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Archive for September 2019

Monday, September 30, 2019

To Pay Attention, The Brain Uses Filters, Not A Spotlight, by Jordana Cepelewicz, Quanta Magazine

Attentional processes are the brain’s way of shining a searchlight on relevant stimuli and filtering out the rest. Neuroscientists want to determine the circuits that aim and power that searchlight. For decades, their studies have revolved around the cortex, the folded structure on the outside of the brain commonly associated with intelligence and higher-order cognition. It’s become clear that activity in the cortex boosts sensory processing to enhance features of interest.

But now, some researchers are trying a different approach, studying how the brain suppresses information rather than how it augments it. Perhaps more importantly, they’ve found that this process involves more ancient regions much deeper in the brain — regions not often considered when it comes to attention.

The Dutch House By Ann Patchett Review – Indelibly Poignant, by Benjamin Evans, The Guardian

The melancholy realism with which Patchett draws out the unrealised potential of her characters feels downright un-American, yet her storytelling is leavened by moments of grace and reconciliation. Both victory and defeat, after all, peter out to nothing in the end. Indelibly poignant in its long unspooling perspective on family life, The Dutch House brilliantly captures how time undoes all certainties.

Review: Leslie Jamison Gets Personal In 'Make It Scream, Make It Burn', by Janet Kinosian, Los Angeles Times

While the topics are adventurous, the nonfiction collection tackles the all-too-human topic of yearning and its oft-corollary, obsession. Both gurgle beneath the writer’s sonorous and captivating prose.

A Short Of History Of Falling By Joe Hammond Review – A Book To Extend Empathy, by Kate Kellaway, The Guardian

He makes the point that even if his illness is uncommon, his destination is shared: “Unlike you, perhaps, I know I am dying. And because of that I fear it less.” He approaches his plight with a curiosity that rises above self-pity. Although he can no longer take part in family life as he once did, he never disappears into illness (as many do). And the book itself keeps him connected. What one notices throughout is the ascendancy of the writing: fit and unaffected and strong.

The Balletic Total Work Of Art: On Nadine Meisner’s “Marius Petipa: The Emperor’s Ballet Master”, by Megan Race, Los Angeles Review of Books

Russia is famous for ballet, but it was a Frenchman who shaped Russian classical dance as we know it today. Marius Petipa (1818–1910) emigrated from France to St. Petersburg in 1847 and worked in the Imperial theaters until the end of his life. During the second half of the 19th century, Petipa’s choreographic classicism replaced the dominant Romantic style and laid the groundwork for 20th-century modernism in dance. Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, the great Soviet Russian ballet theaters, and George Balanchine’s New York City Ballet all stemmed from Petipa.

The lineage of Petipa to various 20th-century ballet masters and institutions frames Nadine Meisner’s Marius Petipa: The Emperor’s Ballet Master. Meisner shows how indebted Russian ballet (and, as a result, ballet globally) is to Petipa: “This is the style, exciting yet refined,” she writes,

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Are We Living In A Post-Happiness World?, by Laura M. Holson, New York Times

“I was the defender of happiness when my books came out,” Ms. Salzberg said. “A number of people have been saying, ‘Why don’t you say ‘joy’?” Happiness was dismissed as purely the pursuit of pleasure, she said. But it is significantly more complex. “I like redeeming the idea and meaning around happiness, to have more clarity and deep understanding,” she said. “So people know what happiness actually is.”

Does Ms. Fetell Lee believe Americans are living in a post-happiness era? No, she said. But she has observed a shift. “I don’t think about happiness anymore,” she said. “I think about joy. And if you string together enough moments of joy, maybe you can have a happy life.”

Why Symbols Aren’t Forever, by Jamie Hodgkins, Nautilus

Removing symbols that have a dark history doesn’t erase past wrongs, but it does acknowledge those harms and open the door for a better future: concepts that are understood by our local middle schoolers who have pushed to remove the name Stapleton from their school. Perhaps in this case, our future generation can influence the past.

Can History’s ‘Great Man’ Theory Explain Hitler?, by Talya Zax, New York Times

How was Hitler able to turn a democratic nation into an autocracy organized around race-based hatred? In recent years, as much of the Western world has seen a notable, sometimes violent turn toward nationalism and anti-Semitism, that question has become one of broad, anxious interest. This fall, two new books seek answers: Longerich’s “Hitler: A Biography” and the Cambridge historian Brendan Simms’s “Hitler: A Global Biography.” Both were underway well before the tumult of current events, but both biographers recognize that recent political trends have made their subject especially charged.

Who Is Remembered And Forgotten? 'The Autograph Book' Explores L.A.'s Collective Memory, by Dorany Pineda, Los Angeles Times

Josh Kun wanted to document Los Angeles’ history through autographs, so he started in an obvious place: the signatures of the famous.

But then he went to an unexpected place: the streets, where he noticed the stories embedded in the graffiti, murals and gang tags across the city.

Saturday, September 28, 2019

Language Is The Scaffold Of The Mind, by Anna Ivanova, Nautilus

Many great thinkers have drawn a strong connection between language and the mind. Oscar Wilde called language “the parent, and not the child, of thought”; Ludwig Wittgenstein claimed that “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world”; and Bertrand Russell stated that the role of language is “to make possible thoughts which could not exist without it.”

After all, language is what makes us human, what lies at the root of our awareness, our intellect, our sense of self. Without it, we cannot plan, cannot communicate, cannot think. Or can we?

Red To Green: The Evolution Of A City's Abandoned Acres, by Charlie Mithcell, Iain McGregor, Alden Williams, Stuff

The red zone is nearly twice the size of Manhattan’s Central Park, and four times larger than Hagley Park, which used to be Christchurch's largest public space. An area that large, so full of emotional and physical weight, should be unavoidable and confronting, but it's easy to forget it's there. Roads don't go into the red zone anymore, so you have to seek it out on foot or by bicycle, or catch a glimpse of it from above as you fly in or out of the city, a sprawling green bruise, shocking in its scale.

It’s taken the better part of a decade to answer one simple question: What should be done with this land? In the search for an answer, the red zone has found its own path, in what has been an unusual experiment in how life moves on after humans have left.

The Full Story Is Always Just Out Of Reach In 'The Incompletes', by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, NPR

Just like you must accept dream logic when you're sleeping, you must accept The Incompletes for what it is, to allow the endless descriptions of rooms, city streets, broken televisions, the cold, peeling walls and dirty window panes, to take hold of you. In the end you'll stumble out of the book, a bit dazed, wondering what the hell you just read, but it's an enjoyable trek if you like beautiful sentences — and you're one of those scene viewers I mentioned.

Book Review: Does The Book Have A Future?, by Sam Sacks, Wall Street Journal

Mrs. Gurdon is the most affirmative and least prescriptive of writers, but she becomes justly more emphatic in her urgings to continue reading rituals even after children grow older. The sacrifice in time, she writes, is “an obstinate act of love,” and the rewards of sharing “Oliver Twist” or “The Call of the Wild” (to name two of my childhood favorites) are incalculable—not least for the grown-ups, who are granted the gift of putting their voices “in service of beautiful writing.” When we read aloud, we become the book.

Review: Disney CEO Robert Iger Reveals His Biggest Deals And Toughest Days, by William Nottingham, Los Angeles Times

Iger’s book, “The Ride of a Lifetime,” contains insider detail about how he painstakingly guided the acquisition of animation powerhouse Pixar from Steve Jobs, then persuaded George Lucas to entrust Disney with his “Star Wars” franchise. Readers also learn about his role in the deal to buy 20th Century Fox studios from entertainment mogul Rupert Murdoch.

Yet even after 246 pages of those and other dramatic scenes, Iger seems to have left one rather large elephant standing in the room. More about that in a moment.

‘Cabinets Of Curiosities’ Review: The World In A Box, by Christoph Irmscher, Wall Street Journal

Mr. Mauriès, the author of more than 40 books on a variety of subjects from Jean Cocteau to Chanel, is a purist, an aesthete with a rigid sense of ethics. His impeccable taste is reflected in the lavish illustrations of cabinets of curiosities ranging from Renaissance collector Ulisse Aldrovandi’s teatro di natura in Bologna to contemporary artist Daniel Spoerri’s ongoing “Musée sentimental” in Paris, Cologne and other places. And Mr. Mauriès’s ethical standards shape the story he tells us, in which the only acceptable cabinets of curiosities are those that reflect some kind of larger truth, in which the macrocosmic becomes the microcosmic and the ineffable splendor of the universe emanates from the tiniest sea-shell added to a museum built mostly for the pleasure of its owner.

Friday, September 27, 2019

The Three Words That Almost Ruined Me As A Writer: ‘Show, Don’t Tell’, by Sonya Huber, Literary Hub

When I learned “show, don’t tell,” I thought I’d discovered a guide that would never fail me. And sure, it was good for me, in the way training wheels help in learning to ride a bike. The directive countered a school-based tendency toward abstraction and vagueness. I got firmly on board. I had no idea how much damage those three words would do after I’d depended on them for too long.

Detail makes the mimesis machine start. Chicken soup and a broken figurine of a ceramic goose—there, they make a second life happen, built on images. And details—pancakes, clenched fists, rainfall—were all I ever wanted, all I ever hoped for as a writer. The details are divine, and we should caress them, as Nabokov instructed. In many ways, the practice of writing is a practice of learning to re-see the world.

“Show, don’t tell” isn’t a way of reframing William Carlos Williams’ “so much depends upon a red wheelbarrow,” or that brilliant phrase “no ideas but in things” from his poem, “Paterson.” I know the real goal of “show, don’t tell” is to force a discipline that encourages the writer to see subjectivity emerging through those details. But that sentence—that command—doesn’t say that. It’s saying specifically don’t tell. And we need to just stop saying it to another generation of writers.

The Intelligence Of Plants, by Cody Delistraty, The Paris Review

If plants can “learn” and “remember,” as Gagliano believes, then humans may have been misunderstanding plants, and ourselves, for all of history. The common understanding of “intelligence” would have to be reimagined; and we’d have missed an entire universe of thought happening all around us.

Some Brief Musings On Time, by John Berger, Literary Hub

In a main square a large clock on the roof of the town hall told the time. Whenever a train from the country arrived—once a day, very early in the morning—there was a smart man standing in the square comparing the clock’s time with that of his own pocket watch. A shepherd who had just arrived by train in the town looking for work, asked the man what he was doing standing there for so long?

I’m waiting, the man explained. This is one of my jobs, checking the town clock. When the big clock stops, I have here—he pointed at his watch—I have here the right time, so the town clerk can reset the town hall clock correctly.

Death On The Beach, by Ed Burmila, The Baffler

With apologies to House of Sand and Fog, the single most depressing read in the English language is Nevil Shute’s 1957 Cold War classic On the Beach. A nuclear war has created a radioactive cloud slowly working its way around the planet that exterminates all human life it touches. Then he examines the daily lives of residents of Melbourne, Australia—the last part of Earth yet unaffected. As the cloud inches closer every day, characters attempt to go about their lives with the full knowledge that they have days or weeks to live.

Spoiler alert: in the end, they all die. Everybody dies.

Hybrid Noir: On Anita Felicelli’s “Chimerica”, by Anna E. Clark, Los Angeles Review of Books

Anita Felicelli's propulsive debut novel, Chimerica, almost dares you to try to categorize it. A legal thriller that builds to a climactic courtroom showdown. A heist drama that pits two scrappy underdogs against a preening art world celebrity. A magic realist yarn with an eye-popping premise in an everyday milieu. True to the hybrid mythological creature referenced by its title, Chimerica is unapologetically and effortlessly all these things. But perhaps most of all, it’s a work of cannily revisionist California noir, a genre that, in Felicelli’s deft hands, somehow encompasses all the others, reflecting the world we think we know back to us in all its strangeness.

Love And I By Fanny Howe, by Lindsey Weishar, Ploughshares

In Love and I, Howe leaves readers with a sense that much is left to be explored, not only in her poems but in the world outside our own associations. Like love, so much of what we understand rests in allegory, signs, and symbols. At the end of “Monastic Life,” the speaker ponders, “What if every living part of the created world / Lifted itself up to help the next part. / What if you stood when I entered.” In the wilds of associations that Howe produces, readers are sure to find both niches of rest and, simultaneously, calls to action. But perhaps our only responsibility is to wander.

The Body By Bill Bryson Review – A Directory Of Wonders, by Gavin Francis, The Guardian

Bryson’s The Body is a directory of such wonders, a tour of the minuscule; it aims to do for the human body what his A Short History of Nearly Everything did for science. He has waded through a PhD’s worth of articles, interviewed a score of physicians and biologists, read a library of books, and had a great deal of fun along the way. There’s a formula at work – the prose motors gleefully along, a finely tuned engine running on jokes, factoids and biographical interludes.

I Am Your Abyss, by Abraham Sutzkever, translated by Maia Evrona, Guernica

I am your abyss, your ash and your hell,
I am your very last glance, may you recognize it.

I am your last spark, to which I bid farewell
and with it I wish to kindle a rainfall.

Thursday, September 26, 2019

How To Write The Book No One Wants You To Write, by Lauren LeBlanc, The Atlantic

While it’s impossible to underscore Hurricane Katrina’s impact on her family and the city at large, Broom’s hope with The Yellow House is to reveal the ways in which Katrina was no singular catastrophe. “When we boil Katrina down to a weather event, we really miss the point,” Broom told me recently over the phone. “It’s so crucially important for me to put Katrina in context, to situate it as one in a long line of things that are literally baked into the soil of this place.”

Broom recognized these connections, but her aim was not so clear to publishers. “The main complaint was that I needed to choose,” Broom recalled. “That I was either going to write a book about New Orleans or a book about my family, but not both—which was so confounding to me that I couldn’t even process it.” While memoir is often pigeonholed as subjective and emotional, the genre is a genuine entry point for history: Collective historical narratives are drawn from individual experiences. Broom writes in her book, “The facts of the world before me inform, give shape and context to my own life. The Yellow House was witness to our lives. When it fell down, something in me burst. My mother is always saying, Begin as you want to end. But my beginning precedes me.”

Why Grammar Nerds Keep Getting So Furious With The Associated Press, by Seth Maxon, Slate

The online furor and the stylebook’s high-council summits to respond to the controversy may seem like a lot of bramble and vinegar over some stray hyphens. But I get it. As an ex–copy editor, I can get surly about this stuff, too, as will soon become apparent. And even nondorks can admire the red-pen passion of the incensed. In this case, the people shouting from the cheap seats seemed to have more reason than the justices on the Supreme Court of journalistic grammar. Using a hyphen as a chain to link adjectives working together sends readers a clear signal: These conjoined modifiers describe the same noun that follows them. Makes honest-to-God sense, right?

Perhaps, but the AP Stylebook’s former guidelines on compound modifiers—the Way of Things before all this tinkering—didn’t actually dictate that they should always be hyphenated. So the protesters’ anger in that vein is pretty puzzling. And with due respect to the objectors, anyone who has regularly used the AP Stylebook in recent years should know that the rule “changes” are barely changes at all. The stylebook loosens some already loose guidelines, and devotees react as if it’s a major shift. That’s what’s more telling here. Why did this change—as with the AP Stylebook’s other changes in recent years—offend so many so intensely?

