What was I writing, and why? I’d been fixated to the point of paralysis on the question of what fiction owes to history, tangled up in the impossibility of knowing every single thing about Satie’s biography, his music, let alone the entire time span of 1866–1925. Then I started asking, what does fiction offer to the historical record?
To make the process more enticing, I was given no hard deadline for my initial presentation of ideas. New Directions was updating the cover after several decades, which meant little pressure and ample time—an unusual freedom for a designer. It allowed me to do something extraordinary: read the novel and savor it.
So then why, once sitting down at my computer, did I find myself staring at an empty rectangle begging to be filled with ideas? How was it that this wonderful project became the most demanding in recent memory?
A series of posters — on display at the National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City, Mo., until Sept. 15 — designed by the Army to show America’s discharged soldiers how they should behave once they returned to civilian life, provides evidence of the nation’s blindness to the toll modern war took on those who endured it. The Army didn’t want the flood of veterans returning home to become a disruptive presence or a financial burden on society.
All but one of the posters on display were designed by an Army captain named Gordon Grant, who worked as an illustrator before the war and was assigned to the Army General Staff’s Morale Section. Jonathan Casey, the exhibit’s curator, said these small posters were used as tools of social engineering. “The focus,” Casey explained, was “on staying clean for their families back home, and on taking the skills they developed or honed in the service and applying them in their own communities.” The posters were tacked on bulletin boards on Army bases and at demobilization sites around the country beginning in 1918.
Step into the underground concourses of New York’s Penn Station and you might just feel an uneasy sense of claustrophobia that’s hard to explain. Stroll across the hardwood floors at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC and a sense of calmness might descend on you. Why? Each of these buildings has its own unique voice – the way sound behaves in the structure.
Think of the way whispers travel in the circular dome of St Paul’s Cathedral in London and how the curved ceiling of the lower floor of Grand Central in New York can carry voices. Then there is the satisfying click of heels walking through an deserted hallway or the way your bathroom makes your singing sound better. This “aural architecture” can have a profound effect on the way you experience a building.
Appreciate the appetizer, people! Life is short! Cherish the nourishing, celebratory moments with the people around your table by ordering a lot of them — as intended, as something to whet the appetite. If you’re not going to share the very best thing on the menu, the thing that was made to be shared, and if you’re not going to understand the grand significance of this small moment, your dining companions might decide to share their meals — with several built-on starter courses — with someone else.
This is the whirring, clicking, clanking, buzzing heart of the HP Hood Ice Cream Plant, a long, squat brick building with a flagpole out front and the words “Ice Cream Division” spelled in white curlicue letters along one side. It’s one of the original Hood plants, here since the early ’60s. “There aren’t too many of those left,” says plant manager Peter Fabbri. “It’s one of the few.”
In this 10,000-square-foot space, about 85 employees produce all kinds of goodness: the 60 or so Hood ice cream and sherbet flavors, the premium brand Brigham’s, Lactaid ice cream (Hood has an exclusive licensing arrangement), oat milk, and more.
I’m here for the ice cream sandwiches. Aug. 2 is National Ice Cream Sandwich Day, surely a holiday worth celebrating. And this year marks the ice cream sandwich’s 120th birthday. Or maybe it doesn’t. Many date the novelty (as single-serving frozen treats are called) to 1899, but such things are hard to pinpoint.
The suspense may carry you through the first half of the novel, but what works better is Russo’s depiction of his central characters, with their father issues and insecurities about class and money, their ingrained cluelessness about women and their need to present a certain image to the world, even if they’re pretty sure the world couldn’t care less.
The quest memoir is a balky beast. To tame it as well as Canadian journalist Sasha Chapin does in “All the Wrong Moves,” you’ll need an obscure but preferably universal target of obsession — chess mastery, in his case — a vague discontent with your present existence, a lover or two, a guru and the globe-trotting freedom to pursue your quixotic quarry. Leaven the chase with comic doses of self-doubt, then sift out any epiphanies at odyssey’s end.
In “Semicolon,” Cecelia Watson reveals punctuation, as we practice it, to be a relatively young and uneasy art. Her lively “biography” tells the story of a mark with an unusual talent for controversy. “The semicolon is a place where our anxieties and our aspirations about language, class and education are concentrated,” she writes. “In this small mark big ideas are distilled down to a few winking drops of ink.”
It is fitting that Schulz survives in the world of books, which license the kind of paradoxes that riddle his writing. It’s only in fiction, after all, that the pressures and limits of the material world can be transcended—that a life as short as Schulz’s can also last forever.
"My entire life is in ruins."
The first line in Sarah Parcak's new book might come off a bit bleak, but the archaeologist means this literally, not figuratively. In fact, she's found studying thousands of years of human history has actually given her hope, or at least some hope. "Humans are very resilient," she says. "And in spite of all the terrible things that we have done to each other, I think we're 51% good. So I try to hold onto that, especially being the parent of a young child."
Mandarin was the only common tongue we had between us, but unlike for the Han Chinese, it was the first language for neither of us. We spoke slangy Singlish; the Uighurs spoke Turkic Uighur. When the Uighur girls began singing a traditional folk song to a clapped beat, it was clearly a cultural performance rather than a social invitation, but I took my chances. I’d never once used Mandarin this way as I walked up to the girl with the palest, longest, thinnest fingers I’d ever seen and said, “Want to dance?”
She laughed shyly, pushing me toward their captain.
It can sometimes feel like a poetic cliché to even look at the Moon. It seems almost too easy a way to summon cyclicality, illumination, mystery, and even romanticism. The Moon is always shifting through its cycles yet always present and the same; it serves us as a source of light but is actually reflecting that light from somewhere else; every once in a while, an eclipse renders it strange; meanwhile, it has a side that always stays hidden, with an air of mystery almost always categorized as feminine. Italo Calvino, however, uses the moon and other celestial bodies playfully in his short story collection Cosmicomics.
And yet the novel is about more than just adolescent angst, a young girl’s longing to be somewhere else, someone else. Its universality lies in its generosity — its empathy for every character within it, regardless of his or her decisions, no matter how flawed. There is compassion for questionable actions rooted in longing. Reduced to those longings, are any of us so dissimilar?
I don’t feel the rotation of the Earth,
not even when I see
the cities moving backward
through the train’s window,
one by one.
Taking a stroll with Shane O’Mara is a risky endeavour. The neuroscientist is so passionate about walking, and our collective right to go for walks, that he is determined not to let the slightest unfortunate aspect of urban design break his stride. So much so, that he has a habit of darting across busy roads as the lights change. “One of life’s great horrors as you’re walking is waiting for permission to cross the street,” he tells me, when we are forced to stop for traffic – a rude interruption when, as he says, “the experience of synchrony when walking together is one of life’s great pleasures”. He knows this not only through personal experience, but from cold, hard data – walking makes us healthier, happier and brainier.
We are wandering the streets of Dublin discussing O’Mara’s new book, In Praise of Walking, a backstage tour of what happens in our brains while we perambulate. Our jaunt begins at the grand old gates of his workplace, Trinity College, and takes in the Irish famine memorial at St Stephen’s Green, the Georgian mile, the birthplace of Francis Bacon, the site of Facebook’s new European mega-HQ and the salubrious seaside dwellings of Sandymount.
What narcissism means to me as I write these words is, among other things, a memory of when I first met Tony Hoagland. It was late November 2002, though I remember the day as spring-like, a couple weeks after a Dylan concert that happened a few days after the first George W. Bush mid-term, when the US firmly set course to make a war that re-routed history. By poetry carbon dating, it was post-Donkey Gospel and during the gestation of Tony’s next book, the one with the marvelously loopy title that got me started on this essay.
Apparently many people have negative associations with the name Hezbollah, because it is associated with violence and war. If you can set aside the mental image of bombings, I chose “Hezbollah” for the joke because it really does have a lovely mellifluous ring to it as a name, Lebanese militant group aside. And I wrote “Lamoisha” to suggest a feminine form of the venerable Yiddish name Moishe, and because it sounded silly.
It was upon receipt of this email, delivered to his AOL inbox, that my grandfather learned his first great-granddaughters were not Greens. He learned they were Schoenfelds, and he lost his fucking mind. Not seeing the family name carried on was the most upset anyone had seen him in eighty years. It was worse than the Holocaust. He had once described Buchenwald as “messy.” In the hierarchy of horrible events that ever happened in his life, number one was when my grandma Hilda died. Number two, his great-granddaughters not being Greens, and then a distant number three, the Holocaust. That was his ranking of the worst things. We tried to talk him down but he wrote a letter instead.
Put the director Guy Nattiv and his wife, the producer Jaime Ray Newman, on a short list of people who received Oscars for a side gig. “Skin,” this year’s winner in the live-action short category, has a twin movie that opened Friday. Running feature length, it has the same title as the short and similar subject matter (a white supremacist faces the implications of his racism). But it has a markedly different focus.
Features, especially from independent filmmakers, often have their origins in shorts that screen at film festivals. In recent years, “Pariah,” “Short Term 12” and “Whiplash” have traveled that path. What’s more unusual with “Skin” is that the feature is not simply an expansion of the short, but, in Nattiv’s view, its opposite.
Richard Russo’s new novel, “Chances Are. . .,” opens with a cascade of charm. Three old friends, all 66 years old, arrive at Martha’s Vineyard for a last hurrah. Russo introduces them one at a time, setting each man in a nest of youthful anecdotes that have been polished to a high luster. But if this is a story steeped in nostalgia, it’s also a story about the inevitable disruption of nostalgia.
Fiction debuts this accomplished don't come along very often at all, and Marilou Is Everywhere proves that Smith is a writer of immense talent and rare imagination. Her voice is nothing short of angelic, and this novel reads like a miracle.
Sarah Yerkes was in her 90s when a friend invited her to try something new. A graduate of Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, Yerkes had had decades-long careers, first as a landscape architect, using brick and stone, and later as a sculptor, creating abstract works in papier-mache. But as she aged, sculpting had become physically challenging. A fellow resident at Ingleside at Rock Creek, the D.C. retirement community where she lives, had started taking a poetry writing class, so she joined too.
Last month, at age 101, she released her first collection of poems, “Days of Blue and Flame,” published by Passager Books at the University of Baltimore. The book is the latest iteration of a creative mind that has worked with form and style for the better part of a century.
It’s hard for me to create new work without loneliness—that sense of expanding in all directions, of falling through space, untethered. My characters need it in order to grow or change. Or they’re searching for intimacy. My writing turns out to be in praise of loneliness. My childhood turned out to be in praise of loneliness. Let us all praise loneliness. Maybe only there, in our desolate landscapes, is there room for our large and complicated selves.
On May 6, 2008, the night of their show’s Broadway debut, Nick Blaemire and James Gardiner sat at a table for three at the Palm on West 50th Street, in the heart of Manhattan’s Theater District. They’d just been served dinner under the beneficent gaze of dozens of celebrity caricatures drawn on the walls. Seated with Nick and James was Eric D. Schaeffer, the director of their show, Glory Days; Nick was the composer and lyricist, and James wrote the book. The trio had been working on the chamber musical for the past four years. The concept was simple: four friends from high school meet up on the bleachers of their old football field one night, during the summer after their freshman year of college. In a few hours, Nick and James would learn what New York’s critical establishment made of their work.
Our technique has improved, thanks to Igor. We have a smoother pull, never dropping our elbows, and a steadier flutter kick. Some days, I swim a little faster than I did before. But even if I don’t, I feel great.
In the end, happiness is a side effect of living well — just like speed can be the result of excellent swimming technique. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to the pool.
Cryptically structured, glacially paced but with volcanic flashpoints, Salvatore Scibona’s new book keeps you guessing as to what it’s even about. A mix of war novel, spy thriller and family saga, set in the US, Germany and Latvia, ranging in time from the invasion of Vietnam to post-9/11 Afghanistan, it eventually emerges as a kind of 400-page backstory to its alarming prologue – a bravura piece of writing that reels you in before Scibona starts to make us sweat over his purpose.
“Every Tool’s a Hammer” is both a how-to book and a memoir of Savage’s career as builder of some of Hollywood’s most iconic movie creations. Readers with an aptitude for working with wood, metals and plastics will appreciate his tips for organization of a workshop and his approach to solving mechanical problems. Less handy readers will simply savor his nimble wit and wry humor.
Doesn’t every bibliophile do this, buy books and fail to read them? Actually no—or so I learned halfway through those 19 years of owning Love and Loss, when I started dating the person I would eventually marry. This man reads every book he acquires. If a friend writes a book, he gets to it as soon as he can; if his father randomly sends him a biography of some musician, he’ll read that; I myself am hesitant to ever give him a book, knowing that it represents an obligation that I would never feel in his place, namely to read the thing from start to finish.
For such a compulsive—er, scrupulous—person, the bookshelves trace a straightforward history of his reading life, one kind of intellectual biography. Meanwhile, living with him, I’ve become conscious of the alternative biography my books represent, a history of stray intentions, youthful aspirations, old interests that have run their course but not quite expired, since there’s always that chance I might decide to learn at last about portrait miniatures, or neuroscience, or the Battle of the Alamo. (Part of the problem is that I’m someone who would genuinely like to know more about those subjects but who reads mostly in bed, at night, and by then I’m less interested in new information than in a bedtime story.) While I’ve amassed plenty of unread novels, it’s the neglected nonfiction volumes, with their weighty titles and untouched pages, that stand out and reflect back at me the younger selves who purchased them.
Sometimes “porn” is used as an accusation, as when you call out some artist who takes photographs of impoverished foreigners for making “poverty porn.” The comedian Alex Moffat teased an audience last year for its obsession with “impeachment porn” — and everyone knew exactly what he meant. But other kinds of porn seem just fine.
This new, generic sense of “porn” is catching on because it’s useful. It gives a name to a specific kind of relationship we can have with images and other media. It’s worth getting clear about the nature of that relationship. For once we understand it, we may discover that we have cultivated some porn-y relationships in some unexpected places.
