathe. Her eyes were closed, and every few minutes we heard the throaty rattle that everyone says is true. A vein on her neck pulsed frantically. Her head was turned to one side, her mouth wide open and forming an O, as if desperate for oxygen. Her hands—the brittle bones, the purple-black skin—gripped the sheets. Her legs were raised, almost as though she had been sitting in a chair and then become frozen before they put her back on the bed.
My brother checked her feet.
“They’re cold,” he said.
A carer came in and propped her up with pillows. Were they trying to make her presentable for viewing? Mum began saying, “Yellow blue, yellow blue, yellow blue.” An hour later, she started saying, “Nothing, nothing, nothing…” An hour after that, she opened her eyes, looked at my brother and me, and said in her authoritative voice (it had sometimes scared us as children), “This is ridiculous.”
Ultimately, “Patsy” is a deeply queer, sensitive and vividly written novel about a woman’s right to want and a child’s right to carve her own path; it is also, as Patsy expresses late in the book, about this hard-won nugget of truth: “Never let anyone define you. Always know that you matter. Your thoughts, feelings, and your desires matter. Your happiness matters.”
More my shadow than my shadow,
it is mute, as it must be.
I walk it along the world’s wide road,
chanting its reticence; what I think it might say
if it could, or wished to.
When I arrived at the Princess Academy, I was led into a dimly lit tearoom. I was 17, which meant that I had no idea what to expect from my first real job interview. The tearoom was elegant and cozy, adorned with soft cushions and teardrop crystals. Tangy-sweet hot cider in a gold-edged teacup sat on the table in front of my chair.
The owner of the shop — the queen of the castle — breezed into the room. Queen Amanda. She was wearing what I can only describe as princess daywear — a lace-up embroidered vest over a loose white blouse and a pink-striped skirt. I don’t know what I was expecting, but it had never occurred to me that there was such a thing as casual princess clothes.
Take for example taste aversion in rats. It is well known that rats avoid certain toxic foods even if they don’t become nauseous until hours later. Simple association fails to explain this. Could it be that rats consciously go over the recent past in their minds, thinking back to every food encounter to determine which one was most likely to have made them sick? We certainly do so ourselves after food poisoning and gag at the mere thought of the particular food or restaurant that we believe caused a shock to our digestive system.
The possibility that rats have a mental workspace where they review their own memories is not so far-fetched given the growing evidence that they can “replay” memories of past events in their brain. This kind of memory, known as episodic memory, is different from associative learning, as when a dog learns that by responding to the command “sit,” he will be rewarded with a cookie. To create the association, the trainer has to give the dog the reward right away—an interval of even just a few minutes is not going to be helpful. In contrast to this kind of learning, episodic memory is the capacity to think back to a specific event, sometimes long ago, the way we do when we think of, say, our wedding day. We remember our clothes, the weather, the tears, who danced with whom, and which uncle ended up under the table.
I’d like to be able to tell you that knowing what I’ve learned reporting this piece, I have sworn off long-distance travel.
But actually this summer, we’re going to Greece, with a stopover in Paris. Carbon footprint of plane tickets: 10.6 metric tons, enough to melt a small-apartment-sized piece of the Arctic.
Those of us in food media understand this appeal as much as anyone, and the restaurant industry has given us plenty to work with. These days, I’m seeing male-chef redemption stories everywhere; I get as many PR emails tossing me tales of reformed bad-boy chefs as I do about turmeric. On Healthyish and Bon Appétit, we’ve run a handful of accounts of transformation, or at least self-improvement, from chefs like Naomi Pomeroy, Missy Robbins, Gabe Rucker, Sean Brock, and Andrew Zimmern. Most of these articles were written from the chefs’ perspectives, and that was an intentional choice. As an editor, I’ve always felt that the best way to tell a transformation story is in the words of the person who has transformed. These posts all got a lot of eyeballs and, more importantly, a lot of responses from readers telling us how much they could relate.
But I’ve come to understand that there’s a pretty big problem with these personal narratives, which is that they are, by definition, one-sided. We know who’s telling the story. But we don’t stop enough to ask who, by extension, isn’t being heard.
Perhaps innocent suffering does create saintliness in those who witness it, so that motherhood, friendship and marriage can be briefly unambivalent. Certainly this is why this book feels more hopeful than harrowing. I cried many times while reading it, more often because I was moved than sad. Segal has found a way to record love without sentimentality: love that enables the exhausted, underpaid nurses and the shattered, frightened mothers to survive.
“Identity exists where the Complication and Unraveling are the same,” wrote Aristotle in his treatise on literary theory, “Poetics.” The primary task of traditional novelists has always been as such: to test the character of their protagonist through the events of a plot. As the proverbial instruction goes, they must get their hero or heroine up a tree, throw some rocks at him or her, and get him or her down, with an epiphany, or at least some larger meaning, in hand.
In two debut novels, Kristen Arnett’s “Mostly Dead Things” and Nicholas Mancusi’s “A Philosophy of Ruin,” the tree each writer has lodged the protagonist in is the bizarrely tragic death of a parent who has left, in addition to a vivid corpse, considerable financial debt. It is not an original inciting incident, though inciting incidents need not be original. It is what proceeds from them that tests the substance of both hero and writer: how they find meaning in means of survival.