The Unsolved Case Of The Most Mysterious Song On The Internet, by David Browne, Rolling Stone

With its rigid beat and dry, monotone vocals, the song sounds like a synth-pop hit you would have heard in a dance club in the Eighties. (Or at least on an Eighties Spotify station.) Close your eyes and you can imagine a music video: awkwardly lip-synching musicians, exploding lightbulbs, foggy streets. It’s familiar. But the name of the artist or band doesn’t come to mind.

That’s because, right now, no one knows anything about it: who wrote it, who sang it, or even when it came out. And for about a dozen years, a dedicated gaggle of music obsessives from around the world has been searching for any information about these three minutes of music. Throughout this quest, which intensified this summer, thousands of man-hours have been devoted to unearthing anything at all about what these zealous investigators calling “the most mysterious song on the Internet.”

Number Theorist Fears All Published Math Is Wrong, by Mordechai Rorvig, Vice

Kevin Buzzard, a number theorist and professor of pure mathematics at Imperial College London, believes that it is time to create a new area of mathematics dedicated to the computerization of proofs. The greatest proofs have become so complex that practically no human on earth can understand all of their details, let alone verify them. He fears that many proofs widely considered to be true are wrong. Help is needed.

Parts, Pieces, by Calli Tilson, The Iowa Review

I feel like a baby, glossy-eyed and speechless as I step out of Incheon Airport and onto Korean soil for the first time since I was born. Around me, everyone is hugging. We’ve only just arrived, but to simply be here is a massive event, and the anticipation easily cuts through the thick exhaustion. There is a banner hanging outside of the airport, Welcome to Korea 2017 stamped across it in massive purple-gold font, bolded. Underneath it, in thin, plain black letters, is Holt Children’s Services. My parents hug me in turn, my mother and then my father, both asking how I feel. Are you excited? What do you think? Mid-June Korea is hot and muggy. So far it is like every big city I have been to in America, yet I know something is different, something crucial and basic that I spend the entire bus ride to Seoul trying to pinpoint, except I can’t.

Light Of The Fig, by Stéphane Bouquet, translated by Lindsay Turner, World Literature Today

I imagine the crocuses also sometimes come down unexpectedly
           feverish, spreading

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

In Search Of An Honest Man, by Gary Saul Morson, New York Review of Books

The lesson of Shtrum’s moral fall lies in his reaction to it. All the obvious excuses occur to him, but he rejects them. “Good men and bad men alike are capable of weakness,” he concludes. “The difference is simply that a bad man will be proud all his life of one good deed—while an honest man is hardly aware of his good acts, but remembers a single sin for years on end.” Shtrum realizes that “it still wasn’t too late. He still had the strength to…remain his mother’s son…. He wanted this mean, cowardly act to stand all his life as a reproach; day and night it would be something to bring him back to himself.”

Grossman’s achievement lies in the profundity of his thought and his unflinching presentation of moral questions. For this reason, Life and Fate is indeed one of the great books of our time—despite its shortcomings as a novel. Grossman was fundamentally not a novelist but a journalist who had reflected on the totalitarian experience more deeply than his contemporaries. As a result, few of his characters are convincing as real people. Apart from Shtrum, they all seem like ideological mouthpieces. None is truly memorable—and that, perhaps, is the real test of a great novelist.

Stop Looking At Restaurant Menus Ahead Of Time, by Nick Mancall-Bitel, Eater

Going in without preconceived notions heightens your senses and allows you to form unbiased gut impressions. It lets your stomach, rather than your mind, lead the conversation, and rewards a la minute cravings. It also opens the door to discovery, allowing you to freely explore unpopular (that’s “untapped,” to you) regions of the menu. Branching away from a predetermined ordering plan means you can take cues from the environment around you, like the influencer snapping IG pics of a sizzling platter or the server who won’t stop ranting about the “Nobel Prize-worthy” oysters (whether he’s right or wrong, it’s definitely worth finding out). It’s a relief to shrug off the pressure to optimize the dining experience and go with the flow.

Alice Hoffman Brings Magical Realism To The Holocaust Novel, by Mary Pols, New York Times

Arguably, every single historical novel should evoke those two much-quoted lines of William Faulkner’s: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” But coming away from Alice Hoffman’s gravely beautiful new novel, “The World That We Knew,” historical fiction that transports you to Germany and France in the 1940s and, thus, the Holocaust, those words ring particularly true. Her subjects are preteen and teenage refugees on the run from Berlin and Paris, but with them, she conjures up contemporary children fending for themselves after being separated from their parents by today’s horrors.

Based On Serial Murders That Rocked Scotland, ‘The Quaker’ Is A Chilling Suspense Tale, by Maureen Corrigan, Washington Post

To begin “The Quaker” is to experience a case of hard-boiled deja vu: There’s the elusive serial killer who delights in toying with police; the obsessive, lone wolf detective who harbors his own secrets; the labyrinthine cityscape where evil finds plenty of places to hide. Initially, suspense fans might wonder just how many times we can amble down these familiar mean streets without feeling like the pavement is wearing thin. But, almost as soon as they arise, our doubts dissipate. In the hands of an inspired writer like Liam McIlvanney, it’s the very familiarity of the hard-boiled mystery formula — burnished to perfection — that gives “The Quaker” its sinister sheen of greatness.

Patti Smith Weaves Between Worlds Real And Imagined In 'Year Of The Monkey', by Gabino Iglesias, NPR

The Year of the Monkey is a beautifully realized and unique memoir that chronicles a transformative year in the life of one of our most multi-talented creative voices. Smith's approach to nonfiction is unique and brave: It counts as true if it happened, if she imagined it, and if she felt it. This is a book about Smith and the world all around — and that world includes all of us. And that is just one more reason why everyone should read it.

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

When The Choreographer Won’t Fly, The Dancers Rehearse By Skype, by Roslyn Sulcas, New York Times

It was 6 p.m. in Paris and midday in New York, and Jérôme Bel was peering intently at the computer screen on his kitchen table.

The dancer Catherine Gallant suddenly appeared in the Skype window. “We’re on Governors Island. Shall I show you the view?” she said. Mr. Bel, who is often described as an experimental choreographer, groaned theatrically and said, “I wish I could be there.”

But it was Mr. Bel’s decision not to be in the rehearsal room in New York, where Ms. Gallant was about to run through “Isadora,” his new solo about the modern-dance pioneer Isadora Duncan. He will not be at Ms. Gallant’s performance on Wednesday at the Crossing the Line festival, nor at any other performance of the work in North America. That’s because Mr. Bel decided this year, for ecological reasons, that he would not work in any way that involves flying.

Maybe The Secret To Writing Is Not Writing?, by Kate Angus, Literary Hub

If you grow the same plants in the same field for too many years in a row, the soil gradually loses certain nutrients leached by the repeated crop and your harvest is at risk of being wiped out by invading insects, microorganisms, or other aggressive plants (think Irish potato famine). Ultimately, the soil can become barren. This is why astute farmers either alternate which seeds they plant in varying years so that the depleted nutrients are returned to the soil by the new crop or they let the field lie fallow so that the earth has enough time in between plantings to rest and naturally regenerate what was taken.

A Humpback Whodunit, by Larry Pynn, Hakai Magazine

Nobody takes pleasure in this humpback’s death. But whales die for all manner of reasons, and when they do, Raverty can only hope they wash ashore on an accessible beach. This particular carcass was spotted two days ago—bloated, belly up, and malodorous—less than an hour’s hike from the Hakai Institute’s Calvert Island Ecological Observatory,* located just over 90 minutes by seaplane northwest of Vancouver. Staff from the institute alerted Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) about the whale and Paul Cottrell, the agency’s marine mammal coordinator, contacted Raverty, and got the operation in motion with logistical support from the Hakai Institute. The necropsy team is rounded out by Taylor Lehnhart, a technician from DFO.

What’s The Point?, by Michael Chabon, The Paris Review

The hell with fascism. The hell with bigotry and paranoia. The hell with fools falling for the lies of charlatans; that’s what fools do. We’re just going to keep on doing what we do: making and consuming art. Supporting the people who remind us that we are in this together. We are each only one poem, one painting, one song away from another mind, another heart. It’s tragic that we need so much reminding. And yet we have, in art, the power to keep reminding each other.

It’s Not You, It’s Me, by Helena de Bres, The Point Magazine

While Julia and I were busy using twins in books and movies to shore up our senses of self, others were likely using us for the same purpose. Some felt the need to explicitly announce which of us they’d identified as being closest to their soul, as if we were options in a personality questionnaire. With the kids at school and our cousins, the answers were erratic: one day I’d be Victoria’s or Jenny’s soul mate, by the weekend Julia would have taken my place. Adults were more consistent, but not much subtler. Nor could they be guaranteed to get it right. I was out for a walk once with a woman of such extraordinary loudness and gregariousness that she often frightened me. “I’m glad we can get some time alone,” she said conspiratorially. “I love Julia, but I have so much more in common with you.”

It’s a lot to carry when you’re just a pair of young girls trying to play with your My Little Ponies in the lounge. Looking back, I can’t remember which felt more uncomfortable: having someone declare themself on Team Julia in front of me or being clasped like a totem to the beating chest of a stranger. Julia and I would have preferred people to do neither of those things and simply take us on our own terms, non-comparatively and non-symbolically. But what could we do? We learned early on that even gracious and sensible people tend to lose themselves around twins.

The Swordplay And Sorcery Of ‘Gideon The Ninth’, by Jake Casella, Chicago Review of Books

A lot of the best recent science fiction and fantasy stories are notable for how well they color outside the lines. Disregarding genre expectations and freely borrowing tools from other literary traditions, a slew of writers are reinventing previously hide-bound forms. This is partially a progression of craft, but it’s also possible because of broader cultural phenomena — fantastical tropes, once restricted to a few niche markets, now dominate mainstream media. As a result, storytellers have to do less reinventing of the wheel each time they mix far-fetched elements — even the most general audiences don’t need the lore of vampires or zombies explained to them, so it takes very little narrative lifting to add such ghouls to an unexpected setting.

Tamsyn Muir’s debut novel, Gideon the Ninth, uses more obscure narrative ingredients — if you don’t know what necromancy is, that’s okay — but part of the delight of reading the novel is just how fearlessly it tosses together outlandish ideas with distinct elements from different genres. It’s a space opera about wizards; it shapes itself into cozy mystery; it slides into slasher-horror, then cuts its way free with musketeer-level swashbucklery. Like its eponymous protagonist, Gideon knows what it’s interested in, and that does not include a lot of dry exposition, world building, or backstory. This keeps the prose nimble; because of this, the plot steadily accelerates. At times morbid and horrific, at others times exuberantly gross, Gideon the Ninth is incredibly fun. It’s snarky, inventive, and absolutely revels in sexual tension and swordplay.

Ann Patchett Spins A Modern Fairy Tale In Her Luminous New Novel, by Martha Southgate, New York Times

There are very few sharp edges in this novel beyond Andrea’s central villainy and I periodically found myself wishing for a narrative that was, if not searing, a little less smooth — though to be fair, the Conroys suffer grief and loss beyond the financial. That said, what I (occasionally) wished for isn’t what Patchett was trying to achieve. The heroes and heroines of fairy tales face mighty challenges but they almost always make it through in the end. In “The Dutch House,” all’s well that ends well — and that’s a pleasure.

“The Divers’ Game,” Jesse Ball’s Unnerving Parable Of A Country That Feigns Innocence, by Katy Waldman, New Yorker

The novel’s focus on empathy may open it to charges of sentimentality, but there is little in “The Divers’ Game” to flatter the hope that people have any interest in treating each other well. Ball, instead, conveys a warm pity, or a mediated grace. Though a death closes each section, the last one, unlike the first three, expresses a fantasy of goodness, or even a template for refusal. Or perhaps it simply has the same effect as the girls’ history lecture, with its grisly video, at the end of which, Ball writes, “the lights came on, and suddenly everyone could see one another.”

The Long, Unscientific History Of His ’N’ Hers Brains, by Laura Miller, Slate

Sarcasm is a rare and underappreciated mode in science writing, which tends toward wonderstruck lyricism or, when the situation demands it, sober concern. But sarcasm is exactly the tone called for when your subject is centuries of flimsy scientific research designed by men to “prove” that you, and 50 percent of the human population, are inferior. Of all the bracing virtues in Gina Rippon’s Gender and Our Brains: How New Neuroscience Explodes the Myths of the Male and Female Minds, Rippon’s sarcasm is surely the most savory. Rippon, a professor emeritus of cognitive neuroimaging at Aston University in the U.K., argues that the extent and significance of the biological differences between the brains of men and women have been greatly exaggerated by generations of scientists and, especially, by the popular press. In recent years, developments in her own discipline, particularly fMRI imaging, have been used to bolster pronouncements about the inherent distinctions between the “male” and “female” brain, even when the evidence for such conclusions is rickety. This ticks Rippon off.

The Secret Is Out: Penguins Are Promiscuous Too, by Jon Gertner, New York Times

Nevertheless, “A Polar Affair” offers a timely illumination of a mysterious and vital ecosystem. Today, Antarctica is under siege from climate change, with its ice and wildlife threatened. The same-sex behaviors of penguins, once deemed too risqué for public consideration, are now viewed as another instance of nature’s variety. This past summer, in fact, two male penguins in a German zoo began trying to hatch an egg together in front of onlookers. Their efforts captivated zoo-goers in Berlin and penguin fans around the world

Gay penguins? In newspapers everywhere? That’s the kind of thing that would have really shocked George Murray Levick.

Monday, September 23, 2019

For Millennials, Self-Help Is More About ‘We’ Than ‘Me’, by Kathryn Watson, Literary Hub

Contemporary books defined as “self-help” have mostly served the Boomer generation.

Millennials, and the Generation Z cohort that follows close behind, are realizing that these traditional self-help narratives—ones that focus on the development of the self for the benefit of one’s self alone—aren’t going to work for them. (Of course, whether those narratives ever worked, for anyone, is somewhat up for debate.) Instead, recent book releases are reflecting a cultural longing for collectivism; a desire for meaning that manifests in communal virtue and societal improvement.

In other words, millennials aren’t looking for lifehacks to win friends and influence people; they are looking for workable systems that will sanction and codify their behaviors. Luckily for them, philosophers have been working on doing just that for the past several thousand years.

It’s A Fact: Mistakes Are Embarrassing The Publishing Industry, by Alexandra Alter, New York Times

In the past year alone, errors in books by several high-profile authors — including Naomi Wolf, the former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson, the historian Jared Diamond, the behavioral scientist and “happiness expert” Paul Dolan and the journalist Michael Wolff — have ignited a debate over whether publishers should take more responsibility for the accuracy of their books.

Some authors are hiring independent fact checkers to review their books. A few nonfiction editors at major publishing companies have started including rigorous professional fact-checking in their suite of editorial services.

While in the fallout of each accuracy scandal everyone asks where the fact checkers are, there isn’t broad agreement on who should be paying for what is a time-consuming, labor-intensive process in the low-margin publishing industry.

If You Existed In Multiple Universes, How Would You Act In This One?, by Sean Carroll, Literary Hub

You are welcome to offload your hard decisions to a quantum random-number generator, thereby ensuring that there is at least one branch of the wave function in which the best alternative was chosen. But let’s say we choose not to. Should the branching of our current selves into multiple future selves affect the choices we make? In the textbook view, there is a probability that one or another outcome happens when we observe a quantum system, while in Many-Worlds all outcomes happen, weighted by the amplitude squared of the wave function. Does the existence of all those extra worlds have implications for how we should act, personally or ethically?