On what was to become the momentous day in February 2017 when he visited One Fish, Two Fish, his local aquatics store in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, though it was in fact an hour away from his home in Truro, Joey Mullen had sworn off making any impulse purchases. He’d gone to take a look around, pick up a few nerite snails and some otocinclus catfish and a pearl stingray he’d had his eye on, and to film a tour of the store for his YouTube channel on which Mullen goes by the name “The King of DIY”. But something about this particular fish, in a tank by himself, made him stop. It was a young flowerhorn cichlid, around six months old and three inches long. It seemed to be looking right at him. When he put his finger to the glass the fish followed it, looping and doubling back, even doing back-flips. “He’s just loving you,” said the store manager. “I think he wants to come home,” said Mullen.
Mullen knew better than most what he was letting himself in for. The flowerhorn cichlid is one of the most divisive fish in the aquarist hobby today. It is a man-made carnivore, a hybrid, created around 20 years ago in Southeast Asia, whose popularity, thanks to the internet, and social media in particular, is now growing around the world. It is notoriously aggressive, even towards potential mates and is, to some eyes, unspeakably ugly. Where climates are tropical, it can be a threat to native cichlid species, not to mention to other, meeker fish. But it is also a highly sought-after breed, with prices for the finest specimens rumoured to reach many thousands of dollars. In Asia and America, and even in Britain, they are considered a sign of status, a luxury item.
The Muppet Movie is 40 now. And I could tell you that makes me feel old, but it doesn't. It oddly makes me feel just right. The music has been with me from when I was little until right now, and I can still listen to it and discover new things. How could you not? It has "Rainbow Connection" in it.
Venice grew to power in the divide between East and West. This unique circumstance overwhelmingly conditioned her art. At first, she was drawn naturally towards the East, as the stronger culture. But then, with the decline and eclipse of Byzantium, Venice acquired extensive mainland territory towards the West. For a thousand years, the city kept her independence under an unbroken line of doges, only to be upended by Napoleon who nicknamed the Piazzo St Marco “the grandest drawing room in Europe.”
Whether you arrive by train, bus or boat you’re bound to be transfixed by the sudden cinematic entry into a foregone world. No cars, just boats, water, and imposingly impossible beautiful buildings. All worldly concerns disappear as you are invited to take part in this historical stage, and it is always with a wistful heart that I depart.
But as a light thriller, “The Escape Room” delivers all that it promises. It is a sleek, well-crafted ride to a surprisingly twisty conclusion, posing a satisfying and unexpected question at the end: What if escaping the escape room means changing who we are?
Taddeo embedded herself for eight years with three different women, capturing in rotating chapters their relationships, sexual preferences, lust, obsessions and, in some cases, rapes and trials, literally and figuratively. The word “embedded,” used in the jacket copy but also usually associated with reporters who experience combat alongside soldiers, is no accident. Sex is a war, at least some of the time. With ourselves, with men, with a grand perception that women’s desire is a side dish to male desire, or best ignored altogether, especially when it’s not hetero monogamy.
O California, don’t you know the sun is only a god
if you learn to starve for him? I’m bored with the ocean
“I’ll read to you,” said Anthony, my long-distance walking companion. “That’ll fix you up.”
I was too tired to protest. Anthony hadn’t read aloud to me before – well, not more than a paragraph or two, which I’d always felt as an imposition. I was too impatient for the slow pace of reading aloud.
He pulled out his phone and started reading Salman Rushdie’s Anton Joseph. Rushdie’s memoir of the fatwa, the years of separation, hiding, boredom and danger, was the only book he had downloaded before we left. I listened at first with the usual impatience – it’s so much faster to read silently on the page – but after several minutes, I suddenly noticed the flatness had lifted. My feet were still sore, but I could feel my energy and resilience return. I was ready to go on.
Lean Cuisines, obviously, are bad. Lean Cuisines are diet culture, insisting that 250 calories is enough for a dinner, and the name “Lean Cuisine” is understood by the Food and Drug Administration as a “nutrient content claim,” so Lean Cuisines are required by the government to be “lean” (less than 10 grams of fat, 4.5 grams or less of saturated fat). But that leanness doesn’t even translate to health, especially in the way we think of it now; as nutritionist Laura Silver explains, Lean Cuisines are mostly white pasta or meat, with potatoes and without nearly enough vegetables. At the very least, Lean Cuisine parent company Nestlé is bad — known for looking for loopholes in water laws in economically-depressed cities, a scam most of us probably could not even have come up with in a horrible crimes MadLib.
"Lean Cuisine has more or less successfully pivoted to “wellness,” but the product remains Lean Cuisine."
I was sitting on a long wooden bench in the Shelby County Probate Court hallway when I heard my name called for the very last time.
Next to me was a woman roughly in her 30s holding a stack of papers in her lap, beside her a girl of about four. The woman, who had an unusual name, had decided to name her daughter after her, a poignant idea that ended up being a much bigger headache than she expected. She was there to change the spelling of their names to alleviate some confusion. The benches filled up with others like us, all waiting to be called into chambers to explain why we were there.
If you want to write a dystopian novel in these quasi-dystopian times, you need to go dark. Really dark. And the premise of Juli Zeh’s bracing, furious novel, “Empty Hearts,” is so dark that I laughed out loud when I read it on the book’s back cover. Britta, “a wife, mother and successful businesswoman,” runs a start-up called, innocuously, The Bridge, which algorithmically scours the internet in search of despondent people, then matches them up with terrorist organizations to act as suicide bombers. There’s your dystopian cocktail, served chilled: the internet as universal despair enabler, a global climate of societal chaos and a data-harvesting company well positioned to exploit both. As I said — go dark or go home.
People who scoff at “Pride and Prejudice” and “Jane Eyre” may belittle “The Doll Factory,” with its strong whiff of fairy-tale romanticism. Ignore them. Iris is a dreamer, and dreamers are inherently romantic. “If men can make this, if they can encase elm trees and conquer nature on this scale,” she thinks of the Great Exhibition, “then what might she be capable of?” Finding out the answer is both a harrowing and a bewitching adventure.
Ada and her father avoid graveyards, for fear their presence will drag the dead right out of the ground. “All their heads will come up over the soil, all asking to be the first saved.” This seethingly assured Irish debut infuses magic realism with critical and feminist theory, but the generous dose of horror movie imagery brings a left-field project firmly into the literary mainstream. Like all the best horror, it’s an impressive balancing act between judicious withholding and unnerving reveals: you don’t want to go into it knowing too much.
“You’re not the first,” I say.
“Not the first what?” Oliver asks.
“Not the first dead person with whom I’ve been having conversations,” I say.
Oliver and I are walking along Greenwich Avenue, and Oliver points to a sushi restaurant where, when he was alive, we often had dinner. It’s a beautiful late spring afternoon, the air crisp, the sky a cloudless pale blue. To celebrate Oliver’s recently published — and posthumous — collection of essays, Everything in Its Place, we’re on our way from Horatio Street, where Oliver lived, to the Cornelia Street Café — which, alas, after 41 years of existence, closed earlier in the year.
Over the course of the story, three incompatible realities occupy the same space — Weimar Germany — at three starkly different points in time. The book has an enticing hook: a van Gogh art-forgery case based on a real scandal. But the depths it achieves have more to do with the ominous convulsions of the society its characters inhabit.
Zed is a novel that takes our strange, hall-of-mirrors times very seriously indeed. It is a work of delirious genius, and a book to turn to the next time GoogleMail suggests you respond to emails by clicking “No thanks!” or “Yes, let’s!” or any other phrase with an exclamation rather than a question mark.
Maizes' admirable achievement in these charmingly offbeat stories is to balance fascination with sympathy and gravitas with humor. The good news: Her debut novel is due next year. But have fun with these first.
It is sometimes held that rationality defines us as human, a claim written into our species name, Homo sapiens. If this is right, it follows from Gordon-Smith’s witty, intelligent book that, like the people she profiles, we do not really know who, or even what, we are.
As is the name of the earth, goes this good one.
As is the name of the molten river.
As is the name, that river goes forth.
Herman Melville seems to have got the idea to write a novel about a mad hunt for a fearsome whale during an ocean voyage, but he wrote most of “Moby-Dick” on land, in a valley, on a farm, in a house a-dither with his wife, his sisters, and his mother, a family man’s Walden. He named the farm Arrowhead, after the relics he dug up with his plow, and he wrote in a second-floor room that looked out on mountains in the distance and, nearer by, on fields of pumpkins and corn, crops he sowed to feed his animals, “my friends the horse & cow.” In the barn, he liked to watch them eat, especially the cow; he loved the way she moved her jaws. “She does it so mildly & with such a sanctity,” he wrote, the year he kept on his desk a copy of Thomas Beale’s “Natural History of the Sperm Whale.” On the door of his writing room, he installed a lock. By the hearth, he kept a harpoon; he used it as a poker.
There is no knowing Herman Melville. This summer marks the two-hundredth anniversary of his birth and the hundredth anniversary of his revival. Born in 1819, he died in 1891, forgotten, only to be rediscovered around the centennial of his birth, in 1919. Since then, his fame has known no bounds, his reputation no rest, his life no privacy. His papers have been published, the notes he made in his books digitized, a log of his every day compiled, each movement traced, all utterances analyzed, every dog-eared page scanned and uploaded, like so much hay tossed up to a loft. And yet, as Andrew Delbanco wrote in a canny biography, “Melville: His World and Work” (2005), “the quest for the private Melville has usually led to a dead end.”
Over the course of his career, Manson has worked almost every angle the advice industry has to offer. He started out as a pickup artist before pivoting to what he calls “personal development.” His first book, self-published in 2011, was a deconstruction of the principles of pickup artistry called Models: Attract Women Through Honesty, and with every subsequent publication he’s widened his scope, from The Subtle Art’s focus on living a meaningful life to Everything Is Fucked’s argument that the best thing we can do for ourselves and the world is to stop freaking out so much.
It’s that latter point that’s a somewhat unexpected position to take in 2019, when so much in the world feels fraught and precarious. Between escalating political tensions and the pressing threat of climate change, it’s hard to take it seriously when a rich white man says that, actually, our lives are better than they’ve ever been, and we’re just incapable of seeing that fact.
But maybe that’s to be expected of someone working in a profession that’s narrowly focused on the self. Manson’s success, and the limits of his ideas, suggest that self-help alone might not be enough to cure what ails us. What’s the role of a self-help guru when there’s so much happening in the world that’s outside any single person’s control?
I asked for $50 a month in poetry-related supplies. In return, I promised to produce original poems for office occasions and distribute emails to the New York office which illustrated various poetic forms. Those were different times, the heady height of the dot com boom, when whether a service needed to be provided (pet food delivery straight to your door, for example) weighed less as a factor than the fact that it could be provided, and that people might invest in it, once they developed a taste for it. A poet laureate in a law firm? The T.S. Eliot fan and I decided that this would be an excellent use of our new overlords’ money.
We had a deal.
For years, I counted this inability to drive as one of many personal failures. More recently, I’ve wondered whether I performed an accidental kindness for the world. I am one of those Darth Vader pedestrians who loudly tailgate couples moving slowly up the sidewalk, and I’m sure that I would be a twit behind the wheel. Perhaps I was protected from a bad move by my own incompetence—one of those mercies which the universe often bestows on the young (who rarely appreciate the gift). In America today, there are more cars than drivers. Yet our investment in these vehicles has yielded dubious returns. Since 1899, more than 3.6 million people have died in traffic accidents in the United States, and more than eighty million have been injured; pedestrian fatalities have risen in the past few years. The road has emerged as the setting for our most violent illustrations of systemic racism, combustion engines have helped create a climate crisis, and the quest for oil has led our soldiers into war.
Every technology has costs, but lately we’ve had reason to question even cars’ putative benefits. Free men and women on the open road have turned out to be such disastrous drivers that carmakers are developing computers to replace them. When the people of the future look back at our century of auto life, will they regard it as a useful stage of forward motion or as a wrong turn? Is it possible that, a hundred years from now, the age of gassing up and driving will be seen as just a cul-de-sac in transportation history, a trip we never should have taken?
The obstacles to absolute precision, Küffen soon discovered, are many. For starters, the moon is very far away, and even light takes more than a second to travel the 238,900 miles between here and there. So too did the audiovisual data beamed back down into the analog television sets of the roughly 500 million people watching as Armstrong descended the ladder of the lunar module. Add the time to process that data, and the delay between the moment Armstrong took the step and the moment viewers on Earth saw it extends to as long as a few seconds, by some accounts.
Even accounting for lag, synchronizing the audio with the video still poses a problem, mainly because hardly any of what’s audible in the recordings is visible in the footage. Had Armstrong taken out a bass drum and given it a thump just before stepping off the ladder, that moment would have anchored the sights to the sounds. But when the astronauts spoke, their reflective visors concealed their lips.
J. Michael Straczynski's Becoming Superman is much more than a rag-to-riches story — and not only because he goes from rags to riches about half a dozen times.
Becoming Superman: My Journey From Poverty to Hollywood is a touching, devastating, unexpectedly funny memoir about a man born into a destructive, abusive environment who went on to overcome his demons — both physical and psychological — and forge a trailblazing career in animation, television, comics and movies. This memoir is simultaneously painful and inspiring, infuriating and full of hope, humorous and depressing. It is everything good storytelling should be, regardless of medium.
True little waves, from high above in a window seat
so few of you have enough of yourselves
to fold over onto, forming a dress
Seaside novels are not a single type; nor are they necessarily beach reading. What they share is an understanding of the sea and shore as a place of flux. Where land dissolves into sea, where romantic scenery is the consequence of landslips and cataclysm, the seaside is a space between, a place of transformation and transcendence — especially of human reality in the face of nature’s great unaccountability. Here the mind responds to limitless views of sea and sky, intimating new beginnings or something darker: dissolution and death. Either way, as the term “sea change” suggests, the effect is powerful and mysterious.
A few months ago, as I struggled to carve out time in my crowded days for writing, a colleague suggested I read a book about the daily rituals of great artists. But instead of offering me the inspiration I’d hoped for, what struck me most about these creative geniuses – mostly men – was not their schedules and daily routines, but those of the women in their lives.
Their wives protected them from interruptions; their housekeepers and maids brought them breakfast and coffee at odd hours; their nannies kept their children out of their hair. Martha Freud not only laid out Sigmund’s clothes every morning, she even put the toothpaste on his toothbrush. Marcel Proust’s housekeeper, Celeste, not only brought him his daily coffee, croissants, newspapers and mail on a silver tray, but was always on hand whenever he wanted to chat, sometimes for hours. Some women are mentioned only for what they put up with, like Karl Marx’s wife – unnamed in the book – who lived in squalor with the surviving three of their six children while he spent his days writing at the British Museum.
