A black hole could swallow us. An asteroid could fall crashing from the sky. The Higgs field, which permeates space and determines the properties of elementary particles, could sigh and shudder, causing and the cosmos as we know it to flicker out like a dream.
But the other half of my job consists of reminding people of all the wondrous, even miraculous, things that atoms and elementary particles can do: form stars, planets, cat videos, the aurora borealis, us.
Just because these things are not permanent doesn’t mean they aren’t worthy of our awe and love.
Not long ago, I discovered a striking coincidence: thirty years earlier, my father also dressed up as a doctor to sneak into the same hospital, with a different purpose—to visit his older brother who had lung cancer, and slip him prohibited foodstuffs outside of visiting hours. My uncle’s terminal illness became the nucleus of family stories of loss and misfortune, and meant I grew up in the shadow of a corpulent man felled in his prime by a rare carcinoma at the age of forty. In time, I realized this preoccupation with cancer wasn’t limited to my family, but that it distills most of our society’s fears and obsessions. Guilt, luck, karma, heredity, suffering, and mortality are just some of the coordinates that guide or mislead us when we face the emperor of all maladies, as Siddhartha Mukherjee calls it.
My father loathes the word cancer, to which he attributes ominous powers. A taboo. On the other hand, many people overuse it, to refer not to the out-of-control proliferation of cells, but to politicians, corruption, and bad habits. Reggaetón is the cancer of our society, they say. A man recently wrote on Facebook that feminism is the cancer of our age. (If I didn’t object to the metaphor in general, I’d say guys like him are the cancer of our age.) Maybe we should all dress up as doctors to tame this word, so feared yet overused; to tame the word cancer in a cultural sense, and at the same time, through science, free ourselves from its fury.
He had his green jacket on. I know because I saw it myself. He walked in the green forest, and beside him walked a tiger. He walked in the green forest, and he looked up at the leaves. I see that the light shimmers in his hair, which is the same color as the tiger’s pelt. He walks alone. He doesn’t understand why he’s alone. But he has his tiger. He had his tiger. He lays his hand on its strong back, and I see that he’s untroubled. Now the road turns, he disappears around the bend, the path leads him deeper and deeper into the green forest. He was untroubled. He didn’t know why he was alone. Beside him walked a tiger.
It’s impossible to read about a tower block in flames without thinking of Grenfell, and while the author’s note says that the tragedy wasn’t her inspiration, she does dedicate the book to the Grenfell residents, and it brings the needlessness and horror of those events to life.
There isn’t something inherently radical about drawing oneself, but to render the female body at all risks opening an artist up to scrutiny. When my first book, a graphic memoir, came out, I was surprised by reviews that called attention to the way I looked. “The abundance of self-portraits makes her author photo on the back flap oddly unsettling,” wrote one review, “Because it both clearly resembles yet subtly contradicts the character in her artwork.” I’d drawn myself both as too real, and not real enough.
Soon I started questioning my own body every time I sat down to draw. Should I cut out that fat roll or should I accentuate it? Do I smooth out my hair? I often take reference photos of myself before I draw difficult poses. In one, my nipples showed through my tank top slightly. Should I draw them, then, I wondered? What will it mean if I have nipples? What will it mean if I don’t have nipples?
The Peanuts characters are among the most iconic kids in American culture, right up there with the March sisters and Tom Sawyer. But kids, really? Most college-educated adults I know would be thrilled to attain Linus’s level of erudition; he is, after all, conversant with the writings of Dostoyevsky, Orwell, and the apostle Paul. Then there is the business of Schroeder playing Beethoven on his toy piano, and Lucy moonlighting as a psychiatrist, and Sally raging in one strip against “middle-class morality,” and pretty much all the characters’ impossibly articulate access to their every passing emotion. And I am only scratching the surface of Peanuts’ absurd precocity.
It all started on a weekend away for the Booksluts, a Sydney book club with the motto “We’ll read anything.” Six of the group’s eight regular members were discussing “Crime and Punishment,” and talking about the club’s upcoming tenth anniversary, which they dreamed of celebrating with a Trans-Siberian Railway trip. They jokingly decided that they would fund the trip by writing a novel together. Much vodka had been consumed by this point, and plot discussions degenerated into mass hysterics.
But the next morning the friends went out and bought butcher paper and Sharpies and spent all day brainstorming. They decided that their novel would be a rural romance, set in the Australian outback, and agreed on the backstory of their heroine, a city girl who inherits the farm where her father—now mysteriously disappeared—grew up. Sparks would fly when she meets the handsome (and engaged) cattle farmer next door.
Dedicated birdwatchers can identify a bird even when they do not have time to note its distinguishing marks of plumage and song. A skilled birder can tell you the breed from its general impression, size and shape, even if it is just a blur flying past in the dusk. A writer’s voice is like that, too, perhaps. A skilled reader can spot it from a single sentence flashing by.
This wasn’t just coincidence. It’s exactly what Mr. Gladwell’s towering success — his five best-selling books, his six-figure speaking fees, his top-rated podcast — rests on: the moment when the skeptic starts to think that maybe we’re wrong about everything and maybe, just maybe, this Mr. Gladwell guy is onto something.
Nearly 20 years and millions of sales after his nonfiction debut, Mr. Gladwell is at something of a professional tipping point. He elicits from readers the kind of polarized reactions usually reserved for talk-radio hosts. To one camp, he is a master storyteller, pithily translating business concepts and behavioral science to a lay audience. To others, he is a faux intellectual, dressing up ordinary truths (such as an “Outliers” argument that success results from a combination of hard work and opportunity) as counterintuitive genius. How “Talking to Strangers” is received could cement Mr. Gladwell in one of those camps for good.
That’s right. You can say no to the back-to-school Read-a-Thon. No three cheers for finishing a book or dollar for every book read. No bonus iPad time if she would please finish one chapter of a single chapter book.
Just as reading shouldn’t be a punishment, it shouldn’t be rewarded. It shouldn’t be work and it shouldn’t be required to earn time for play. Reading isn’t something to plow through determinedly, accounting for each title.
It was 97 degrees in Sunrise, Florida, in late May—the kind of weather that’s practically destined to cause heatstroke, especially for someone wearing a vest, goggles, rubber boots, and a hard hat. But Joseph Kavana didn’t seem to notice the sweat that had soaked through his blue button-up and pooled around his chest and armpits. The 70-year-old first purchased the 65 acres we were standing on more than 20 years ago and was, finally, on the precipice of transforming it into his vision of utopia, what he’s dubbed Metropica. So passionate was the developer about his project that he probably would never have taken me back to the air-conditioned leasing office to finish his presentation if I had not stated outright that I was about to faint.
Once safely inside, Kavana returned to explaining what that vision amounts to. Turns out it’s an Instagram-friendly mall that you can live in—one that happens to be smashed up against the side of an enormous swamp.
What holds “The Grammarians” aloft, ultimately, is its riveting love story — not the tale of the twins or their respective marriages but of their deep bond with language. “We are alone,” Daphne thinks in a moment of profound grief. “And our lives are as meaningless as a single, lonely letter, an s with just a hiss that meant nothing, a p sputtered, a t of staccato disapproval.” Even as she rails against the limits of language, she can’t help proving its power to console, or at least to distract with its beauty. To quote another midcentury musical the girls would likely have grown up hearing: “If that’s not love, what is?”
IT gets knocked all the time for being an undisciplined book. Reviewers use words like “baggy” and “overstuffed” (and sometimes “cocaine addiction”) but for me at least, IT provided a great lesson in how to create a narrative. First, the book’s structure taught me that books had structure, that an author orchestrated a story. They didn’t just pop out fully formed, like narratives were Athena and all writers were Zeus.
Thanks to King’s habit of writing garrulous introductions to his books, he gave his readers the sense that these books had been written by a person, with a life that was unfolding at the same time as his readers’. And since he was my First Adult Author, he wasn’t a Long Dead Edwardian like L.M. Montgomery, or a Long Dead Victorian like Louisa May Alcott, or a Long Dead, uhhh, Pioneer Person(?) like Laura Ingalls Wilder. He was alive now, he sat at a desk in Maine and wrote this book I was holding. He wrote introductions to his books where he explained his inspirations, and later he wore nonfiction books about writing and horror as a genre. This was his job, and he did it with thought and care. Which is why, I think, that I noticed the book’s structure itself, the way the sections bounce between the Losers Club of 1985, their younger selves in 1958, horrible interludes that show us Pennywise’s murders, terrifying side plots with Henry Bowers and Bev’s disgusting husband Tom, all weaving together to the final confrontation with IT. And this created a particular reading experience that has stuck with me ever since.
My stove and I have been at odds for some time now. Beautiful and wasteful, it is the kind that is ubiquitous in Los Angeles kitchens of a certain vintage and which has chrome fins like a muscle car. And like those muscle cars, it is a gas guzzler. Aside from the standard four burners, there is a griddle as big as an atlas, and a multi-tiered “broyl-oven” (also branded, in mid century ad-speak, as a Grillevator). And most of all, a whopping five pilot lights to keep it all going. When I wipe down the stovetop, my sponge sizzles. It emits heat like a radiator through the winter season, and after a first sweltering summer in the apartment, I learned to cut the gas on the hottest days.
But as the news comes in more and more about the warming planet and the runaway waste that is fueling it, I’ve tried to put myself in the mindset of a 1942 manual for cooking during wartime, gorgeously written by M.F.K Fisher in an era of strict rationing. Though Fisher is better known for sumptuous reflections on food like Serve it Forth and Consider the Oyster, it is her book on austerity that has set me on a path towards winning that battle against the oven. So in spite of the awkward shuffling of burner covers and matches it takes to re-light the stove, in between meals I tighten the valve and let those five busy pilot lights go out.
It took me a while to start noticing how pervasive a symbol trees are. I grew up surrounded by them—large, fibrous palm trees and stone pines with fragrant resin on the French Riviera, the stately oak and the blazing maple in the front yard of our Michigan house—and this had made me take them for granted. They were just there, part of the larger, textured fabric of life. Unlike mountains and oceans, they did not feel remote from human experience and therefore unknowable. I could have been a tree. We all could have. It was just a matter of chance DNA rearrangements.
But trees are everywhere as symbols and ciphers, both of ourselves and of the spiritual structures we have designed to make sense of the world. In this Anthropocenic age, looking to them as a source of a deeper understanding of what life actually is is not just rewarding but absolutely vital, and writers have picked up on the urgency of such an enterprise. Richard Powers’ Pulitzer-winning novel The Overstory, for example, which follows the meandering and intersecting paths of tree defenders, attests to the importance of relating to trees not as inert things that characterize certain landscapes, but as dynamic life-systems that actively engender and shape everything around them in ways we may overlook. Powers’ human characters are there mainly to give us some sense of scale—namely, that we are not much and yet are terribly, utterly destructive—and some sense of time.
Buying an air conditioner is perhaps the most popular individual response to climate change, and air conditioners are almost uniquely power-hungry appliances: a small unit cooling a single room, on average, consumes more power than running four fridges, while a central unit cooling an average house uses more power than 15. “Last year in Beijing, during a heatwave, 50% of the power capacity was going to air conditioning,” says John Dulac, an analyst at the International Energy Agency (IEA). “These are ‘oh shit’ moments.”
Why hurricanes elevate our mood—lift us out of a malaise we might not even know we’re sunk in—is a rich question for philosophers, novelists, and people who like philosophy and novels. It’s deepened by the fact that our giddiness often comes spiked with guilt, and a revulsion at ourselves for hoping for, and enjoying, something so destructive.
But the thrill of storms may not just be a psychological phenomenon. A branch of science called biometeorology attempts to explain the impact of atmospheric processes on organisms and ecosystems. Biometeorologists study, among other topics, how the seasons affect plant growth, how agriculture depends on climate, and how weather helps spread or curb human diseases. For decades now, a faction have looked at how charged particles in the air, called ions, might alter our psyches as they wing in on the wind.
Arrogantly, I have always believed that I am more myself in water than on land. It’s just the way that water, like any true celebrity, makes one feel known and held, so long as there is air in our lungs.
When I quit my full-time job in July, I decided to resituate myself by swimming in as many outdoor public pools as I could physically take. The city of Toronto hosts a constellation of fifty-eight outdoor pools-fifty-seven currently swimmable-so I didn’t lack for water, and being newly unemployed, for time. This wasn’t about discovering the biggest or best in the city. Rather, I was inclined to find a path in them, so that I could feel as if I were, dear lord, going somewhere. As in John Cheever’s short story “The Swimmer,” I assigned myself the task of swimming home, moving through the neighborhoods and communities that, side by side, would bring me back to myself.
It’s fascinating work, but lately, something else is pulling me back to my computer late at night. I get carried away in such guilty pleasure that if my husband walks in unexpectedly, I’m prone to click off my screen as if hiding an online affair, or a gaming addiction.
But it’s neither. I’m writing poetry. I hadn’t realized how badly I’ve missed language, the weight of words, their rhythms and tastes on the tongue. Oh, I love telling a story: beginning, middle, end. But there’s delight in telling a moment: the world turned over by a sudden encounter of unacquainted thoughts.
There are an endless number of ways investigators do this, but Rambam says most of his snoops begin the same way: By going to the last place the person was seen alive and picking up the trail from there. “We start with the last known address, the last known location they were and the last known associates they were with,” he explains. “This is one of the few times where fiction and real life are the same.”
When the last place a person was seen alive was a body of water and their remains don’t turn up within a few weeks of their disappearance, Rambam says pseudocide immediately becomes a consideration (that’s also when insurance companies and other clients start blowing up his phone). If he looks into it further and finds out that the person who vanished in that water was in serious debt or that they were “some kind of reluctant witness or litigant who has the resources to disappear in a puff of smoke,” he says it’s “just the most obvious thing. We see it all the time.”
It’s hard not to hear authorial anxiety in the question, and there is pathos in Crain’s awareness of the quixotic nature of his project—and of the fact that, considered in conventional terms, it might well be judged irrelevant. Viewed ungenerously, the unconvincing plot elements of cyberespionage and comic-book telepathy might seem a claim to fashionable relevance made on behalf of this decidedly unfashionable book. But, at its best, the novel makes a more difficult, more convincing claim, one I was grateful for in an age obsessed with subject matter: that, in the sharpening of our senses and accoutrement of our sensibilities, the more profound relevance of literature lies in form.
Steinberg’s latest novel is a text that if you only read it once, you feel like you’ve missed everything important… but you do realize just how important it is, so you must turn back to page one immediately before it’s too late. Before the girls let another boy touch them; before the fathers say another harsh word to their daughters, before the girl jumps into the dark and turbulent water below; because you know she cannot be saved, but the only thing that will keep her alive is to keep reading.
Submerged in the depths of depression during college, I wandered into a rare book store on Manhattan’s West Side in search of momentary peace. There, the glimmer of a 35th anniversary edition of The Phantom Tollbooth caught my eye.
I had savored reading and rereading The Phantom Tollbooth back in elementary school. Popular with generations of young readers, it tells the story of a boy named Milo who complains of endless boredom and finds a mysterious package in his room. In it, he discovers a fantastical world called the Lands Beyond that he must navigate to free twin princesses who are imprisoned in the Castle in the Air. The book charts these territories with such vivid specificity that young readers feel as if they are entering too.