Paul Theroux’s Mexican Journey, by Paul Theroux, New York Times

In the casual opinion of most Americans, I am an old man, and therefore of little account, past my best, fading in a pathetic diminuendo while flashing his AARP card, a gringo in his degringolade. Naturally, I am insulted by this, but out of pride I don’t let my indignation show. My work is my reply, my travel is my defiance.

Sometimes, a single person, met casually on a journey, can be a powerful inspiration. I happened to be in Nogales, Mexico, to talk to migrants — and on that visit I saw a middle-aged woman praying before her meal in a shelter. She was Zapotec, from a mountain village in Oaxaca state, and had left her three young children with her mother, intending to enter the United States and (so she said) become a menial in a hotel somewhere and send money back to her family who were living in poverty. But she had become lost in the desert, and spotted by the Border Patrol, seized and roughed up and dumped in Nogales. The image of her praying did not leave my mind and it strengthened my resolve to take a trip throughout Mexico, but concentrating on Oaxaca, one of the poorest states; and on my trip whenever I felt obstructed or low, I thought of this valiant woman, and moved on.

Where Theory Meets Chalk, Dust Flies, by Dennis Overbye, New York Times

Ideas, and ideas about ideas. Suppositions and suspicions about relationships among abstract notions — shape, number, geometry, space — emerging through a fog of chalk dust, preferably of the silky Hagoromo chalk, originally from Japan, now made in South Korea.

In these diagrams, mysteries are being born and solved.

Review: Ta-Nehisi Coates Imagines A Magical Means To Freedom, by Chris Barton, Los Angeles Times

The best writers — the best storytellers, in particular — possess the enchanting, irresistible power to take the reader somewhere else. Ta-Nehisi Coates imagines the furthest reach of that power as a means to transcend borders and bondage in “The Water Dancer,” a spellbinding look at the impact of slavery that uses meticulously researched history and hard-won magic to further illuminate this country’s original sin.

Left For Dead: On The Philosophical Life And Vocation Of Walter Kaufmann, by Robert L. Kehoe III, Los Angeles Review of Books

For Kaufmann, philosophy isn’t just about learning how to die. It is a discipline that prepares its faithful participants to be left for dead — following the great thinkers, prophets, and occasional martyrs of the past whose reward for defending a more honest and courageous way of life was to be ignored, shunned, betrayed, abandoned, and sent away. Though Kaufmann remained at Princeton until his death in 1980, as Corngold’s closing scene illustrates, toward the end of his life he began to lose favor with some of the same colleagues, students, and reviewers who once heralded his fresh iconoclasm. But in this, Kaufmann was simply living out a calling that required a sturdy enough disposition to fend off petty grievances and to be enriched by the suffering we all experience. In the face of such suffering, philosophy promises no comforts. But it does promise that we can die in peace having given an honest account of our short and frail existence. To give Kaufmann the last word, “It is better to die with courage than to live as a coward.”

Sunday, September 22, 2019

What Does It Mean To ‘Look Like Me’?, by Kwame Anthony Appiah, New York Times

The “look like me” formula appeals because it feels so simple and literal. We can think of a black or Asian toddler who gets to play with dolls that share her racial characteristics, in an era when Barbie, blessedly, is no longer exclusively white. The emotions it speaks to are real, and urgent. And yet the celebratory formula is trailed by jangling paradoxes, like tin cans tied to a newlywed’s car.

The End Of An American Tradition: The Amtrak Dining Car, by Luz Lazo, Washington Post

Harrison Keely’s most fond memories of riding Amtrak all include snapshots of the dining car. The shiny silverware and white linens. Enjoying thick slices of French toast covered with powdered sugar and drenched in syrup while taking in the scenery. The friends made over a slice of cheesecake.

“There’s something fantastic about dinner in the dining car,” said Keely, 32, a writer from Brasstown, N.C., who swears by the Amtrak crab cake and steak dinner. “You get to meet other people and hear so many great stories. It is to me one of the best parts about traveling.”

That experience is about to change. Amtrak says it is reinventing its dining service on long-distance trains, killing the traditional dining car to create more “flexible” and “contemporary” dining options.

Breaking And Mending By Joanna Cannon Review – A Superb Medical Memoir, by Katy Guest, The Guardian

After nearly giving up on medicine, Cannon finds her true home in psychiatry, where finally she is not just allowed but encouraged to engage with her patients. You get the impression that she’s a damn good doctor, and she also has some sound advice about how we could all be better humans. The story of the struggling NHS has been told in several excellent books recently, and this is among the best. We need to listen.

Saturday, September 21, 2019

Why Do Some People Become Readers?, by Joe Pinsker, The Atlantic

Some people are much more likely than others to become members of the reading class. “The patterns are very, very predictable,” Griswold told me. First, and most intuitively, the more education someone has, the more likely they are to be a reader. Beyond that, she said, “urban people read more than rural people,” “affluence is associated with reading,” and “young girls read earlier” than boys do and “continue to read more in adulthood.” Race matters, too: The NEA’s data indicate that 60 percent of white American adults reported reading a book in the last year outside of work or school, which was a higher rate than for African Americans (47 percent), Asians (45 percent), and Hispanic people (32 percent). (Some of these correlations could simply reflect the strong connection between education and reading.)

Of course, possessing any of these characteristics doesn’t guarantee that someone will or won’t become a reader. Personality also seems to play a role. “Introverts seem to be a little bit more likely to do a lot of leisure-time reading,” Daniel Willingham, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, told me.

This Is Exactly What Will Happen After The Last Fish In The Ocean Dies, by Mike Pearl, Vice

Picture a beach along the same vast ocean you know today—the same powerful waves and shifting tides, reflecting the same beautiful sunsets, even the same green-blue water. Now imagine a crowd gathered at the shoreline, standing in a big circle, gawking at something that just washed up. Kids tug on their parents’ shirt sleeves, asking questions about the dead creature lying on the sand. Reporters arrive. The story is momentous even if the takeaway isn’t much fun. Everyone knows there used to be fish in the oceans—kind of like the ones that still live in some rivers and lakes, except they could be much bigger, sometimes meaner, more diverse, more colorful, more everything. But those mythical ocean fish all died. Except maybe this one. This one was alive in there, and now it’s dead too.

According to Stanford University paleobiologist Jonathan Payne, an expert in marine mass-extinction events, a scenario where all the ocean's fish, mammals, and other creatures—even tiny animals like krill—are all gone is far from science fiction. The type of die-off that would lead to a largely lifeless ocean has happened before, and we're well on our way to seeing it happen again.

Soccer At The Edge Of The World, by Rory Smith, New York Times

All that time at sea was not Mathaussen’s only sacrifice. He had left his partner and their 1-year-old at home for a couple of weeks. He had cashed in valuable vacation time. He had spent hundreds of dollars, too: for transportation and accommodations, for equipment and membership fees.

In return, once the boat reached its destination, he would have the dubious pleasure of spending seven nights on a mattress in a school gymnasium, struggling to sleep in a room filled with a few dozen friends and strangers.

Yet he had not thought twice about any of it, and nor had his teammates from the soccer club Equaluk-54 who were embarking on this odyssey with him.

The Physical Challenge Behind F1 Drivers' 'Love-hate' Relationship With The Singapore GP, by Laurence Edmondson, ESPN

For Formula One drivers, the Singapore Grand Prix represents the toughest physical challenge of the year. A combination of heat, humidity and a race that regularly runs to its two-hour time limit, makes for a serious workout for the body. Add into the mix the mental challenge of threading a car between concrete barriers at speeds of over 180 mph, and the race in Singapore is truly a challenge unlike any other in the world of sport.

Over the course of Sunday's race, each driver's body will be fighting a losing battle against dehydration and heat stress. Aside from the obvious physical discomfort they cause, the other concern is the impact they have on mental performance and concentration levels. Much like an F1 car, the body needs specific preparation to operate as close as possible to its peak during the Singapore Grand Prix, and drivers and their trainers go to great lengths to maximise performance. But even the fittest drivers are close to their limit, and if things go wrong, the cockpit of an F1 car at Singapore can quickly become an intolerable environment.

The Beauty Of The Ordinary, by Pico Iyer, New York Times

My first year in Japan, I wrote a book about my enraptured discovery of a love, a life and a culture that I hoped would be mine forever. My publishers brought out my celebration of springtime romance in autumn. Now, 28 years on, I’m more enamored of the fall, if only because it has spring inside it, and memories, and the acute awareness that almost nothing lasts forever. Every day in autumn — a cyclical sense of things reminds us — brings us a little bit closer to the spring.

Take A Dark Ride On The 'Night Boat To Tangier', by Michael Schaub, NPR

The Spanish port city of Algeciras boasts a long and rich history, and is home to some of the country's most beautiful parks, plazas and churches. But Maurice Hearne and Charlie Redmond, the two aging Irish men at the heart of Kevin Barry's Night Boat to Tangier, aren't interested in any of that. They're spending all their time in the city's dingy ferry terminal, along with a mass of weary travelers and a handful of bored employees.

It's not the kind of place you'd likely choose to while away the hours. "Oh, and this is as awful a place as you could muster — you'd want the eyes sideways in your head," Barry writes. "It reeks of tired bodies, and dread." The Alhambra it's not, but it's a fitting setting for Barry's dark, haunting novel.

He Contained Multitudes, by Amanda Kolson Hurley, The American Scholar

In his new book, Plagued by Fire: The Dreams and Furies of Frank Lloyd Wright, Paul Hendrickson pushes back against the idea that Wright’s famous arrogance crowded out all feelings of shame, regret, humility, or sadness. Behind the superstructure of his ego, vulnerability was always “ghosting at the edges,” Hendrickson writes.

Friday, September 20, 2019

Rock Star Patti Smith, Making Paris Swoon, by Maureen Dowd, New York Times

There were scattered boos at the mention of Mr. Macron, and Ms. Smith isn’t having it. With her South Jersey accent gloriously intact, she lets loose.

“You should have Trump as your president,” she tells the pack of Parisians. “Then you’d know what it’s like to wake up every day with a president who doesn’t give a” — and here Ms. Smith uses one of several vulgarities — “about living things, about trees, about animals, about the air we breathe or the water we drink. We have to give our leaders a chance who are trying to do something because our president in America does nothing.”

Where Do You Read Books? I Read At The Mall., by Mark Athitakis, Washington Post

If you want to read properly, go to a shopping mall — but don’t spend a nickel.

Here, among the pretzel purveyors and sports-fan shops (one kiosk at the mall I frequent used to sell team-branded spatulas), parked in one of the islands of chairs and couches tucked near the anchor stores, I’ve found something like the Platonic ideal of a reading environment. Plentiful light, comfortable seating, the assurance that you won’t be bothered by either the pressing demands of home or interrupting humans. (Trust me, nobody will strike up a conversation with you about books at the mall. Even if you sit near the Barnes & Noble.)

The French Authors Puncturing The Myth Of “French Women Don’t Get Fat”, by Lauren Collins, New Yorker

A certain notion of French femininity took hold in the early two-thousands. In “French Women Don’t Get Fat” (2004), Mireille Guiliano recounted with disconcerting precision her gain of thirty pounds more than forty years earlier, and divulged the “old French tricks”—namely, the recipe for a soup of leeks and water—that helped her to stay thin forever while never having to admit that she was trying to. The French woman, for all her confidence, was a codependent. The self-improvement industry’s all-purpose foil, she represented a rigorous alternative to whatever her scuzzy American sisters were feeling bad about: their weight, their clothes, their sex lives, their parenting. She was closely aligned with fashion, which is to say the luxury business. Guiliano, a former executive at the parent company of Veuve Clicquot champagne, offered up chicken braised in champagne as the perfect dish to make “on a workday when pressed for time.” In a series of style guides, the model Inès de la Fressange counselled readers to save up for investment pieces, while getting hers free from Chanel.

The Dying Author Of ‘The Leopard’ Finds New Life In ‘Lampedusa’, by Wendy Smith, Washington Post

A man’s death and a masterpiece’s birth are the conjoined subjects of Steven Price’s brooding, beautiful book “Lampedusa.” It imagines the thoughts and emotions of Giuseppe Tomasi, the “last Prince of Lampedusa,” as he writes “The Leopard,” his majestic novel about political and social upheaval in Sicily during the Risorgimento. Price, a poet and the author of two previous works of fiction, emulates the lucid, courtly cadences of Tomasi’s prose and hews closely to the known biographical facts, but he makes this material his own. “Lampedusa” illuminates the complex connections between life and art, winding through Tomasi’s memories to reveal that his loving, profoundly sad depiction of 19th-century Sicily was rooted in 20th-century experiences of war, dislocation and loss.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Jacqueline Woodson Transformed Children’s Literature. Now She’s Writing For Herself., by Kat Chow, New York Times

In 1995, Woodson wrote an essay, published in The Horn Book Magazine, about the invisibility of black people in literature and what it meant for her to be a black writer in the mostly white world of children’s book publishing. She was 32 then, and had just published her seventh book. “I want to leave a sign of having been here,” she wrote. “The rest of my life is committed to changing the way the world thinks, one reader at a time.”

Today, she says, “I’m thinking about the people who are coming behind me and what their mirrors and windows are, what they’re seeing and what they’re imagining themselves become.” But as she began to conceive of her two most recent adult novels, she recognized something. She wasn’t about to stop writing for young readers, but she felt a certain security with the industry she’d helped shape. “I felt like I had done what I had been called to do in the children’s-book world,” she said. “I know that sounds kind of conceited, but I went in there, I wrote 20-some books — I forget how many books I had written. I had done the work to fill that hole, and I had nurtured a bunch of other writers of color.” In all our conversations, she’d always been self-deprecating when talking about her success, but now she sounded firm and animated. “So the thing was in motion that made sense, that made me feel like: ‘O.K., you know what? I’m going to sit back — and here’s the story I want to tell now.’ ”

'Can't I Just Say It's Tasty?' Why Food Critics Go Too Far, by Zoe Williams, The Guardian

Food critics hate the word “tasty” the way theatre critics hate the word “moving”. Of course it’s moving – that’s what it’s there for. Moving how? And I can see their point, but what if it is just tasty? I know the answer, by the way; if it’s no better than that, you just have to work harder at hating it. The whole enterprise must be envisaged by your most histrionic tendencies as a banjo duel between you and the chef: she is trying to find nine ways to reinvent an onion, you are trying to find nine words to describe it. But what kind of a monster, handed a perfectly tasty plate of pasta, with a bit of chilli and some bouncy, tasty olives, could hate it? It’s just so tasty!

A Death-Haunted Poetry Book Mulls Life’s Reversals Of Fortune, by Elisa Gabbert, New York Times

In “Dunce,” her latest poetry collection, Ruefle confronts the extraordinary yet banal fact that all of us die. How do we reconcile the boringness of death-in-general with the shock of our own, specific death? “I am walking in the general direction / of things,” she writes; “I was nothing / and shall be nothing again.” To live is to walk in death’s general direction. Death is our destiny, the Hollywood ending for each of us — what could be more predictable? And yet.