Philosophers can argue whether beauty is the property of an object or lies in our perceptions of it; Hardy would have it both ways. The best mathematics is eternal, he maintained, and like the best literature, it will “continue to cause intense emotional satisfaction to thousands of people after thousands of years.” Recent research in neuroscience has lent support to this idea of “emotional satisfaction.” A few years ago, a neurobiologist in London, Semir Zeki, performed fMRI scans of mathematicians while they contemplated equations they’d rated as beautiful, and a region of their brains lit up which has been associated in other studies with perceptions of visual and musical beauty. (Contemplating equations they found less inspiring, on the other hand, did not activate that part of the mathematicians’ brains.) In the brain, a mathematician’s affective response to math is similar to, or maybe the same as, the way in which we respond to beauty in the arts.
And there’s another sense in which math could be considered beautiful. In addition to the aesthetic appeal of a particular equation or a proof, there’s a kind of cumulative marvelousness to math, to its landscape of ideas. Here is an elaborate model world, in which the more you explore, the more fantastic it gets. “’Imaginary’ universes are so much more beautiful than this stupidly constructed ‘real’ one,” Hardy wrote.
Meaning and purpose overlap, but they are not the same things. One’s purpose is what one feels she or he is here to do. For the religious this may include fulfilling the wishes of a god. For all people, religious or not, it likely includes numerous secular goals such as being a successful worker, a loving and loyal family member of various stripes, a good friend, and proficient at one or more hobbies. There are many more life purposes I could list, but in short, it’s The Doing. Or rather, how we interpret and prioritize all that we do and don’t do. What we believe we need to do, ought to do, and want to do. For most of us, self-survival and the protection of deeply loved ones are at or near the top, while the things we must do despite loathing them rank near the bottom, with a panoply of purposeful life acts between them.
Life’s meaning, however, is far more esoteric than life’s purpose. Purpose might help shape meaning, but purpose is not the same as meaning. Meaning is less about the actual doing and more about Why we do and don’t do. Life’s meaning is the superstructure framing the otherwise entropic string of days and nights unfolding before us. If life’s purpose is a tactical arrangement of actions, then life’s meaning is the strategic philosophy that makes senses of it all.
Lying between Australia and Hawaii, the island of Nauru is as far from Europe as any place on earth. It wasn’t until November 8, 1798, when a British ship called the Snow Hunter was passing en route to the China Seas, did any European record seeing the island. Hundreds of Nauruans canoed out to greet the sailors. The captain of the Snow Hunter, John Fearn, did not permit his men to disembark. Nor did any Nauruans venture aboard. Still, the welcome charmed Captain Fearn, as did the warm winds, the island’s green central plateau, the swaying palms, and the white-sand beaches — so much that he named it Pleasant Island.
The sight (and wafting stench) of the Snow Hunter’s motley crew must have come as quite a shock to the Nauruans. At the time, life on the small island was mostly peaceful and predictable. Tensions among Nauru’s 12 clans did run deep, and now and then disputes did turn deadly. Any year with light rainfall would cause great suffering too, as the island’s only surface water is a brackish and shallow lagoon. Still, for thousands of years, Nauruans had managed to live largely in balance with nature, isolated but self-sufficient, with societal acrimony more or less kept in check. Captain Fearn’s naming of the island for the English-speaking world did not upset this stability. But it was an omen of dark times ahead.
I grew up knowing the Chicagoland suburb of Northbrook for a few things: its pee-wee hockey team, bar mitzvahs, and the pizza at Barnaby’s. When I recently found myself in the neighborhood at 5:30 on a Friday night, hungry and without dinner plans, I decided to stop into the popular local restaurant on my way back to the city. Not taking into account it was the start of the weekend, I drove around the small parking lot for ten minutes before a spot opened up. When I finally sat down among the birthday parties and family dinners, and my pizza made it to my table, I did what many of us tend to do these days: I Instagrammed my meal. A few minutes later I checked my comments and saw a response posted from a friend in Brooklyn: “Is that the way Chicago pizza is sliced? That is insanity.”
I could have been offended, but I wasn’t. Instead, I took it as a small win for the Chicagoland area’s underappreciated contribution to the American pizza map: A circular pie with really thin crust, all cut into tiny squares. Some call it “party cut,” others say it’s “tavern style,” but to locals, it’s just “pizza.” Ask around, and most Chicagoans will tell you that the city’s greatest pies aren’t made in deep pans drowning in layers of cheese and meat at tourist traps like Uno and Lou Malnati’s. Yet, for some reason, people outside the city hardly seem to know the style even exists.
Nina Stibbe’s “Reasons to Be Cheerful” is so dense with amusing detail that I thought about holding the book upside down to see if any extra funny bits might spill from the creases between the page. Or maybe I’m just a sucker for a novel that opens with a British dental surgeon named JP Wintergreen injecting himself with lignocaine and attempting to pull his own teeth.
I have forgotten how to read. It isn’t the first time. I have forgotten before and I will forget again. In other words, I am still learning how to read.
“Read,” like “love” or “think,” has a thousand meanings pressed into one deceptively elementary verb. We use it in a way that tends towards simplicity. It is the connection of sounds and concepts to standardized squiggles, to trails of ink on squares of paper, scratches carved into sticks, glowing lines of curved neon, careful stitches poked through a tight canvas. It can seem a basic skill, at least to those who have left the learning of letters behind.
Watching my son learn it now, I begin to understand how daunting a task it is, even given a phonetic language with a small alphabet, even with all the plasticity of a child’s brain at his disposal. Learning to read is a years-long series of internalizing rules and their many exceptions, of tiny modulations and adjustments. At first I thought it would be a matter of recognizing 26 letters. Then I saw that he must navigate upper and lower cases, print and cursive, different typefaces and hands, the sounds rendered by certain combinations of letters, umlauts and double S’s, unmarked short and long vowels, and the vagaries of foreign words and their unpredictable pronunciations.
The nature of that mysterious threat to Molly and her family twists and turns as the book progresses, each revelation unlocking a new set of questions, flipping Molly’s, and the reader’s, expectations on their head. This is compelling, masterful plotting, and Phillips tells the story in a crisp, sharp style.
The Need is the kind of book that, especially as a parent, keeps you up at night in more ways than one. It’s unsettling in the best of ways, a wake up call to your limbic system.
“You must keep hold of your friendships, Lissa. The women. They’re the only thing that will save you in the end.”
Such is the advice a mother gives her daughter in Anna Hope’s profoundly intelligent and humane third novel, Expectation, about the disjunct between the lives we once imagined for ourselves and the lives we end up living.
Toward the end of “Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language,” the linguist Gretchen McCulloch acknowledges a paradox at the heart of her book. On the one hand, books about usage tend to enshrine language in a set of rules, and woe to anyone who tries to break them. On the other, the “new rules” floating in the digital ether are constantly changing; anything tethered to the material world of dead trees can’t possibly keep up.
McCulloch doesn’t have a problem with this. “Rather than thinking of books as a way of embalming language, of rendering it fixed and dead for eternity,” she writes, “we can think of them as maps and guidebooks to help people navigate language’s living, moving splendor.”
Members of the Spice Girls generation are the only people in history to have both grown up with the internet and to retain childhood memories that predate it. Born primarily in the mid-to-late 1980s, they are human bridges between two eras, whose anachronistic birth years, with their faraway century, will cause their heirs’ eyes to widen at their obituaries. Their ancestral parallels are the earliest drifters of the Lost Generation, born in the mid-to-late 1880s — people to whom Glenn Miller seemed unbearably young.
When the Food Network debuted in 1993, 30 years after Julia Child prepared her inaugural omelet for an audience of bemused Bostonians watching the French Chef pilot on public television, it wasn't clear how a cable channel could fill an entire schedule with cooking.
Doubting the thrall of food now is laughable. Unscripted TV's fastest growing subgenre, culinary-minded shows occupy the entirety of two cable networks (Food Network and The Cooking Channel), more than 10 percent of the Fox primetime schedule (four offerings starring Gordon Ramsay) and, most tellingly, an increasing number of new shows coming from streamers. Peak TV has wrought Peak Food TV, where camera-friendly chefs are as coveted as seasoned showrunners.
Translated by Ken Liu, Broken Stars is a welcome second collection of 16 Chinese speculative fiction short stories and three short essays recounting the genre’s recent cultural and academic prominence. The volume gives voice to an eclectic group, serving as a who’s who of SF authors, critics, and other anchors in China’s burgeoning SF culture industry brought to Anglophone audiences by Ken Liu’s deft translation. The eclecticism of these works provides testament to the breadth, allure, and challenges of Chinese-language SF as a genre that miraculously thrives even in the repressive atmosphere of the Xi Jinping era.
There has to be an equivalent of Americana in each country; art that digs deep into the culture and history of a place in a way that allows those who consume it to get a sense of what that country's shifting zeitgeist is like.
With that in mind, Hwang Sok-yong's At Dusk is a perfect slice of Koreana; a touching, somewhat depressive narrative full of nostalgia that shows the underbelly of a nation through the life of characters inhabiting society's bottom rung.
Mario Benedetti was a hugely cherished writer in his native Uruguay, amassing a bibliography of some 80 books by the time of his death in 2009, but he was not translated into English until recently. Now Nick Caistor has translated two short, splendid novels, both built around love triangles in which a woman – regretfully, cautiously – leaves her husband for another man.
If you're reading this on your phone, drop it! (Or at least, drop it once you've finished this article.) That little screen of yours won't give you access to some of the wildest, weirdest, most innovative images and words bubbling up into the culture right now. Said miraculous content can only be found — brace yourself — on paper. To be precise, it can only be found in a flood of new periodicals by brave (or perhaps deluded) publishers who've declared war on digital monotony. Where in the world could such a quixotic movement emerge, you ask? Only in alternative comics.
An atom bomb—does it reduce everything
to atoms—to a mist the size of the moon?
Fifty years ago, almost every publisher in the United States was independent. Beginning in the late 1960s, multinational corporations consolidated the industry. By 2007, four out of every five books on bookstore shelves were published by one of six conglomerates: corporate entities that hold businesses from different industries under one governing financial structure. I call this period—from, roughly, RCA’s purchase of Random House at the end of 1965 until the release of the Amazon Kindle and the 2007–8 financial crisis—the conglomerate era.
The conglomerate era was full of prophecies about the coming death of literature, or, on the other hand, its continued flourishing. Literature, said the doomsayers, needed some freedom from commerce to survive. Otherwise we’d be left with only cookbooks and celebrity memoirs. Novelists, especially, rattled their swords. They even convinced the US Senate, in 1980, to hold a hearing about breaking up the conglomerates. E. L. Doctorow argued on behalf of PEN that “the concentration into fewer and fewer hands of the production and distribution of literary work is by its nature constricting to free speech and the effective exchange of ideas and the diversity of opinion.” Publishers countered that—either in spite or because of their consolidations—more and more diverse literature was being published than ever.
The terms of the debate have remained remarkably constant. Literature will die or flourish. Meanwhile, under pressure over time, literature transformed. Into what?
Regarding the purported rules of English syntax, we tend to divide into mutually hostile camps. Hip, open-minded types relish the never-ending transformations of the way we speak and write. They care about the integrity of our language only insofar as to ensure that we can still roughly understand one another. In the opposite corner glower the curmudgeons. These joyless, uptight authoritarians are forever muttering about clunky concepts such as “the unreal conditional” that nobody’s ever heard of.
I’ve thrown in my lot with the pedants. Yes, language is a living tree, eternally sprouting new shoots as other branches wither . . . blah, blah, blah. But a poorly cultivated plant can readily gnarl from lush foliage to unsightly sticks. The internet has turbocharged lexical fads (such as “turbocharge”) and grammatical decay. Rather than infuse English with a new vitality, this degeneration spreads the blight of sheer ignorance. So this month we address a set of developments in the prevailing conventions of the English language whose only commonality is that they drive me crazy.
When a celebrated man is 102 years old, the obituaries are mostly ready to go. Appreciations of the architect I.M. Pei, who died in May, flickered across social media. They left the impression that Pei had been important, and old. They featured tasteful images of his shiniest and most photogenic work, as well as of photogenic Pei himself—remembered as a charmer. He smiled for photos. Among architects, who tend to self-seriousness and try to project power by appearing solemn at all times, Pei was almost unique in that respect.
The photogenic work included the 1984–1989 glass entrance pyramid and underground renovation at the Louvre Museum in Paris; its pyramids-in-a-stone-plaza forerunner, the 1968–1978 East Wing of the National Gallery in Washington DC; and the 1963–1979 John F. Kennedy presidential library, a glass and stone cube on Boston Harbor. These monumental cultural projects were Pei’s most publicized buildings, and their images did communicate something of what distinguished Pei as a designer. He was sometimes audacious but never gratuitous. His forms were simple but not simplistic, resolving complicated problems into complex solutions derived from squares, circles, triangles, and all their intersections and permutations. His signature materials were robust and tightly edited: structural cast concrete, stone veneers, and very big windows and skylights supported by steel space-frames (including that infamously allegorical glass ceiling at New York City’s Javits Center, primarily the work of Pei’s onetime associate James Inigo Freed). But all this is only the second half of the story. It may be that the buildings that will eventually matter most are the ones Pei did when he was starting out.
Hyde’s four notebooks explore Myth, Self, Nation and Creation. He surveys Western traditions and delves into Buddhist teachings that urge us to let go of ego-building in favor of nourishing “serene self-forgetfulness.” Hyde is especially attracted to artists who manage to forget their habits of mind to unleash the freedom of creative thought.
A grammar guide will never make you a better writer. Nope. Not a little bit. It may, perhaps, help you avoid making what other people have deemed a mistake, but that’s about it. The very best of them may even inspire, but they won’t teach you good writing any more than learning how a basketball is made will help NBA players improve their game; the ball has to start rolling first. Style guides will never instill more beauty, more personality, more human verve into your writing than you can, providing you work at expressing yourself as clearly and freely as only you can. If you want to write well, then write constantly, read rapaciously, and use grammar not to make your writing better but to make it sound more like you. Your editor will do the rest, anyway.