If there’s any universal truth, it’s that rejection happens to all of us at some point – especially in publishing. Most writers have entertained at least one 3am fantasy about an editor coming crawling back. Even Animal Farm was rejected by Faber & Faber, a decision now (understandably) regretted.
Orwell’s rejection is just one of many that have made their way into legend. Extravagant rejections of authors, from JK Rowling to Vladimir Nabokov, fascinate all of us. We like to remember that geniuses are fallible, and that nobody gets it right every time. But apart from these famous stories, we don’t talk about the everyday experience of rejection in the arts, and its role in the creative process. By venerating these big stories of rejection we make rejection itself feel remarkable, when it’s actually the norm.
Our motel for the night was surrounded by fields and cornfields. We checked in and parked in front of our room. I unloaded my bags, changed into my bathing suit, and headed to the outdoor pool. And I took a book with me: an Everyman’s Library collection of James Merrill’s poetry. I bought it in Paris this January, at the Abbey Bookshop. The Abbey Bookshop is snug and crowded—there are lots of piles everywhere—which I like. You can search through the stacks and see what you find. I keep many of my books at home in stacks, so I find the bookstore’s stacks comforting. That day, I was trying not to buy anything as my suitcase was already pretty full, but this book was perfect because it was so small: just the size of my palm. I put it in my purse and carried it around the city for the week and read it in cafés and on park benches. And then when I got home, I left it in my purse, so I would always have some Merrill if I needed him.
It seemed funny that my book was in rural Virginia now, far from Paris.
The San Francisco peninsula is the ideal environment for commuter rail. Here, even the wealthy use public transit in large numbers, and that's been true for decades. The Peninsula's rail-friendly geography—a linear string of suburbs 50 miles long but never more than about 5 miles wide, hemmed in by bay and mountains—ensures you're never too far from a train station. Most of these suburbs have a historic, walkable main street or downtown district not far from the station, too, like a string of pearls on the necklace that is the Caltrain line.
So wouldn't you kill to have your business right at one of these stations enjoying its steady stream of foot traffic? Or your apartment right nearby where you can head out your door and hop on the train? These are spectacularly convenient, desirable locations; they should be the most developed places in their respective cities, and we should see the intensity of land use gradually drop off to low-rise offices and single-family homes as we move away from them. We’re far more likely to see just that in other countries with rail: commuter rail stations in suburban France, Spain, the Netherlands, Japan, and so forth are hubs of concentrated, walkable development. So why do so many of the Caltrain stations look like if you waved a magic wand and made the rails and boarding platform vanish, you’d never know they had been there?
One rainy Monday, shortly after her 21st birthday, Ella Risbridger left her London apartment, intent on ending her life. “I had fallen out of love with the world,” she writes in her book “Midnight Chicken.” Depressed and anxious, she had recently quit her job; she rarely left her apartment, except on that particular day when she tried to step in front of a bus headed to Oxford Circus. That this plan failed is thankfully evident in the beautiful book she has written about her life before and since.
“Midnight Chicken” is ostensibly a cookbook — there are more than 80 recipes here, from breakfast to dessert — but it’s more than a list of instructions on how to make a really good roasted chicken, proper Bolognese or salted caramel brown butter brownies. It’s a candid account of how making these foods — or any foods, really — can be a profoundly rejuvenating experience. It is also, slyly, a love story that takes a bittersweet turn halfway down the first page of acknowledgments.
Shortly after the griddle is flipped on at Mama’s Chicken in Hyde Park, the day’s parade of customers starts to trickle in. Pickup orders are called out from a worn formica counter in back: biscuit sandwiches, hot cakes, wings, cheeseburgers, tacos, red beans and rice.
But no self-respecting regular strolls out of Mama’s with just breakfast (or lunch) in hand. An esteemed institution in South Los Angeles, the 55-year-old market’s claim to fame, and perpetual bestseller, is its chicken sausage links, sold in 2- and 5-pound boxes, each emblazoned with the bold claim: “The Best in the World.” On holiday weekends, when the store might go through a few hundred pounds of sausage a day, lines can stretch into the parking lot.
As the narratives of Quichotte and his creator start to merge, the novel’s focus on lost children reunited with their fathers and estranged siblings reconciling grows sharper. Its simplest elements achieve its most moving effects. Set against the backdrops of Trump’s America, Brexit Britain and Modi’s India, Quichotte is also the story of Muslim migrants passing through hostile territory, a tale of rescue and escape. In this case, Rushdie’s maximalist mode is a perfect fit for a moment of transcontinental derangement.
Many awaken wishing they’d drunk less the night before. Many fewer wish they’d drunk more. Shortsightedness is also common among nonhuman animals. Birds, for example, often choose small but immediately available portions of food over much larger ones that arrive after a brief delay.
How might we mitigate losses caused by shortsightedness? Bina Venkataraman, a former climate adviser to the Obama administration, brings a storyteller’s eye to this question in her new book, “The Optimist’s Telescope.” She is also deeply informed about the relevant science.
I am writing this on a laptop in a room designed almost entirely for reading physical books—a room that now bears “the ghostly imprint of outdated objects,” as Price puts it. Prolonged arrangement of the body in relation to a book seems to require a whole range of supporting matter—shelves, lamps, tables, “reading chairs”—not strictly necessary for the kinds of work a person does on a screen. Take away the book and the reader, and the whole design of the room starts to feel a little sad, the way a nursery feels once the baby grows up. Insert, where the reader was, a person on his device, and function becomes décor—which, Price suggests, is what books now are for many of us. As their “contents drift online,” books and reading environments have been imbued “with a new glamor,” turned into symbols of rich sentience in a world of anxious fidgeting. When Wallace Stevens, the supreme poet of winter dusk, celebrated the “first light of evening,” it was likely a reading lamp. The glow of a screen as darkness encroaches seems, by comparison, eerie and malevolent.
But it was never the books as objects that people worried would vanish with the advent of e-readers and other personal devices: it was reading itself. The same change was prophesied by Thomas Edison, at the dawn of the movie age. People fretted again with the advent of the radio, the TV, and home computers. Yet undistracted reading didn’t perish the moment any of these technologies were switched on. This is in part because, as Price argues, it never exactly existed to begin with. Far from embodying an arc of unbroken concentration, books have always mapped their readers’ agitation—not unlike the way a person’s browsing history might reveal a single day’s struggle, for example, to focus on writing a book review.
Indeed, fairy stories have always been radical. The particularities of any one fairy story may differ, but the point is this: another world exists, largely invisible or obscured but right alongside our own. It is not governed by our hegemony but has its own traditions and rules. It is often older than ours, and though its existence may be denied by figures of authority, the elders — the grandmothers, the spinsters — whisper their tales of a different kind of world to the children before they sleep. If you are keen enough to sense where the boundary between worlds is stretched to only a translucent scrim, and brave enough to break through it, you will find something that takes your breath away. And though nowadays compendiums are plentiful, fairy tales have an oral tradition of much longer standing; the democratic nature of this tradition, in combination with its content, is what led Propp to credit it with a “revolutionary dynamic.” Often, in fairy tales, the good triumph over tyrants thanks to ordinary powers of cunning, kindness, or perseverance. In The Faraway Nearby, Rebecca Solnit makes the point that in fairy tales power is rarely the right tool for survival: “Rather the powerless thrive on alliances, often in the form of reciprocated acts of kindness — from beehives that were not raided, birds that were not killed but set free or fed, old women who were saluted with respect. Kindness sown among the meek is harvested in crisis.” Perhaps this aversion to absolute power was another reason that Tolkien was drawn to the fairy story. When asked if the “one ring to rule them all” was an allegory of nuclear weapons, Tolkien replied, “Of course my story is not an allegory of Atomic power, but of Power (exerted for Domination).” These stories are some of the oldest in our collective memory, and yet they continue to be told. If they did not need to be, we would stop.
On September 12, 1895, a Nebraskan named Jessie Allan died of tuberculosis. Such deaths were a common occurrence at the turn of the 20th century, but Allan’s case of “consumption” reportedly came from an unusual source. She was a librarian at the Omaha Public Library, and thanks to a common fear of the time, people worried that Allan’s terminal illness may have come from a book.
“The death of Miss Jessie Allan is doubly sad because of the excellent reputation which her work won for her and the pleasant affection which all librarians who knew her had come to feel for her, and because her death has given rise to a fresh discussion as to the possibility of infection from contagious diseases through library books,” the Library Journal, published by the American Librarians Association, wrote in October of 1895.
Allan’s death occurred during what is sometimes called the “great book scare.” This scare, now mostly forgotten, was a frantic panic during the late 19th and early 20th centuries that contaminated books—particularly ones lent out from libraries—could spread deadly diseases. The panic sprung from “the public understanding of the causes of diseases as germs,” says Annika Mann, a professor at Arizona State University and author of Reading Contagion: The Hazards of Reading in the Age of Print.
In a recent New York Times opinion piece, author Jessica Knoll opens her argument against the wellness industry with an anecdote about a lunch meeting with other successful women. Instead of simply ordering, the women narrated their decisions—not explaining their choices or sharing any allergies but recounting their restrictive diets, adding value judgements, and volunteering their insecurities with their bodies. Knolls describes this business lunch to introduce a norm and to point out why she finds it flawed. Instead of jumping into strategy or asking about initial ideas, this lunch starts with women discussing their diets and disparaging their bodies. She goes on to share advice that she received from a dietitian for re-framing her relationship in food in response to this norm: Treat your love of food as a gift.
The characters of Lara Williams’ new novel Supper Club do just that. Roberta, who works at a fashion website and spends her free time cooking, starts a women-only supper club with her roommate and coworker Stevie. These suppers consist of elaborate feasts, foraged for and cooked by the members, but mostly Roberta. The goal of the club is for its members to reclaim their love of food and purposefully inhabit a space, and the women do so by eating decadent meals completely and loudly, creating messes in the rooms in which they dine and on their bodies.
After a while you get used to people wishing you dead. In my case it helps that the ones making the suggestion do so lightly. Often there’s the catch of a laugh in their voice. It’s that stifled amusement, the giggle before the darkness, which alerts me to what’s coming. I am on stage in a small theatre or comedy club, the meat of my live show behind me, and I am taking questions. I am working my way from upstretched hand to upstretched hand, trying to be the most entertaining version of myself that I can. “Jay, so… Ha!” Here we go. “What would be your death-row dinner?” The audience laughs. The audience always laughs. By asking the question the balance of power appears to have shifted, and brilliantly. There I am up on stage, owning the space. And now here’s a member of the audience bringing me back down to earth by asking me to imagine I am about to be put to death for some crime of which I am obviously guilty. Then again, they have heard the question only once; I have heard it dozens of times. I reply. Some of the audience laugh. Some of them look puzzled. Others look utterly furious. As far as they’re concerned, I really haven’t played the game at all.
The idea of last suppers, be they caused by the judicial system, suicide or misfortune of health, has long fascinated me. It seems such a simple question. You are about to die. What do you choose to eat? But it isn’t simple at all. For a start, we eat to keep ourselves alive. That’s the whole point of consuming food. It’s literally a bodily function. But if you knew your death was imminent, the basic reason for the meal would have gone. You’ll be long dead before you starve.
Imagine a world where the son of God is alive and leading a struggling church gospel band. It’s also where a new, highly advanced line of service robots must confront their programming after being designed to resemble lawn jockeys, and a hitchhiker inadvertently finds himself on a road trip along the Underground Railroad.
Welcome to the imaginary town of Cross River, Md., the setting for Rion Amilcar Scott’s vivid “The World Doesn’t Require You.” The fiction collection is a rich, genre-splicing mix of alternate history, magical realism and satire that interrogates issues of race, sexism and where both meet here in the real world.
By reducing the principal players from a quartet to a trio, limiting the professional frame of reference to the cinema, and essentially reversing the construct from a momentary convergence of disparate figures to subsequent reverberations of a single encounter, Koe focuses less on the moment than its aftermath.
Rob Hart's The Warehouse is an entertaining read as a slightly dystopian cyberthriller. But start looking at how plausible it is, notice all the ways in which the things Hart describes — awful healthcare, limited employment opportunities, and global monopolies — are already here, and it becomes a horrific cautionary tale that makes you wonder if we're already too far into a disastrous future, or if there's still some hope for humanity.
“It was true that I had no idea how to endure being alive and everything that comes with it,” Saul reflects. “Responsibility. Love. Death. Sex. Loneliness. History.” Levy handles her weighty themes in this slim novel with a lightness of touch and a painfully sharp sense of what it means to look back on a life and construct a coherent whole from its fragments.
At the beginning of this lucid and insightful study of linguistics, David Shariatmadari states: “There are good reasons language is such a battleground and frustration: it is also a source of delight, of self-esteem and solidarity.” He might have added that it is a topic that writers and their publishers keep returning to, whether in David Crystal’s How Language Works, Bill Bryson’s The Mother Tongue or in any of the other books, specialist and general alike, that proliferate in the reference section of bookshops all over the country. Yet Don’t Believe A Word is too wise, and too personal, to be regarded as just another book on language: it entertains just as much as it informs.
For decades, reading instruction in American schools has been rooted in a flawed theory about how reading works, a theory that was debunked decades ago by cognitive scientists, yet remains deeply embedded in teaching practices and curriculum materials. As a result, the strategies that struggling readers use to get by — memorizing words, using context to guess words, skipping words they don't know — are the strategies that many beginning readers are taught in school. This makes it harder for many kids to learn how to read, and children who don't get off to a good start in reading find it difficult to ever master the process.
It was on family vacation where I really learned the truth of the aphorism “wherever you go, there you are.” And: “Wherever you go with my mom, there is the car packed with towels, four pool noodles, more bags of Tostitos than family members, goggles, chairs with insulated pockets behind them so you don’t have to pack a cooler and a cooler.”
No matter how old I get or how many times my therapist says the word “boundaries,” I still go. Here’s what I’m in for.
I honestly didn't know it was possible for a work of historical fiction to seriously take on the racism and sexism of the 19th century South while still being such a joyful read. I almost want to dare readers to not be delighted by its newspaper office shenanigans, clandestine assignations in cemeteries, and bicycle-riding adventures, but there's honestly no point. The Downstairs Girl, for all its serious and timely content, is a jolly good time.
Aroused begins at the turn of the century, when scientists tinkering in the lab began to discover hormones, and how they differ from neurotransmitters: if our nervous system is a highway of linked connections, our endocrine system is what Epstein calls “your wireless network.” Where the book really takes off is in its pointed examination of how social norms and sexual politics have interacted with new discoveries in science.
When Anna Burns, author of last year’s Booker prize-winning account of the Troubles, Milkman, was asked whether writing was a political act, she was taken aback. “Honestly? This is the sort of question I don’t know what to do with. It’s not how my brain works.” Eventually she allowed that if politics was about power then yes, OK, her work was political. Such qualms did not deter the judges of the inaugural Orwell prize for political fiction from awarding Burns another trophy. Chair of judges Tom Sutcliffe praised Milkman’s “account of how political allegiances crush and deform our instinctive human loyalties”.