Carl Shuker’s ‘A Mistake’ Examines — And Reexamines — A Doctor’s Missteps, by Maggie Trapp, Washington Post

Shuker’s novel is the fascinating and infuriating story of the way various parties interpret and revise what they witnessed, limning events in telling ways. Shuker’s arresting prose renders the inconceivable breathtaking. He interleaves the story of Elizabeth and her surgical team with that of the real-life events that led to the breaking apart of the Challenger, and in both instances we remain transfixed as a cataclysmic mistake unfolds in real time. We are reminded of why we turn to narrative in the first place — our need to know what happened and our very human, if misguided, compulsion to fashion the messiness into a discernible, knowable story.

‘Lost Transmissions’ Tracks Down Some Of The Best Art You Didn’t Know Existed, by Paul Di Filippo, Washington Post

Playing the game of “what might have been” can be either a pleasant or melancholy exercise. Oftentimes this speculative practice can be a stimulating intellectual diversion. What would have happened if the pre-Columbian Chinese expeditions to the New World had established a beachhead? What if Napoleon had not tried to invade Russia? Such historical speculations concerning forgotten turning points provide cerebral thrills and wistful musings on children unborn, deeds undone, cities unbuilt.

But what of the art that went unfinished or unnoticed? That’s the central concern of “Lost Transmissions: The Secret History of Science Fiction and Fantasy,” a collection of essays by various hands, with half the text contributed by editor Desirina Boskovich and a graceful foreword by Jeff VanderMeer. “This book conjures up not just a sense of wonder,” VanderMeer writes, “but also gives readers the sweet regrets of might-have-beens.” Additionally, the compilation is lavishly illustrated and arrayed by master designer Jacob Covey.

Year Of The Monkey By Patti Smith Review – Memories Of The Magic And The Mundane, by Fiona Sturges, The Guardian

Her account of 2016 shows it was a difficult year all round. Along with the loss of friends, she is poleaxed by the rise of populism, the dirtiness of the US election battle and looming environmental catastrophe. She is also discomforted by her impending 70th birthday. And so, after a run of New Year gigs at the Fillmore in San Francisco, and a stretch back in her leaky New York flat, Smith engages in what she calls “passive wandering, a small respite from the clamouring, the cries of the world”. She travels to Arizona, California, Virginia and Kentucky.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Goodnight World-Building, by Eric Betts, The Millions

There’s no plot to Goodnight Moon, no characterization, no conflict. Every word written by Margaret Wise Brown and every detail illustrated by Clement Hurd is designed to build the illusion of comfort and stability—much in the same way that Star Wars presents a galaxy of infinite possibilities that includes one where your spaceship’s starter refuses to turn over, or the way that Harry Potter depicts a version of middle school where you are actually special.

In the case of Goodnight Moon, all the words and details—save one notable exception—work together to build Brown and Hurd’s fictional world. In the midst of the book’s mirrored repetition of household objects and animals, the goodnights to the clocks and socks, the kittens and mittens, is a white page with the words “Goodnight nobody” printed on it. It jolts the adult mind out of the trance the book’s murmured sibilants can produce. Goodnight nobody? What does that mean? Who’s nobody? Is children’s literature ur-cozy room haunted? This strange page feels like the point at which the book’s childhood materialism and chronic OCD list-making morph into existential despair (which makes Goodnight Moon the perfect bedtime story of grown-ups too).

Are Prose Poets Trolling Us?, by Jason Guriel, The Walrus

Put another way: if you accept that Strand’s brief story is a poem, then everything is a poem—and nothing, too. Prose poetry is the original trolling.

Constructing The Most Spectacular Restaurant In The World, by Tom Roston, Eater

Of the innumerable challenges facing Joe Baum and his team, one of the most troubling was the size of the windows themselves. World Trade Center architect Minoru Yamasaki had developed an unprecedented design for the pair of 110-floor buildings that were to be the tallest in the world. Yamasaki created an inside-out structure: a framed tube made of relatively thin steel columns on the perimeter anchored by a central core that housed the elevators, stairwells, and 47 tapered steel columns.

Yamasaki designed the perimeter columns to be 18 3/4” wide, interspaced by windows that were 20” wide. From the outside, the windows virtually disappeared, giving the buildings a nearly seamless, silver appearance. From the inside, the narrow windows were less than ideal, blocking views and creating a shutter effect or the appearance of a large venetian blind. Yamasaki’s windows were at least partly inspired by his own fear of heights. Near the roof, at the 108th and 109th floors, where the building’s mechanical equipment was, Yamasaki had designed the columns to be wider, as a subtle flourish to top things off, but on 107, where the restaurant would be, the shutter was in full effect.

It wouldn’t do. “We were building a view restaurant with a limited view,” Tozzoli told New York magazine’s Gael Greene. Tozzoli argued for widening the windows on the 107th floor, but Yamasaki wouldn’t budge. The integrity of his design was at stake.

The Rise, Fall And Resurgence Of Brooklyn, by Paul Alexander, Washington Post

Say the name Brooklyn these days, and many people think of Jay-Z or Barclays Center or, most often, skyrocketing real estate prices fueled by gentrification.

But for 500 years now, Brooklyn has charted a rich history unique in the American experience. In “Brooklyn: The Once and Future City,” Thomas J. Campanella — an urban planner, professor at Cornell University and Brooklyn native — has produced a meticulously researched and information-filled chronicle of a place that, in its own way, defines New York City. “Without Brooklyn,” Campanella argues, “New York would never have become a great metropolis.”

Patti Smith Looks Back At A Heartbreaking Year, by Jake Cline, Washington Post

Beginning on New Year’s Day 2016 and ending a few days after Donald Trump’s inauguration the following January, “Year of the Monkey” is a moving account of the emotional stumbles, physical and intellectual wanderings and deep losses Smith experienced in her 70th year.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Books Won’t Die, by Leah Price, The Paris Review

Increasingly, people of the book are also people of the cloud. At the Codex Hackathon, a convention whose participants spend a frenetic weekend designing electronic reading tools, I watch developers line up onstage to pitch book-related projects to potential collaborators and funders. “Uber for books”: a same-day service that would deliver library volumes to your door. “Fitbit for books”: an app that blocks incoming calls and buzzes your phone with reminders to get back to a book. That literary pedometer meets its real-world counterpart in LitCity: “Imagine walking down a city street and feeling that familiar buzz of a push notification. But instead of it being a notification on Twitter or a restaurant recommendation, it’s a beautiful passage from a work of literature with a tie to that place.” I thought back to the nineteenth-century guidebooks that inserted a snippet of Shelley next to their map of the Alps; the book has always been about bringing worlds together.

What’s A New York Book Without A New York Bookstore To Show It Off?, by Tom Roston, Vanity Fair

I keep reminding myself that it’s not all that bad. There will always be new books about New York. And there will be bookstores; in fact, there are some very cool new ones, such as Word and the Center for Fiction, both in Brooklyn. These stores may well thrive if they are able to evolve with New Yorkers’ consuming habits, like Brooklyn-based Books Are Magic’s robust Instagram presence or McNally Jackson’s South Street Seaport expansion that will serve beer and wine. The Strand—props to them—is clearly doing what it must to succeed. And the store has not lost its soul; recently, in fact, there was a “No Place Like New York,” window display. Still, the socks made me realize my late-blooming identity as a New York author is a flickering projection of an anachronistic ideal.

Consider The Butt, by Heather Radke, The Paris Review

The elevator doors opened onto a loft-like space throbbing with music. Organizers in T-shirts that read ASK ME ANYTHING ABOUT MY BUTTHOLE were setting up booths by the entrance, helping a strange panoply of performers prepare for the evening. A woman wearing all-but-invisible underwear sat on a perch while a companion covered her naked flesh with yellow paint. Another woman organized a kissing booth, dressed in a flesh-colored bodysuit and a pillowy hat shaped like a butt that covered her entire face. Her face cheeks became butt cheeks, her nose became an anus—she was a human butt.

The room was of a kind common in New York, where the walls are thick with layers of white paint applied slapdash over decades. It was the sort of room that could work for a wedding, or an art gallery, or, if someone nailed together some drywall partitions, a chiropractor’s office—a blank canvas that could become anything. On that sweaty evening in August, the room was transformed into an event called Butt-Con.

The Bizarre Social History Of Beds, by Brian Fagan, Salon

Groucho Marx once joked, “Anything that can’t be done in bed isn’t worth doing at all.” You might think he was referring to sleeping and sex. But humans, at one time or another, have done just about everything in bed.

And yet, despite the fact that we spend one-third of our lives in bed, they’re more of an afterthought.

How A Dying Man Wrote A Timeless Novel, by Joseph Luzzi, New York Times

“If we want everything to remain as it is, everything must change.” With these words, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s “The Leopard” announced a paradox of modern Italian history, as elites frenetically cut deals to protect their privileged status on the eve of national unification in 1861. In “Lampedusa,” Steven Price’s fictional account of how the novel came to be written, Lampedusa himself is no wheeler and dealer. Diagnosed with emphysema, he seems like one of those Sebaldian characters so weighed down by memory and history that he has never really been alive. As Price puts it, “He could not recall a time when his own pleasure had been untainted by loss, by sadness.” Lampedusa’s ancestral palazzo was destroyed in World War II; his family was harrowed by murder and suicide; his mother was a mix of raging disapproval and smothering love.

Not The Booker: The Unauthorised Biography Of Ezra Maas By Daniel James Review - Agonisingly Meta, by Sam Jordison, The Guardian

All genre expectations are dutifully met and cheekily subverted. But that doesn’t stop this story strand from being curiously engaging, even as it becomes increasingly daft. I found myself feeling sorry for poor old Daniel James, in spite of my residual resentment about being led into a never-ending hall of mirrors. In the final reckoning, I’m not sure that the book amounts to much. But nor am I certain that there isn’t more to it. Maybe if I read it again, I’ll see it entirely differently. It’s that kind of book. Which is to say, it’s singular.

Two Lifetime Crooks Wait For A Missing Daughter, With Shades Of Beckett, by Dwight Garner, New York Times

“Night Boat to Tangier,” like Beckett’s “Godot,” is about the wait. It’s about hunkering down and admitting the presence of old ghosts. The reason “Night Boat to Tangier” works is that Maurice and Charlie are vivid company on the page, a couple of battered and slightly sinister vaudevillians on a late-career mental walkabout. They might have fallen out of an early Tom Waits ballad, a chest fever splashing over minor seventh chords.

Surfacing By Kathleen Jamie Review – Profound Reflections, by Alex Preston, The Guardian

She brings the same revelatory eye to the Links of Noltland on Westray. A recent storm has revealed a 5,000-year-old Neolithic settlement to rival that of nearby Skara Brae. The Orcadian essay is divided into three sections, the last of which is written in the second person and seeks to reconstruct imaginatively the lives of the inhabitants of this ancient place. It’s wonderful writing, testing the limits of nonfiction, and seems to be the launchpad for the more impressionistic, personal later chapters of the book.

The Magpie: A Key, by Kerrin McCadden, New England Review

One magpie always means watch out. One magpie in the yard means stay in the house. Two magpies in the lane mean don’t go farther than         the roadside.

Monday, September 16, 2019

Will American Readers Ever Catch On To Marie-Claire Blais?, by Pasha Malla, New Yorker

The career of the French-Canadian writer Marie-Claire Blais had precocious and auspicious beginnings. She published her first novel, “La Belle Bête,” in 1959, when she was just twenty years old. Translated into English by Merloyd Lawrence as “Mad Shadows,” the book is a faintly gothic portrait of a forsaken girl, and her mother’s obsession with her idiot brother—the “beautiful beast” of the title. The novel offers an incisive rendering of family dynamics; it is also disarmingly brutal, with a tragic ending that suggests that all beauty is false and that life’s only truth is suffering. Margaret Atwood, Blais’s exact contemporary, later wrote, “The book made me very uneasy, for more than the obvious reasons: the violence, the murders, suggestions of incest and the hallucinatory intensity of the writing were rare in Canadian literature in those days, but even scarier was the thought that this bloodcurdling fantasy, as well as its precocious verbal skill, were the products of a girl of 19. I was 19 myself, and with such an example before me I already felt like a late bloomer.”

A Fire Lookout On What's Lost In A Transition To Technology, by Nathan Rott, NPR

For more than a hundred years, the U.S. Forest Service has been posting men and women atop mountains and trees, and in other hard-to-reach places, to wait and watch for smoke. They're the eyes in the forest, even as the forests they watch have changed, shaped by developers, shifting land management policies and climate change. At times, fire lookouts were part of that change. At times, they critiqued it.

But in recent years, the number of active lookouts has dwindled from thousands to hundreds as technology has encroached.

‘Oh-Oh, Ay-Ay!’ Riding To An Italian Rhythm On The Transumanza, by Maria Russo, New York Times

“Expect four days of sacrifices,” Carmelina Colantuono told me a week before I left New Jersey to travel with her family and their 300 podolica cows from Puglia, where the cattle pass the colder months, to their home in the Molise region of Italy. I was joining an eager band of cowboys, herders and pilgrims, some on horseback, some on foot, who wanted to experience her family’s 110-mile transumanza, the twice-yearly journey undertaken around the world to move grazing animals between winter and summer pastures.

In Italy the transumanza proceeds along tratturi, lanes etched into the land by herdsmen, cows and other livestock over two millenniums. As an unbroken link to the culture’s agricultural past, the network of tratturi — “Almost a silent grassy river / on the footsteps of the ancient fathers,” as the poet Gabriele D’Annunzio described them — has a unique emotional resonance for Italians.

A Single Thread By Tracy Chevalier Review – Hidden Hurts And Secret Longings, by Hephzibah Anderson, The Guardian

It’s a time and a place that is perfectly suited to Chevalier’s meticulous scene-setting, gentle pacing and gimlet eye for hidden hurts and secret longings. As for the embroidery, with its repetitive stitches that slowly, almost inconspicuously add up to something dazzling, she couldn’t have picked a more satisfying metaphor. After all, Violet and her fellow broderers are women building not only themselves, but the very idea of independent single womanhood in a world that does its best to ignore their existence.

'Homesick' Is A Boundary-Expanding Story Of Devotion And Growing Up, by Lily Meyer, NPR

Croft's photos, mixed in with her text, create continuity between memoirist and protagonist, despite their differing names. Her musings on language and occasional inclusion of Cyrillic script serve the same purpose. They make Homesick into a translator's Bildungsroman, one in which art is first a beacon, then a home.

Generational Zinking: Nell Zink’s “Doxology”, by Tausif Noor, Los Angeles Review of Books

Irving Howe remarked in his review of The Golden Notebook that Lessing and her characters in the novel are engrossed in “personal relations,” that perpetual impediment to collective action. Zink’s writing, and Doxology in particular, is perhaps best understood as an extended rebuttal of this reading — a long argument against solipsism articulated through an exaggeration of its effects. The personal isn’t political, but neither is the converse of this statement quite true. Could be, but isn’t. “When it turns personal,” Zink writes, “it’s too late.”

Sunday, September 15, 2019

It’s Evening. It’s Late Summer. What Now?, by Kathleen Jamie, New York Times

The window overlooks a neglected backyard where a few shrubs grow with their backs to the wall. Under the washing lines, grasses heavy with seed pods all incline slightly southward, and among the grasses a lone yellow plant, maybe a ragwort.