We writers lead a necessarily solitary life – at least, that’s what we like to think. Though the act of writing can involve lots of lonesome glaring at an open Word document (with occasional breaks for coffee and Countdown), the process of turning deathless prose into an actual book involves a lot more people than the name on the cover suggests.
This is why my publisher Trapeze, an imprint of the Hachette company Orion, is starting to put full, movie-style credits at the back of their books. They asked me if I was amenable to this for my forthcoming novel Things Can Only Get Better, after trialling it in Candice Carty-Williams’s hugely successful Queenie. Of course I said yes – not only because I think it’s a brilliant idea but also because whenever I write my acknowledgments, I always fear I’ve missed somebody out. Looking at the two pages of names at the back of Queenie, I realised that I had previously left out lots of people.
It is a peculiar thing to step into someone’s worst day with a camera in hand. There’s no rule book for how best to navigate it. There was no one to tell me when to stay or when to step out on my first end-of-life shoot, where I hovered in a hospital room as a family said goodbye to their 3-year-old girl dying from a rare metabolic disorder.
Often, I am asked why I choose to photograph the end of a child’s life. When I am in those rooms, I am present with the sole goal of finding moments within grief that feel the most gentle and human: watching a mother brush the hair of her dying child, I was able to recognize the love and tenderness that accompanies us even in death. Listening to a child cry over the loss of his sister, and then get back up and start playing again next to her body, reminded me of the resilience we all carry with us, that my family and friends are capable of as well. They will also continue to live on if I die too soon.
In a 1945 essay in which he dismissed most detective and mystery fiction as little better than crossword puzzles, the critic Edmund Wilson asked a question that still rankles readers who enjoy the genre: “Who cares who killed Roger Ackroyd?” The answer, over the 75 or so years since, seems to be “millions of people do.” That would include me. I also care who killed Eunetta “Cleo” Sherwood and Tessie Fine. Theirs are the murders investigated by Madeline “Maddie” Schwartz in Laura Lippman’s haunting new novel.
What makes this book special, even extraordinary, is that the crossword puzzle aspect is secondary. Lippman, who is the closest writer America has to Ruth Rendell, is after bigger game. The arc of Maddie’s character — her mid-1960s “journey,” if you like — reflects the gulf which then existed between what women were expected to be and what they aspired to be.
The further the author journeys down the river the more she lets her winning idiosyncrasies show, and the greater the reading pleasure. The result is a tender yet argumentative book dressed in a beautiful jacket that someone will panic-buy at Christmas for an in-law who will crack it open expecting fond cliches about The Wind in the Willows only to alight on an ode to mud, in all its varieties “from the silky ochre liquid that holds rills and ripples like frozen water to the gleaming, thick, caramel-brown texture exposed on the shore at low tide”.
And what’s not to like about that?
After becoming the CEO of the Walt Disney Company in 1984, Eisner, a native New Yorker, set out to turn the old-fashioned Disney brand into one that would speak not just to the present moment but also, crucially, to the future. During his tenure, the company would eventually acquire the television network ABC and the sports behemoth ESPN and produce films that would come to define the Disney Renaissance—The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, and Aladdin, among others.
An amateur architecture and design buff, Eisner also understood that a company like Disney ought to have a real presence—theme parks, of course, but also office buildings, studios, and hotels. What if, his design philosophy seemed to suggest, people could look up at Disney headquarters in Burbank or Orlando and feel the same awe and delight they must’ve felt on Disneyland’s opening day?
I immediately began worrying how soon I’d be able to get back to work. It turns out, though one’s mobility may be severely curtailed by an accident, a fervid interest in food remains. I found myself hungry all the time. Weren’t the oxycodones I was popping supposed to suppress the appetite?
It’s been a difficult seven weeks or so, and as it turns out, navigating meals using a wheelchair and then a cane is a sharp departure from when I was more mobile. I experimented with food delivery at first. Then, venturing out in a wheelchair, I quickly found out how “accessible” restaurants are for dining out in one. (Most, as it turns out, are less than ideal.) What I wanted to eat, too, changed at times. Familiar foods became more desirable; at the height of my pain, pizza and sandwiches reigned.
The New Yorker tote is in demand in large part because of what it telegraphs: You read the New Yorker, a fancy magazine without many pictures. You are sophisticated and non-frivolous. You might even know how to use the New Yorker dot com’s notoriously frustrating login. Boarding the yacht, Morgan is wearing silver heels, shiny pants, a drape-y camisole. That the tote fits into the ensemble is a testament to the status symbol it has become.
All of this has made me realize that it’s time to admit: The New Yorker tote bag is not a good tote bag. If you are one of the four people left without one, please consider my honest review and opt out. I used to have a New Yorker tote. I threw it out. Or maybe gave it away. I don’t quite remember how it left my life. I don’t really care. Because I did not like it.
I’m a crier by nature, but as I have aged, my reasons for tearing up have become more elusive, even to me. Where once I could predict a crying spell, like spotting an East Texas thunderstorm moving across the landscape, now they arrive fast and sharp, like hail in New England on a March day. More and more frequently, I find myself wiping away tears while asking with plaintive frustration, “Wait, why am I crying right now?”
I had one of those spells this morning while I holding a very old book in the rare books room of the Health Sciences Library at the University of Pittsburgh. Our group of visiting scholars had been warned not to lick or cough or sneeze on the old books, a warning that I had impressed on my soul, as I do with all advice from all librarians. Thus, the arrival of unexpected tears—one moment I was paging carefully through the book, scanning, not terribly attentive, the next I was sobbing—mostly triggered my consternation at producing forbidden fluid.
“I didn’t know I was going to cry!” I wanted to yell, as I grabbed a tissue from the librarian’s desk, keeping my face averted from anything old. “I did not deliberately get bodily fluids on your books!”
But what if someone wrote a time-travel story that made the uncoupling and haywire craziness the entire point? And what if you could ground all that crazy in the simple, pure yearning of two lovers separated by the streams of space and time, passing letters to each other across the chaos?
Well, you'd have The Lake House, of course. But if you took that sappy story of unrequited love, Keanu Reeves and a time-traveling mailbox, strapped it up in body armor, covered it with razors, dipped it in poison and set it loose to murder and burn its way across worlds and centuries, what you'd end up with is This Is How You Lose The Time War, the experimental, collaborative, time-travelling love-and-genocide novel by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone.
At the 1994 reception for the prestigious Kyoto Prize, awarded for achievements that contribute to humanity, the French mathematician André Weil turned to his fellow honoree, the film director Akira Kurosawa, and said: “I have a great advantage over you. I can love and admire your work, but you cannot love and admire my work.”
This was a lament, not a boast. How austere advanced mathematics can seem to the layperson — a confluence of the intimidating and the irrelevant. It’s easy to forget that math has been vaunted as a source of pleasure, even consolation. In the Symposium, it is described as a source of the most sublime eros, second only to the Platonic ideal of beauty. Late in life, Thomas Jefferson reported that its contemplation was a balm against the despair of aging.
Karen Olsson’s beguiling new book, “The Weil Conjectures,” arrives as a corrective, describing mathematics — its focus, abstraction, odd hunches, blazing epiphanies — as a powerful intoxicant, a door to euphoria. She twines her arguments around the story of the Weil siblings: André and Simone, the philosopher and secular saint — “the only great spirit of our time,” according to Camus.
Remember when everyone left doors unlocked and borrowed cups of sugar? No? Then this richly researched history of community may well appeal. Jon Lawrence uncovers the reality behind romantic cliches of our postwar past. He convincingly suggests that the real history of community is one in which people have combined solidarity with self-reliance and privacy.
Albert Einstein once said, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”
That’s the essence of a good science writer: make it simple for readers to understand but not too simple that you’re misconstruing the facts. When I started out, some 30-plus years ago, I had just graduated from medical school and thought that all I needed to do was translate medical jargon. “Myocardial infarction” became “heart attack.” “Edema” became “fluid retention” or just plain bloating.
But I quickly learned that the job was more than serving as an interpreter. Medicine is an uncertain science.
In early January, a guest stayed in room 812 at the Hotel Alex Johnson, in Rapid City, S.D. As the anonymous visitor wrote in the guest book the next morning, the night was a bit more than uneventful.
“The Hilton app does not warn you about ghosts when you select a room,” the guest wrote. “A couple of co-workers told me I was nuts for staying there, but I don’t believe in ghosts, so I figured that made me immune to them.”
After a line space: “I could not have been more wrong.”
“Hold your nose,” instructs Cat Black. On her cue we spoon some melted chocolate into our mouths and taste without smelling, quietly considering what’s happening in our mouths. Contrary to the deliciousness my brain is anticipating, it’s an anticlimax: I can detect a slick of chocolate across my tongue and some vague sweetness, but almost no flavor.
After a few moments, Cat signals to let go of our noses. Whoosh! As the aroma molecules waft from my mouth to the back of my nose, they fire the nerve signals that tell my brain about the different compounds in the chocolate. Suddenly there’s a flood of flavors: rich chocolate, a little bitterness, some bursts of fruitiness. And just when I think the flavors are fading, I detect a wave of something else. Is it coffee? “You can see that a lot of the subtlety of the flavor of chocolate is in the aroma,” Cat says. By some estimates, only 10 to 20 percent of what we perceive as flavor comes from our taste buds—the rest is delivered through our nose.
Ten days after I called off my engagement I was supposed to go on a scientific expedition to study the whooping crane on the gulf coast of Texas. Surely, I will cancel this trip, I thought, as I shopped for nylon hiking pants that zipped off at the knee. Surely, a person who calls off a wedding is meant to be sitting sadly at home, reflecting on the enormity of what has transpired and not doing whatever it is I am about to be doing that requires a pair of plastic clogs with drainage holes. Surely, I thought, as I tried on a very large and floppy hat featuring a pull cord that fastened beneath my chin, it would be wrong to even be wearing a hat that looks like this when something in my life has gone so terribly wrong.
Ten days earlier I had cried and I had yelled and I had packed up my dog and driven away from the upstate New York house with two willow trees I had bought with my fiancé.
Ten days later and I didn’t want to do anything I was supposed to do.
Part psychological thriller, part murder mystery, Daniela Petrova’s ambitious and exhilarating debut novel, Her Daughter’s Mother, grapples with what it means to become a parent in a world with ever-expanding options for growing a family — from fertility treatments to egg donation to surrogacy to adoption. Petrova’s timely new book is a deep dive into the oft-underrepresented world of infertility, pregnancy, and motherhood, including all the medical, legal, and emotional obstacles women face. In this rich narrative territory, Petrova plays on the possibilities of what could go wrong even when all goes according to plan.
It's pretty rare for a writer to produce a novel that wins the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award and, then, a scant three years later, bring out another novel that's even more extraordinary. But, that's what Colson Whitehead has done in following up his 2016 novel, The Underground Railroad, with The Nickel Boys. It's a masterpiece squared, rooted in history and American mythology and, yet, painfully topical in its visions of justice and mercy erratically denied.
Among my fellow punctuation nerds, I have a reputation as someone who has no use for semicolons. I don’t hate semicolons; I hate writing about semicolons. Fortunately, now I don’t have to, because Cecelia Watson, a self-identified “punctuation theorist” who teaches at Bard College, has written a whole book about them: “Semicolon: The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark.”
A thrush crashed into my window:
one lovely voice the less
killed by glass as mirror—
Yet let’s be clear: It’s not just, or maybe even primarily, the size of the company that is giving people the shakes. It’s the fact that a single film corporation now seems to own everything worth having — at least, in stark capitalistic blockbuster terms. Disney owns Marvel, it owns “Star Wars,” it owns the fabled animated features that it has been using to mint live-action-remake megahits as if it were printing money. What’s still on the table — “Godzilla,” the shards of “Harry Potter,” and the fumbling-out-of-the-vampire-gate Dark Universe? You can make the case that the merger of Disney and Fox, if you boil out the feathers, really comes down to the merger of Marvel and “Star Wars.” That sounds like the merger of Christmas and the Fourth of July, with Halloween thrown in as a bonus.
Viewed according to the logic of 21st-century fantasy culture, Disney doesn’t just suddenly own all the properties. It owns all the mythologies. Long ago, Hollywood was called the Dream Factory. The intimidation factor of the new bulked-up, bursting-with-franchise-moxie Disney is the suspicion that a single company has become the Dream Factory. And the anxiety this has provoked is about something beyond market share. What a lot of people are wondering is: Will Disney now have the power to control our dreams?
In 1946, not long after she fell in love with Pablo Picasso, Françoise Gilot made a painting called “Adam Forcing Eve to Eat an Apple.” Two flat, angular figures sit at a table. The woman placidly clasps her hands in front of her as the man—bald, blocky, with one dark, piercing eye shown in profile—thrusts the fruit into her mouth. Temptation, knowledge, punishment, exile: these are things, in Gilot’s version of Genesis, that come from man, even if it is woman who will be blamed. The same year, Gilot moved in with Picasso. A friend warned that she was headed for catastrophe. “I told her she was probably right, but I felt it was the kind of catastrophe I didn’t want to avoid,” Gilot recalls in her remarkable 1964 memoir, “Life with Picasso,” written with the art critic Carlton Lake, and recently reissued by New York Review Books Classics. In the painting, the woman’s eyes are clear, and wide open.
To live in California is to make a wary peace with an existential dichotomy: breathtaking weather, astounding natural beauty, bounteous food and wine, stimulating multiculturalism and … the possibility of imminent, unpredictable disaster. Depending on where we live, Californians are just one spark, one mudslide, or, yes, one earthquake away from severe destruction—a reality that can be met with fatalism, fear, or some combination of both, but one that is omnipresent, if surprisingly easy to forget.
I can’t pretend it's quite like living in Israel in the midst of an intifada, or in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, but there is nevertheless a low-grade febrile uncertainty amid the routines of daily life here. When your 100-year-old house shifts and groans with a sound like the straining timbers of a wooden vessel under sail—as ours did the other day—it’s hard not to feel a certain nauseated intimation of mortality.