Like the rest of the Orwell prize shortlist, Milkman has a theme rather than an agenda. Always capacious, the genre of political fiction can now accommodate authors such as Ali Smith, Rachel Kushner, Paul Beatty and Jonathan Coe. As George Orwell wrote: “No book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.” Much harder to find, however, is an example of what one might call the campaigning novel: that subset that includes classics by the likes of Charles Dickens and Émile Zola alongside fiction-cloaked manifestos, memoirs and works of reportage. What unites them is a passionate desire to use character and narrative to draw the reader’s attention to some social ill and to galvanise efforts to remedy it. As Sam Leith, Orwell prize judge, describes the approach: “Look at this, isn’t it awful?”
Like the town’s general store from 1919 and schoolhouse from 1850, the Oakhurst Diner in Millerton, N.Y., is a living time capsule.
Housed in the original 1950s Silk City dining car, it screams classic diner: crimped stainless-steel facade, Formica counter with stools, pink-and-blue neon sign, specials scrawled on chalkboards. But the nods to midcentury nostalgia mostly end there.
Sure, you can get two eggs and a cup of Joe here. But you could also order a bahn mi sandwich, Bulletproof coffee, CBD-infused Kombucha, artisanal hot sauce, a macrobiotic bowl with seaweed and brown rice, kimchi and a $16 burger made from “grass-fed and grass-finished” beef sourced from Herondale Farm, about 14 miles up the road.
The Memory Police is a masterpiece: a deep pool that can be experienced as fable or allegory, warning and illumination. It is a novel that makes us see differently, opening up its ideas in inconspicuous ways, knowing that all moments of understanding and grace are fleeting. It is political and human, it makes no promises. It is a rare work of patient and courageous vision.
But dear reader, if you are one of those people who has hungered for something else, for an elaborate feast for the senses, you should give this a try. Haikasoru produced good books, but more than that, it gave us a view into a seldom-glimpsed literary field — Japanese speculative fiction — and Automatic Eve is a great example of the brilliant books they produced. I hope there is a Haikasoru 2.0 in the near future and that like Mothra it emerges from its cocoon once more, ready to astonish us.
One day he overhears two women walking past his shop, saying: “There’s no point going in there, it’s just books.” A lesser man might give up. But despite the gloomy picture he paints of bookselling, this is a delightfully heart-warming love letter to bookshops, one that celebrates their serendipity: the unexpected joy of coming across books you didn’t know existed. And even as a locus of chance encounters: “Often customers – not locals – will bump into people they know from a totally different walk of life in the shop.” As Flo – a student who occasionally helps in the shop (“the very embodiment of petulance”) – writes on the blackboard outside: “Money can’t buy happiness, but it can buy books (which is basically the same thing).”
For most of the 20th century J Lyons & Co Ltd lodged at the heart of Britain’s social imagination. From the 1920s you could pop into a Lyons tea shop to be served by a “nippy”, a light-footed waitress got up like a parlourmaid. If you were a working girl of the newest and nicest variety – a secretary, teacher or shop assistant – you could eat an express lunch on your own in a Lyons without risking your respectability. If you were feeling particularly smart, you could go up to “town” and stay in the art deco-ish Strand Palace or Regent’s Palace hotels, vernacular versions of elite institutions such as Claridge’s or The Savoy. In the evening you might venture out to the “Troc”, or Trocadero, in your best togs, where you could enjoy a fancy dinner and dance to a jazz band. Back home, the stream of comforts continued as you sat down with a cup of Lyons tea while your children might get a Mivvi, a sumptuous ice-cream-lolly hybrid.
Terrific, amazing, I thought, as I was shown to the bunk where I’d stay for the first two months of our rehearsal process before our troupe was to spend almost a year in hotels performing Shakespeare around the country. Thrilling, incredible. It was an immense privilege to be a working actor — to be a working actor doing Shakespeare no less — and that feeling of gratitude was in no way mitigated by the hard reality that my four years of state school training was worth $225 a week before taxes, plus a small stipend that would go toward meals and buying our own hotel rooms. As a recent graduate with a BFA in acting, I could have been stuck lip-synching to Buddy Holly at an amusement park or being cast as a Native American in a problematic outdoor drama in Chillicothe, Ohio. But here I was doing something respectable; noble, even.
During my hour-long commute home from work, when I’m too tired to even listen to podcasts, I listen to music. More often than might be healthy, I listen to Lana Del Rey, as she cycles through her doomy refrains about how her life is over, she’s filled with poison, she’s running like mad to heaven’s door. With their frothy melodrama, Lana’s songs tend to match my postwork mood so precisely that it doesn’t feel like listening at all. I don’t have to concentrate or pull myself in. I am already there. Listening, for most of us, doesn’t feel like doing anything. It’s more of a sensation than activity, a dreamy, ill-defined feeling stretching through us. We’re often not aware we are doing it, or even fully conscious. We literally—when we forget to shut off the television or our Spotify playlists—do it in our sleep.
But sometimes I wonder what would happen if we listened harder, or better, or more rigorously. This might seem exhausting. Am I incapable of relaxing? Probably. But music scholars insist that if we listened to music the way a musician would, understanding how notes trigger feelings, how tones take on their own textures and meanings, then we might experience something more visceral and expansive. We could push deeper into every song.
From high up, fifteen thousand feet above, where the aerial photographs are taken, 4121 Wilson Avenue, the address I know best, is a minuscule point, a scab of green. In satellite images shot from higher still, my former street dissolves into the toe of Louisiana’s boot. From this vantage point, our address, now mite-size, would appear to sit in the Gulf of Mexico. Distance lends perspective, but it can also shade, misinterpret. From these great heights, my brother Carl would not be seen.
Essayist Margaret Renkl writes about what she calls "backyard nature," which, to those of us who live in crowded cities, might call to mind creatures to trap or squash, like rats, squirrels, mice and water bugs. Renkl, however, grew up in Alabama and now lives in Tennessee, so her catalog of all creatures great and small is, at once, more expansive and accepting, and includes chickadees, red-tailed hawks, rat snakes, rattle snakes and crawdads.
When I was seven, the blurred world I took for granted was corrected with my first pair of glasses. Wearing them for the first time was a revelation — everything suddenly snapped into place, clear and sharp. And listening to my father's fairy tales while wearing glasses was wondrous — I could see clearly while getting lost.
That's the kind of astonishing illumination you'll find in The Trojan War Museum, Ayşe Papatya Bucak's debut story collection. These are stories that reflect the author's Turkish heritage and a curiosity about our human search for meaning as profound as it is lyrical. The stories are music. They beguile and illuminate with narratives about yearning and desire, circumstance and courage, resilience and discovery. Reading them, while the reading lasts, replaces seeing.
When you're a young adult living in an expensive major metropolitan area, going out to eat is both the joy and the bane of your existence. A joy, because there's a 95% chance your kitchen is tiny or your roommates are using it or there has been no time to pick up groceries in between your long commutes and multiple jobs (or all of the above). A bane, because everything is so damned expensive, no one has enough money and there's always that friend who insists on splitting the bill in half even though they ordered alcohol and a far more expensive dish than you did. James Gregor's charming and well-observed debut novel, Going Dutch, uses this particular financial awkwardness as a running metaphor for the emotional inequalities between his characters.
There are no easy answers, but in the novel’s quietly radical choice of subject matter and its open-eyed, open-hearted curiosity, it illuminates both the intimate dramas usually hidden behind closed doors and the shifting mysteries of personality and relationship.
Both as a reader and writer, Tokarczuk brings a set of lofty expectations to a novel, which she regards as the highest literary form. “I expect novels, including crime fiction, to be multifaceted and to work on many planes,” she says. “A novel should tell a story, be a pleasure to read, and at the same time it should be thought-provoking, even a bit instructive. I still believe in the social function of literature, that literature can change things, it can have an influence on reality, or even generate it. I fully realized that many years ago, the first time a publisher sent me a sales report, and I read with pride and disbelief that tens of thousands of people had bought one of my books. It made me aware that what I say matters.”
Basically, what all these critiques come down to is that with so many books and movies and TV shows in the world, why keep talking about just one?
But maybe that’s the wrong question. Maybe instead the question is: Is it really that bad to read a single book or watch a single show over and over and over again?
F. Scott Fitzgerald called it “sleep-conscious”: a state of heightened anxiety about sleep that keeps us from getting enough sleep. In “The Crack-Up,” that self-pitying collection of essays published after his death, Fitzgerald wrote, “The problem of whether or not sleep was specified began to haunt me long before bedtime.”
We are a people constantly doing the math, computing how many hours of shut-eye we got, how many hours we missed, how many hours the weekend might offer. In her slim, thoughtful book “Insomnia,” Marina Benjamin suggests that “the collective noun that fits us best is a calculation of insomniacs.”
What is the scientific attitude? In 1941, at the lowest point of the war, the developmental biologist Hal Waddington published a small book with that title. The scientific attitude, he asserted, was rational, disinterested, evidence-dependent and above all modern. In alliance with progressive artists and architects, it confronted the irrationality of nazism, and shared many of the values of Soviet communism. Today, nearly 80 years later, when irrationality is once again growing, science denial and pseudoscience proliferate on social media, and to assert the “values of communism” warrants at best a scornful laugh, philosopher Lee McIntyre repeats Waddington’s question, but uses it to address some very specific modern problems.
While Into the Planet is a book about cave diving full of adventure and danger, it is a biography at the core. Heinerth takes readers along on an amazing journey that starts in an unlikely place: with her working in an office and taking a few diving classes as a hobby. From there, the narrative follows her as she becomes one of the most recognized names in her field. The journey isn't easy, but the author does a fantastic job of relating everything with ease and using a clear, straightforward prose that makes the book feel more like a conversation with a friend than a biography.
It would try to lisp a dumbness sometimes—
the language of welts rising slowly on the panes,
a cracked blur of riot-torn air,
confused which year it was.
During his final months, as he was dying of cancer in 2015, Oliver Sacks gave Lawrence Weschler a spectacular gift that may also have been a terrible curse. Three decades earlier, as a young staff writer at The New Yorker, Weschler had spent several awe-struck years at Sacks’s side. He planned to write a profile, to be followed by a full-fledged biography of the idiosyncratic, visionary and literary neurologist. Sacks wasn’t yet famous, but his second book, “Awakenings” — about a set of patients, lifelong victims of a neural malady that left them entombed within immobilized bodies, incapable of communicating, but mentally vibrant — had been lauded by the likes of W. H . Auden and Frank Kermode. Then, just as Weschler finished organizing his nearly endless notes and transcripts — with an index that ran more than 250 pages — and was set to begin writing, Sacks forbade any mention of his homosexuality, though he had told his would-be biographer about his closeted yearnings and crippled attempts at love.
The floppy disk where Petina Gappah saved early drafts of her historical-fiction novel “Out of Darkness, Shining Light” now serves as a lucky charm, 21 years after she began.
It took that long because the story she wanted to tell was a complex one: that of the arduous, nine-month journey in 1873 of 69 workers as they transported the body of the explorer David Livingstone from the interior of Africa to the coast of Zanzibar, where he was carried to Britain for burial. It took so much research that Gappah, 48, finished and published three other books over the time she worked on it, while navigating a career as an international trade lawyer in Geneva.
What Star Wars went through in this period is actually common.
Nearly every major franchise in science fiction has experienced some kind of wilderness period: a time when the main source of the franchise, whether it be a film or television series or even books, no longer produced content, allowing licensed media to continue narratives left unfinished or explore the edges of a complicated fictional world.
In 1915, Albert Einstein wrote a letter to the philosopher and physicist Moritz Schlick, who had recently composed an article on the theory of relativity. Einstein praised it: ‘From the philosophical perspective, nothing nearly as clear seems to have been written on the topic.’ Then he went on to express his intellectual debt to ‘Hume, whose Treatise of Human Nature I had studied avidly and with admiration shortly before discovering the theory of relativity. It is very possible that without these philosophical studies I would not have arrived at the solution.’
More than 30 years later, his opinion hadn’t changed, as he recounted in a letter to his friend, the engineer Michele Besso: ‘In so far as I can be aware, the immediate influence of D Hume on me was greater. I read him with Konrad Habicht and Solovine in Bern.’ We know that Einstein studied Hume’s Treatise (1738-40) in a reading circle with the mathematician Conrad Habicht and the philosophy student Maurice Solovine around 1902-03. This was in the process of devising the special theory of relativity, which Einstein eventually published in 1905. It is not clear, however, what it was in Hume’s philosophy that Einstein found useful to his physics. We should therefore take a closer look.
On the cover of his 1961 album Blue Hawaii, Elvis Presley can’t help but look impossibly cool. It’s not just the bouffant or half-smirk, or the plumeria lei draped ever-so-effortlessly around his neck, or the ukelele dwarfed in his large hands. No, it’s the shirt—a red zinger of a Hawaiian shirt, also known as an aloha shirt, with white tendriled flowers scattered over a woodblock print.
The chillest shirt style in the world has a murky, hotly contested provenance. No one can agree who invented the aloha shirt, according to Dale Hope, the owner of the Kahala shirt company (“The Original Aloha Shirt since 1936”) and author of The Aloha Shirt: Spirit of the Islands. But many have tried to own the shirt as a claim to fame.
Give us a chocolate-chip cookie, even one made with our favorite chocolate, and we’d tear it apart. Too crisp. Too chewy. Too sweet. We were impossible. And if we were hard on other people’s cookies, we were brutal on our own. I’d make something I thought was good, and Joshua might not agree. When he didn’t love the cookie, I cried. It’s a miracle we still like each other — or cookies.
These days I’m a pretty ecumenical cookie lover, although I find myself turning most often to sablés, which I use as building blocks, making cookie sandwiches with them and often flavoring them with herbs, spices, tea or toasted nuts. The more I make them, the more I appreciate their elegance and their cunning: They’re plain Janes with a sybarite’s soul.
A work of fiction that sets itself such stringent boundaries and problems of internal logic (if the inhabitants of the island have their concepts of items entirely wiped from their sensibilities, how are they able to name them? How does a milliner know what he once was when hats have disappeared?) must eventually reach a reckoning. Ogawa brings hers about in a deeply unsettling fashion, plunging her imaginary world into entropy and post-apocalyptic decay. There are obviously parallels between the society she describes and those similarly intolerant of collective memory and will, but her achievement is to weave in a far more personal sense of the destruction and distortion of the psyche.
I don't know whether a fluency with McCulloch's "new rules" of writing gives you a leg up when it comes to mastering the old ones. But if it makes you reflective about the way you use written words, it's a good place to start.
If I was to say what I hope to achieve with my street photography, it would be to keep documenting the ever-changing streets of New York City in all its rat-infested, garbage-piled glory. Perhaps I’m fascinated by all the grime and grit this city has to offer because I grew up in the countryside in the United Kingdom with only the sound of cattle moving in the night. On my path to New York, I’ve done just about everything, working as a street-cleaner, garbage-hauler, milkman, paper delivery boy, Champagne waiter, nightclub barman, DJ, and real-estate broker. I was willing to learn everything and anything, so when I was offered a job as a photographer with a celebrity news agency in New York, I jumped at the opportunity.