It’s evening. From time to time the grasses move in the breeze. Now a feather comes wafting down, a pigeon or a herring gull’s. It’s cloud-gray, as though plucked from a cloud.

'Don't You Forget About' This Charming, Deliciously Dramatic Romance, by Denny S. Bryce, NPR

Don't You Forget About Me is a deep dive into memory — specifically, what the main character, Georgina Horspool, chooses to remember and decides to forget, and how secrets buried in those memories can ravage a young woman's self-esteem and lead her to misjudge those who care about her the most.

Weighty stuff, huh?

But Mhairi McFarlane's fifth novel has plenty of laugh-out-loud scenes, too, and she consistently serves up a heaping plate of humor alongside each bowl of angst. Georgina's story is a delightful yet cautionary tale about the misadventures of a willful, insecure, 30-year-old who feels she needs to "make something of herself." But the obstacles in her path are piled so high, she might need a fleet of trucks to clear the way.

Fly Already By Etgar Keret Review – A Dazzling Short Story Collection, by Matt Rowland Hill, The Guardian

Although the tales are divided between five translators (Sondra Silverston, Nathan Englander, Jessica Cohen, Miriam Shlesinger and Yardenne Greenspan), each captures Keret’s dry, almost clinical style superbly. The book shows a master of the short story pushing against the limits of what the form can achieve.

What Happened To The American Dream? 'Transaction Man' Aims To Explain, by Bradley Babendir, NPR

In Transaction Man: The Rise of the Deal and the Decline of the American Dream, Nicholas Lemann, a longtime New Yorker staff writer and dean emeritus at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, offers his own take. His theory, as he writes in his introduction, is that the loss of the American dream occurred because of "our move from an institution-oriented to a transaction-oriented society," which meant concentrating power in the financial sector and away from government and larger corporations. This, he says, led to, among other things, a decline in union power, a reduction in long-term employment, banking tricks like subprime mortgages, and the financial instruments those subprime mortgages were packaged in, which led in turn to the financial crash in 2007.

For people who have read The Big Short by Michael Lewis, watched the film based on it directed by Adam McKay, or otherwise paid attention to how and why the economy cratered a little more than 10 years ago, many of these broad strokes will seem familiar. Transaction Man seeks to put the turn that led us there into context and take a look at where things have gone since.

The Lamp In The Borrowed Room, by Jennifer Barber, Consequence Magazine

has a white shade and a pale green base
with milky blossoms

down the front in a single spray,
almost Japanese,

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Shalt Thou Eat An Impossible Burger? Religious Doctrine Scrambles To Catch Up To New Food Technology., by Laura Reiley, Washington Post

If God says no pork, how does He feel about a very persuasive forgery? And if only beef from the forequarter is permitted, how will observant Jews parse meat grown in a lab, no bones and no quarters at all? How do you bleed an animal with no blood or slaughter an animal humanely if there’s no slaughter? And if you give up meat for Lent, what constitutes a cheat?

You'll Want To Open Every One Of 'The Ten Thousand Doors Of January', by Jessica P. Wick, NPR

The Ten Thousand Doors of January, Alix E. Harrow's debut novel, is one for the favorites shelf. It will lead you on a journey through books within books, worlds within worlds, mysteries within mysteries, until, finally, you reach a deep breath taken after a perfectly satisfying last page. Your breath. The last page of the book in your hand. The kind of last page that bewitches your fingers and, yes, you are turning again to the first page before you've decided whether you'll reread the whole book now or just turn to a favorite part. There will be favorite parts.

Even knowing how it ends, reading again is fresh delight.

The Art Of The Body By Alexander Allison Review – Cruelty Versus Compassion, by Shahidha Bari, The Guardian

Allison has an eye for artistic affectations, nicely lampooning Sean’s simpering art school teacher and an enthusiastic critic from Frieze magazine, but he allows Sean’s passion for art to ring true. The book reflects both on how art can represent the body and how it makes itself felt through our bodies. Visiting Tate Modern, Sean makes Janet stare so hard at a Bridget Riley painting that she grows dizzy and has to clutch his chair for support. Who is dependent on whom?

“Because She Meant God And We Meant Something Else”: On Susan Steinberg’s “Machine”, by Andrew Schenker, Los Angles Review of Books

What if there is no larger significance to anything we do, anything we think, anything we write? In her 2013 story “Cowboys,” Susan Steinberg teases the reader with just this possibility. “There is no intentional metaphor in this story,” her narrator insists. “There is no intentional meaning in this story.” This is typical for Steinberg. Over three books of short stories and a new novel-in-stories, Machine, she has continually given voice to narrators who painstakingly resist the definitive. They make frequent use of the conditional tense, wondering how things might unfold were such and such a thing to occur. They tease us with the possibility that what they said happened might not have really happened or might have happened differently than they said it did. And finally, as in the quote above, they dare us to find meaning — any meaning — in the stories they tell us.

In 'Something Deeply Hidden,' Sean Carroll Argues There Are Infinite Copies Of You, by Adam Frank, NPR

While no one will be surprised to find these kinds of arguments playing out about immigration or the importance of NATO, finding it among staid physicists — and about the nature of physical reality — might not be so expected. But all too often over the last 100 years, this has been the case, as scientists have disagreed sharply over the meaning of their greatest and most potent theory known as quantum mechanics.

That's the fraught territory best-selling author and physicist Sean Carroll dives into with his new book Something Deeply Hidden: Quantum Worlds and the Emergence of Spacetime. What makes Carroll's new project so worthwhile, though, is that while he is most certainly choosing sides in the debate, he offers us a cogent, clear and compelling guide to the subject while letting his passion for the scientific questions shine through every page.

‘In Montparnasse’ Review: The Dawn Of Surrealism, by Maxwell Carter, Wall Street Journal

Among modern art’s pantheon of -isms, “Surrealism” alone remains in everyday use. One doesn’t have Fauve experiences or Cubist dreams. And if one did, the sensations might in any case be described as surreal. Yet, perhaps because it was never strictly about form and attracted so many ponderous theorists, Surrealism is notoriously difficult to define. As Sue Roe ’s “In Montparnasse: The Emergence of Surrealism in Paris, From Duchamp to Dalí” shows, from the outset, the movement’s meaning and conception were fluid.

Like success in the old saw, Surrealism has not wanted for fathers. Marcel Duchamp, Giorgio de Chirico, Guillaume Apollinaire, Tristan Tzara, Man Ray and André Breton might, to varying degrees, take credit. How are we to judge their claims to paternity?

Friday, September 13, 2019

On Attempting To Deal With Addiction Through Books, by Chris Fleming, Literary Hub

As with everything, I thought I could destroy addiction with books. For a couple of years, my reading of philosophy and literature took a back seat to self-help. I would embark on a new self-help book, only to be quickly put off by some claim I thought was wrong or unsubstantiated, or caused me to judge the author as somehow stupid or naïve or uninformed—or at least uninformed about me, given what I then took to be my incurable uniqueness. (Often the thought would be, “Well, if I could believe utter crap, this might actually work.”) I persisted with the self-help literature because I thought that eventually I’d come across a book which could effect the beloved “paradigm shift” I thought I needed.

But gradually, as the books piled up around me, I was struck by a certain self-understanding that seemed to follow ineluctably from their mere presence: I am terminally dysfunctional and there is absolutely no hope. I was, evidently, temperamentally unlike Thomas Edison, who we’re told took every failed attempt (more than 1,500 of them) to find a filament for the light globe as a “success”—because every dead end represented knowledge of another thing that didn’t work.

Good Bad Bad Good, by Adam Wilson, Harper's Magazine

About fifteen years ago, my roommate and I developed a classification system for TV and movies. Each title was slotted into one of four categories: Good-Good; Bad-Good; Good-Bad; Bad-Bad. The first qualifier was qualitative, while the second represented a high-low binary, the title’s aspiration toward capital-A Art or lack thereof.

Some taxonomies were inarguable. The O.C., a Fox series about California rich kids and their beautiful swimming pools, was delightfully Good-Bad. Paul Haggis’s heavy-handed morality play, Crash, which won the Oscar for Best Picture, was gallingly Bad-Good. The films of Francois Truffaut, Good-Good; the CBS sitcom Two and a Half Men, Bad-Bad.

The Most Instagrammable Neighborhood In America, Before It Was Cool, by Jeff Giles, New York Times

The view of the Manhattan Bridge from Dumbo has become so Instagram-famous that it has entered the realm of the Eiffel Tower and latte foam: People take pictures of it because people take pictures of it.

Walter Benjamin, the German culture critic who famously warned that artworks lose their “aura” when they’re reproduced endlessly, may not be spinning in his grave, but he is almost certainly chain-smoking down there.

The Origins Of Life, by Charles Mudede, The Stranger

The doctor, who appeared shaken by my brother's unrestrained discharge of terror/confusion/anguish, looked up at me and said: "If it is pancreatic cancer, at the most 12 months. If it is stomach, 16 months." My brother, upon hearing this, wailed louder again and again. I'm having a hard time describing his cries because they were indescribable. Why was he forsaken? He just could not believe it. It was impossible. He was only 37.

"The reason we did not catch it earlier is precisely because he is so young. These cancers usually occur in old people," said the doctor.

Thirty minutes later, I was alone with my brother and my son, who had brought two bottles of wine to the hospital. My brother was in a state of shock. What could he/I/we say now? We had never prepared for this moment. We had never talked about death, or the meaning of life. In our entire time together (in Zimbabwe, where he was born; in Seattle, where he moved in 1998), I cannot recall one conversation with Kudzai about God.

To Calais, In Ordinary Time, By James Meek Review – A Triumphant Medieval Fable, by Jon Day, The Guardian

At the centre of this beautiful novel is an exploration of the difference between romance and true love, allegory and reality, history and the present. It plays out in unexpected and delightful ways, and it would be unfair to make these explicit. To Calais, in Ordinary Time ends with a consummation both of its technique and of its story that is affirming, tender and a little bit glorious.

Doxology By Nell Zink Review – Punk Rock And Devotion, by Sam Leith, The Guardian

“Doxology” is the name given to a short hymn of praise in the Christian liturgy. Nothing to do with doxxing – putting people’s private information on the internet – though the implicit pun ghosts through Nell Zink’s new novel all the same. The title is a bit of a challenge, then: it asks the reader, why is a long book mostly set between Washington DC and Manhattan between the late 80s and the present day, and mostly about families and punk rock music and environmental politics, called after a semi-obscure bit of devotional jargon?

‘A Good Provider Is One Who Leaves’ Is Extraordinary, Moving, by Barbara Spindel, Christian Science Monitor

Thirty years ago, as a journalist writing about poverty, Jason DeParle moved into a Manila shantytown and slept on the floor of a stranger, Tita Portagana Comodas, alongside various relatives and the scurrying rats. Before long the two weren’t strangers: Despite her imperfect English and his even worse Tagalog, not to mention their vastly different backgrounds, they became lifelong friends. Seeing Tita’s husband, Emet, and all five of their children take jobs overseas, DeParle, a reporter for The New York Times, came to grasp the importance of migration in alleviating poverty in the Philippines. The story of Tita’s extended family, set within the larger story of global migration, forms the heart of his stunning new book, “A Good Provider Is One Who Leaves: One Family and Migration in the 21st Century.”

Thursday, September 12, 2019

A Translation For Our Time?, by Tim Parks, New York Review of Books

In 1882, Friedrich Nietzsche observed that, “The degree of the historical sense of any age may be inferred from the manner in which this age makes translations and tries to absorb former ages and books.” The more a culture becomes aware of the real differences of other cultures and other times, as the Germans had become, the less likely it is, he wrote, to try to “take possession” of the other the way “in the age of Corneille… the French took possession of Roman antiquity.”

But what of our own time and our culture? Are we reducing everything we translate to standard English, whatever that might be? Or are we struggling to get close to the otherness of foreign texts?

Science Didn’t Disprove Free Will After All, by Bahar Gholipour, The Atlantic

To many scientists, it seemed implausible that our conscious awareness of a decision is only an illusory afterthought. Researchers questioned Libet’s experimental design, including the precision of the tools used to measure brain waves and the accuracy with which people could actually recall their decision time. But flaws were hard to pin down. And Libet, who died in 2007, had as many defenders as critics. In the decades since his experiment, study after study has replicated his finding using more modern technology such as fMRI.

But one aspect of Libet’s results sneaked by largely unchallenged: the possibility that what he was seeing was accurate, but that his conclusions were based on an unsound premise. What if the Bereitschaftspotential didn’t cause actions in the first place? A few notable studies did suggest this, but they failed to provide any clue to what the Bereitschaftspotential could be instead. To dismantle such a powerful idea, someone had to offer a real alternative.

The Last Of The Great Explorers, by Oliver Franklin-Wallis, 1843

The deep ocean is the Earth’s last great unexplored frontier. Below the surface, sunlight fades. Soon you are in total darkness. It is cold. Communication is difficult. At 100 metres the pressure is ten times that on the surface; at 2,000 metres, it is great enough to collapse a US Navy submarine. Apart from Vescovo’s, fewer than ten manned craft are currently able to operate below 3,700 metres, the ocean’s average depth, and no other active ones can go below 7,500 metres. At that point, submariners enter what oceanographers call the Hadal Zone, derived from Hades – the Ancient Greek underworld. The ocean’s deepest point, the Pacific’s Challenger Deep, is nearly 11km down. When Vescovo set out, only three men had ever seen it. Twelve have walked on the Moon.

The Sticky Tar Pit Of Time, by Maria Tumarkin, The Paris Review

This morning—that morning, rather—two men in my train carriage lift their heads—two men in their fifties in silky, understated ties—then there is a little snap, like a red light camera going off, and even before the next stop gets announced they’re leaning into each other laughing, How long has it been? Must be forty years give or take. What’s been happening? They run through their classmates: two cancers (one in chemo, one cannot hack chemo), a property development fraud, one guy (just on the other side of a protracted settlement) with too many ex-wives (stupid bastard, he and them deserve each other). A pause. Please don’t tell me it’s all there is. Fraud, cancer, bad marriages, being caught, extricating yourself, chance encounters on trains; can you remember the last time life felt long or kind, or like it was yours and mine?

My phone vibrates, one time only for texts. “Make sure you don’t have scissors, nail files, anything sharp.” It’s Vanda. Thank you, Vanda.


Essays One, by Andrew Hungate, 3:AM Magazine

A very short story cannot help but associate with other short forms — poems, dictums, parables, and dreams — that are typically ripe with meaning. Encountering such a story on its own, then, means determining its importance, especially when it is a lone sentence engraved in a setting of outsized significance. Does the task change if you are told that the story originated as an email or a dictionary definition? What happens when you have read a dozen very short stories, and then you come across a longer one, full of characters and grief? This may be the lesson of reading Lydia Davis: the origin of writing is infinitesimally mundane, until the moment it is not.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Don't Blame The Internet For Bad Slang, by Gretchen McCulloch, The Walrus

You’ve lived somewhere—perhaps many somewheres. Your friends or family have influenced you. You’ve probably even thought about how you like some linguistic features and want to avoid others. People have long been aware that these factors influence why different groups speak differently, but the systematic study of dialect began in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as part of the same scientific movements that gave us the Linnaean catalogue of the living world and the periodic table of the elements. While some cataloguers set out with nets to study butterflies, or burned candles inside jars to distill gases, others pored over ancient scripts and compiled lists of verbs.