In 2006, after years reporting in the Middle East, I moved to Paris. It was an accidental choice, the serendipity of a sublet through a friend of a friend. It was meant to be temporary; at the time I was just looking for somewhere to hole up and finish a book. My friends all said: “Oh Paris, how lovely! You must be eating well.” They were surprised to hear me complain that Parisian menus were dull and repetitive. “Paté followed by nothing but entrecôte, entrecôte, entrecôte. Occasionally roast lamb, duck breast. No vegetables to speak of,” I told them. “It’s a tyranny of meat-in-brown-sauce.” As the rest of the world had begun to (re)discover their own cuisines and innovate, the French restaurant seemed to be stagnating in a pool of congealing demi-glace.
Elsewhere, places such as Balthazar in New York and the Wolseley in London seemed to be doing the French restaurant better than the French. In France, the old guard of critics and restaurateurs remained convinced that French cuisine was still the best in the world and a point of national pride. The bistros cleaved to the traditional red-and-white checked table cloths and chalked-up menus even as they were microwaving pre-prepared boeuf bourguignon in the back. In 2010, when the French restaurant meal was added to Unesco’s list of the world’s “intangible cultural heritage”, it felt as if the French restaurant had become a museum piece, and a parody of itself.
I wasn’t born in Virginia, and for a long time I was reluctant to claim the state. I was born in 1986 in Washington, D.C., where both of my parents were born and raised, their families having made it there as part of the mid-twentieth-century migration of black folks out of the South toward what they hoped would be more opportunity, more freedom. My father was in the Navy, and we moved to naval housing in Norfolk (which, if you’re from Virginia, is pronounced “Nor-fuck”) for a spell when I was a toddler before a three-year stint in Naples, Italy. Beginning in 1993 my father was stationed in Virginia Beach, where we settled and where I’d spend my formative years. My cousins from the “big” city of D.C. made fun of me for being from the country and I felt more than a little embarrassed in their presence.
Where we lived was far from country—not like the part of Virginia where my granny is from. Max Meadows is country. There still aren’t more than three or four stoplights in that town. Granny has demonstrated on more than one occasion the way they used to kill chickens with their bare hands, grabbing the live bird by the neck and twisting until it snapped. That’s country.
It is hard to say when I stopped noticing the sirens. They’re still there, piercing the otherwise normal Wednesday-afternoon noise. But I haven’t noticed them for at least fifteen years. In the central Ohio area, a test of the state’s tornado-siren system takes place every Wednesday at noon. I would describe the sound for you, but even now I can barely remember it. I recall it beginning as a low whistle that bends into a loud howl, but the sound feels distant to me now. It’s indistinguishable from all the other ways this city rumbles its way toward productivity.
When I was a kid in elementary school, I assumed the siren tests happened everywhere. Twice a month, at noon, when the howling began to announce itself, all of us kids spilled into the hallway, and sat on our knees facing the wall. We’d lock one of our hands into the other, put them behind our heads, and curl ourselves downward. It was practice for the actual tornado, which we were told might come at any moment. It might come while we were in our classrooms learning whatever it is elementary school kids learned in the nineties (yet another thing I don’t recall). I never knew this was something exclusive to my school, or schools in my area. I imagined an entire chain of balled-up bodies, trembling against walls in school hallways across the country.
The Second-Worst Restaurant in France has a plot with some surprising turns and twists and manages a spanking pace in spite of the icing. In a gentle way, it is a love story, about both people and food. And, above all, it is excellent entertainment.
First, there’s the obvious: the incantatory effect of the repetition, the rush of sibilance, the plain punch of those four syllables. It just sounds good, and any great title should sound good. It is alluring, an obvious spell (ah, the famous “buy this book” spell), or perhaps simply a swoon. It is also a mystery—why the double? Why not simply The Sea if that’s what it’s about? “The anaphora,” writes Rebecca Hazelton, “demands more, more, more, and is a never-ending question for [us] to answer.” The spell worked on me the first time I saw the spine in a store; I bought it. It may still be my favorite title of any novel, on pure feeling.
It was April 16, 1813, and Wilson was in prison for his failure to pay a debt of 40 pounds owed to his brother—in 2019 terms, roughly $3,200 USD. The fantastically grim Newgate Jail, in Wilson’s hometown of Newcastle upon Tyne in the north east of England, had originally been a fortified gate tower in the ancient town wall—an eight-foot-thick defense built in the early 13th century to protect from attack by Scottish invaders. By the time Wilson arrived, Newgate was 600 years old, and its battlements and arrow slits were no longer in use. Wilson was one of around 40 prisoners shoved into six cramped stone rooms with no heating, no sanitation, and not enough beds.
Penniless and shunned by his family, Wilson carried out menial tasks for his fellow prisoners in exchange for food. He was forced to work for a gang that trafficked alcohol into the prison and was tormented and beaten by gang members and guards. “I believe I should ultimately have perished,” he wrote in his memoir, “but for an extraordinary incident in which my favorable practice of walking procured me a most reasonable relief.”
Wilson proposed, for a wager of three pounds and a shilling (around $250 in 2019), to walk 50 miles in 12 hours within the narrow confines of the prison yard. For his stake, Wilson pledged his only possession other than the ragged clothes on his back: his father’s watch, which he said he valued “almost as much as my life.” Wilson had been undertaking walking challenges for more than a decade, but never in such unusual circumstances. “This was a feat that appeared so utterly impracticable,” he wrote, “that my challenge was readily accepted.”
Were Whitehead’s only aim to shine an unforgiving light on a redacted chapter of racial terrorism in the American chronicle, that would be achievement enough. What he is doing in his new novel, as in its immediate predecessor, is more challenging than that. While race and its intersection with the American mythos have informed his fiction since his debut, “The Intuitionist” (1998), and played out in an eclectic variety of novelistic genres since (from the coming-of-age reverie “Sag Harbor” to the zombie-populated “Zone One”), he has now produced back-to-back historical novels, in the broadest definition of that term, that in sum offer an epic account of America’s penchant for paying lip service to its original sin while failing to face its full horror and its undying legacy of recidivism.
All in all, however, the novel reminded me of fresh taffy. Warm, salty, a little bitter, and sweet — it pulls the reader in steadily without breaking apart. Elegant prose and imagery grace every page.
The Internet really ought to have killed cookbooks. Recipes—tidy, self-contained packets of information that for centuries were individually swapped and shared, indexed and catalogued—are ideally suited for digital transmission. As they migrated online, liberated from the printed and bound, multiplying giddily, the thousand-recipe doorstops and easy-weeknight omnibus editions that had, for so long, stood in hardcover at the end of the shelf closest to the stove were rendered obsolete. And that should have been the end of it.
Yet, somehow, cookbooks stuck around. In fact, as the rest of the book industry found itself in a post-millennial free-fall, cookbooks were selling better than ever. This is because, coinciding with the rise of the Internet, cookbooks reinvented themselves. What once were primarily vehicles for recipes became anything but: the recipes still mattered, but now they existed in service of something more—a mood, a place, a technique, a voice. Cookbooks of the pre-Internet age remain essential, of course. (What would any kitchen be without the guiding voices of Madhur Jaffrey, Julia Child, Edna Lewis, Harold McGee, and a hundred others?) But, to my mind, the best cookbooks of the twenty-first century are among the very best ever written.
Like water down
the well of your
back, I trace my
touch over the slope
A man is crying—no, convulsing with sobs—on-screen inside a theater in downtown Los Angeles during a pivotal scene in the film The Farewell. He’s at a wedding banquet and he’s supposed to be toasting the newlyweds, but he’s shifted his attention to his mother instead—and, as if at a funeral, he’s weeping. His mother watches, baffled at the way he’s doubled over in grief, not joy. It’s intense. It’s quiet.
And then: Someone sitting close to the screen laughs. The cackle cuts sharply through the silence, and it catches the film’s writer-director, Lulu Wang—there because it’s the L.A. premiere of her breakout hit—off guard.
“The last time I saw [The Farewell] with an audience was at Sundance, and I don’t think there was as much laughter during [that] speech, when he breaks down,” Wang told me the next day, late in June. “It usually gets really quiet and tense in that moment, and then the laughter comes once the camera cuts away from him … But last night, it was almost like—” She raises her voice and mimics the laughter. “Ah ha ha ha! Like, laughing at him?”
Don’t get her wrong: She wasn’t disturbed by the reaction. “I’m not the kind of filmmaker who feels like, You have permission to laugh here, but not there,” she explained. Rather, she was delighted by the unexpected liveliness. “I was just really hoping people didn’t hate it, because it is so personal, and it is my family. If they hated it, then they hate us, in a way, you know?”
One day, I happened to read an essay called “On Some Technical Elements of Style in Literature” by Robert Louis Stevenson. He was talking about sentences, but instead of repeating platitudes, he showed how to construct sentences on the basis of conflict. Instead of just announcing a single thesis, a sentence begins by setting out two or more contrasting ideas; the sentence develops a conflict, intensifying toward a climax, a “knot” Stevenson calls it, and then, after a moment of suspension, slides easily toward a close.
Suddenly, I understood both how to write those lovely lengthy compound-complex sentences and also how to write paragraphs that had nothing to do with topic sentence, body, conclusion patterns (because I could construct a paragraph the way Stevenson constructs his long sentences). Suddenly writing a sentence became an exciting prospect, a journey of discovery, a miniature story with a conflict and a plot, the outcome of which I might not know at the outset.
Writers, like all artists, are willing to give up a lot to keep doing what they love best. But sometimes, reality bites, and dreams have to be put aside in order to put food on the table. That's what happened to Adrian McKinty — but then, with a little help from some friends, he found a way to keep going. The result is his new book, The Chain.
In the summer of 1962, Walter Schirra — who would soon become America's third man to orbit the Earth — walked into a Houston photo supply shop looking for a camera he could take into space.
He came out with a Hasselblad 500C, a high-end Swedish import that had been recommended to him by photographers from Life and National Geographic.
"He was sort of an amateur photographer," Jennifer Levasseur, a curator in charge of the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum's astronaut cameras, says of Schirra. "Somewhere along the line, the decision was made that he could select what camera was flown on his flight."
For many years the origins of this script was a mystery to me. Each time I passed a sign, I would notice the unique and memorable shape of another hand-drawn Chinese character. The English characters, by comparison, were almost always lettered with dull precision. Like their British counterparts, Hong Kong roadsigns use the typeface Transport for their English language text. But the English alphabet, with it’s fifty-or-so glyphs (26 uppercase 26 lowercase and sundry), is hardly the fifty-thousand-odd glyphs in the full repertoire of written Chinese. I guessed that, in the absence of a comprehensive typeface, someone was making one up—sign by sign.
One consequence of this way in which a pilot’s work is so neatly contained is that each flight starts to echo everything else that has an obvious beginning, middle and end. And as I fly through middle age, that’s an increasingly lovely thing. I want to tell my family and friends about it all: how the trees, and much else, were suddenly below me, and how that sight reminded me of the years when that was all I wanted.
But the difference between the 16-year-old who got airborne from Pittsfield and the 45-year-old who touched down in Islamabad is that somewhere along the way I’ve acquired an unexpected love of wholeness. And it’s landings, even the ones in the farthest-off cities, that again and again complete a simple story: I went up and away, and it was marvelous, and then it was time to come home.
with a blank sheet,
an undanced floor,
air where no sound
erases the silence.
One advantage audiobooks have over their physical counterparts – rarely mentioned either by fans or detractors – is that the reader doesn’t speed up or slow down. They force us to devote the same amount of time to each page. It is all too easy when reading a physical book to separate it unconsciously into important and less important sections, to read the latter more quickly, with less attention or to skip them altogether. As long as you don’t fast forward, Juliet Stevenson will make you pay equal attention to all sections of the text and there will be sentences of real beauty and insight in those supposedly less important sections that you will not have noticed before.
For Margaret Renkl, a cedar waxwing is "A flying jungle flower. A weightless coalescence of air and light and animation." The squirrel at her squirrel-proof finch feeder surprises by "pulling it to his mouth like an ear of sweet corn at a Fourth of July potluck." The old dog howls "for his crippled hips" and "because it's his job to protect this house, but he is too old now to protect the house."
The 112 essays in Renkl's first book, Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss, range from seven lines to just over four pages in length. Together they create a jeweled patchwork of nature and culture that includes her own family. This woven tapestry makes one of all the world's beings that strive to live — and which, in one way or another, face mortality.
Can a debut novel be a masterpiece of cultural criticism? Chanelle Benz makes an earnest effort to answer that question in the affirmative. “The Gone Dead” is a startling work that will set your skin tingling and interrupt your sleep. It explores racial issues — old, new and forever unsettled — but to define a novel this sweeping by those terms alone seems too reductionist.
In “The Shanghai Free Taxi,” NPR correspondent Frank Langfitt puts a new twist on the cabbie narrative: He becomes the driver. Langfitt rents, and later buys, a car to drive people around Shanghai and further afield, in exchange only for their stories. (This arrangement came about after he tried to become a registered cabdriver but local taxi companies blocked him.) He meets and follows a range of people, weaving their perspectives into his own commentary on China’s high-speed trajectory. The result is an engaging and dynamic narrative that offers readers an unusual perspective on modern China.
Consider the writer as houseguest. Is it a good idea to invite someone into your home whose occupation it is to observe everything? The writer as host might be no better. Even the most thoughtful guest will undoubtedly interfere with the writer’s productivity during the visit. It’s really no surprise that people who write for a living have given us some of our wisest sayings about a visit’s proper length.
To raise free-thinking kids, though, you also need to let them know that it's OK to question the way things work. You need to give them things that they read again and again and again, until the dumb puns and televangelist jokes and sarcasm sink deep enough into the brain to carry into teenagerdom and adulthood.
And now you'll be able to again. Like so many other people who count MAD among their earliest, most formative influences, I'm saddened by its passing. But as long as its earlier self can start to breed a new generation of smartasses with a frame of reference that extends beyond Fortnite and memes with fruit-fly lifespans, then what—me worry?
Pablo Medina's The Cuban Comedy walks a fine line between poetry and political satire. The story is deeply immersed in post-revolution Cuba, in the crumbling country and unmet needs of its people, but poets and poetry are at its core. The blend makes for tragicomedy with a touch of Spanish; it reads like a combination of legendary Cuban comedian Guillermo Álvarez Guedes' irreverent, foul-mouthed humor and the beautiful strangeness of Alejandro Jodorowsky's prose.