One page detailed a food store that Toll had buried on the Taimyr Peninsula in September 1900, early in his voyage. First, he described its location: a spot five meters above sea level, marked with a wooden cross. Then he described the hole itself, dug deep through thawed clay, peat, and ice. And finally, the contents: “a box with 48 cans of cabbage soup, a sealed tin box with 15 pounds of rye rusks [dry biscuits], a sealed tin box with 15 pounds of oatmeal, a soldered box containing about four pounds of sugar, 10 pounds of chocolate, seven plates and one brick of tea.”
After the diary’s Russian publication, explorers rushed north to find Toll’s depot. But his description of the store’s geographic location proved impossibly vague. What’s more, every expedition searched during the spring, when the snow was still heavy. Inevitably, they all came home empty-handed. It seemed as if the Toll food cache might remain as elusive as Sannikov Land itself, were it not for a geopolitical tangle in 1973.
The house temperature at 4am. Attempts to keep quiet after stepping hard on the blunt, plastic head of an LOL Surprise Doll buried deep in her purple shag carpet. The too-thin pillows and too-warm blankets on her princess bed, where her bad dreams force you to join her at this hour. (Taggers, she’ll later tell you, on the drive to school; she was dreaming of taggers spray-painting her room, because you’d described to her what graffiti was after she’d found it on the park bench beside her favorite climbing tree and now she can’t stop seeing it everywhere: street signs, store fronts, bus walls, bathroom stalls, permanently hardened into concrete sidewalks.)
Socks with scratchy plastic tags that irritate small heel bones tucked in rainbow-light-up-mermaid rain boots. Attempts to wiggle and bend her reluctant spaghetti arms through unicorn-glitter-sparkle rain jacket sleeve holes. Missing the days you could choose her outfits, strap her to your front, and be out the door, just like that.
For all the fronds growing out of arms and flames coming out of characters’ eyes, this story convinced me it was about real people and an important place. By the end, it felt less like Arnott was imbuing his local landscape with magic, and more that the landscape itself was lending his book some of its strange and special power. That’s a decent trick.
Marriage sets off egg tagliatelle and shame,
insists it is the solution
and not the problem
In George Orwell’s “1984,” the classics of literature are rewritten into Newspeak, a revision and reduction of the language meant to make bad thoughts literally unthinkable. “It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words,” one true believer exults.
Now some of the writer’s own words are getting reworked in Amazon’s vast virtual bookstore, a place where copyright laws hold remarkably little sway. Orwell’s reputation may be secure, but his sentences are not.
A contract killer, a two-bit swindler and a former Republican politician. What do they all have in common? They were all convicted criminals, and they all learned how to commit their crimes from instruction books available from Paladin Press’ catalog. If there ever was a university for prospective criminals to learn the trade, titles from Paladin would certainly be marked as “required reading.”
Four hours of Beatrix Potter, 10 hours of Marcel Proust, or 72 hours of Sherlock Holmes. How about every single word of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and George Eliot’s Silas Marner? Sound overwhelming? Radio bosses clearly think not – so much so they have commissioned a plethora of literary adaptations to delight growing numbers of fans of “the long listen”.
"Sometimes, I feel I got to get away," sang the Who in their 1965 single "The Kids Are Alright," and no wonder the song became an instant classic for the youth of Townshend and Daltrey's g-g-g-generation — teenagers of every age tend toward the restive, longing to experience life beyond whichever town or city they were raised in.
For 16-year-old Helen Dedleder and her group of misfit friends, that desire is especially urgent. The kids live in Rosary, Calif., a fictional town run by religious fundamentalists, and are almost completely cut off from the outside world. Their struggle to be themselves and support one another in a community built on intolerance and hatred forms the basis of gods with a little g, the sweet and triumphant second novel from author Tupelo Hassman.
Fairy tales are frank about cruelty. The witch eats children. A king kills out of churlish despotism. At the center of the tale is someone, often a child, picking a path through a snarling wood of astonishing violence. It makes sense to turn to fairy tales now.
The fairy tale is a form about children as much as it is a form for children, which makes it an important reference point for Tina Chang’s third book of poems, Hybrida — a book of kingdoms, forests, wolves, and witches. The volume often draws from fairy tales, implicitly if not explicitly, in its poems of protection, kinship, and social critique.
Though there are many reasons to recall a moment when, as Rolling Stone described it, “everything went perfectly wrong’’ — a day when famous bands didn’t play; when bad acid felled dozens and scores more were injured; and when one of the Hell’s Angels hired to police the event knifed and killed a man during a Rolling Stones set — the image I return to is a peaceable one.
“What the hell was he doing?’’ said Bill Owens, the journalist who took the picture that appears on the cover of “Altamont 1969,” a book of previously unpublished photographs from the concert released in May. “He was just somebody that decided to take off his clothes and walk off into the distance.’’
The perfect cup of coffee is like the perfect lipstick: a quest that will end only with your death. I disapprove of Nespresso machines and their ilk, and I don’t particularly like the coffee they make either. Cafetieres are so messy and gritty, and I never seem to get the coffee-to-water ratio quite right; also, the coffee gets cold so quickly. I love my blackened stove-top Bialetti for reasons to do with nostalgia and all-round stylishness, but it makes pretty mud-like coffee: good for days when you’re knackered, but very bad indeed when the last thing you need is to be wired like Frankenstein. The huge, orange Italian espresso machine that I bought at vast expense some years ago looks fantastic. But working it is such a performance, and the coffee it makes always tastes of its metallic bowels to me.
“I am always confused,” Tolentino confesses in the introduction to her first book, Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion, “because I can never be sure of anything, and because I am drawn to any mechanism that directs me away from that truth. Writing is either a way to shed my self-delusions or a way to develop them.” Trick Mirror is a collection of essays, pieces that consider such subjects as drugs, religion, celebrity culture, and the wedding industry, but all of them wrangle with the challenge of arriving at an organic self in an age of pervasive, technology-facilitated phoniness.
There's a pulse that runs through Temi Oh's debut novel, Do You Dream Of Terra-Two. A living, beating heart that races and stalls, stutters and recovers; that pounds in rage and desperate longing, in fear, in mortal goddamn terror; that slows in calm, in crushing sadness or the perfect tranquility of memory; that occasionally stops.
The Philip K. Dick papers reside on the third floor of the Pollak Library at Cal State Fullerton, not far from where the science fiction writer spent his final decade. The space is nondescript: a small room with a few institutional tables and a door through which to request materials from an archive that stretches out of view. It’s a setting one imagines Dick might have loved when he was living here in Orange County in the 1970s, after his retreat from Northern California following a break-in at his Marin County home.
“I came home one evening and found rubble and ruin, my locked files blown open, papers of every sort gone, stereo gone, virtually everything gone, windows and doors smashed,” he wrote of that experience. “To this day I don’t know who did it. Robbery was not the motive; too many valueless items were taken, too much care to take correspondence and business records … the police to a certain extent favored the theory that I had done it myself. I didn’t. I to a certain extent favored the theory that they had done it.”
The account is pure Dick, with its swirls of conjecture and contradiction, its uncertainty about reality itself.
The premise behind the Myth Adventures series is charmingly simple — and its simplicity is one of its strengths. Skeeve is a young magician's apprentice in a pseudo-medieval, backwater world whose mentor dies in the first few pages of the series' debut installment, 1978's Another Fine Myth. A clueless lad with vague aspirations toward using his burgeoning magic (or magik, as it's known in the Myth world) to become a thief, Skeeve quickly lands up to his neck in world-shaking intrigue thanks to the appearance of Aahz, a green-scaled demon and acquaintance of Skeeve's former master.
In 1888, astronomer Simon Newcomb proclaimed, “We are probably nearing the limit of all we can know.” At the time, it was believed that the universe comprised some 6,000 stars — a vast expansion of the heavens previously charted by Galileo and Copernicus and Kepler, who had, in turn, radically overhauled the authority of Aristotle’s celestial projections. As a man of his era, Newcomb had a point. Having seen farther into the sky than previous generations ever could have imagined, and having settled on a way to explain what we saw there, how much more could we expect to learn?
A lot, of course. The struggle to see past what we think we already know gives Richard Panek the theme of his new book, “The Trouble With Gravity.” “Nobody knows what gravity is, and almost nobody knows that nobody knows what gravity is,” he writes — that’s the trouble. And though the subtitle is “Solving the Mystery Beneath Our Feet,” no new mysteries were solved in the making of this book. Instead, by unfolding the succession of visions and revisions that led to our current cosmic understanding, Panek sets out to demonstrate how fundamental, and how fundamentally strange, gravity really is.
Mudlarks are river scavengers, but Lara Maiklem is more like a time traveller. Using old maps as guides to London’s former boatyards, quaysides, bridges, causeways, jetties and great houses – all those places where the rubbish was once dumped – she scours the foreshore of the Thames looking for links to another life: Roman brooches, clay pipes, Victorian shoe buckles, Mesolithic flints. A vast and mobile archaeological site, the Thames is uniquely suited to mudlarks because it is tidal, which means that every day, as Maiklem explains, it grants access to its contents, “which shift and change as the water ebbs and flows, to reveal the story of a city, its people and their relationship with a natural force”.
On the last afternoon of the symposium, I noticed a man who didn’t look the part of the typical physicist. He had an Old Testament beard crowned by bright eyes, and he wore black jeans and a turtleneck. I tried my line on him, and his reply was so unusual that I remember it exactly. “My approach to research is to ask myself how I would create the universe, were I God. I’ve come to the conclusion that God could never understand calculus or, indeed, the real numbers. But I am pretty sure that God can count.” He showed me a game with an electron and a chessboard. The probability of the electron jumping between any two squares was related to the total number of ways of travelling between them. Through this game, he hoped to reduce quantum physics, concerned with the movement of particles, to a simple matter of counting. I had no idea what to think of this, so I quickly said goodbye, and in my haste, I neglected to ask his name.
Seven years later, as a new PhD visiting Stanford University, I was formally introduced to David Finkelstein, the first person to describe the inner structure of a black hole. In 1958, he had used simple mathematics to describe how something such as light travels near the hole’s surface, showing that the boundary can be crossed only one way—by photons falling in. Because of this, a black hole would appear perfectly black. Today, we call this edge of darkness the event horizon.
Dinosaur research has been steadily expanding in recent years, with new fossil discoveries and ever-improving fossil-scanning technology reshaping the way scientists understand these animals that dominated terrestrial ecosystems for more than 130 million years. But fossils on their own can reveal only so much about bigger-picture questions. Do differences in the head crests of hadrosaurs, say, or the skeletons of stegosaurs, represent evolutions through time, or the difference between males and females from the same time? If changes through time, how long did that evolution take, and what caused the shift? Where on the planet were dinosaurs most prevalent and diverse? Who fell prey to whom, and what type of terrain did these creatures carve their lives through? Unearthing additional fossils won't tell you all these things. The answers, more often, rest in the rocks that surround the bones. And those rocks are, in many cases, not well studied.
Maidment, a paleontologist at the Natural History Museum in London, is leading the push to change that, at least for North America’s Late Jurassic. This summer, she and Bonsor teamed up with an international group of paleontologists in a dinosaur dig dubbed Mission Jurassic that aims to excavate new museum specimens and to explore the surrounding sediments for deeper details. They’re working in the Morrison Formation, a suite of rocks that has produced more Jurassic dinosaur bones than any other collection of rocks on the continent. Maidment’s ultimate goal: to develop the first-ever comprehensive chronology of the entire Morrison that maps out how the landscape changed through time and how different fossils fit into it.
Where did normal come from, and why does it have the power it does in our lives, in our institutions, in our world? How did it become like air—invisible, essential, all around us? As Ian Hacking was the first to point out, look up normal in any English dictionary and the first definition is “usual, regular, common, typical.” How did this become something to aspire? How did everyone being the same achieve the cultural force it has?
“Everybody that says they want to work for Disney?” said Robert Brauchler, who was a cast member for 16 years at Walt Disney World in Orlando. “Ninety-nine percent of the time, they say they want to work at the Haunted Mansion.”
The work itself isn’t extraordinary. Like those at any other attraction, cast members (clad here in green polyester tuxedos and dresses) still spend hours parking strollers in the Florida heat or loading guests into ride vehicles. What sets this attraction apart is how workers, acting as the Mansion’s eerie butlers and maids, can melt into their somber, creepy characters as part of the ride’s ghoulish aesthetic.
“If you’re having a bad day, that’s a great place to be working,” Mr. Brauchler said. “I would just stare at people and just not smile. It’d be like, ‘Hey! You work at Disney; you’re supposed to smile!’ No, I’m not. I would just walk away from them, and it’s all part of the theming.”
The term “California cuisine” has always been a moving target. In the 1970s, California chefs gained national attention for their laser focus on seasonal produce, global cuisines, and for lots of grilling, but despite the emergence of some clear figureheads, like Alice Waters and Wolfgang Puck, the food never really coalesced into a consistent ideology. For years, some chefs refused to acknowledge that “California cuisine” even existed.
But even without a clear definition of the food on the plate, diners then and now harbor an image of California dining. The concept conjures a place more than a flavor: a table on the patio or by the pool, surrounded by desert plants and minor celebrities, a glass of wine glinting in the ceaseless sunshine. And increasingly, restaurants, both in the state and elsewhere, design their spaces to evoke this scene.
I had a conversation once with the very urbane chef and pioneer of the contemporary British scene, Rowley Leigh. He didn’t understand salads, he said, now that people had started putting things like meat in them. I disagreed: it is wonderful to find meat in a salad, a windfall, a gift from the universe, like putting your winter coat on for the first time that season and finding a tenner.
Anyway, I only name-drop because salad is quite an interesting waypoint in the evolution of cuisine: there is a purist old guard who can innovate like crazy within a dish, but likes to maintain categories as they have always been – salads with the emphasis on “side”, centrepiece dishes rather than small plates. And then there is a modern wave, which likes to throw everything into the same dish, so anything can be a salad, so long as it’s not hot. And even if it is, they will sometimes call it a “warm salad”. I can see the merit in both sides, but am going to come down on the second.
Look around. Choose a commonplace object. A toaster, let’s say. Now imagine that object has been eradicated from your life and the lives of everyone you know. All memories of making toast vanish from your consciousness. You’re no longer even sure what “toast” is. When you see the word “toaster,” you have no idea what it refers to or how it should be pronounced. Now repeat this process with other objects — birds, calendars, flowers, photographs. Poof! All gone. The world begins to empty out and so does your soul.
This is the premise of Yoko Ogawa’s quietly devastating novel, “The Memory Police.” The setting is an unnamed island controlled by a faceless authoritarian government. Our narrator and chief protagonist is a never-named female novelist who is struggling to complete her latest manuscript. Her parents are dead. She lives alone in the house where she grew up. Her social circle is small, consisting of a handful of neighbors, an old man who lives on a decaying ferryboat and her editor, known only as R. “The island is run by men who are determined to see things disappear,” R tells her. “From their point of view, anything that fails to vanish when they say it should is inconceivable. So they force it to disappear.”