But what kind of net can you use to capture living language? A German dialectologist named Georg Wenker thought he had an answer: he sent out a postal survey to schoolteachers across German-speaking Europe and asked them to translate forty sentences (such as “I will slap your ears with the cooking spoon, you monkey!”) into the local vernacular. It was a wise enough idea: teachers would be guaranteed to be able to read and write, and even if Wenker didn’t know the name of every single village teacher, surely the village post office in, say, Quedlinburg, could pass on his letter to the Quedlinburg village school. But in order to make it easy for the schoolteachers to respond, Wenker didn’t provide them with any training in phonetic notation. This meant that if one teacher wrote “Affe” (monkey) and another teacher wrote “Afe” or “Aphe,” it was anyone’s guess whether they were trying to represent the same pronunciation.

How The Many-Worlds Theory Of Hugh Everett Split The Universe, by Sean Carroll, Aeon

One of the most radical and important ideas in the history of physics came from an unknown graduate student who wrote only one paper, got into arguments with physicists across the Atlantic as well as his own advisor, and left academia after graduating without even applying for a job as a professor. Hugh Everett’s story is one of many fascinating tales that add up to the astonishing history of quantum mechanics, the most fundamental physical theory we know of.

The Joys Of The Italian Short Story, by Jhumpa Lahiri, The Paris Review

One evening in Rome, in the kitchen of the Italian writer Caterina Bonvicini, I expressed a desire to assemble a collection of Italian short stories translated into English. It was March of 2016, during a brief trip back to Italy. Six months before, my family and I had returned to the United States after living for three years in Rome.

My life as a reader had, by that time, taken an unexpected turn; since 2012, shortly before moving to Rome, I had chosen to read only Italian literature, mostly from the twentieth century, and to read those works exclusively in Italian, a language I had diligently studied for many years but had yet to master. I was forty-five years old, and I believed, even before this new phase began, that I was already fully formed as a reader and writer. And yet I surrendered to an inexplicable urge to distance myself, to immerse myself, and to acquire a second literary formation.

‘The Institute’ Might Be Stephen King’s Scariest Novel Yet, by Laura Miller, New York Times

Stephen King’s protagonists have been hunted by all sorts of malevolent beings, from the demonic clown of “It” to the fiendish cowboy Randall Flagg in “The Stand.” But as scary as those supernatural bad guys can be, King’s most unsettling antagonists are human-size: the blocked writer sliding into delusions of grandeur and domestic violence, the fan possessed to the point of madness by someone else’s fiction, the bullied teenager made homicidal by the cruelty of her peers. We can see something of ourselves in these characters, and recognize in them our own capacity for evil. King’s latest novel, “The Institute,” belongs to this second category, and is as consummately honed and enthralling as the very best of his work. It has no ghosts, no vampires, no metamorphosing diabolical entities or invaders from other dimensions intent on tormenting innocent children. Innocent children are tormented in “The Institute,” but the people who do it are much like you and me.

From The Author Of ‘Room,’ Another Bittersweet Family Novel, by Megan O’Grady, New York Times

The truth turns out to be sadder and more ambiguous than Noah could have imagined; we are never too old, Donoghue reminds us, to emerge from our childish dusks. What begins as a larky story of unlikely male bonding turns into an off-center but far richer novel about the unheralded, imperfect heroism of two women — Michael’s incarcerated mother and Noah’s long deceased one — and the way we preserve the past and prepare for the future. What is family, anyway, but an elaborate web of story and memory, stretching backward and forward to connect us through time? Whether we’re brought together by blood or circumstance, it’s the psychic inheritance that inevitably wins out, equipping us with a sense of who we are and how we might ourselves respond when life invites us to answer the call, to live with skin fully in the game.

The Anarchy By William Dalrymple Review – The East India Company And Corporate Excess, by Maya Jasanoff, The Guardian

This story needs to be told, he writes, because imperialism persists, yet “it is not obviously apparent how a nation state can adequately protect itself and its citizens from corporate excess”. And it needs to be read to beat back the wilfully ignorant imperial nostalgia gaining ground in Britain and the poisonously distorted histories trafficked by Hindu nationalists in India. It needs to be read because with constitutional norms under threat in both countries, the defences seem more fragile than ever.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

‘Ulysses’ On Trial, by Michael Chabon, New York Review of Books

It was a setup: a stratagem worthy of wily Ulysses himself.

The conspirators were Bennett Cerf, publisher and cofounder of Random House, and Morris Ernst, a cofounder of the ACLU and its chief legal counsel. The target was United States anti-obscenity law. The bait was a single copy of an English-language novel, printed in Dijon by Frenchmen who could not understand a word of it, bound in bright blue boards, and sold mail-order by the celebrated Paris bookshop Shakespeare and Company. When Cerf and Ernst first began to conspire in 1931, the novel, James Joyce’s Ulysses, was the most notorious book in the world.

TIFF Is More To Me Than A Film Festival, by Daniel Scott Tysdal, The Walrus

TIFF, I see now, concentrates one of my techniques for surviving depression. Oscillating between exhausted stasis and sobbing convulsions drove me to quit jobs, ignore friends, and hide from family as I shuttered myself in my apartment. This sickness also made reading and writing impossible, impairing my focus, memory, energy, and imagination to the point where I could not consume or compose a single sentence. The one thing I could handle—and that helped—were movies.

The Testaments By Margaret Atwood Review – A Dazzling Follow-up To The Handmaid’s Tale, by Anne Enright, The Guardian

Perhaps no other writer has managed her own phenomenon with so much grace and skill. The Testaments is Atwood at her best, in its mixture of generosity, insight and control. The prose is adroit, direct, beautifully turned. All over the reading world, the history books are being opened to the next blank page and Atwood’s name is written at the top of it. To read this book is to feel the world turning, as the unforeseeable shifts of the last few years reveal the same old themes. It is also a chance to see your own political life flash in front of your eyes, to remember how the world was 30 years ago and say: “If she was right in 1985, she is more right today.”

The Last Of Her Kind By Sigrid Nunez Review – Enormously Absorbing, by Alex Clark, The Guardian

The Last of Her Kind is a novel of dramatic episodes; its hinge event, which defines both Ann’s and George’s lives, occurs far enough into the book for me not to reveal it here. Suffice it to say that developments drive them apart, and much of the book is concerned with how and whether they will be able to work their way back to each other. Along the way, Nunez takes a jeweller’s eyepiece to racial and sexual politics, to the lasting impact of male violence and to the painful fragility of family bonds.

'Tinfoil Butterfly' Spreads Twitchy, Monstrous Wings, by Gabino Iglesias, NPR

Tinfoil Butterfly is eerie, atmospheric, and almost unbearably dreary. Every time you think it can't get worse, Moulton delivers another hit, another bleak revelation, another unnerving vision. She fully engages with the weirdness of the place and never shies away from gore. However, the most important thing about this horrific read is that it doesn't need monsters to scare you — just cancer, heartbreak, abuse, and cocaine, all of which are normal things in our world. Now do yourself a favor and let Moulton's darkness invade your blood.

Do Men And Women Have Different Brains?, by Emily Oster, New York Times

Where the book really shines — not surprisingly — is in the details about the science of the brain: what we know and what we do not. Rippon’s explanation of how we’ve studied the brain in the past, and how recent technological advances are giving us increasingly precise tools to do so, is endlessly interesting. But in the end, the discussion of how all of this relates to gender plays a bit of a second fiddle. Of course, if Rippon’s ultimate claim is simply that men’s and women’s brains are not so different after all, then perhaps that is as it should be.

Wildflower Meadow, Medawisla, by Stephanie Burt, The Guardian

The many-
oared asters
are coracles;

Monday, September 9, 2019

I Escaped The Cult. But I Couldn’t Escape The Cult Mentality., by Daniella Young, Narratively

After escaping a cult and crafting a new identity in high school and college, I felt grateful to America. Earning that degree gave me a concrete feeling of having my feet on solid ground, something that no one could take away from me. In the span of six years, I’d gone from confused and penniless to someone with options. My idea of America had changed completely, from “Babylon the Whore” to “Land of Opportunity,” and I wanted to give something back. The images of 9/11 had always stayed with me, and I thought of that day as the day I became an American. So I accepted a commission into the United States Army, thinking that a three-year commitment would be a small price to pay for the education I’d received and the freedom I felt lucky to have.

Nobody can ever prepare you for what it feels like to get off the bus on the first day of basic training. You have not had a wink of sleep in 72 hours, waiting for hours and hours at airports and bus stations, in transit with other recruits who are just as clueless as you are. You get off the bus in the middle of the night and are greeted by yelling drill sergeants, their broad-brimmed brown hats something that you will learn quickly to fear. It is all a blur of standing in lines, doing push-ups till you fall on your face, and so much yelling. The rigid structure and total control felt so very familiar that a single question rang through my head: “Did I just join another cult?”

Watching You Through Windows, Hearing You Through Walls, by Douglas Silver, Electric Literature

I listen to them at night, the neighbors making love. They don’t always make love. Some nights they fuck. Some nights they screw. Some nights they bang. Some nights it’s more about her. Some nights him. It’s never equal because it never is. Some nights it’s not night but I usually go to sleep afterward because after coming comes shame.

But when I can’t sleep, when I am out of sleep and there is only shame, I listen closer. Nestled in a tiny crook of my tiny apartment that is not mine, in my tiny building that is not mine, beside my open window adjacent to their open window, our sounds walled in by the airshaft. He asks if she picked up soy sauce and she says she got tamari and he says he likes soy sauce and she says you don’t know the difference and he says I got a promo code for the rental car, 20% off, and she says that’s fucking amazing, and he says it’s not like your sister’s going to stay married to this assclown and she says don’t start please don’t fucking start we’re going, and there is silence and it is in the silences that I feel every pulse in my body. It is in the silence that I wait for the silence to end and it is everything.

With ‘Gun Island,’ Amitav Ghosh Turns Global Crises Into Engaging Fiction, by Rumaan Alam, Washington Post

If journalists tell us the news of the world, it falls to artists to make sense of that news. Indian writer Amitav Ghosh is eager to take up the challenge.

“Gun Island,” his ninth novel, deals with two of the biggest issues of the current moment: climate change and human migration. But it’s not homework. Ghosh is mindful of his task as a novelist — to entertain. The confidence with which he shapes a good, old-fashioned diversion around these particular poles is instructive. Escapism has its virtues, but a book unafraid of ideas can be bracing.

'Permanent Record' Captures The Confusing Moments Between Adolescence And Adulthood, by Caitlyn Paxson, NPR

There's occasionally a burst of talk about "new adult" as a channel that could exist between the inland lake of young adult fiction and the wide-open ocean of books written for adults. It could be sexier and edgier than young adult but still about teens or early 20-somethings working out their feelings! It's a topic that comes and goes without gaining much traction.

Meanwhile, Mary H.K. Choi is quietly defining new-adult literature with her modern explorations of how relationships help young people figure out who they really are. Her new book, Permanent Record, is not especially edgy or sexy, but it does feel precisely like that confusing period between high school and adulthood where so many of us flail around, trying to figure out what we actually want from life.

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Even Physicists Don’t Understand Quantum Mechanics, by Sean Carroll, New York Times

“I think I can safely say that nobody really understands quantum mechanics,” observed the physicist and Nobel laureate Richard Feynman. That’s not surprising, as far as it goes. Science makes progress by confronting our lack of understanding, and quantum mechanics has a reputation for being especially mysterious.

What’s surprising is that physicists seem to be O.K. with not understanding the most important theory they have.

A Mountain Top Called ‘Little Man’ Falls In Norway, And Residents Weep, by Henrik Pryser Libell and Richard Martyn-Hemphill, New York Times

When the rocks tumbled down on Thursday night, they came to rest just short of Rauma — which was received with joyful relief by residents, who watched from a safe distance as the event was broadcast on national television.

“I cried on national TV,” Lars Olav Hustad, the town’s mayor, told reporters. “We could all see the rocks,” he added, and described an “enormous noise” as Little Man fell.

“It was really emotional,” he continued. “I was so happy for the people who had been in this trouble for five years, and then, the tears came.”

The Trick To Life Is To Keep Moving, by Devi Lockwood, New York Times

Maybe it was easier to be friends with an older person outside of my family because families live with one another’s faults. With Cora, I didn’t have any baggage; we shared no memories. We were free to be friends: to be frank with each other about our hopes and fears and flaws. Though it was cut short by her death, my friendship with Cora ranks among the most important I have ever had. Even now that she has been gone for nearly a year, our conversations still guide me. I would recommend that anyone in need of connection seek friends beyond the generational divide. What you find there might surprise you. We are more similar across generations than we are different: all human, all, to some extent, still figuring out who we are.

Clock & Street, by David Hering, 3:AM Magazine

The street is wrong; it is obvious now. On the way back to the house, wrapped square in right-hand pocket, the disarrangement is visible to her. It is in the position of the branches. Last night she heard the storm, her eyes locked on the claw marks of ceiling light, her ears dividing the sounds into subcategories: paper whipping the pavement, a somersaulting tin can, the low vocal scrape of a plastic lid. The downed branches lie where the storm left them. The way they lie is wrong. The detail takes time to present. She stands for a while looking and eventually it comes into focus.

A tree loses twenty branches to a storm. They fall to the street. This is street physics. Street physics is not clock physics; it is relatable to any child. Throw some sticks and they will land in a random pattern according to angles and energies. The branches here, though, are crossed, fallen in X formations. The street is paved with these indicative marks. Indicative, she knows, means agency.

The Second Sleep By Robert Harris Review – A ‘Genre-bending Thriller’, by Clare Clark, The Guardian

Instead The Second Sleep develops into something more contemplative: an exploration of a world that is both unfamiliar and as old as time, and of the consequences of our flagrant disregard for the existential perils of our own era. A convincingly imagined future world requires a steady accretion of small, telling details and there are sections in Harris’s novel that feel frustratingly inconsistent or approximate. But if his dystopia lacks the political and social coherence of, say, Gilead in The Handmaid’s Tale, he has contrived in The Second Sleep to do something rather brilliant and new. He has put us at the heart of the mystery. Whatever disaster has struck the world it has struck because of us, our greed and ambition, our arrogance. We are all responsible. As Fairfax edges closer to the truth, the reader is left with at least as many questions as answers, and most of those questions are directed at ourselves.

Stephen King Visits An ‘Institute,’ Where The Kids Who Enter Can’t Escape, by Dwight Garner, New York Times

This novel is less a motorcycle than a double-decker bus, but it does handle gracefully. The plot never stalls. There’s a fervent anti-Trump streak. And King still really knows what to do when he gets his characters out on the road.

Saturday, September 7, 2019

Doctor Who, Star Wars, Alien … Why Do We Love Novelisations?, by David Barnett, The Guardian

The death this week of Terrance Dicks, the prolific Dr Who writer who penned more than 60 novels extending the TV Time Lord’s adventures, made me realise something: I love novelisations.

The appeal of my stack of those old slim Target paperbacks, written by the likes of Dicks, Malcolm Hulke and others, was obvious in my childhood, growing up as I did at the tail end of the Jon Pertwee years. Tom Baker was “my” Doctor, so the chances of ever seeing the old William Hartnell or Patrick Troughton adventures were absolutely zero. In the days before endless repeats and on-demand viewing, paperbacks were the only way I could experience those stories.