“Even in death the boys were trouble.” The first line of Colson Whitehead’s new novel introduces both its fierce vision and the mordant subtlety with which he ambushes his readers. Why are the boys dead—and what sort of trouble can dead boys have caused?
In The Edible Woman, it is sometimes unclear as to whether Marian is rejecting a subservient mode of womanhood in refusing to eat, or whether her body is rejecting a type of womanhood being foisted upon her. Certainly, Marian sees marriage as a devouring of her personhood and agency, evidenced by the switch to the third-person voice (who is in charge?). Peter tells her what to wear and how to behave. After sex, he asks how it was for her. “Marvelous,” she replies, wondering how he might react if she told him the truth: that it was bad. She talks about feeling “homeless” and “dispossessed,” a state to which she robotically acquiesces after Peter proposes: “‘I’d rather have you decide that. I’d rather leave the big decisions up to you.’ I was astonished at myself. I’d never said anything remotely like that to him before. The funny thing was that I really meant it.”
We almost always assume that a writer is most influenced by other writers. They’ve read piles of books, they’ve decided that their skills best synch up with what a given number of other authors were doing, and they take a bit here, take a bit there, mix that in with their own sensibilities, and voila, a style is born.
I’ve always found this a slipshod way to go, in part because I don’t believe a great author ever has a single style. It’s one reason I rate Hemingway as at best mediocre, and often quite terrible, like the authorial version of some droning, one-note song that can’t leave its initial starting key or augment what it is doing with additional chords.
Losing lunar historical sites is not an abstract concern. With a few crucial exceptions, what happens off-world stays off-world, and activities on the lunar surface are largely unregulated. Various private space actors have already demonstrated a proclivity for celestial shenanigans: Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX, launched his car into space. Rocket Lab, the builder of small rockets, shot a disco ball-like object into orbit from New Zealand. And Vodafone has hinted at building a cell tower on the moon.
More seriously, a modern-day space race between governments and private companies is fast-tracking plans to return both humans and robotic landers to the lunar surface. One of those companies, PTScientists of Berlin, announced a plan to land near — and examine — the site of Apollo 17, where humans last traipsed across the lunar surface. Now, some are saying, it is time to get serious about preserving humanity’s heritage on the moon.
Chris Anderson moves through the Target clearance racks with cool efficiency, surveying the towers of Star Wars Lego sets and Incredibles action figures, sensing, as if by intuition, what would be profitable to sell on Amazon. Discontinued nail polish can be astonishingly lucrative, but not these colors. A dinosaur riding some sort of motorcycle? No way. But these Jurassic Park Jeeps look promising, and an Amazon app on his phone confirms that each could net a $6 profit after fees and shipping. He piles all 20 into his cart.
It’s not a bad haul for a half-hour’s work, but it’s not great either. He consoles himself that he hit upon a trove of deeply discounted Kohl’s bras the day before as he left East Brunswick, New Jersey, on his way here to Edison. Home is still 300 miles away, in Tyrone, Pennsylvania, and there are plenty of stores between here and there.
Anderson is an Amazon nomad, part of a small group of merchants who travel the backroads of America searching clearance aisles and dying chains for goods to sell on Amazon. Some live out of RVs and vans, moving from town to town, only stopping long enough to pick the stores clean and ship their wares to Amazon’s fulfillment centers.
As the United States emerged from the Cold War as the lone superpower in the early 1990s, it endeavored to showcase its singular influence in new ways. In lieu of traditional territorial expansion or colonies, there would be American culture and language along with science and technology, all orbiting out to the world’s far-flung corners. To be sure, a few scattered military bases here and there and a little expression of economic and political clout. And there would be American fast food.
The arrival of iconic chains abroad wove of all of these disparate strands of leverage together. The spread of Big Macs, Blizzards, Whoppers and Frosties projected the American character—approachable and agreeable, charismatic and casual, evangelical and democratic, hectoring and capitalistic. The expansion of fast food also embodied a defining enthusiasm of the era: globalization.
Rory Power's debut novel Wilder Girls combines grotesque physical metamorphosis with the intense bonds of love between teenage girls to create a unique variety of feelings-heightened body horror. If you took the creeping biological corruption that one expects from Jeff VanderMeer and the angry, intense teen girl relationships centered by Nova Ren Suma and mashed them together, they would mutate into this — something fresh and horrible and beautiful.
Girls born to Dutch mothers in the famine
had greater risk of schizophrenia.
Fathers who smoked before puberty
had heftier sons. Just what
On February 10, 2002, in a New York State prison cell, the bestselling author and twice-convicted killer Jack Abbott hanged himself with an improvised noose. That same day, the body of the man I murdered washed ashore on a Brooklyn beach in a nylon laundry bag. My reason for connecting these two events is to try to account for my crime, to understand better why I did it, and to describe what Abbott’s legacy, as a prison writer of an earlier generation, has meant for me as a prison writer in this generation.
Jack Abbott was one of America’s best-known prison writers of the twentieth century, though it can be hard to tell how much this was due to the merits of his work, to the high profile of some of his supporters, who included Susan Sarandon, Christopher Walken, and Norman Mailer, or to the public’s fascination with his propensity for violence. Writing gave Abbott a second chance in life, and in 1981, after serving eighteen years, he was released on parole. Shortly thereafter, he killed again. He never came back from that. His supporters, and even his will to write, deserted him. He died, much as he had lived, alone and angry.
When I started my stretch behind bars in 2002, I had never heard of Abbott. After I read his work, I came to identify with parts of his conflicted character, and I have at times taken inspiration from his writing. But I also resented how Abbott’s actions after he was paroled cemented a mistrust of prison writers and prison writing programs at a time when public opinion was swinging away from the prevailing liberal consensus in favor of rehabilitation.
There are only so many ways to play against the rising sea. Seawalls are one option, but they come with a hidden cost — forcing the sand before them to wash away. For every new seawall protecting a home or a road, a beach for the people is sacrificed.
Adding sand to disappearing beaches is another tactic, but that race against nature lasts only so long as there’s money and enough sand.
Then there’s what scientists and economists and number-crunching consultants call “managed retreat”: Move back, relocate, essentially cede the land to nature. These words alone have roiled the few cities bold enough to utter them. Mayors have been ousted, planning documents rewritten, campaigns waged over the very thought of turning prime real estate back into dunes and beaches.
It’s no secret that American public policy throughout the 20th century endorsed the car—for instance, by building a massive network of urban and interstate highways at public expense. Less well understood is how the legal framework governing American life enforces dependency upon the automobile. To begin with, mundane road regulations embed automobile supremacy into federal, state, and local law. But inequities in traffic regulation are only the beginning. Land use law, criminal law, torts, insurance, vehicle safety regulations, even the tax code—all these sources of law provide rewards to cooperate with what has become the dominant transport mode and punishment for those who defy it.
Tang was not made for space travel, but space travel made Tang famous. The sugary orange-drink powder failed to take off upon introduction to the U.S. market in 1959, but once it launched with American astronauts in the 1960s — labeled just “ORANGE DRINK” — Tang had the world’s best built-in branding. Ads touted it as “For Spacemen and Earth Families,” and it went along on every manned spaceflight for the decade following 1965.
Tang’s never gone away — I’m drinking a glass of it right now. All right, I’m actually looking at it with trepidation: Two full tablespoons of pale powder are called for to make one 8-ounce serving, and the mix is made of sugar, fructose (which is sugar) and citric acid (“PROVIDES TARTNESS”). Natural flavor accounts for less than 2% of Tang, along with ascorbic acid, maltodextrin and more, including the artificial colors that make it glow a lurid tangerine. Its smell is surprisingly strong, a sharp, insistent, artificial citrus note that’s a million miles from the scent of the sun shining on an orange grove.
Hugo Williams’s “lines off” – a stage direction – were written during a period in which he had dialysis, followed by a kidney transplant. Hospitals are dramas in themselves – operating theatres appropriately named. In Transplant 2014, the surgeon is poised to give “the performance of a lifetime” (and let us not forget, Williams once worked as a theatre critic). But sickness and the surgeon’s knife do not necessarily make great poetry. What matters is Williams’s own writerly performance, his ability to rally while undergoing the trials of Job. It is the gallantry of his writing that moves. The raffish intelligence that makes all his poetry a pleasure to read does not desert him in extremis. There is – thank the NHS – never any sense of his being diminished on the page.
Even the vaguely unfinished ending, less a full stop than a sort of pregnant pause, feels somehow right; a fitting coda to her spare, eerie marvel of novel, both beautifully familiar and profoundly strange.
When we speak of translation in these end-of-days, it is often in the loftiest of tones, as though it were a sacred duty undertaken by devoted adepts prostrating themselves before the altar of language. The self is renounced, the greed for authorship forsworn in service of a greater calling, which is no less than bridging the gaps between the peoples and cultures of the world.
This is certainly true if you’re translating, say, Don Quixote, or Heian-period Japanese poetry, or a new novel by Senegal’s latest rising star. But only a small minority of translators have the skill, opportunity, and financial security required to take on such labors of love. The rest of us, to earn a living wage, will have to make do with whatever garbage we can get. By garbage I mean any or all of the following: corporate-speak, brand manifestos, NGO reports, think tank reports, letters from government agencies replying to American oil companies, letters from government agencies replying to human rights organizations, prose written by self-professed wunderkinds whose trust funds and unearned self-confidence are paying for the translation, and that vilest genre of all, the art text.
The halo effect is a type of cognitive bias in which your initial superficial assessment of a person influences your perception of their other, more ambiguous traits. In the name of cultural journalism, I conducted an informal experiment to test this. I posted five different photographs of myself to a website called Photofeeler, which people mostly use for their acting headshots, company photographs, and online dating profiles. Strangers vote on your attractiveness, trustworthiness, and intelligence, and, using a weighted algorithm, the website tells you the percentile you’re in compared with the rest of the people on the website so you can choose the best photograph. The photo of mine that was voted the most attractive—my fingers awkwardly crinkled around a wineglass on a terrasse—was the one in which I was voted smartest and most trustworthy. The photograph in which I was deemed ugliest—sitting in a cab—was the one in which I was voted dumbest and least trustworthy. In every photograph, my perceived attractiveness determined my perceived trustworthiness and intelligence, traits that, of course, are impossible for anyone to actually know from a picture.
In Isaac Asimov’s novel Foundation (1951), the mathematician Hari Seldon forecasts the collapse of the Galactic Empire using psychohistory: a calculus of the patterns that occur in the reaction of the mass of humanity to social and economic events. Initially put on trial for treason, on the grounds that his prediction encourages said collapse, Seldon is permitted to set up a research group on a secluded planet. There, he investigates how to minimise the destruction and reduce the subsequent period of anarchy from 30,000 years to a mere 1,000.
Asimov knew that predicting large-scale political events over periods of millennia is not really plausible. But we all do suspend this disbelief when reading fiction. No Jane Austen fan gets upset to be told that Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy didn’t actually exist. Asimov was smart enough to know that such forecasting, however accurate it might be, is vulnerable to any large disturbance that hasn’t been anticipated, not even in principle. He also understood that readers who happily swallowed psychohistory would realise the same thing. In the second volume of the series, just such a ‘black swan’ event derails Seldon’s plans. However, Seldon has a contingency plan, one that the series later reveals also brings some surprises.
In Deborah Moggach’s latest novel one of the middle-aged characters observes: “One has to make allowances with the elderly. But he didn’t want to. He wanted his old father back, bristling with questions. He didn’t want to treat his dad like an invalid.”
With The Carer, Moggach explores the topical question of care for the elderly and whose responsibility it is. She infuses what could be a dry subject with her trademark humour and pathos, reshaping a societal dilemma into a family drama, by turns compelling and surprising.
Just as it's enlivened countless pop-sci attempts to explicate Hawking's theories, this question provides the emotional and thematic core to Jim Ottaviani and Leland Myrick's new graphic novel. There's little to surprise in Hawking, especially if you know a bit about the subject's life and have a spitting acquaintance with his ideas.
Here it is Ramadan
and I forgot to pray
I can think only of you
Over the years, ambling through flea markets, I have retrieved a number of arcane items familiar from my mother’s long-ago kitchen, now likely candidates for museum collections. My most triumphant find was her heavy iron meat grinder, color of pewter, a complicated affair suggesting a miniature tuba, whose bottom was screwed onto a table or counter. At the top was a funnel, and then the works, concealed in a bulbous arrangement. The funnel mouth was a flat circle punctured by holes. I watched entranced as my mother put a handful of chopped meat or pieces of cooked liver into the funnel, turned the wooden handle round and round, and lo, the meat emerged from the holes transformed into long strings, something like the locks of Medusa or today’s hair extensions, which fell into a waiting bowl. I have this relic displayed on a shelf. I don’t use it when I make a meatloaf but instead toss the ingredients into a bowl and plunge my hands in to mix them. Feeling the ingredients merging, under the agitation of my fingers, into a satisfying consistency, is a great pleasure, comparable to repotting plants and plunging my fingers into the soil to turn it up like a manual Roto-Rooter.
The matter of consistency, in all its possible meanings, has intrigued me ever since I read Italo Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium (1988), a collection of five essays on literature that he intended to present at Harvard as the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures. The literary topics he considers are Lightness, Quickness, Exactitude, Visibility, and Multiplicity. The sixth was to be Consistency, but Calvino died before he could complete it or deliver the lectures. The five existing essays are tours de force of imaginative thinking, laced with examples and infused with his mellow wisdom. What, I wondered, would he have done with Consistency, a slippery word with several meanings?
Sure, you could say that the process is rewarding — but it’s equal parts excruciating. You divulge your insecurities, every character flaw and body part you’d rather will away. You exhibit your fears in high-definition. You’re held to a standard nothing short of judicial: the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Then you field questions from some schmuck who knows nothing about you, except for all of your childhood traumas.
But it’s not therapy. Far from it.