“I always thought of writing as holy,” Deborah Eisenberg told the Paris Review in 2013. “I still do. It’s not something to be approached casually.” No one could accuse Eisenberg, who has published five story collections in 33 years, and whose previous book came out when George W Bush was president, of being casual. She says her stories take about a year each to write, which doesn’t seem so long when one considers their humour, their precision and their great intricacy. She writes stories that demand, and reward, revisiting.
Through all the linguistic interpretations and contemporary examples, McCulloch builds an argument that the internet isn’t just changing the way we use language, it’s changing the way we think about it. When the most visible medium for written English was print, our metaphor for language was the book: fixed, authoritative, slow to change. Now that most written English is informal and online, our collective metaphor is shifting to language as a network: fluid, collectively negotiated, constantly altered. Language is, as McCulloch puts it, humankind’s largest open-source project; and the internet makes it much easier for all of us to see, and be, contributors.
Cursive is supposed to happen at the right speed for steady thought. It hits the page slower than type and faster than print, and in this happy medium, one hopes the mind will hit its stride and think clearly, rationally, linearly. But what if the idea of cursive practice was to humble, even eradicate the content of the written word? That is the project of the narrator in Mario Levrero’s novel Empty Words—recently released in translation from the Spanish by Annie McDermott—to focus on neat, regular handwriting so careful that it smooths out all digressions of the mind. Though the narrator is, like the author, a writer and crossword setter, he takes a writer’s tool and divorces it from the act of connecting with the self or world. Instead, the physical act of writing becomes about avoiding spiritual searching, which has become too onerous—in an opening poem, before he begins his “graphological self-therapy” he writes “ It’s not worth searching, the more you look / the more distant is seems, the better it hides.”
So the narrator delves into his penmanship not in hope of being a better writer, but to “make changes on a psychological level,” ones that he claims, in a burst of optimism, “will do wonders for my health and charachter, transforming a whole plethora of bad behaviors into good ones and catapulting me blissfully into a life of happiness, joy, money, and success with women and in other games of chance.” When his exercises pick up pace, though, the neat, ordered discipline of handwriting breaks down and sloppy print letters creep into that uniform line of script. This indication that thought has begun to flow freely is not positive—it runs contrary to the two-dimensional bliss he imagines neatness can herald. He takes frequent breaks to play around with his computer, which, even though the book was originally published in 1996, is a daunting tool, “very similar to the unconscious.” Nonetheless, he claims to prefer it to his own exhausted mind: “there’s nowhere left to go when it comes to investigating my unconscious; the computer also involves much less risk, or risk of a different kind.”
Part of Horowitz’s charm is that he, like his readers, is in love with books. It’s probably part of what makes him so appealing to literary estates. Page by page he builds a solid case against the murderer, using all the conventional methods and the occasional well-worn trope of the genre. His suspects are a well-drawn, motley bunch. The chapters are filled with reams of dialogue. There’s a bumbling, but conscientious, police detective in the first book who is replaced by a pair of equally bumbling, but this time openly hostile, police detectives in the second. Expect a barrel of red herrings and lots of corpses. Fans of Midsomer Murders will know that there’s never just one death. In fact, it’s often the cover-up murder that provides the clue that cracks the case.
Within the confines of the form, Horowitz also demonstrates a deep knowledge of Literature with a capital L. A lot of thought has been put into these books, conceptually and structurally. Even their individual titles are plays on words which become significant as the stories unfold. There are references to Shakespeare in The Word Is Murder and Doyle in The Sentence Is Death. (The logical conclusion is that Dickens will somehow feature into the third installment … though wouldn’t it be nice if he went with Jane Austen instead?) Horowitz reaches deep into his writer’s bag of tricks, not only becoming a character in his own novel, but speaking directly to the reader about the secrets of his profession. Two paragraphs describing the logistics of writing and filming a chase scene serve as both prologue and apology “for what I must now describe.”
Even as a boy, I was already a book critic — of sorts. Any paperback I might buy underwent intense scrutiny for manufacturing flaws and other irritations. Bantam Books used dark, ugly paper little better than newsprint, the shiny cellophane on Mentor covers regularly delaminated, the design of Pocket Books struck me as bland and the glue binding for Dell titles occasionally dried out. None of them could match Signet or Penguin in terms of quality. Alas, I never saw any Oxford World’s Classics or Anchor Books until I went off to college.
There is no such thing as linguistic decline, so far as the expressive capacity of the spoken or written word is concerned. We need not fear a breakdown in communication. Our language will always be as flexible and sophisticated as it has been up to now. Those who warn about the deterioration of English haven’t learned about the history of the language, and don’t understand the nature of their own complaints – which are simply statements of preference for the way of doing things they have become used to. The erosion of language to the point that “ultimately, no doubt, we shall communicate with a series of grunts” (Humphrys again) will not, cannot, happen. The clearest evidence for this is that warnings about the deterioration of English have been around for a very long time.
On August 30, 1992, the collision of two of the most dominant pop cultural forces of 1992 was captured in a single moment of grainy video. Leading up to Nirvana’s legendary set at the Reading Festival in southeast England, Kurt Cobain was pushed out onto the stage in a wheelchair. Dressed in a hospital gown as a sarcastic nod to media reports about his supposedly failing health, the wiseass lead singer used the microphone stand to pull himself up before belting out the first line of Bette Midler’s “The Rose.” Then, he staged a dramatic backward pratfall to the ground, where he stayed for a few seconds before standing up, grabbing his guitar, and launching into “Breed.”
What you don’t see in the official recording is the footage of Cobain before he and the rest of Nirvana come on. Director Brett Morgen’s documentary Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, however, opens with a clip of the frontman and those pre-show moments. While wearing a shearling coat and a long blond wig, Cobain peeks out at the crowd of 50,000, turns back, takes a drag from a cigarette, inches very close to the camera, and then he says it: “Party on, Wayne.”
As you might surmise from the peachy, fleshy fungi laid out on its cover, The Collection is an ethnography of the penis. It’s a nouveau roman-esque narrative about Jeanne, a woman who has methodical, anonymous sexual encounters in a series of hotel rooms across Paris with men she picks up on the street. She seems in particular to enjoy fellatio, memorising each member she encounters, storing it away in her “memory palace”. She doesn’t remember anything else about the men, and she doesn’t compare them with one another, simply files away the image to recall when she pleases: “Jeanne only has to cross the threshold and she rediscovers the shape, the form, the particular warmth, the density, the smell of the penis; the elasticity of the tissue and its colour when drawn tight and when slackened; the smooth or glistening appearance of the head; the network of bluish blood vessels; the shaded areas; the wrinkled fingerprint skin of the testicles; the growth pattern of the hairs.”
But while Ketcham’s screed and McCann’s poetic tragedy seem like superficial opposites, they communicate in their spiritual depths and there’s a benefit in reading them together, for the passions they channel have a common source: the American West and what has become of it. A story that’s ours to tell, and ours to change.
Book after book in recent years has alerted us—as if we couldn’t tell by reading the news and absorbing the panicked media—that democracy is in crisis. Did it start with Trump or with Brexit? In Europe or the U.S.? The diagnosis varies among authors of different backgrounds and political persuasions, as do their prescriptions on what to do now. Not all of the books even share the premise that the loss of democracy is such a bad thing—at least one recent work argues that the real crisis was a democratic surplus.
What the books have in common, beyond their shared subject matter, is a common confusion over what democracy actually is. This confusion about the differences between democracy’s complementary functions like lawmaking and voting is, in its own way, rather illuminating, as the shared shortcoming in the books suggests a broader breakdown in democratic understanding that helped engender the very crisis they were written to address.
But when a hed is finally finished after much hemming, hawing, and editing, writers and editors are faced with an even tougher challenge: knowing which words to capitalize and which to keep in lowercase. There are just so many parts of speech! And so many words with multiple uses! Recalling all the ins and outs of proper headline capitalization is a daunting task indeed.
“An American Sunrise” is tribal history and retrieval. Harjo writes of ancestral lands and culture, and their loss, through personal, mythic and political lenses. In a prefatory prose statement Harjo explains the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which expelled tribes from their land, making explicit connection between past and present: “The indigenous peoples who are making their way up from the Southern Hemisphere are a continuation of the Trail of Tears.” She makes the connection again when, in “Exile of Memory,” a long poem of short parts, she describes the treatment of indigenous child migrants in the 19th century, with imagery suggestive of current headlines: “They were lined up to sleep alone in their army-issued cages.”
Who belongs in the West? With “Inland,” Obreht reminds us that the future resonance of the Western is rooted in a continuing revision of its terms, and in an expanding notion of who might occupy its center. Propelled by her vision of self-authorship and mythmaking, the novel probes the limits of the American Western, even as it sometimes displays them. The writer’s task, Obreht knows, is to untether oneself from predetermined notions and stand like young Toby before old disturbances, imagining that something wholly unfamiliar might still be encountered in the distance.
Porter, an award-winning American playwright, is as interested in life’s mysteries as she is in the myriad ways we mess things up. Following the stories of two intersecting family clans, one black and one white, The Travelers spans six turbulent decades in the US and beyond, from the civil rights struggle of the 1950s to Obama’s first year in office.
This important novel comes from a tradition: from the green fuse of Dylan Thomas and Caradoc Evans, the unstable religiosity of RS Thomas. The result, though, is something new, a profane, passionate response to nature and to the countryside, which is rarely encountered in contemporary British fiction any more. In its singular and unfashionable way, Broken Ghost is also a religious novel. A nonconformist sermon, it begs us all to let some sort of transforming spectre – holy or not – enter our lesser selves, or we will not be saved.
The new medium would spread half-truths, propaganda and lies. It would encourage self-absorption and solipsism, thereby fragmenting communities. It would allow any amateur to become an author and degrade public discourse.
Sound familiar? Such were the anxieties that the invention of printing unleashed on the world as 16th-, 17th- and 18th-century authorities worried and argued about how print would transform politics, culture and literature. The ‘printing revolution’ was by no means universally welcomed as the democratiser of knowledge or initiator of modern thought.
It was the worldness that mattered; that dual sense of completeness and infinite extension. But for worldness, nothing quite compared to the gleaming row of books that occupied half our bookshelf: the 22-volume set of World Book Encyclopedia. This was the 1970s. Before the Internet. I lived in Perth, Western Australia, which felt far away from everywhere and everything. I knew the whole world wasn’t really contained in those 22 volumes from A to Z, but I loved the idea that it could be.
Why love the encyclopedic? What is the joy and madness of this desire to encapsulate what is most important to be known? From Pliny and Diderot to Wikipedia, encyclopedias have served myriad functions, but, as with Tolkien or Le Guin, or the people behind World of Warcraft, they constitute a world-making activity as much as a window onto a world out there.
The thing is, French food didn’t become synonymous with fine dining because it was inherently more delicious. It was in large part because the training system that created French cooks was far more rigorous, standardized, and effective than any other in the West. The real legacy of la gastronomie française around the world is not a collection of recipes or an abstract culinary ethos of respecting technique and terroir, but a highly militarized system of training chefs and managing kitchens. Even though kids may not learn cooking at their mother’s apron strings anymore, reports of the death of French cooking have been grossly exaggerated precisely because that training system hasn’t gone anywhere. It has simply begun — grudgingly, haltingly, and inexorably — to evolve.
I know this largely because I tried it myself: In the summer of 2017, as research for a novel, I went to France to train, or stage, for a short period of time in a Michelin-starred kitchen. The stage system’s genius, I found, was its simplicity. It forged chefs who could take the heat, and it broke those who couldn’t. To get through a stage (pronounced “stodge”), your desire to work in a kitchen had to be absolute because it was all you had. If you came out the other side, you were accepted.
Me? I broke after one week.
Once they get past the metal detectors, ticket holders are herded like sheep in a long, coiling line. They shuffle up escalators until they reach the Mona Lisa’s skylit new digs: the Medici Gallery, named after a striking series of wall-to-wall paintings by Rubens also on display there.
Not that anybody notices the Rubens works. As if in an airport check-in area, dozens of visitors rowdily wait their turn in another snaking line. Armed with smartphones, selfie sticks and cameras, they then rush into the final stretch — the Mona Lisa viewing pen. They have roughly one minute there before the guards shoo them away.
Completing the desk-bev triumvirate is where the magic happens. A third beverage is your wild card, a chance for a little bit of random pleasure in a period of the day that is otherwise not your own. One of the reasons people go so wild for random snacks in the workplace is that popcorn or cookies allow a moment of disengagement from work that feels autonomous. Since water and coffee are the only drinks many workplaces provide, tracking down a third can be an excuse to leave the office for a moment, even if it’s just to run to the nearby corner store. Small, regular pleasures have real psychological value in any part of life. During the workday, acquiring a mango seltzer or green juice can return some humanity to the cubicle farm.
Part of being a parent to a 4-year-old is surrendering yourself to the routines and rituals that govern your child’s day. For my son, Max, that means always letting him be the one who gets to push the elevator button in the morning, and keeping the chicken nuggets from ever making contact with the mac and cheese on his dinner plate. And when he wants some recreational screen time, it means allowing him to see the only thing he’s wanted to watch for the past several months: “Yellow Submarine.”
I can’t quite remember how this 1968 animated musical movie inspired by the Beatles became Max’s go-to viewing material. I don’t know how it overtook TV offerings like “PAW Patrol” or “Thomas & Friends,” so unerringly calibrated for contemporary tots, in his imagination. But now, twice a day, he and I sit on our couch and watch hand-drawn versions of the Fab Four set off in their comically elaborate watercraft, sing their beloved songs and rescue Pepperland from the music-hating Blue Meanies.
The unsettling haze between fact and fantasy in “Inland” is not just a literary effect of Obreht’s gorgeous prose; it’s an uncanny representation of the indeterminate nature of life in this place of brutal geography. Ferrying water from the Colorado River, Lurie realizes that he has “gone the way of unbearable old men,” telling stories of an improbable, lost country. “Who would speak of these things when we were gone?” he asks his loyal camel. “I began to wish that I could pour our memories into the water we carried, so that anyone drinking from our canteen might see how it had been.”
Sip slowly, make it last.
On page one of The Mosquito: A Human History Of Our Deadliest Predator, Winegard declares: "We are at war with the mosquito." Some 436 pages later, after exploring the role the insect has played in shaping our world, the author makes a chilling declaration: "We are still at war with the mosquito." Yes, it's somber, but this book illuminates what we're dealing with — and suggests what we might do differently to keep our most lethal predator under control.
The concept is simple yet revolutionary: Members meet up at a bar, a library, a bookstore or any venue that will host them. Once the bell rings, silent reading time commences. After an hour, the bell rings again.
Other than that, there are no rules.
Liberated from the orthodoxy of traditional book clubs, participants can bring whatever they'd like to read and chat about anything, before and after the designated reading time.