Can Bullet Journaling Save You?, by Anna Russell, New Yorker

Devotees of the Bullet Journal, a cultish notebook-organization system tagged in more than eight million posts on Instagram, will tell you that there are two kinds of notebook people: those who keep multiple notebooks and those who keep just one. Most of us are multiple-notebook people, living our lives haphazardly, writing things down as we go: a notebook for the office, another for groceries and appointments, one for dreams and doodles, one for furtive rants. The multiple-notebook person maintains a wall calendar, a desk calendar, and two calendar apps. She has scribbled a list of movies to watch on a sticky note that she will never find again. She has an app full of cryptic asides (“Rice bowls,” “Bat room”). She has no idea where her bank details are. The multiple-notebook person lives in a kind of organizational purgatory. Her intentions are good, her approach delinquent.

Ryder Carroll, the thirty-nine-year-old digital designer who invented the Bullet Journal, used to be a multiple-notebook person. Born in Vienna to American teachers, he was a squirmy, distracted child, constantly behind and anxious in school. As a teen-ager, he was given a diagnosis of attention-deficit disorder, and he began to develop small journaling tricks to get through his classes; in college, at Skidmore, he carried around six notebooks to keep track of everything. He also scrapbooked and made collages. He started writing down his thoughts in short bursts throughout the day and found that it calmed him, allowing him to see past his anxieties to their root causes. “When there’s a barking dog outside, you can’t hear anything else,” he told me recently, by way of analogy. “But when you go to the window you realize there might be something wrong, you think about it, you get the context. It’s barking at something. You actually get up and look. And, for me, writing is that process.”

The Man Who Lived And Died On The Appalachian Trail, by Dan Koeppel, Outside Magazine

Baltimore Jack was dead. In a place where even the speediest travel slowly, the word spread up and down the length of the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine in a matter of hours. It was May 4, 2016, and one of the most beloved, brilliant, and exasperating antiheroes in the history of long-distance walking was gone.

He was 57, and it was the beginning of his 21st year on the trail. Over that time, he had become a sort of everywhere-at-once presence, bandages wrapped around his battered knees, relying on snack cakes, lasagna, Jim Beam, cigarettes, and the kindness of others to survive. It was a kindness he usually returned.

When Climate Change Is Stranger Than Fiction, by Alisha Haridasani Gupta, New York Times

How do you capture the realities of climate change in a novel — not just its causes and symptoms, but the ever-changing, ever-weirder ways it is manifesting, within the conventional framework of a story with a beginning, middle and end?

Answering that question is, according to the writer Amitav Ghosh, the literary world’s great challenge. “I feel completely convinced that we have to change our fictional practices in order to deal with the world that we’re in,” he said.

Friday, September 6, 2019

Who Has Time To Read? And Where? And On What?, by Leah Price, Literary Hub

The Kindle ad equates modernity with mobility: the freedom to marry who you want with the freedom to read wherever you want. Expanding on the theme two years later, Amazon marketers began to solicit photos with the hashtag #haveKINDLEwillTRAVEL. The resulting flood of images—a white man holds a Kindle on a dirt road; a white man reads silhouetted against a bell tower; a pair of white palms cradle a Kindle in a windowsill overlooking a cliff—measure the power of the device by the sublimity of the landscapes that it blots out. (Only the most riveting read can compete with the Taj Mahal.) Borrowing Microsoft’s metaphor of the “window,” Amazon’s al fresco scenes naturalized an otherwise daunting new technology. The wage slave might hunch over a computer in a fluorescent-lit cubicle, but the Kindle’s user remained a free spirit, shaded by trees that memorialized now-obsolete wood-pulp paper.

Yet Amazon’s 2013 ad’s celebration of the latest legal decision turns out to look oddly atavistic. Amazon’s his-’n’-hers contrast harks back to a paperback-era New Yorker cartoon where the symmetry of identical bedside reading lamps belies the contrast between a woman’s book and her husband’s antennae peeking out from behind his newspaper.

Reading Nook: Ruth Reichl's Movable Feast, by Ruth Reichl, Los Angeles Times

So I eschew all those perfect little spaces in my house. My secret reading spot is a banged-up 11-year-old car covered in the dust of the dirt road on which I live. There are almost 150,000 miles on this vehicle, and every one of them has unspooled in the company of an audiobook.

Perhaps you consider this cheating? Listening, I know, is different than reading, but I cannot think of a single way that I’d rather spend time. Being read to is a special treat: In the hands of a talented reader a great book becomes even more magnificent.

How Dan Patrick And Keith Olbermann’s ‘SportsCenter’ Changed TV Forever, by Bryan Curtis, The Ringer

This week, ESPN turns 40 years old. I sought out Dan Patrick and Keith Olbermann. I had my reasons. The voice they created while cohosting SportsCenter from 1992 to 1997 still ranks as one of the best and most miraculous things ESPN ever produced. But I think we’ve been appreciating them too narrowly.

On their self-titled Big Show, Patrick and Olbermann took a low art form, doing highlights, and wrested it away from the howling Champ Kinds of local news. Patrick and Olbermann quoted Ralph Waldo Emerson and Monty Python and Johnny Most. They became one-name, Beatles-like categories. For a time, every wannabe sportscaster was a purring, FM-quality “Dan” or a transgressive, scenery-chewing “Keith.”

The Heir To A Tofu Dynasty Finally Learns To Make Tofu, by Aaron Reiss, New York Times

Two years ago, Paul Eng decided to confront a reality he had been facing most of his life: He was the heir to a tofu tradition who had no idea how to make tofu.

Can One Sentence Capture All Of Life?, by Katy Waldman, New Yorker

Where does one start with “Ducks, Newburyport,” the new novel by Lucy Ellmann, with its single, sinuous sentence tracking a middle-aged Ohio woman’s perambulations of thought? It seems vacuous to dwell on the look of the thing, but, well, look at it: thick as a phonebook, red and blue, with an upside-down duck on the cover. Open the book, which has been short-listed for the Booker Prize, and you are greeted by block upon block of forbidding text. (There are no paragraph breaks.) Each section of the sentence, which runs for about a thousand pages, starts with the phrase “the fact that”: “the fact that I think Frances Borshun likes her new dog better than she likes her first grandchild, the fact that she’s nutty about that dog.” Wordplay, snippets of music, and loopy associations multiply. Every so often, the story of a female mountain lion breaks in, told in crystal-clear, pared-down prose.

Beyond The Sea By Paul Lynch Review – Poetic Novel From An Irish Prize Winner, by M John Harrison, The Guardian

This could easily have been one of those novels about what it is to be a man, where men are defined as those whose comprehension of their own circumstances is limited by appetite, material need and a tendency not to talk much. Instead, it turns into something more lyrical but at the same time colder and more shocking, much more self-aware. Contemporary Irish fiction prizes delivery, daring and an implicit trust in the reader: Lynch demonstrates a control over his ideas that comes from a pure lyrical telling, a speech act that, if you let it, will take you anywhere. Beyond the Sea is frightening but beautiful.

Sontag: Her Life By Benjamin Moser Review – The Sage Of America’s Cultural Elite, by Lara Feigel, The Guardian

We need her now, more than ever, and this biography keeps her defiantly alive: argumentative, wilful, often right, always interesting, encouraging us to up our game as we watch her at the top of hers.

Thursday, September 5, 2019

The Challenge Of Margaret Atwood, by Sophie Gilbert, The Atlantic

Atwood understands this. “When you publish a book, it’s not your book anymore,” she told me. “It belongs to the readers. If nobody’s reading the book then it’s just lying there. It’s inert, like a musical score that nobody plays.” And being so highly esteemed has its advantages: It was fun to go to the Emmys, Atwood said—she took two women from her office, and they had a “screamingly good time.” She would be lying if she said she wasn’t pleased that so many people were still reading The Handmaid’s Tale, and that there was so much anticipation for The Testaments. “But it wouldn’t matter if I wasn’t pleased. The same thing would still be happening.”

And yet, to publish a sequel after so long is to inevitably suggest that it is her book, and her world, after all. The Testaments isn’t the story that many devout Handmaid’s Tale readers might expect. It complicates characters who once seemed simple, and tangles up easy judgments. It asserts its author’s stamp on a fictional landscape without shutting itself off to subjective interpretation. When I asked Atwood why so much of her work featured the testimonies of women, she thought for a second, then described it as an “archeological” interest in the unreliable nature of storytelling. “Things that are buried come to light. Things that are hidden are revealed.” But, “being the kind of novelist I am,” Atwood said, “there’s usually—in fact there’s always—something we don’t know.”

From A Whisper To A Scream, by Joanne O’Leary, BookForum

We all know that men don’t understand women. How could they? Women spend the whole time trying to understand themselves. “I specialize in women,” the writer Nancy Hale said in 1942. “Women puzzle me.” Hale felt that she knew how, “in a given situation, a man [was] apt to react.” (She’d been married three times by the age of thirty-four.) Women, on the other hand, vexed and intrigued her. Her mother, the portraitist Lilian Westcott Hale, made a career of looking at other women, including her daughter. In The Life in the Studio (1969), a memoir about growing up with wealthy, bohemian parents, Nancy describes being posed “propped up against pillows, at the age of six months . . . at the age of one, seated in a baby carriage . . . at six wearing a dark-blue straw hat with red cherries.” She hated it. “While people who paid for portraits by my mother might get their own way about what they wore in them, I, who had been since infancy the built-in, free artist’s model around that house, never had any such say.”

Judging Margaret Atwood’s Top Secret New Novel, by Alex Marshall, New York Times

When the judges opened their packages, each found a stack of unbound copy paper. Each judge’s name had been printed across every page in large gray letters. It made the book slightly difficult to read, Guo said.

“I think we all felt, ‘This is such a rigmarole, it better be worth it,’” MacGregor said. “And then of course when we opened it: ‘Oh, yeah, it was worth it.’”

The Devil's Advocate's Advocate, by Agnes Callard, The Point Magazine

The first time I opened my mouth in college it was on the topic of devil’s advocacy. It was September 1993, and we were having a policy discussion in my Core humanities class: the teacher asked whether we should allow people to make comments they don’t agree with, “just for the sake of argument?” No one could see what the problem with doing so might be, so I spoke up. I argued against, passionately and persuasively. I won the others over: for the rest of the year that class had a “no DA policy.”

The argument I gave was that devil’s advocacy undermines the trust on which conversation is grounded. Why should we take someone seriously if she herself doesn’t believe what she is saying? Conversational progress is predicated on sincerity and openness, because only those willing to put their cards on the table are in a position to learn—or be learned from. I wasn’t aware of the oft-tweeted phrase “the devil has enough advocates,” but it would have fit right into my rousing speech.

My case against devil’s advocacy was, however, insincere. The truth is, I was just playing devil’s advocate.

The Many Literary Landscapes Of Tokyo, by Anna Sherman, Literary Hub

The Great Peace had begun, and the austere verses of the medieval Warring States era gave way to a poetry of languor; to ghost tales and samurai vendettas of the Kabuki theatre. A constant theme was the fragility of existence, as earthquakes, floods and fires erased the city again and again. In the twenty-first century, that sense of the fragile still holds, though it is real estate development, rather than natural disasters, that alter the landscape. Many neighborhoods I first saw in 2001 have transformed almost past recognizing.

But the Tokyo I once moved through, and other Tokyos I arrived too late ever to know, still exist in the city’s rich, complex literature. When I’m homesick for Tokyo, I return to its books. Kafū Nagai on the Sumida’s eastern bank before the 1923 earthquake; Yukio Mishima’s nostalgic take on the early twentieth-century Belle Époque. Yasunari Kawabata’s elegant novels written when the United States occupied Japan. And other Tokyos I haven’t seen yet – Hideo Furukawa’s Dream Island made of compacted trash, or one of Haruki Murakami’s landscapes, with its vacant lots, closed-off alleys, dry ancient wells.

In Newfoundland, You Have To Ask For Noodles In Your Chow Mein, by Ann Hui, Eater

The first Chinese restaurants had to improvise because they weren’t able to find Chinese ingredients, he said. But the problem was especially pronounced in Newfoundland. It was nearly impossible to get even basic ingredients, like soy sauce or bok choy, imported onto the island. Even egg noodles — the “mein” in “chow mein” — were difficult to come by. One of those enterprising early restaurateurs improvised by cutting cabbage into thin strips, so that they’d resemble, at least in appearance, thin noodles. He started calling it chow mein, and it stuck.

To this day, “chow mein” in Newfoundland means thin strips of cabbage, stir-fried with veggies and meat. For noodles, Mr. Yu said, you have to ask for them specifically, by ordering “Cantonese chow mein on noodles.” The sign on the door was a recent addition, he said, after tourists started getting confused.

The Fallen, by Carlos Manuel Álvarez, translated by Frank Wynne, Granta

So, we used to eat on the floor. We didn’t have a table. I know it sounds unbelievable, because everyone’s got a table, but there was no table in the house, that’s how poor we were. It didn’t bother me. I would have been – what? – four? five years old? Life was a party, nothing mattered. I believed what anyone would have believed at that age, that the world came predesigned without tables in dining rooms, that the world, at its most basic, lacked certain things, and that people in every home in the country ate the same way we did, with a tablecloth spread on the floor – ours was lime green with stains where various things had been spilled – and four cushions that served as chairs.

Later, there was a table, I think we brought it over from my grandmother’s old house, in perfect condition, though over time it began to wobble. I don’t know why, if there was a table in grandmother’s house, we spent months and probably years eating off the floor, but Armando must have wanted it that way, it must have been part of his Spartan plan, his frugal plan, his new man plan.

Margaret Atwood Expands The World Of “The Handmaid’s Tale”, by Jia Tolentino, New Yorker

Sometimes I found myself wondering how many of the women indulging this fantasy would, in some future real-life Gilead, become not Handmaids but Wives. This was, it turns out, not only a judgmental thought but a simplistic one. Atwood has now written a sequel, “The Testaments” (Nan A. Talese), set fifteen years after the first book ends. The new novel, like its predecessor, is presented as a story assembled from historical artifacts, with an epilogue that depicts a twenty-second-century academic conference about Gilead. But, in “The Testaments,” Handmaids and Wives hardly enter the picture at all. Instead, it is about the Aunts, and three of them in particular: one whom we already know from the first book, and who, we learn, helped to establish Gilead’s shadow matriarchy, within a thicket of rapists; one who was raised inside Gilead, and who grew up devout and illiterate and expecting to be married by the age of fourteen; and one who is sent to Gilead, as a teen-ager, by the resistance, which is based in Canada, and which carries out reconnaissance missions and helps citizens of Gilead to escape.

The book may surprise readers who wondered, when the sequel was announced, whether Atwood was making a mistake in returning to her earlier work. She has said that “The Testaments” was inspired by readers’ questions about the inner workings of Gilead, and also by “the world we’ve been living in.” But it seems to have another aim as well: to help us see more clearly the kinds of complicity required for constructing a world like the one she had already imagined, and the world we fear our own might become.