“Write me a creature who thinks as well as a man, or better than a man, but not like a man.” This was the challenge the influential science-fiction editor John Campbell famously issued his authors in the 1940s. It was aimed at producing aliens as fully formed as the interstellar human travelers who encounter them. Isaac Asimov thought the best example was a creature named Tweel from Stanley Weinbaum’s “A Martian Odyssey,” a story from 1934 that preceded the dictum. But the instruction also has the feel of a riddle, and neither Campbell nor Asimov considered its most obvious answer: a woman.
When journalist Lisa Taddeo set out to write a portrait of desire in contemporary America—a book originally intended to follow in the footsteps of Gay Talese’s 1981 bestseller, Thy Neighbor’s Wife—some of the first people she interviewed were men. In the prologue to Three Women, the book she ultimately published, she describes these men’s stories of lusts and peccadilloes as reminding her of the entrees you order from a Chinese restaurant menu again and again. They were tasty, but samey, kung pao chicken in a cardboard container. The stories of the women she interviewed, on the other hand, were another order of delicacy: once-in-a-lifetime meals served under a summer moon, or multilayered Michelin Guide–level culinary extravaganzas.
No other novelist writing in Britain could dramatise this nonagenarian love story with greater verve and tenderness, while never forgetting that this is a resplendently comedic form. Jacobson gives his characters alternating chapters until their accidental union, each setting fragments of the complex past against the present.
Nicholls is increasingly making his name as one of our leading screenwriters – his adaptation of Edward St Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose series was one of the best things on telly in recent years – but here he proves that he can still pull off that most rare and coveted of literary feats: a popular novel of serious merit, a bestseller that will also endure.
TV is personal. And, what’s hard for a critic is that most people in America watch it and would die defending their favorite characters. While her pieces are smart, and certainly exude the New Yorker’s cerebral palate, Nussbaum writes for the fans, no matter what type of television is their jam.
“Real fanhood,” she commiserates, “is at its purest level, love.”
For me, more interesting than the “death of the book” debate has been how artists and authors have experimented with and combined print and digital media to speak to the political and cultural concerns of the present. At times this takes the form of fetishizing the book, as Jonathan Safran Foer does in Tree of Codes (2010). Others have embraced the potentiality of ereading platforms in experimenting with the form of the novel, as with the approach taken by Steve Tomasula in TOC: A New Media Novel (2009). In Between Pen and Pixel, a 2019 Eisner nominee in the category of Best Scholarly Work, Aaron Kashtan persuasively argues that comics are the medium that offers the most insights about the present and the future of the book, largely because of their inescapable physicality. Kashtan writes that, with novels, “we as readers are unlikely to pay attention to the physical attributes of the text we read — unless the author or typographer intentionally calls our attention to those attributes, as in the present sentence.” However, in comics, “the effect of materiality is much harder to ignore. If we want to know how the reading experience will be transformed by changes in its material context, we need to be looking at comics.”
Today, whether we’re doing history or current events, commerce or religion, we’re awash in iconoclasm but nearly bereft of icons. Everyone’s a court jester now, eager to expose the foibles of kings and queens. But the joke’s on us, because we no longer have authority figures to keep in check. We’re needling balloons that have already gone limp.
As a long-time travel writer, I'm frequently asked, "What is the most memorable trip you've ever taken?"
I usually answer with highlights of my latest encounter with a nice lie-flat business class seat, the time I got to fly on the Concorde, or my recent eye-opening trip to Mexico City.
But the real answer, one that I've kept mostly to myself until now, is this: Way back in 1992, at the beginning of my travel writing career, Elton John invited me to London for a whirlwind trip that included being backstage for his concerts at Wembley Stadium, staying over at his townhouse in central London and his rambling estate in Windsor, meeting royals, attending a star-studded garden party and racing around town in police-escorted Bentley limousines.
These nine near-faultless stories are laden with similarly pocketable treasures, not only heralding the arrival of a fully formed, entirely distinctive new voice but reinvigorating the short story itself. In the end, there’s no doubt who the lucky ones are: we, the readers.
Bernard, who uses the gender-neutral pronoun “they”, reminds us that the self is an overlaying of multiple identities, comprised not just of what is remembered and forgotten, but of how one is located in the wider questions of belonging, memory and solidarity.
“Three Women” follows the sex lives of three American women (two are given pseudonyms), exploring the moments of passion that altered their lives. There’s “Lina” an Indiana woman who embarks on a life-changing affair with her high school boyfriend; Maggie, a North Dakota woman now in her late 20s who, when she was a high school student, allegedly had a relationship with her married English teacher; and “Sloane,” a New England restaurateur whose husband enjoys watching her sleep with other people.
The book excavates their upbringings to form three profiles of why these women want what they want, how they became the people they are today and how, consciously or not, they walk the delicate line between sexual subjugation and liberation. Ms. Taddeo said she spent eight years reporting it and drove cross-country six times to interview hundreds of women, eventually settling on the final three.
In the process, Ms. Taddeo began to reflect on her own story. “I got very intrigued by women’s desire, by my own, what I’d done,” she said. “These women had given their whole stories to me and to the world. And I felt like it was only fair that I put myself in there — to some extent to be like, ‘I’m this, too.’”
“I should perhaps try and write a book that is entirely serious, or entirely comic,” he muses. “But it seems to be, for me anyway, the natural way to tell the stories, the natural way to approach life and experience. That it is a mixture of comedy and pain. That sounds melodramatic or pompous, but it feels like the only voice I have.”
A few years ago, the novelist Helen Phillips woke up in the middle of the night to the sound of her young daughter’s screams. She rushed to her bedside but was unable to calm her child, who was stuck in a nightmare, crying: “I want Mommy! I want Mommy!”
“It was one of the most terrifying moments of my life,” Phillips said. “It’s a metaphor for motherhood. There’s always going to be things that they’re confronting that you’re powerless against.”
That moment gave rise to one of the more unsettling scenes in her new book, “The Need,” a thriller that explores the psychological, emotional and physical torments of motherhood. The narrative centers on Molly, a sleep-deprived paleobotanist and mother of two young children, whose harried domestic routine is upended one night by an otherworldly intruder. The interloper represents Molly’s worst fear: that something bad will happen to her children.
Is there a best time in life to make friends? I’ve heard people say it’s your 20s and your 60s, grimly suggesting friendship and child-rearing are mutually exclusive. I’ve read F. Scott Fitzgerald thought it was his 30s and Thoreau was inspired by his 40s. Maybe there isn’t one best time, but you know what is true? It’s always the right time to work on keeping the friends you have.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot, ever since I wrote a novel about a middle-aged woman who sets out to visit four faraway friends over the course of a year. She sets strict rules for each visit, including no social media and no set plans; the friendship itself must be the sole purpose of the trip. On tour and in interviews, I’ve been asked if I went on such a journey myself. I’ve had to say no, I did not. The visits of my narrator, May Attaway, are imagined. Sure, I drew on personal experience—I have friends, and the novel is dedicated to five of them—but I didn’t travel to see them the way May travels in the book.
After telling the story of Susan's death to Stern, Alexander tweeted a note saying, “[Swedberg] was generous and gracious, and I am so mad at myself for retelling this story in any way that would diminish her. If I had had more maturity or more security in my own work, I surely would have taken her query and possibly tried to adjust the scenes with her. She surely offered. But, I didn't have that maturity or security."
Now that we know why Swedberg was written off the show—and have the benefit of 30 years hindsight—it's time to look back at how her performance was ideal for this show. And how the character of Susan brought out the worst—and funniest—in George. It's time to give her the credit she deserves.
I had just landed in Bogotá and was thrilled for this vacation: I was visiting Paula, a friend who was working at the embassy there, and you don’t get better guides than that. I stood on her high-rise balcony and took in the sweeping vista of the city cradled by a neck pillow of mountains. “What should we do?” I asked. “Let’s make a memory.” Paula lit up. She knew just the place. We walked a few blocks away and dipped into a grocery store. “Why are we stopping here?” I asked. She spread her arms, ta-da style. “This is where you want to be,” she said.
I thought it was a prank. But then I saw a pile of tomates de arbol — tree tomatoes — and my curiosity was piqued. I passed the dragonfruit and picked up a waxy green thing. “What’s this?” I asked. Now she thought I was the one pranking her. “That,” she said calmly, “is an avocado, mi amigo.” I turned it in my hand, studied its conspicuous lack of reptilian rind, and looked back at her. “No, seriously. What is it?” She laughed. Grocery-store laughs are pretty much the best kind. Top ten, easy. There’s something intoxicating about a burst of laughter piercing what is otherwise a space for errands and drudgery. Was being an adult in a foreign grocery store the grown-up version of being a kid in a candy store? The citrus tang of lulos! Feijoas! Borojos! Carambolas! Moras! Nísperos! Maracuyas! Guanabanas! Zapotes! Uchuvas! Pivas! Ciruelas! Chontoduras! I learned more in that grocery store than I did the next day at the Museum of Gold.
The Body Lies sets itself large challenges: that fragmentary narrative, including an official complaint and some bureaucratic emails; the difficulty of using violence as a narrative device while questioning the politics of using violence as a narrative device; the task of combining the satire of the campus novel with the high drama of the thriller. Baker is a writer who can make it all work. Beyond the dubious fun of the chase, the pleasure of reading this novel is seeing writerly ambition fulfilled.
Say what you will about writers, but they have some of the best in-jokes. You’ll find plenty of them, starting with the title, in “Very Nice,” Marcy Dermansky’s breezy follow-up to 2016’s “The Red Car.”
You don’t have to be an author to appreciate the novel’s pleasures. This rapid-fire tale, which switches among five narrators, will keep readers entertained even if they don’t fully appreciate the sting of having a writing professor cross out all the “very”s and “really”s and “just”s from your stories.
When Francesca Segal, almost 30 weeks pregnant with identical twins, was told that she needed to have an emergency caesarean, her first reasonable, lunatic thought was whether this meant she had got away with no stretch marks. The right way to respond to becoming a mother has become violently politicised in recent years, but for Segal, plunged in too early, the dominant reflex is a numbed detachment. Some hours previously she had found herself bleeding profusely, but her brain had been unable to compute what was happening. "It seems I am sobbing," she writes. "How odd I hadn't noticed until now."
Segal is the author of two novels about family life, one of which, The Innocents, won the Costa First Novel Award. But this is the first time she has written about her own family life, the first 10 weeks of which were spent with A-lette and B-lette, as her daughters are initially called, in hospital (names, she and her husband Gabe agree, seem "unimportant, compared with the business of keeping them alive").
Hansen is not a hagiographer, and parts of the book are unflattering and depart from official Cuban lore. But the decision to emphasize Castro’s original idealism is nonetheless striking, as it resonates in many ways with the efforts of Cuban institutions since his retirement in 2006, and especially since his death in 2016, to do the same. By contrast, Castro’s personal life after coming to power, together with many things about the government he led, remains a secret of state. Who knows how future biographers’ appraisals may change if those archives — assuming they even exist — ever open their doors?
Much is found in translation. There’s the extraordinary pleasure of having readers in languages I don’t know. But there’s also the way translation makes visible some new aspect of the original text, some influence I didn’t realize it had absorbed. When I think about the Italian translation of my work, I can feel the presence of Italo Calvino and Primo Levi, unnerved and delighted that I mysteriously now share their readership. When I’m translated into Turkish, it is Nâzım Hikmet’s political melancholy I think of. Maybe those who like his work will, reading me in Turkish, find something to like in mine as well? In German, perhaps even more than English, I sense the hovering presences of writers who shaped my sensibility—writers like Walter Benjamin, Thomas Mann, Hermann Broch, and W.G. Sebald, among many others. Thanks to translation, I become a German writer.
I trust my translators utterly. Their task is to take my work to a new cohort of my true readers, the same way translation makes me a true reader of Wisława Szymborska, even though I know no Polish, and of Svetlana Alexievich, even though I know no Russian.
"It doesn't get easier with each book. I don't feel any more confident now than when I started.
"You're revealing part of yourself. You're drawing on something from deep inside and that's exposing."
The trip was a revelation. Whatever uncertainty I’d had about the water—you will find “Corfu and sharks” in my browser history—or my desire to swim through great swaths of it immediately evaporated as we entered the warm, clear, ultra-buoyant sea, watched over by Russell. We would swim twice a day, sometimes hugging the shore, sometimes embarking on crossings of deeper, rougher channels. One day we swam two miles to our hotel from a tall, barren slab of rock our guides called Tooth Island that beckoned mysteriously on the horizon. Sometimes we would swim in and out of coves, looking for colorful fish or elusive crustaceans, exploring tiny, secluded beaches. Midday we would repair to the taverna for a Greek salad. At night we ate fresh fish, drank bottles of Mythos lager, and played Bananagrams.
Nothing you can do in nature is as immersive as ocean swimming. “You are in nature, part and parcel of it,” wrote Deakin, “in a far more complete and intense way than on dry land, and your sense of the present is overwhelming.” Our affinity for water is natural, Lynn Sherr writes in Swim: “We were fish ourselves hundreds of millions of years ago.” Our bodies are mostly water; our blood courses with salt.
A critic, a comic, a historian, a philosopher, and an amateur theologian walk into a bar. “Hello, Professor Eagleton,” the barman says, “What will it be?” If this joke is at all funny, that is because it leads one to expect an interaction between five people who turn out, absurdly, to be one. How could a single person be so many things? But the joke is unoriginal, and the setup is technically flawed. Since the subject of the sentence is singular, the verb should be “walks” not “walk.”
All of which is to show that jokes fall in the scope of rational explanation. We can give reasons why something is funny or why it is not, why a joke works or why it doesn’t. These reasons aren’t just causes, triggers that inhibit or provoke an unintelligible laugh. They help us to make sense of humor.
Like many writers on this topic, Terry Eagleton begins his new book, Humour, by owning the complaint that to analyze humor is to kill it. In fact, Eagleton goes meta: he begins by noting that many writers on the topic begin by noting this and he notes that it isn’t always true. The British comedian Stewart Lee, who may be the best stand-up working today, makes a trademark of analyzing jokes on stage in order to critique the audience response. When we attempt to explain a joke, what we are doing is continuous with this; it is what stand-ups do, to wonderful effect, on Stuart Goldsmith’s podcast The Comedian’s Comedian.