Here is a secret about writers, or at least most writers I know, including me: we don’t like to read our published work. Conversations I’ve had over the years with author friends have tended to confirm my own feelings on the matter—namely, that it is very nice and fortunate and rewarding to get something published, but you don’t ever especially want to read it again. One reason for this is the fact that, by the time you’ve finished revising, copyediting, and proofreading a book, you have already reread it effectively a hundred million times before publication. Another reason: there is something deeply nerve-wracking about the fact of the thing you’ve written, mutable for so long, now being fixed and frozen forever, with no possibility of rewriting whatever mistakes you might—and will—find upon rereading. Among the countless, loving tributes in the wake of her recent death, one memorable Toni Morrison anecdote recounted her habit of taking a red pencil to her published works as she read from them; Toni Morrison, of course, was one of the few authors who might have reasonably expected reprintings and possible future opportunities for correcting errata. Toni Morrison was Toni Morrison.
When I went to Paris last January, I had not been back for a number of years. Over the last twenty years, I had gradually lost my French; I had also lost Anne-Vir. Nothing in particular accounts for either of these losses, but the latter always seemed the more serious of the two, the one that could not be fixed. The main purpose of my trip was to undertake some research for a book, but I also went to see what kinds of lost things can be found.
And I went, in part, because of something I had written. In the summer of 2017, this site published an essay about a book of Verlaine’s poetry that Anne-Vir had given me years ago. I had read this book in countless cafés and bars and had committed one particular poem to memory: “Il pleure dans mon coeur.” The book always made me think of her and of the past. And I still had it, on a shelf in my house in North Carolina. I sent the essay to Marc because I thought he might like it, and he asked if he could send it to Anne-Vir. I said yes, and he did, and she emailed me. And we made plans to see each other.
Simple rumination – the process of churning your concerns around in your head – isn’t the answer. It’s likely to cause you to become stuck in the rut of your own thoughts and immersed in the emotions that might be leading you astray. Certainly, research has shown that people who are prone to rumination also often suffer from impaired decision making under pressure, and are at a substantially increased risk of depression.
Instead, the scientific research suggests that you should adopt an ancient rhetorical method favoured by the likes of Julius Caesar and known as ‘illeism’ – or speaking about yourself in the third person (the term was coined in 1809 by the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge from the Latin ille meaning ‘he, that’). If I was considering an argument that I’d had with a friend, for instance, I might start by silently thinking to myself: ‘David felt frustrated that…’ The idea is that this small change in perspective can clear your emotional fog, allowing you to see past your biases.
The old photograph was taken by Eric Bevington, a British colonial officer, in October 1937, three months after Earhart disappeared. Mr. Bevington and his team had scouted Gardner Island, now called Nikumaroro. A British freighter had run aground years before on the northwest corner of the island, and the young officer snapped a picture of it.
Mr. Bevington didn’t know he had also captured something sticking out of the water. The Bevington Object, as it became known, was less than one millimeter long — a tiny speck near the edge of the frame.
It's not easy to find a tour guide in Gaza. Even clerks at the local Tourism Ministry, a vestige of the 1990s that remarkably still exists, struggle to recommend professional guides, before suggesting a man who hasn't led tourists around for 20 years.
Ayman Hassouna seems delighted to spend a sweltering day in a suit jacket, showing off the historical sites, colorful markets and delicious grilled fish of his native Gaza — among other unexpected gems made even more precious by the reality that most people in the world are unable to experience them.
In the mid-1990s, people could still claim that technology is value-neutral without being laughed at. Yet, even then, it was obvious that the internet pioneers had designed their protocols to conform to the values common to the scientists who were the internet's earliest users: openness, transparency, collaboration, and free access. Technical proposals were meant to be accepted because they were the best solution, not because they were beneficial for some particular company or research institution. Both inside and outside the US, the American First Amendment seemed embedded in those designs, exported as a stowaway with every new connection.
Even so, within the US, a pair of legal cases from pre-internet information services created doubt. In 1991's Cubby v. CompuServe, the Southern District of New York ruled that CompuServe was a distributor, and therefore not liable for a defamation claim against a third-party poster, because CompuServe played no role in editing content. In 1995, Stratton Oakmont v. Prodigy, New York Supreme Court ruled that Prodigy, by virtue of its claim to moderate content, was a publisher and therefore liable.
Pitt — blondish, blue-eyed, square-jawed, possessed of a physique that became a touchstone for personal trainers — is one of the most movie star–looking movie stars out there. He’s a powerful industry player, a tabloid staple, and, in the words of Doreen St. Félix, "the last good-looking white man." The contradiction of his three-decade career is that his best roles are almost entirely supporting ones.
It's not that Pitt seems at war with his looks — a lot of those supporting roles, including his latest, revel in them. But the interesting thing about his career has been the context in which he's seemed most comfortable deploying them, as an object of envy or resentment for other men — a guy's guy ideal, an expression of (sometimes intentionally toxic) masculine ambitions and insecurities. He's a character actor in a movie star’s body.
Think of it this way. If a researcher wants to test the efficacy of a new drug, it is vitally important that the patients not know whether they’re receiving the drug or a placebo. If the patients manage to learn who is receiving what, the trial is pointless and has to be canceled.
In much the same way, as I argue in a forthcoming paper in the journal Erkenntnis, if our universe has been created by an advanced civilization for research purposes, then it is reasonable to assume that it is crucial to the researchers that we don’t find out that we’re in a simulation. If we were to prove that we live inside a simulation, this could cause our creators to terminate the simulation — to destroy our world.
If you added up the seconds that a good surfer actually spent riding the waves, it would amount to only the smallest fraction of an entire life. Yet surfers are surfers all the time. They are surfers while they are working their crap jobs, daydreaming about surfing. They are surfers when they wake up at 4 in the morning. They are surfers when they walk the board down the hill to Bondi Beach. They are surfers when they drink their predawn espressos. They are surfers when they paddle out on their boards. They are surfers when they wait and wait for the right wave. They are surfers when they wipe out, thrashing around blindly in the waves, praying the board doesn’t crack their skulls. They are surfers when they sit by their trucks with their friends after surfing, silently eating their grain-bowl meals.
And the thing about surfers? They don’t seem to regret all that time they don’t spend standing on boards and riding waves. Not only are they surfers all the time, they are, it seems to me, happy all the time.
The basic premise of ghost stories — that invisible intelligences prickle, unnoticed, around us, that we are being watched by unknown actors, with unknown intentions, that objects can become animated and think for themselves — has come true. The Turn of the Key, and novels like it, point to a new reality. We are all, constantly, haunted.
In 1901, London was still the largest city in the world. It had a population of six and a half million, two million more than New York and five million more than Tokyo. One of the ‘biggest wonders of this glorious Metropolis’ as well as ‘one of the most strangely human sights that the world can show’, according to J.C. Woollan, was the spectacle of all these millions of people being fed. On any given day, Woollan wrote, ‘there are nearly a million people lunching in restaurants within a few miles of the Strand.’ In the evenings, thousands dined in swanky West End restaurants, where a meal with wine might cost an average of a sovereign. But, as Woollan noted, ‘far more Londoners … live each day – and live not at all badly either – on a single shilling each.’ These Londoners visited sausage and pork houses, tea rooms, pie and eel shops and vegetarian restaurants, refreshment rooms and taverns, cookshops in Hackney that sold hot pease pudding and fried fish shops in Clerkenwell where you could buy ‘fish and tatters’ for a couple of pennies.
The spectacle of eating out in London in 2019 is still a ‘strangely human’ sight. Sometimes I find myself at the station on my way home trying to decide between a vegetarian burrito with extra guacamole at Benito’s Hat or a box of Moroccan meatballs at Leon and I think about how many other people across the city are choosing the same thing at that exact moment, weighing the cost against the carbs, deciding on something cold and easy versus something hot and filling, feeling guilty about eating meat, or wondering whether a ‘meal deal’ is a con.
In Berlin, people leave empty bottles lying around, and homeless people collect them for the deposit. On my block, people whose extra possessions don’t rise to garage-sale value sometimes leave them on the curb with a sign saying “Free.” I know a man who habitually discards books as he travels, leaving them behind in public places such as airports and train stations. Is this philanthropy, or is it littering? Is it the friend or the enemy of humanity who gives them his trash?
I grant that what makes a gesture philanthropic is the fact that the item is of use to the recipient, regardless of its value to the giver. And I do fancy myself a philanthropic type—at least I try to be. So why couldn’t I leave the bowl out on the entry table, poised to benefit whoever it might happen to appeal to? The answer is a lesson in the fineness of the line between ethics and aesthetics.
To fight for their survival, said Loida Garcia-Febo, president of the American Library Association, libraries tried to determine what other role they could play. “They invented these amazing new initiatives that are finally launching now,” she said. It took them this long to raise money and build them.
Libraries are certainly having a moment. In the past few years dozens of new high-profile libraries have opened close to home and across the world. And they certainly don’t resemble the book-depot vision of libraries from the past.
On this day 50 years ago, the residents of Abbey Road were probably unaware of just how much they were going to hate the Beatles.
It was on August 8, 1969, that the band snapped the photo that would change Abbey Road’s future forever. The following month they would release an album named after the northwest London street where it had been recorded, and that album’s iconic cover would seal the street’s fate. A photo of the Fab Four crossing the street in tidily-arranged profile made Abbey Road the site of the most famous crosswalk in the world.
In terms of traffic management, it’s been downhill ever since.
Plague, virus, and zombie apocalypse narratives tend to share a few common threads: Often, humanity brings such terrors upon itself; usually, survivors or those with immunity come together in ragtag groups and attempt to find a cure and/or fight their way through to where the other healthy people are; and, almost always, humanity survives — perhaps in drastically reduced numbers, sans modern technology — and must learn to rebuild itself anew. The central metaphor in these narratives tends to be that humanity is really quite an awful, violent species that wars with itself constantly, and that our boundless curiosity and hubris — whether that involves scientific research gone awry or meddling with forces beyond our ken — ultimately lead to our own near-complete destruction.
This metaphor is definitely present in Kira Jane Buxton's debut novel, Hollow Kingdom, but luckily for anyone drawn to its gorgeous cover (it's an eye-catcher, a bright, near-neon green with a black and purple crow staring intensely from behind the white font), Buxton takes a joyfully original approach to apocalyptic fiction. See, instead of us humans being the focal point in the story of our own extinction, it's the plethora of life that we leave behind that takes center stage.
Oisín Fagan’s first novel is a dark and bloody tale, well leavened with bone-dry humour, and with a dramatic climax that has about it the flavour of a Jacobean tragedy (or Kurosawa, for the more cinematically inclined). The medieval Ireland in which the book is set was a complicated and contending mix of native Irish, or Gaels; long-settled English, many of Norman origin; and more recent English settlers. The novel’s action occurs in the summer of 1348, the year the Black Death came to Ireland, causing destruction and chaos to sweep through the island, most of all in the central area of the English occupation. And at that area’s northern edge, in County Meath, is the village of Nobber.
There are a handful of world-stage cities that outsiders assume they not only know but deeply understand — even if they’ve never once set foot there. Subsumed in myth, these boldfaced locations include Paris, New York, London and most certainly Los Angeles.
New Orleans occupies its own specific place in that constellation, says writer Sarah M. Broom. “When you come from a mythologized place as I do, who are you in that story?”
If a little-known language of a remote people dies, should we care? That is the heart of the issue raised by Don Kulick’s “A Death in the Rainforest: How a Language and a Way of Life Came to an End in Papua New Guinea.” While it doesn’t give the reader a neat answer, it will leave you thinking about how cultures everywhere break down and evolve, and the role we unwittingly play in their demise.
This book makes a good case for seeing linguistics as “the universal social science”, one that teaches us not just about language but about how we live and make sense of the world. When we learn how the world is made through words, we also learn to be sceptical of our current iteration of reality and more tolerant of other perspectives. If life can be differently worded, it can be differently lived.
Sometimes, when I tell someone of my interest in Kubrick, they will briefly brighten and then suddenly grow dour before asking, “What did you think of Eyes Wide Shut?” It is not for nothing. This film was and still is reviled by many in the public and the critical establishment. Is it Tom Cruise? Is it the couple’s lavish life? Is it the nature of Dr. Bill’s odyssey into the manors of the superrich, where women are still treated like chattel? It can’t be Nicole Kidman or her character, Alice Harford, who stonily confesses an ulterior life of desire, can it? Its threats are multiple, with the fabric of the Western privileged life taken to task. Since the wife doesn’t have to work to keep them financially afloat, these are people who can afford to cheat on each other, who can afford to let their dreams almost destroy the life they have. At root, the film demonstrates how the moneyed life of doctors, of stars, of people living on Central Park West — that the poor and middle classes look up to and seek to be — is largely a sham of shallowness. Given this, it’s easy to see why so many people dislike the film, and beyond that, why men and women have a bone to pick.
Women don’t like it because of how women are portrayed. Women do want sex, but not like how many endeavor to secure it in the film. It’s too hard to believe there are women who will go out and get drugged up to be sex slaves to elderly, unattractive men. And why is Alice being so flirty with an old oily Hungarian? Can’t she keep her husband’s attention by herself, by her own charms, and without resorting to such games? If she can’t, what is her problem? Why would she marry him? Money isn’t everything, right?
Men don’t like it because of how men are portrayed. Here’s this schlub doctor — all these women (and one man) want to sleep with him and he sleeps with no one. What kind of dude is that? Such a strikeout disappoints everyone. What’s funny is how Kubrick engenders a raw reaction to these characters, because most of the film is about the allure of sex and what is gained by “having” someone—how some hoot and holler about a conquest. The male audience is sometimes reduced to highschoolers rooting for a guy to nail a woman, while the female one is chatty and circumspect about how Alice would not keep such a delicious secret (her desire for one particular man) and start fucking with her husband’s head — better only to tell her friends in the bathroom while smoking a cigarette.
I think what I really wanted was a visitation from beyond the grave, with each of my characters assuring me that I’d really nailed it, they loved the book, these new versions of themselves were so true! But in lieu of a séance, here are five permissions I wish I’d given myself earlier, and can perhaps give to someone else instead.
There are, however, an awful lot of other languages that have some version of this phrase that doesn’t use Greek. Some of these are weird in their own right. What’s up with the Baltic countries, which think Spanish is so impenetrable? Why do the Danish use Volapük, a short-lived Esperanto-type constructed language created by a German in 1880? When a Bulgarian says “Все едно ми говориш на патагонски,” which uses “Patagonian” instead of Greek, what the hell are they talking about? Do they mean some extinct indigenous Chonan language, or Spanish, which is the dominant language there, or Patagonian Welsh, which also apparently exists?
And what, you might ask, do the Greeks say?
“Εμένα, αυτά μου φαίνονται Κινέζικα.”
“To me, this appears like Chinese.”
Russian really is hard for learners, and a casual comparison might serve the conclusion that big, prestigious languages like Russian are complex. Just look, after all, at their rich, technical vocabularies, and the complex industrial societies that they serve.
But linguists who have compared languages systematically are struck by the opposite conclusion. They tend to find that “big” languages—spoken by large numbers over a big land area—are actually simpler than small, isolated ones. This is largely because linguists, unlike laypeople, focus on grammar, not vocabulary.
Before he built the world’s greatest playground and transformed the world of children’s design, Eric McMillan had spent little time thinking about how kids played. In 1971, the 29-year-old English immigrant was a design consultant living in Toronto, Canada – a sleepy city whose nickname “Toronto the Good” both referenced the place’s lingering Victorian moral rectitude and seemed to set a hard ceiling on its expectations for greatness. It would never be Toronto the exceptional, and the locals seemed content with that.