Some countries value extremely high intelligence more than others and offer specific educational provision for such children. Yet even if your genius is prized, admired and cultivated, social and psychological issues that often accompany great ability may make it an unwelcome gift. From the inside – and for many families that I spoke to – genius can feel more like a curse than a blessing.
So far, I find gardening terrifying. Things can die. I keep making mistakes. I keep putting plants in spots and deciding three days later that they aren’t happy there, then moving them again, then again, proving the plant to be a metaphor for my academic career. I look for the receipt to see if I can return it.
For those who leave, it will be a balm to know they are not alone. For those who stay, Saltwater tells you there is life elsewhere, but that finding it can tear your heart in two.
Kuhn describes mochi as "somehow smooth and soft and chewy ... practically melting in your mouth." Reading I Love You So Mochi is a little like eating one: A small but surprisingly substantial morsel.
This novel about two Dartmouth College students on a canoe trip gone badly awry is partly an ode to the Northern wilderness, partly a survival how-to, and mostly a thriller — suspenseful and gut-wrenching.
The novel is expansive and introspective, fragmented and dreamlike, a coming of age tale conveyed in images and anecdotes and explorations. The plot, if you can call it that, is simple: a boy from Vietnam grows up in Hartford, Conn., raised in a household of women traumatized by war and domestic violence. As a teenager, he has a tender but fraught first relationship with another boy. Then Little Dog leaves Hartford for college in New York and becomes a writer.
It is tempting to read this book as memoir — it has an intimate, confessional tone, and Little Dog shares some key biographical details with Vuong — but “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” is explicitly a novel. Just as he fuels his prose with his poetry, Vuong takes what he needs from lived experience to animate his storytelling with visceral beauty and a strain of what feels like uncut truth. This is, of course, a difficult art, and one of the chief goals of many fiction writers.
After reading “How to Build a Boat” I still don’t know a dinghy from a dory. But as a father I am grateful that a dad has put into words and wood the fathomless love a parent has for a child.
Is The Book of Science and Antiquities a sly existential joke, or an entirely solemn endeavour? It’s billed as the latter, as Keneally’s most candid work of fiction to date, a kind of grand human hymn. But there’s a wink or two that suggests he is chuckling into the cosmic void.
Paradoxically, this open-endedness, this refusal of received literary templates, is what makes “City of Girls” worth reading. It’s not a simple-minded polemic about sexual freedom and not an operatic downer; rather, it’s the story of a conflicted, solitary woman who’s made an independent life as best she can. If the usual narrative shapes don’t fit her experience — and they don’t fit most lives — neither she nor her creator seems to be worrying about it.
As far as the Guinness Book of World Records is concerned, the quietest place on Earth belongs to Microsoft. On their Redmond, Washington campus, the company has built a room cocooned in concrete and steel, resting atop a bed of vibration-damping springs. Inside, fiberglass wedges jut out from the walls, floor, and ceiling, soaking up sound. In photographs, the room has a nightmarish look. Microsoft uses the room to test how loud a component, such as the clicker on a mouse, really is. There are different ways of weighting decibels; if you adjust for a human ear’s response to sound frequencies, a typical bedroom or library sits at about thirty decibels. Microsoft’s anechoic—or echo-free—chamber is minus-twenty decibels. As the negative in that number suggests, the quietness of the room is literally at a level beyond human perception.
There are days when sitting in a room that noiseless sounds appealing. But some people are so unaccustomed to such levels of quiet that, after just a few minutes inside the chamber, they become disoriented. Hundraj Gopal, the room’s principal designer, says that some find the room “deafening,” that it brings “a sense of fullness in the ears.” Microsoft’s quiet room is exclusively for company use, but Orfield Laboratories, in Minneapolis, has a similar room that anyone can visit. Standing in the room, which measures at roughly minus-nine decibels, you hear the unbearable noise of your heartbeat, your breath, the churning of your stomach. You grow too conscious of your own thoughts, your own body, the passage of time.
The Lees’ book also effectively — if incidentally — conveys the underlying socioeconomics of the industry, of the conspicuous consumption of patrons versus the invisibility of worker bees. Ultimately, the greatest accomplishment of “Hotbox” is that it’s careful to separate catering from restaurant work, making clear how different they are. In doing so, the authors both explain and ennoble a profession whose mechanics, like those who execute them, “need to be hidden … so the pageant appears effortless.”
If Hernando comes across as a control freak, it may be because life taught him about fuzzy categories and the destructive power of time. “The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books” is an intellectual biography, but its beating heart is the tangled love of a son for his father. While the fickle Diego received Columbus’s inheritance, Hernando was the spiritual heir. He fought to preserve his father’s legacy and territorial claims, attributing his own discoveries to Columbus and papering over his father’s excesses. Ultimately, both his library and the family name declined. Edward Wilson-Lee’s magnificent book helps us understand his obsessive desire to gather and preserve, even in the face of chaos.