‘Going Dutch’ Will Leave You Hungry For More, by Nick White, Chicago Review of Books

Gregor’s novel has many delights—the taunt prose, the wry depiction of gay men in a sterilized New York City, the bemused renderings of academe that ring all-too-true to someone, like myself, who has spent much of his adult life in the university—but one of the more subtle triumphs is the character of Richard himself. He is a spoiled twenty-something who cannot, bless him, adult and, therefore, resorts to manipulating others into taking care of him. I often hear folks crow about the likability of characters in novels, as if that were the threshold to enjoying a story. In truth, likability is often beside the point. So imagine my delight in reading Gregor’s imminently unlikable Richard. He lies, he cheats, he exploits, he takes advantage—and it is oh-so-delicious to read.

Head Cases, by T. M. Luhrmann, The American Scholar

Written by one brilliant writer about another, this remarkable book is, in part, about the craft of writing. But in the main, it’s an account of author Lawrence Weschler’s friendship with Oliver Sacks, a man whom he describes as “impressively erudite and impossibly cuddly.” Sacks comes across as singular. For many years, he lived by himself on City Island, not far from Manhattan, in a house he acquired when he swam out there, saw a house he liked, learned that it was for sale, and bought it that afternoon, his wet trunks dripping in the real estate agent’s office. He regularly swam for miles in the ocean, sometimes late at night. He loved cuttlefish and motorcycles, which he rode, drug-fueled, up and down the California coast when he was a neurology resident at UCLA. A friend of his from that time recalled, “Oliver wouldn’t behave, he wouldn’t follow rules, he’d eat the leftover food off the patients’ trays during rounds, and he drove them nuts.”

Never Mind I’m Dead, by Diana Marie Delgado, New York Times

Come back with me
to the ruins.

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Praise Be! ‘The Testaments,’ The Sequel To ‘The Handmaid’s Tale,’ Is Here, by Michiko Kakutani, New York Times

In a 2017 essay, Atwood described writing Offred’s story in the tradition of “the literature of witness” — referring to those accounts left by people bearing witness to the calamities of history they’ve experienced firsthand: wars, atrocities, disasters, social upheavals, hinge moments in civilization. It’s a genre that includes the diary of Anne Frank, the writings of Primo Levi, the choral histories assembled by the Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich from intensive interviews with Russians, remembering their daily lives during World War II, the Chernobyl accident or the Afghanistan war. Agency and strength, Atwood seems to be suggesting, do not require a heroine with the visionary gifts of Joan of Arc, or the ninja skills of a Katniss Everdeen or Lisbeth Salander — there are other ways of defying tyranny, participating in the resistance or helping ensure the truth of the historical record.

On Narrative Medicine And Finding A New Language For Illness, by Marcus Creaghan, Literary Hub

Halfway through my MFA at Columbia University I was put on chemotherapy for the autoimmune disease that I had struggled with for many years. After a long hospitalization over the Christmas break I was still missing workshops. My body was not responding well to the treatment, and it often felt like my stomach was brewing battery acid. I had a piece of paper that said THIS IS NOT A BILL, but the $30,000 in red ink was just as menacing as the real thing. And yet, it wasn’t the illness or the threat of debt that made me worry about returning to my degree. As far as fears go, those were both old friends. No, what worried me was that words had started to gutter in the back alley of my mind. Of the many deprivations that illness has enacted on me, perhaps the most unexpected and the most devastating has been the way that my sense of language dulled almost to the point of disappearing from my life.

A Thousand-Page Novel — Made Up Of Mostly One Sentence — Captures How We Think Now, by Parul Sehgal, New York Times

“Ducks, Newburyport,” the new novel by Lucy Ellmann, recently shortlisted for the Booker Prize, unspools as a 426,100-word sentence that stretches over 1,000 pages — occasionally interrupted by a more traditional story, albeit one from the point of view of a mountain lioness. It seems designed to thwart the timid or lazy reader but shouldn’t. Timid, lazy readers to the front! Ellmann’s unnamed narrator, a mother of four living in Ohio, has a cutting power of observation and a depressive charm. “Being good-looking means you have to try to stay good-looking and that’s stressful,” she says. This book has its face pressed up against the pane of the present; its form mimics the way our minds move now: toggling between tabs, between the needs of small children and aging parents, between news of ecological collapse and school shootings while somehow remembering to pay taxes and fold the laundry.

Interpreting The Interpreter: Who Was Lafcadio Hearn?, by Priya Parmar, New York Times

Truong’s novel is propelled not by action but by the retrospective piecing together that happens once a relationship is over. Spurred by nostalgia, regret, longing and anger, each woman examines her memories. The truth becomes murky as the history of this man they have all loved is subjectively recorded for posterity. As Setsu observes, “to tell another’s story is to bring him to life,” but here it’s the women who achieve that feat rather than the man who connected them.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Life Is Imitating Stephen King’s Art, And That Scares Him, by Anthony Breznican, New York Times

Within every terrifying story about a shape-shifting killer clown, homicidal father in a haunted hotel or super flu that depopulates the planet, the relentlessly prolific writer has filled his pages with equally powerful supplies of strength, selflessness and even hope. That may be why so many readers, many of whom discovered his books when they were kids themselves, have remained loyal over 45 years of storytelling.

The author is about to turn 72 as he publishes his 61st novel, “The Institute,” about children who display supernatural abilities being forcibly rounded up for study by a shadowy organization that brutally discards them when their usefulness is exhausted. Those who think of King primarily for horror may be surprised by how much warmth there is in a book that sounds so coldblooded.

Larger And More Befuddling Questions: On Jane Tompkins’s “Reading Through The Night”, by Dylan Brown, Los Angeles Review of Books

Diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome, Tompkins often struggles to have enough energy for everyday activities like going to the grocery store or to the movies. Even writing, that is to say, anything that requires rigor, whether it’s mental or physical, poses a unique challenge for someone with this condition. What’s left for Tompkins is plenty of bed rest and time to read. But even that is fraught with a sense of guilt — she must learn to embrace and see the value in doing nothing.

These are the sort of biographical details and contextual information dismissed as irrelevant by the new historicist professors she studied under at Yale, and Tompkins’s memoir acts as a de facto repudiation of that mostly defunct school of criticism. One of the book’s main arguments is that the author and the text are funhouse mirrors of one another, both revealing and concealing the other, but so too are the reader and the text.

Your Duck Is My Duck By Deborah Eisenberg Review – Darkly Comic Stories, by Anthony Cummins, The Guardian

The wry, singular stories of the US short-story writer Deborah Eisenberg aren’t easy to pin down. Temporally fluid, chatty without being workaday, they don’t rely on plot yet aren’t person-has-thoughts narratives either and are often built from a dizzying array of moving parts. If there’s a secret, she isn’t giving it away, telling interviewers that she considers writing a “holy” act not to be “approached casually”, but also that she writes by “just sitting down and seeing what my hand does”.

Around The World With Mao Zedong, by Ian Johnson, New York Times

Today, Maoism is often remembered in the West as something kitschy — Andy Warhol silk screens, or Shirley MacLaine’s bizarre fandom — but at its height Maoism was one of the most important chapters in the Cold War. Especially in the global South, Maoism contributed to a series of remarkable events, including the greatest debacle of American military history (the Vietnam War), one of the most infamous cases of genocide (committed by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia) and an epic guerrilla campaign (conducted by the Shining Path in Peru).

This history has not been adequately told in one sweeping, accessible book — until now, with Julia Lovell’s “Maoism: A Global History.” A professor of modern Chinese history and literature at the University of London’s Birkbeck College, Lovell has previously translated some of China’s most famous novelists, including Lu Xun and Yan Lianke, and written several books about important historical events or objects, like the Opium War and the Great Wall.

Silence, by Annie Ma, RavensPerch

Mountains hued purple
morning light softly serene
forest capped in snow.

Monday, September 2, 2019

What Statistics Can And Can’t Tell Us About Ourselves, by Hannah Fry, New Yorker

In some ways, this is what you would expect from any large, disordered system. Think about the predictable and quantifiable way that gases behave. It might be impossible to trace the movement of each individual gas molecule, but the uncertainty and disorder at the molecular level wash out when you look at the bigger picture. Similarly, larger regularities emerge from our individually unpredictable lives. It’s almost as though we woke up each morning with a chance, that day, of becoming a murderer, causing a car accident, deciding to propose to our partner, being fired from our job. “An assumption of ‘chance’ encapsulates all the inevitable unpredictability in the world,” Spiegelhalter writes.

But it’s one thing when your aim is to speak in general terms about who we are together, as a collective entity. The trouble comes when you try to go the other way—to learn something about us as individuals from how we behave as a collective. And, of course, those answers are often the ones we most want.

Malcolm Gladwell: ‘I’m Just Trying To Get People To Take Psychology Seriously’, by Sean O’Hagan, The Guardian

Gladwell’s new book is called Talking to Strangers and, here we are, two strangers, conversing over tea in a fashionable Covent Garden hotel about the difficulties that can sometimes arise when, as he puts it, “we are thrown into contact with people whose assumptions, perspectives and backgrounds are different from our own”. Like the previous bestselling books that made his name – The Tipping Point (2000), Blink (2005), Outliers (2008) – Talking to Strangers is essentially an exploration of human behaviour that also challenges much of our received wisdom about that behaviour and its motivations. Unlike them, though, it lacks a single iconoclastic, zeitgeist-defining idea, instead roaming far and wide to illustrate the problems, individual and collective, personal and ideological, that dog our interactions with others in our globalised, but increasingly atomised, culture. “Any element which disrupts the equilibrium between two strangers, whether it is alcohol or power or place, becomes problematic,” he tells me. “The book is really about those disruptive influences.”

Paris' Problem With The Dead, by Matthew Beaumont, History Today

There’s a scene in the US political thriller House of Cards in which Claire Underwood, played by Robin Wright, goes for a run in a cemetery and, to her shock, is berated for doing so by an elderly woman who is there to mourn. Aside from underlining the moral complexity of Underwood’s tough-minded character, the scene speaks to an uneasy sense that, at least in advanced capitalist nations such as the UK and the US, where the processes of secularisation have recently been distinctly uneven, we don’t quite know how to behave in places that, in Erin-Marie Legacey’s phrase, make space for the dead. I can remember provoking a similar morally outraged reaction when, a decade ago, I took my small children to the local cemetery for a picnic.

In 'The Ventriloquists,' The True Story Of A Fake Newspaper, by Jean Zimmerman, NPR

The dummies employed by ventriloquists have an odd split personality — they're either funny or terrifying, sometimes both at once, and this kind of bifurcated existence slips into The Ventriloquists, E.R. Ramzipoor's lively novel of the WWII homefront in Europe. It's the story of a group of resisters aiming to lampoon the Nazis by publishing a fake edition of a real newspaper, which had been turned into a mouthpiece of the occupation. Ramizpoor based the plot on actual events that took place in Brussels, reality providing the underlying horror for the satirical conspiracy.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Letter Of Recommendation: Collecting One Book, by Lauren Oster, New York Times

Two years ago, I met a French tourist who explained that when he visits a new city, he makes a beeline for a local shop and buys every edition of George Orwell’s “1984” he can find. I was inspired: What an elegant way to explore, support small businesses and dignify hoarding! More than 30 million copies of “1984” have been printed worldwide since the novel was published in 1949, and 35 of those copies are now mine. They are American, British, French, Indian, Italian, Mexican and Spanish; four are hardcovers, 30 are paperbacks and one is somehow both, or neither.

The Wisdom Of Never Leaving Your Hotel Room, by Yonatan Raz Portugali, Translated from Hebrew by Josh Friedlander, Popula

Like any great invention, I stumbled upon the idea of the hotel-room vacation by accident, nine years ago, after Toony and I arrived in Chania, Crete, for our honeymoon. The “magical Venetian town” I’d read of in a British travel magazine turned out to be a maze of souvenir shops, Irish pubs, and “authentic” Greek tavernas, so described on the doors and menus. Our hotel room, though, was amazing. It had old-world wood furniture, nice balconies with port views and fantastic natural air circulation that I’ve never experienced since. We read, watched TV, chatted, ordered sea-food pizza, I wrote a little, Toony doodled a bit; as the honeymoon came to an end, we realized we hadn’t set foot outside the premises. It was the best vacation ever. The next year we did the same thing in Eilat.

Lost In Alaskan Wilderness, I Found My Anti-Home, by Chia-Chia Lin, New York Times

All that summer, I thought I had ventured to Alaska to try on a different way of life, one that tested my self-reliance and competence. I wondered if I’d failed. Now, years later, I believe I was simply searching for a place I’ll clumsily call an anti-home. I mean an antithesis to my own childhood home — for in the backcountry I’d found quiet and stillness and the edge of happiness — but I also mean a place at odds with all notions of home. A place with no safety net, no walls, no sense of enclosure or intimacy or kinship. A place of exposure. It was not so much that I wanted to prove something to others, but that I had a question for myself: Who was I, in a place like that?

A Very German Idea Of Freedom: Nude Ping-Pong, Nude Sledding, Nude Just About Anything, by Katrin Bennhold, New York Times

Germans love to get naked. They have been getting naked in public for over a hundred years, when early naturists rebelled against the grime of industrialization and then the mass slaughter of World War I.

“Free body culture” — basically bathing the whole body in water and sunlight while preferably also doing some exercise — became the battle cry for a healthy, harmonious lifestyle and an antidote to a destructive modernity.

Waiting For The Monsoon, Discovering A Brain Tumor Instead, by Rod Nordland, New York Times

On the morning of July 4, I left Delhi for Uttar Pradesh to report a story on India’s feverish toilet-building campaign. I was out on the street most of the day, when I noticed ink in my journal was smudged with raindrops. “The monsoon has arrived,” I noted.

The smudged page also contained a fragment of overheard conversation: “We will marry our daughter to you only if you have a foot.” It was the first line of an intriguing story I would never write, because the next day I went for a morning jog in Delhi’s beautiful Lodhi Gardens.

That is really the last thing I remember with certainty. I only learned later that I had, somehow, made my way from the gardens to New Delhi’s Golf Course Colony, several miles away.

This is where a malignant brain tumor, as yet undiagnosed, struck me down and left me thrashing on the ground.

No Monster Story Ever Stays Static: “American Monsters Part I,” Edited By Margrét Helgadóttir, by Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock, Los Angeles Review of Books

What comes to mind when I say “monster”? Zombies? Vampires? Ghosts? What about Capelobo, Quibungo, or Mapinguari? Therein lies the problem according to Margrét Helgadóttir, editor of American Monsters Part I: familiar Western monsters suck all the air out of the room.

Helgadóttir is clear that her goal with American Monsters Part I, as well as the other books she has edited or co-edited for Fox Spirit Books of Monsters series (on African monsters, European monsters, Pacific Monsters, and Asian monsters), is to redress this colonization of the monstrous imagination by a handful of recurring familiar beasties through a kind of monstrous affirmative action that promotes diversity.

Review: What A Family Learned By Ditching Their Smartphone-addicted Lives To Roam The World, by Nathan Deuel, Los Angeles Times

Without giving away what actually happens, consider this: It’s hard to imagine it not being a fun project to discuss this book with people you care about, who also care about you. Because, spoiler: What matters most to the Kois/Smith clan, even more than ambition and being part of the national conversation? Friends and family.

The best scene in the book finds the author riding along a Costa Rican beach at sundown with daughter Harper, their tires making a quiet shhhhhps sound on the sand. “This is so beautiful,” he says. “Will you remember it with me?” “Yes,” she says. “For my whole life.”