McMillan’s job was to design an exhibition for a massive new waterfront park called Ontario Place, whose somewhat unpromising theme was the glorious past and thrilling future of the province of Ontario. The architect Eberhard Zeidler had created a series of artificial islands and “pods” that stuck out of the water of Lake Ontario, skewered by columns like olives in a martini. The question of what to do with these architectural wonders, however, seemed to come second. “Now we had to think up a great idea for what to do with our island,” wrote Zeidler in his autobiography, Building Cities Life. “We thought we might have a nature reserve on them, but this was a short-lived dream because the wild animals could easily escape.”
Within train cars, an ad for the linens company Brooklinen shows three pairs of feet tangled together under a sheet. Brooklinen originally wanted to tell riders that the sheets were meant for “threesomes” but was made to tweak it by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. The advertisement now says that the sheet is for “throuples,” those in a committed relationship of three.
There are so many more. The Museum of Sex. Breast Augmentation. Lola prompts riders to talk about “condoms, lubricant and wipes,” under an image of two women happily discussing “the weirdest thing I’ve ever felt.” OkCupid uses a common acronym for being willing to have casual sex. Roman asks if you’re subject to (again!) erectile dysfunction.
When did this start? Where is it going? Do we really need this much sex on the subway? And what do we tell the kids?
Bill Berkson’s “A Frank O’Hara Notebook” feels like a magical artifact, a kind of time capsule with the power to transport readers to another era. That era, the Manhattan of the early 1960s, has been so heavily romanticized that trying to see through the fog of myth that has come to surround its artists and cultural icons is at times a difficult task. Berkson’s “Notebook” somehow penetrates the obscuring mist. Holding it, one feels the living presence of its subject, the aura of a writer who helped shape the cultural landscape of his time and who, against the expectations of many, has become one of the most influential American poets of the second half of the 20th century.
A particular blur
attended my mind
from end to end.
James Daunt, the man who will soon try to revive Barnes & Noble, once spent weeks in a noisy, arm-waving debate about the ideal angle of tilt for bookstore shelving. His opponent was an Italian showroom designer who argued, in a series of otherwise congenial meals in some of London’s best restaurants, that the bottom of the shelf should be elevated by four degrees.
Wrong, countered Mr. Daunt. The right answer is three degrees. Yes, the cover of a book catches a bit more light, and attention, if tilted at four degrees, especially on shelves below eye level. But the spine of a book starts to bend, ever so slightly.
“He prioritized presentation. I prioritized the condition of the book,” Mr. Daunt said, grinning to acknowledge just how wonky this discussion was. “These are my stores, so I went with three degrees.”
Sometime in 1938, F. Scott Fitzgerald had an idea for a new novel. His last, Tender Is the Night, had been published in 1934 after he had worked on it for a decade, often under personal circumstances ranging from difficult to terrible. He had not been able to begin a next novel during the mid-1930s, and gave the reasons why very clearly in his “crack-up” essays, published in Esquire in February, March, and April 1936.
In the summer of 1937, Fitzgerald returned to Hollywood with a lucrative short-term contract from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, having previously failed in his attempts at screenwriting in 1927 and 1931. Hollywood was, as before, initially unhelpful to Fitzgerald’s creativity. He felt this keenly, complaining of it in letters and scattering the movie scripts he was doctoring with penciled interjections of disgust and boredom. His idea for the new novel was likely born of his initial frustration with the movies as well as the pressure Fitzgerald was placing upon himself to complete something substantive.
The librarian greeted me, asked for my name, and scanned a shelf of books along the wall. She pulled one from the collection, and placed it on the counter—but left her hand on the book. She smiled. “Don’t remove this white band,” she said. “Don’t rip it. Don’t touch it. It will cause problems.” I nervously smiled in return. There is nothing more frightening than a confident librarian.
The white band on the book, as fellow devotees of the glorious InterLibrary Loan system know, contains all of the information to facilitate return of the item to the lending library. Removed bands slow down the system. And the last thing that I would ever want to do is hurt, in any way, a system that has been so good to me.
Following decades of violent revolt and government overthrow, Haussmann understood his project as one that would build a new kind of society for a modern age. He described his constructions as percements, like a puncture wound meant to clean out a city that he saw as clotted with disease and unrest.
But the beauty of a city that still draws millions of annual admirers belies a more troubling truth about the ways urban design seeks domination over its inhabitants. Some may think of cities being designed with the goal of logical organization, sanitation, and the flow of people and capital. The reality, however, often has more to do with the interests of the wealthy and the powerful and their attempts at prestige—and control.
Amateur gets opposed to professional sometimes: the amateur isn’t making money from her skill or her knowledge. Other times, amateurism gets opposed to expertise: amateurs screw it up, experts fix it. These are not the meanings I intend. In French, an amateur is a lover; fan, a nineteenth-century US coinage, comes from fanatic. The amateur leaves some space for ignorance, letting the relationship to the beloved thing—the sports team, the artwork—retain the quality of an affair. The fan, in the particular sense I mean, gets lumbered under facts. There is something of the jealous monogamist about fandom, something of the checker for digital traces of the beloved’s secret life. Who hasn’t been there? But wouldn’t it be better if we hadn’t? When I say I am not a fan, I mean I aspire not to follow out that particular impulse. I aspire not to compete, at the cocktail party, for possession of Herman Melville, as measured in knowledge of his vital statistics.
Bryan Washington focuses on his native Houston for his first book, Lot. Houston is prosperous yet, like many cities in the US, thousands of its inhabitants are only one missed paycheck away from ruin. In this enthralling collection of interconnected short stories, Washington vividly portrays the interior lives of his marginalised fellow citizens, often overlooked in literature save as characters sketched to elicit pity and despair. These are tough yet tender tales of uncertain existences, stalked by the certainty of future violence and the shadow of homelessness.
Controlling a sentence—controlling this sentence, as I type—is for me the best, most pleasurable work there is. I build the paragraph, tagged by its thematic first word: control. In crafting this sentence, this paragraph, this essay, I get to be both architect and construction worker, and both jobs offer equally pleasing aspects of control. The former involves creative design and abstract thought; the latter brings the visceral, simultaneously logical and intuitive pleasure of finding the right word, moving it around, putting it in just the right place. Having written that sentence, I know I must reverse myself and concede that the idea of there being “just the right place” is illusory—that even this work is, in its essence, as arbitrary as anything else. This is true, but nonetheless as I write, I shut out the world, other responsibilities, Twitter, the news, everything.
Although obsessive-compulsion may offer a special, somewhat unusual version of this kind of relief, I don’t believe I’m that different from most people. Most people in these chaotic times, are engaged in some form of obsessive control: sixty-hour work weeks, relentless curation of social media personas, helicopter parenting, and the regulation of mood via opiates, increasingly legal marijuana, and that old standby, alcohol. OCD’s manifestation is aberrant (and often ridiculous) enough that it largely can’t be integrated into normal life, and in some ways this is useful. At the very least, I cannot fool myself into thinking my compulsions are anything other than what they are: a warding away of death via the primitive magic of routine.
There are two questions surrounding artists and their archives. Why do artists keep them? And what is worth keeping? Legacy and ego certainly play a part in answering the first question, as does an acute awareness of one’s mortality. But in the last century alone there has also developed a clear distrust of institutional integrity, an overall unhappiness with what white cube galleries and museums can offer. A creative desire has arisen — as the sculptor Isamu Noguchi experienced when he opened his own museum in 1985 — to preserve the context of an artwork alongside the work itself. In 1977, Donald Judd, who saw the paintings of a previous generation of artists scattered across collections or neglected, with little effort toward genuine conservation, wrote, “My work and that of my contemporaries that I acquired was not made to be property. It’s simply art. I want the work I have to remain that way. It is not on the market, not for sale, not subject to the ignorance of the public, not open to perversion.”
To put it another way: Why try so hard to be realistic when, in many cases, fakery is part of the fun? Movies have always had to walk a fine line between the magical and the real. Cinema is built around the suspension of disbelief, but each era seems to have its own idea of what that entails.
As ideas go, human extinction is a comparatively new one. It emerged first during the 18th and 19th centuries. Though understudied, the idea has an important history because it teaches us lessons on what it means to be human in the first place, in the sense of what is demanded of us by such a calling. For to be a rational actor is to be a responsible actor, which involves acknowledging the risks one faces, and this allows us to see today’s growing responsiveness to existential risks as being of a piece with an ongoing and as-yet-unfinished project that we first began to set for ourselves during the Enlightenment. Recollecting the story of how we came to care about our own extinction helps to establish precisely why we must continue to care; and care now, as never before, insofar as the oncoming century is to be the riskiest thus far.
Indeed, despite the tone of Leopardi’s or Odoevsky’s forecasts, this story is not at all one of doom and gloom. Around the same time that the first mentions of the risk of our extinction began to emerge throughout the 1700s, so too did the first projections of plausible mitigations. These range from Lord Byron’s 1824 vision of humanity averting incoming comets by means of planetary ballistic-defence systems, to Jean-Baptiste Cousin de Grainville’s 1805 notion of gigantic geoengineering ‘machines’ working to extract diminishing nutrition from a collapsing biosphere by levelling mountain ranges and shifting seas, to Benoît de Maillet’s anticipation, as early as the 1720s, of planetary-scale terraforming and irrigation efforts designed to offset the desiccating heat of an expanding Sun and stave off the ‘total Extinction of Mankind’.
I can’t remember being found in my apartment, overdosed on antifreeze, by two senior editors at the Globe and Mail, the newspaper where I worked at the time. Mortification overwhelms me each time I imagine the scene, and I still wish I’d died rather than be found that way.
That, in 2011, was my first suicide attempt, my first post-attempt hospitalization, and my entry point into a labyrinthine psychiatric-care system via the trap door of botched self-obliteration. For me, it was an inexorable resolution—the only possible culmination of a conviction I’d had for months but kept putting off.
We were young then, but the feeling was that we weren’t getting any younger. And yet trying something new felt risky, felt heavy and momentous. We were 23 and 27 at the time, and something big had to happen. Something good. We really didn’t know anything, then. The way that life can move so slowly, and the way that one object on a table shifted slightly to meet the sun can be enough.
I took the photos to be developed; a painting was made. And then it was exhibited in his next solo exhibition where it sold to the Canadian Embassy in Beijing. As far as I know, it’s still hanging there. We were dating then, but eventually, I became the wife of the artist.
“The most dangerous thing a society can do is to deny a voice to the individuals that live in it,” writes Claire Armitstead in her introduction to the anthology Tales of Two Londons: Stories from a Fractured City, the third in an international series dedicated to investigating “the history, symptoms and consequences of inequality.” Described in this way, the project may sound to some readers like a subject better left to sociologists, but the scope of the collection reaches far beyond the academy to provide a humanistic map of a city, with its complex textures and layers of experience—in this case, reaching all the way back to Roman times—that together make up a sense of place.
All this gothic horror is drawn in deliciously lurid tones, but what’s even more satisfying is how effectively Macneal integrates the disparate elements of her story.
In a frequently quoted passage, the American professor of medicine Jon Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as “a way of being in a wise and purposeful relationship with one’s experience… cultivated by systematically exercising one’s capacity for paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally”. It sounds harmless enough. But San Francisco-based academic Ronald Purser thinks not. He has written a strident polemic attacking the secular mindfulness movement.
The women might have wanted to return home. But they couldn’t. They were not Odysseus, with rowers and soldiers, returning after conquer and plunder. These women had to travel to new worlds — pioneers and explorers, mythic as goddesses of war and love and intellect — because the old world was trying to kill them, starve them, or bury them alive.
Our women were not in history class, or film, or the literature of “the canon.” Our women survived the men who survived the cannons of war, and those were hard men. We hung out with hard men. Weak men. Good men. We married them. We got the babies. The violence. The guns. More babies. The laundry. The pots. Dancing. Pigs. The barter — sex and beds and sheets. The chickens. The bread.
We kept the nation alive.
But what if we reconsider the treadmill? Siskel’s primary criticism is that Clue is an exercise in futility, a whodunit with enough answers to render the question obsolete. Even the film’s very premise is something of a punchline. When Wadsworth shouts the literal rules of the game— “That’s what we’re trying to find out. We’re trying to find out who killed him, and where, and with what”—he is subsequently clocked in the head by a falling candlestick. In that moment it’s not the answer that matters, but the mounting mania and undercutting silliness of it all. What if, Clue seems to ask, futility isn’t an Achilles’ heel? What if it’s the point? The result is a film that honors its source material and transcends its limitations.
Bouillabaisse sometimes seems as old-fashioned as coq au vin or blanquette de veau. Here, and all over France, it is often said you can no longer find a classic rendition of the dish, which is something between a soup and a stew.
Yet there is also a rumor that bouillabaisse survives, especially in this city, which is celebrating its food this year with an initiative called Marseille Provence Gastronomy 2019 that includes cooking lessons, dinner concerts, wine-tastings, art exhibits and markets. To mark the occasion, a group of elementary-school students painted two large outdoor “bouillabaisse” murals featuring the rockfish necessary for the dish.
So when I decided to seek out and taste the real thing, I came to Marseille.
“Think of it this way,” my doctor said as she wrote me a prescription for blood pressure medication, “at least you don’t have children. At least you don’t have to make the choice between the care of your mother over the care of your kid.”
We were the same age, and she had just become a caregiver to her elderly father, who lived in another state. She was exhausted, no longer had the time to go for her ritual morning run, wasn’t eating well: the calls from her father began at 6 am, interrupted by the calls from her college-age children.
I smiled weakly. It had taken me years to come to terms with being childless by choice, and I had, and do, regret my decision. I didn’t see how not being a mother while becoming the sole caregiver for my own had any upside.
There is a conundrum at the heart of understanding how judgements work in relationships. On the one hand, we need to accurately assess whether someone is right for us because it is such an important decision – this is someone who we might potentially spend the rest of our lives with. On the other, a lot of evidence suggests that we are very bad at evaluating the qualities of the people closest to us.
Love blinds us to the realities of the people around us.
In the end, Straight’s book is about far more than a country of women. It’s an ode to the entire multiracial, transnational tribe she claims as her own. “This is my letter to say we love you,” she writes to Sensei, a nephew threatened too many times by both gang violence and the police. In fact, her words are for all those who now call her mother, aunt, cousin and sister, in the neighborhood where she has lived her entire life. And for all those who survived, so these women could live.
"First Cosmic Velocity" is a cleverly conceived and beautifully delivered novel that looks at the struggle for space supremacy from the Soviet side of the Cold War.
My mother turns off the kitchen light
before looking out the window
and half-hidden behind green apple
curtains, takes her nightly inventory
A conversation with French friends and family about their use of ‘non’ and why it seems to be the national default reads like the script for a Gérard Depardieu comedy. “No, it’s not true, we don’t always say ‘no’ first,” retorted the 60-something CEO. “No, you’re right, even when we agree, we start with no,” reacted the lawyer. “Hunh, no… I don’t know why…” pondered the young artist.