Like “Tubes”, Mr Blum’s book about the hidden infrastructure of the internet (published in 2012), “The Weather Machine” traces the “long supply chain of data” that produces the morning weather report. The smartphone weather app is “the handsome face of a complex and sprawling machine”, a vast operation encompassing awesome supercomputers, tens of thousands of observation stations and over 100 satellites. The book strips this forecasting engine down to its parts, revealing the people and places that keep the gears turning.
For “unfilmable” is often just code for “we tried and it didn’t happen”, an excuse for all the films trapped in development hell, such as John Milton’s Paradise Lost (Bradley Cooper was once lined up to play a hunky Lucifer), and the long-awaited adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. “Unfilmable” can also mean “we tried and did a terrible job”. Stephen King’s Dark Tower series is not unfilmable, but the 2017 take starring Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey might make you wish it was.
Abolishing the clock, like Sommarøy wants to, will only get us so far. Real liberation can only come with a new historical consciousness — by remaking Time, and with it, our whole way of life, anew.
So it is that two new satirical novels set in creative-writing programs, Lucy Ives’s “Loudermilk: Or, the Real Poet; or, the Origin of the World” and Mona Awad’s “Bunny,” engage with the chimera of “the real deal.” They are set, respectively, in a version of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a version of Brown University and are authored by graduates of those institutions. These books constitute a kind of institutional critique, to borrow a term from the art world, or an institutional autofiction, to adapt an existing literary term. On the one hand, the satirical tone of these novels tips us off that the institutions being portrayed are fundamentally defective. And yet the pages in our hands are tangible counterfactuals! Because isn’t the published novel—the material proof every candidate longs for—evidence of these institutions’ success? Here is the M.F.A. program becoming self-conscious, displaying both impatience with and anxiety over the criterion of authenticity.
At the start of her intelligent and moving new novel, Lost and Wanted, Nell Freudenberger sets her plot into motion by having her protagonist, Helen, receive a call from her friend Charlie. The strange thing is — and there’s no way to describe the setup without it sounding like the twist ending of a mediocre summer camp ghost story — Charlie’s dead. Her passing is very recent; her phone is missing; and the reader confronts a mystery. Is the caller a thief? A ghost? Someone from another dimension?
The New Me is a depressing novel. It’s about a depressed young American woman called Millie, who works in a depressing temp job, while spiralling into even greater depression at the prospect that the job might become permanent. It is also bleakly funny: “I think I’m drawn to temp work for the slight atmospheric changes,” Millie writes. “The new offices and coworkers provide a nice illusion of variety. Like how people switch out their cats’ wet food from Chicken to Liver to Sea Bass, but in the end, it’s all just flavored anus.”
Many of the acclaimed advances in modern fundamental theoretical physics have yielded no predictions that can be tested in the near future. But that is no reason to despair. Galileo said: “Nature’s great book is written in mathematical symbols.” It would be foolhardy not to read it.
Moe Moskowitz, the co-founder of Moe’s Books in Berkeley, was known for a lot of things: his omnipresent cigars; his appalling dancing (sometimes to Cab Calloway on the store’s turntable); his political activism; and especially the way he held court at the cash register, riffing like Jackie Mason at a Friars Club podium.
The more you know about Moskowitz (1921-1997), who opened the store in 1959, the Beatnik era, with his wife, Barbara, the more you want to know. He was brusque and a bit of a slob. He drove his sports car like a maniac. One of his former employees has written about his “famous flatulence.”
Octopuses, for example, have been seen unscrewing jar lids to get at hidden food, carrying coconut shells to use as armor, barricading their den with stones, and squirting jets of water to deter predators or short out aquarium lights.
But why did they become intelligent in the first place? Why did this one group of mollusks, among an otherwise slow and dim-witted dynasty of snails, slugs, clams, oysters, and mussels, evolve into creatures that are famed for their big brains? These are hard questions to answer, especially because cephalopods aren’t just weirdly intelligent; they’re also very weird for intelligent animals.
It is a terrible thing to read a Paul Tremblay story.
Terrible because you know, going in, that it's probably going to mess you up. That his stories and his words have this way of getting under your skin. Of crawling inside you like bugs and just ... living there. They become indistinguishable from memory. They become a part of all the cells and goop that make you you.
It's terrible to read these stories, but you do it anyway. I do it anyway. Like smoking cigarettes or driving too fast late at night, I know they're bad for me, dangerous, but that's part of the allure, I guess. They're fun because they're dangerous. Because, word by word and title by title, I can feel the damage accruing. The scars.
Of course, we’ve no shortage of gruesome writers, particularly in the thriller genre, but that’s not Jones’s technique. She excels, instead, at drawing us into tender sympathy with her characters even as she coolly subjects them to the most monstrous treatment. The result is hypnotic — like staring into the serpent’s eyes just before it strikes.
What made “The Starry Night” a star? What elevated Vincent van Gogh from an unknown to a phenomenon? The ready answer is genius, but unlaureled genius is axiomatic. In Clare Clark’s terrific new novel, “In the Full Light of the Sun,” the story of van Gogh’s posthumous rise to fame bursts from history like a spurt of the artist’s beloved chrome yellow from a tube of paint.
All swimming pools, however, deal in the unnatural. Southern California is the modern heartland of this glorious folly. Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974), in which the diversion of water away from Owens valley to Los Angeles is likened to an incestuous act of rape, still resonates. The city is now precariously fire-whipped, yet remains irrigated by dreams of oases in the desert as architectural firms woo their clients with rippling designer status symbols, above all the almost ubiquitous infinity pool that seeks to shimmer away the very boundary between earth and heaven.
Two new books invite us to reimagine the pool’s evolving cultural status. Splash is a clinically luxurious boutique of contemporary pool design, in which people are almost wholly absent and there are in fact no splashes. By contrast, The Swimming Pool in Photography is an astonishingly rich album of boisterous visual pageantry, documenting those who frolicked about the pools of the 20th century.
A Macintosh PowerBook 160: she’d left it to me in her will, along with her books, but it had sat, plastic and inert, a thwarted life of the mind, her mind, a mind that I crammed into a box and stored in the back of the cupboard where I keep my fabric, yards of cambric and calico and gingham. So this spring I yanked it out of the cupboard and hauled it out of the box. I plugged in a power cord attached to an adapter the size of a poundcake, but when I pried open the laptop sharp bits of steel-gray plastic broke off like chipped teeth, and the hinges cracked, and the screen fell away from the keyboard and dangled, like a mostly decapitated head, the Anne Boleyn of Apples. I propped the screen up against the wall and pressed the power button. It made that noise, the chime of Steve Jobs’s doorbell, but nothing happened, so I pressed a bunch of keys and fussed with some parts that seemed to move, and I cursed, until my fourteen-year-old figured out that I had set the brightness to black. He fixed that, and the screen blinked at me, as if blinded by its own light, and then a square Macintosh-computer face turned into a thick black arrow pointing at her hard drive, which, I discovered, she’d named Cooper, for my old dog, a lame yellow Lab, long since dead and buried.
All historians are coroners. I began my inquest. I hunted around this tiny-screen world of black and white, poking at the membrane of her brain. I clicked on a folder named “personal” and opened a file called “transitions notes.” Microsoft Word version 5.1a 1992 popped up, copyrighted to the kid in graduate school we’d pirated our software from; she’d never updated hers. “Transitions” turned out to be notes she’d taken on a book published in 1980 called “Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes,” by William Bridges, who’d started out as a professor of American literature, a scholar of transcendentalism. She was always falling for this stuff, stuff I hated. The endless therapy, the what-color-is-your-parachute quizzes, the courage-to-heal to-do lists, the lifelong self-examination, the bottomless well. Bridges ended up a management consultant, an adviser to C.E.O.s engaged in downsizing. Transitions? Joblessness. “Jane, that stuff is crap,” I’d say, and she’d smile, and shrug, and go back to her book, Oprah for intellectuals, Freud for feminists, mother yourself, the latest claptrap.
The Soviet Union, it must be remembered, was a regime founded by freelance writers and editors. In other words, a nightmare. Pamphleteers, autodidactic theoreticians, critics, publishers of small journals, hot-take artists, takedown artists, and failed poets who’d reinvented themselves as labor organizers—fractious and at constant war with one another, literary people through and through.
If we imagine the early Soviet Union as a hierarchical publishing company, a magazine or new media outfit like The New Republic or BuzzFeed, Lenin was the founder and publisher, Trotsky was the deputy editor, and Stalin was the seemingly humble managing editor. As anyone who has worked in publishing knows, the managing editor is the hardest worker. They make sure the deadlines are met and the trains run on time. They are, above all, reliable. This particular managing editor takes no vacations, never leaves town. He lives for the work, strives to appear to be the mere executor of the will of the publisher and the company.
When the publisher becomes very sick, it is the managing editor who visits him at home to cheer him up with jokes and receive his instructions. By bringing the boss’s instructions back to the office from on high, he leverages this personal relationship and increases his authority within the organization. It’s not hard to see how Stalin’s ascent within the Bolshevik hierarchy happened. We’ve all seen this person before. When the publisher dies, no one suspects the managing editor of harboring ambitions to take over. But really, who better understands the day-to-day functioning of the organization, who better to be in charge?
A few years ago, a scientist named Nenad Sestan began throwing around an idea for an experiment so obviously insane, so “wild” and “totally out there,” as he put it to me recently, that at first he told almost no one about it: not his wife or kids, not his bosses in Yale’s neuroscience department, not the dean of the university’s medical school.
Like everything Sestan studies, the idea centered on the mammalian brain. More specific, it centered on the tree-shaped neurons that govern speech, motor function and thought — the cells, in short, that make us who we are. In the course of his research, Sestan, an expert in developmental neurobiology, regularly ordered slices of animal and human brain tissue from various brain banks, which shipped the specimens to Yale in coolers full of ice. Sometimes the tissue arrived within three or four hours of the donor’s death. Sometimes it took more than a day. Still, Sestan and his team were able to culture, or grow, active cells from that tissue — tissue that was, for all practical purposes, entirely dead. In the right circumstances, they could actually keep the cells alive for several weeks at a stretch.
When I met with Sestan this spring, at his lab in New Haven, he took great care to stress that he was far from the only scientist to have noticed the phenomenon. “Lots of people knew this,” he said. “Lots and lots.” And yet he seems to have been one of the few to take these findings and push them forward: If you could restore activity to individual post-mortem brain cells, he reasoned to himself, what was to stop you from restoring activity to entire slices of post-mortem brain?
Direct-to-consumer artisanal food products, from coffee to olive oil to chai to chili crisp, are proliferating. A lot of them a really good. Storytelling has become a tedious marketing buzzword, but these businesses live or die by clarity of their message. And so a select few choose to tell their stories through small, personal, quirky paper publications, which their creators call zines.
One way to get a handle on Orner is to observe that he writes short. His stories tend to be three or four pages, gone in the blink of an eye, though some are longer. In his novels, he keeps the chapters clipped tight, too. Rarely are these chapters more than a few hundred words. Wham, bam, thank you, ma’am. Here’s your hat, what’s your hurry?
Reading him I recalled Clive James’s crack that some literary magazines fetishize brief stories, “as if written specifically for people who are bright but tired.”
Long is the history of the romanticized solitary retreat into the cabin. Thoreau, of course, had his Walden. To the woods he went! Where life is more pure! The woods, unfinked in the ways he felt civilization finks on life. Simplicity! Not so simple. As in any act of meditation, it seems as though the very act of tuning out the buzz of human voices only serves to amplify one’s own. As the famous origin story of 4’33” goes, John Cage sat in a room with no echo, as silent as we can contrive, and was assaulted by the sounds of his own nervous system. And then there was Justin Vernon, of Bon Iver renown, who, following a series of illnesses and lamenting the mediocre state of his life, isolated himself in his father’s hunting cabin and recorded his ode to peace-of-mind, For Emma, Forever Ago. Vernon would go on to critique the romanticization of the hunting cabin in the folklore of the late-naughties, saying, “It’s sort of odd to look back and see it as magical, because it felt like a lonely few months at the cabin, where I plugged in the laptop and fucked around.” The archetypal cabin, it seems, is doomed to Thomas Kinkade galleries.
When Pablo Picasso was 19, his best friend killed himself. The struggling artist soon began wandering from the Montmartre apartment where he was crashing in 1901 to the Saint-Lazare women’s prison and sanitorium. The bleak facility’s inmates often had been arrested for solicitation or petty crime, then detained because they carried syphilis, which back then was an incurable disease that might lead to blindness, disfigurement, madness or death. Tumbling into a cavernous depression, Picasso decided to paint the people he found confined here, many of them mothers locked away alongside their children.
While writing The Blue Period, a novel exploring the years during Picasso’s youth when he depicted the downtrodden in nocturnal shades, I drenched myself in these haunting Saint-Lazare portraits—Femme aux Bras Croises, Femme Assisse au Fichu, Materniteé—and reflected on the means by which the canvasses so concisely express the troubles of our existence.
How might writers, I began to ask, bring such poignancy and pathos to the page?
When I Google the term “salmon burger” now I’m presented with recipes that insist that following the steps outlined will produce an actually good salmon burger, like it’s some sort of mythical white... er... salmon. When I search specifically for restaurant salmon burgers, there are few results, and even fewer are restaurants I’ve ever heard of. But salmon burgers were once good, or at least perfectly fine and much better than many other sandwiches that persist on basic restaurant menus (grilled chicken comes to mind). Crab cakes — a not entirely dissimilar seafood patty — have secured a permanent and beloved place in the American diet. So why not salmon burgers?
Writing about fairies against a backdrop of rising rationalism is one thing, but what really complicates the picture is the fact that Kirk was an Episcopalian minister, having succeeded his father at Aberfoyle in 1685, and having served a neighboring district for two decades before that. And yet, Kirk did not appear to see anything contradictory about his position. He seemed more or less at ease with a nexus of religion, rationalism, and the supernatural, even if he felt some need to justify his project in both Christian and Enlightenment terms. An open-minded, non-judgmental chronicler, Kirk treats the fairy stories of his parishioners, which form the bulk of his inquiry, with face-value seriousness, deploying ample quotation of biblical verses, as well as his own solid reasoning, to prove that there is no inconsistency in believing in both the Kingdom of God and the realm of faery. The result is a book that is at once a wonder-filled compendium of supernatural delights and a neatly structured argument.