Olivier Giraud, a French comedian who has been sharing insights into French culture for over a decade with his one man show, How to become Parisian in One Hour, explains this reflex by saying, “Answering ‘non’ gives you the option to say ‘oui’ [yes] later; [it’s] the opposite when you say ‘oui’, you can no longer say ‘non’! We must not forget that the French are a people of protest, and a protest always starts with a ‘non’.”
Why this is so special is, of course, because, unlike mere mortal amps that only go to 10, as Tufnel states, “It’s one louder, isn’t it?”
Since then, the idea of turning things up to 11 has bled into pop culture. But, as it turns out, people were doings this long before Spinal Tap came onto the scene, both in directly turning something up to “11” and the more cliched way to say the same thing- giving 110%.
On all sides of me were hordes of people grouped together by their family-reunion branded paraphernalia. One family had it all: hats, T-shirts, buttons and backpacks. Everything they owned was embossed with their last name and family catchphrase. I looked at my parents, my sister, my brother, his two kids, and his girlfriend, and thanked some higher power that we had nothing on that said “The Warner Family: We Put the Fun Back in Dysfunctional.”
In ancient Ireland, harpists were instructed to evoke specific emotions in their audience — both laughter and tears, summoned by fingers that danced across strings. Perhaps Hazel Prior, a professional harp player, was angling for the same effect in her debut novel, the melodious, dreamy “Ellie and the Harpmaker.”
You could see Nobber as an anarchic snapshot of a society in flux, a warning about the seductions of demagoguery, or even a send-up of disaster capitalism; in an Irish context, the scene of Colca’s mother’s anguish at her son’s eventual fate can’t help echoing the kangaroo-court justice dealt out by paramilitaries. Yet the novel never feels like a vessel for anything so simple as a message; a grisly, gross-out slice of medieval life and death, it’s vigorously, writhingly itself, spilling out of any box you put it in.
But if you wanted proof that writing can rise above what it describes, this is it. The book is a buoy on troubled water (not at all the same as a bridge over it). It is indecently entertaining: there are moments when one feels guilty for enjoying the writing so much. Samadder is not making light of his difficult life but is being light about it, which is a sort of victory.
There’s something particular about children’s fiction, she says, that can open up new perspectives for adults. The best children’s fiction “helps us refind things we may not even know we have lost”, taking us back to a time when “new discoveries came daily and when the world was colossal, before the imagination was trimmed and neatened…” There’s also something instructive in reading books that, as Rundell points out, are “specifically written to be read by a section of society without political or economic power”. In an age whose political ructions are the result of widespread frustration at the powerlessness of the many in the face of the few, this recognition of how emboldening and subversive children’s books can be feels important.
O, I would tell soul’s story to the end,
Psyche on bruised feet walking the hard ways,
Environmental writers today have a twofold problem. First, how to overcome readers’ resistance to ever-worsening truths, especially when climate-change denial has turned into a political credo and a highly profitable industry with its own television network (in this country, at least; state-controlled networks in autocracies elsewhere, such as Cuba, Singapore, Iran, or Russia, amount to the same thing). Second, in view of the breathless pace of new discoveries, publishing can barely keep up. Refined models continually revise earlier predictions of how quickly ice will melt, how fast and high CO2 levels and seas will rise, how much methane will be belched from thawing permafrost, how fiercely storms will blow and fires will burn, how long imperiled species can hang on, and how soon fresh water will run out (even as they try to forecast flooding from excessive rainfall). There’s a real chance that an environmental book will be obsolete by its publication date.
I’m not the only writer to wonder whether books are still an appropriate medium to convey the frightening speed of environmental upheaval. But the environment is infinitely intricate, and mere articles—much less daily newsfeeds or Twitter—can barely scratch the surface of environmental issues, let alone explore the extent of their consequences. Ecology, after all, is about how everything connects to everything else. Something so complex and crucial still requires books to attempt to explain it.
This problem is particularly acute in our modern consumer economy, in which political institutions, the economic system, and popular culture are all now primarily dedicated to the pursuit of happiness. This has had the perverse effect of creating a world of frustration and disappointment in which so many discover that happiness is beyond their grasp. The economy fails to deliver for the majority but urges everyone to spend beyond their means. We engage in “retail therapy,” spending for the momentary gratification of acquisition. We encounter advertisements that wrap themselves around us like a blizzard of snow, each promising that if we spend, and go on spending, we will be rewarded with endless delights. This spending helps drive climate change, which threatens to make the planet uninhabitable. Moreover, our sense of who we are seems to be increasingly detached from reality; we live out fantasy versions of ourselves, playing our own private form of air guitar. To constantly pursue something you can never catch is a form of madness. We have built this madness into the very structure of our lives. Every society in the world aims at economic growth, and every society encourages the endless accumulation of wealth. When it comes to wealth, we have great difficulty in saying enough is enough, because it is hard to know when we can safely say we have enough to face down every possible catastrophe.
How then have we come to build a whole culture around an impossible, futile, self-defeating enterprise?
The 180-acre compound, where emperors and their advisers plotted China’s course for centuries, was stripped of its purpose when the last emperor abdicated in 1912. Since then, the palace grounds have at times lain empty or been treated as a perfunctory museum, with most of the halls closed to the public and the few that were open crammed with tourists on package tours.
But as the Forbidden City approaches its 600th birthday next year, a dramatic change has been taking place, with even dark and dusty corners of the palace restored to their former glories for all to see.
The world does not lack for Kennedy biographies. Yet more continue to arrive, promising fresh angles and as-yet-unexplored source materials. A recent pair have sought to reframe the family through the lens of one of its longest-held secrets: the life of Rosemary Kennedy, who was born with intellectual disabilities about a year after the birth of her most famous brother, Jack, and whose disastrous 1941 lobotomy did not become known to the public for more than 40 years.
There has been a proliferation of plazas in the past twenty years, here in New York City but also elsewhere in America, even in Minnesota, where I’m from. Maybe in the zoning laws there is provision for the apportionment of sunshine, or maybe it’s just leftover space waiting to be developed, but here it is, an open plaza where people can mingle freely, enjoy face-to-face encounters, take a break from Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram—the national unconscious with its fevers of conspiracy and ancient hatreds and malignity—and walk out into the fresh air of democracy, where the general looseness—no security personnel, no ropes, no questions—testifies to the inherent good manners of one’s fellow citizens. There is no sign reading: your consideration of your neighbors is appreciated. thank you for not engaging in abusive talk or elaborate paranoia. People just behave without being told, as if their mothers were watching them.
My mother told me to be polite to strangers as a matter of self-respect and also because they may be enduring some personal tragedy you will never be aware of, so be kind. Civility is based on empathy, and it is at the heart of democracy. Even the panhandler who asks me for change, when I shake my head, says, “God bless you, have a good day.” So I reach down and pull out a bill, a ten, more than I wanted to give, but there it is. He sees it. I give it to him. He says, “Thank you very much.”
The idea of plazas is as old as cities, and I’m glad to be in this one, looking up at that skinny historic building on 23rd Street in Manhattan, grateful not to be in a cubicle on the fifteenth floor but to be sitting down here in the land of the free. The preachers and buskers and rappers and guys in superhero costumes go elsewhere: this is a quiet plaza, its quiet enforced by its occupants, using the power of the New York stare that can stifle interruptions and kill small flowering plants.
The bride wore a birthday cake of a dress, with a scalloped-edge bodice and a large hoop skirt. A veil sprouted from her black bob. Moments before the wedding began, she stood quietly on a staircase, waiting to descend to the ceremony.
“Wow,” she thought. “I’m really doing this.”
This was no conventional wedding to join two people in matrimony. Instead, a group of nearly 30 friends gathered in a banquet room in one of Tokyo’s most fashionable districts last year to witness Sanae Hanaoka, 31, as she performed a public declaration of her love — for her single self.
The ideal woman has always been generic. I bet you can picture the version of her that runs the show today. She’s of indeterminate age but resolutely youthful presentation. She’s got glossy hair and the clean, shameless expression of a person who believes she was made to be looked at. She is often luxuriating when you see her – on remote beaches, under stars in the desert, across a carefully styled table, surrounded by beautiful possessions or photogenic friends. Showcasing herself at leisure is either the bulk of her work or an essential part of it; in this, she is not so unusual – for many people today, especially for women, packaging and broadcasting your image is a readily monetizable skill. She has a personal brand, and probably a boyfriend or husband: he is the physical realization of her constant, unseen audience, reaffirming her status as an interesting subject, a worthy object, a self-generating spectacle with a viewership attached.
“If something catches on fire and starts burning, you’re going to have to have some way of overcoming that,” Bourland says. “You can’t just open the window and let the smoke out.”
But as I spoke with astronauts and others in the space community, my skepticism about the space cookies softened. Bourland says that many astronauts he worked with liked cooking. And that they missed doing it in space.
If anything can save us, it just might be the snap of Tolentino's humor, the eloquence of her skepticism.
“When they called me for this shoot, I thought there must be some kind of mistake,” Ed Freeman, the fine art photographer who created the cover image, later told me. “I hadn’t paid attention to Playboy for many years, since I was a kid. And I thought: ‘Wait, they’re hiring me to shoot the cover? Do they know I’m gay?’”
This is a newer, woke-er, more inclusive Playboy — if you believe what company executives tell you, and if you are inclined to give an aging brand yet another chance at reinvention.
When I visit my mother in California, we’ll sometimes go to the grocery store together. She’ll ask the cashier for five SuperLotto Quick Picks, and she’ll take them with her long fingernails. She estimates she’s spent $3,000 on lottery tickets in her lifetime. “You can’t win if you don’t play,” she says. But it seems, I tell her, that you can’t win if you do play. The lottery did not ever and will not ever provide her with a ranch, or solar panels, or vacations. It will not afford her a better life. This beacon of false hope can be seen at the top of every California lottery ticket, a sun shining above the chosen numbers. It is golden, radiant, looming. And it is blinding.
This is how we are: gluttonous, ravenous, lazy and short-sighted. To act any differently, the intellect must use complex arguments from philosophy and science to suppress millennia of adaptation. It’s tough. Famine sticks in our cellular memory; the fat and protein in meat provide some of the best actual insurances against it, so biology cries Eat it! Culture adds that meat must not only be easy to find, but easy to acquire. Thus the land of plenty is also the land of the lazy. And the lazy have the additional luxury of denying the uneasy truth behind their easy meals.
The seven stories in “Hunter’s Moon” act as an unflinching reality check on the state of middle-age manhood at the close of the second decade of the 21st century. The Cialis tubs and wealth management ads that pepper every golf tournament telecast portray the American man’s empty nest phase as a silver-tipped victory lap. On the ground, though, the truth is ugly. The suicide rate among American men aged 45 to 64 rose 45 percent between 1999 and 2017. The states with the toughest solitary-cowboy reputations — Montana, Alaska and Wyoming — charted highest on the self-erasure scale.
That is Caputo country. The writer who established himself more than 40 years ago with “A Rumor of War,” the classic memoir of his years as a Marine in Vietnam, now writes from the vantage point of an elder. Phil C., the author’s fictionalized self in the story “Lines of Departure,” notes that he and a fellow Vietnam veteran feel “obliged to dispense our hard-won wisdom to younger members of the soldier’s tribe. That I didn’t have much wisdom to dispense seemed beside the point.”
On his first trip to Kamchatka, in the Russian Far East, the American conservationist Guido Rahr rafted down the Bolshaya River, the first of many adventures in what would become a lifelong obsession with exploring and protecting the region’s innumerable untamed rivers and their incomparable salmon habitat. Born and raised in Oregon, Rahr spent his boyhood summers chasing salmon migrating up the Deschutes River to the sandy beds where they were born. By adulthood he had become one of the world’s most accomplished fly fishermen, but his beloved salmon — beset by logging, dams and fish hatcheries — were in trouble.
As he is about to embark on his dayslong fishing trip down the desolate, heavily forested Bolshaya, Rahr gets his first good look at the rafts his Russian guide, Misha, has procured — cheaply made, with dinky plastic paddles, bad oarlocks and no life jackets. “We should be more concerned about bears,” Misha says. Was there bear spray in that case, or a gun? There was not. “Maybe there won’t be so many bears,” Misha shrugs. “I don’t know. I’ve never floated this river.” Not the sort of thing you want to hear from a river guide, but Rahr learns to appreciate the Russian way of embracing fate, if not their way of catching salmon.
Part of the appeal of the new burgers is their smaller environmental footprint. Beef is the most wasteful food on the planet. Cows are not optimized to make meat; they’re optimized to be cows. It takes 36,000 calories of feed to produce 1,000 calories of beef. In the process, it uses more than 430 gallons of water and 1,500 square feet of land, and it generates nearly ten kilograms of greenhouse-gas emissions. In comparison, an Impossible Burger uses 87 percent less water, 96 percent less land, and produces 89 percent fewer greenhouse-gas emissions. Beyond Meat’s footprint is similarly svelte.
Yes, a good argument can be made that small-farm, grass-fed beef production (in places that can grow abundant grass) has a very different ethical and environmental landscape, but unfortunately, that’s just not a significant factor. America gets 97 percent of its beef from feedlots. And feedlots are irredeemable.
In the early hours of one morning in May of 1749, Gabrielle Emilie le Tonnelier de Breteuil, the Marquise du Châtelet, worked furiously at her desk in an ornate three-storied Parisian house. Piles of books on mathematics and scientific instruments littered her desktop and spilled over onto the floor, the bureau, the shelves. The marquise’s fingers were stained dark with ink, but she didn’t care. No one important was going to see her anytime soon. She had long given up the pleasures of society life.
Splayed out next to the marquise was a red, morocco-bound copy of Sir Isaac Newton’s Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy), the 510-page, three-volume masterpiece that had revolutionized the scientific world and helped usher in the European Enlightenment. What had started as a basic translation from Latin into French had now morphed into a full-blown commentary. The work had proven much more difficult than anticipated, even for someone as educated and intellectual as du Châtelet. But she had come too far to give up now. This book, the first of its kind, was to be her legacy.
When musicians write memoirs, the chapters in which fame kicks in are usually both the best part and the beginning of the end. Tales of backstage debauchery are a reader’s reward for slogging through endless reminiscences about a singer’s childhood pets or their parents’ divorce.
But fame has a distancing effect as well. Once an artist plays their first sold-out show, or signs their first record deal, or spends their first holiday in Biarritz with Mick and Bianca, they are no longer relatable human beings whose experiences in earlier chapters — childhood crushes, bullies, trouble at school — mirror our own. The glass partition in the limo slowly rises, and they are lost to us.
And that’s what makes “Mattered” such a fascinating read. This set of random pieces actually reveal how -- for one, shining moment -- the losers ran Hollywood. For a brief time, movies consisted of stories told by weirdos, loners, outcasts and straight-up failures for weirdos, loners, outcasts and straight-up failures. (And according to Heather Hendershot’s “City of Losers: Losing City” essay, several of the best films took place in New York City, that haven of loserdom, with Al Pacino usually serving as a tour guide.) For this was a point in history when a lot of the American public, whether it was soldiers finally come home from Vietnam or folks simply disillusioned by such stateside scandals as Watergate, felt that way.