How is it even possible that there’s room for so many movies from a single genre? Are we reaching peak Christmas?
“No matter what the state of the economy, no matter what the state of chaos or stability, there is an extraordinary appetite for simple, cheesy, unsophisticated, easy-to-watch programming,” said Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television & Popular Culture at Syracuse University. “And all the better if it’s wrapped up in the bunting and ribbons of Christmas.”
Yet wonder is sadly absent from much of our discussions on history and philosophy today. We use the word in conversations all the time but, somehow, the idea that we might feel like Theaetetus at times doesn’t seem very explicable or, worse, grown-up. History and philosophy don’t do wonder: that is for rockstar boy-scientists, children and sideshow alleys. In thinking these ways, I think we have lost something immeasurably more powerful than the racks of books that I still grieve.
In a way, I think we want wonder lost because it is discomforting. It gets under your skin, mocking your efforts at sense-making. When we look at the way that people have thought about wonder through time, our tidy, rational disciplinary histories unravel. New voices emerge, and we aren’t sure what to do with them. We also come face-to-face with those who appropriate the ‘look’ of history and philosophy to challenge and confuse us about what is certain and what is good, right and fair. They do so for good and for ill. And we face the dark thought that our efforts at ordering both knowledge and the world can prevent us from facing our most troubling ethical problems.
A Bob Kramer knife is a thing to behold, with waves of carbon exploding across the blade, and at the time, Kramer was obsessed with using meteorites, which are crashing into the ground in such plentiful numbers that "you can go to eBay and buy meteorites all day long," he insists. (It’s true.)
"You know, if somebody stabbed you to death with that knife—and that would be wrong, I hasten to say—that knife's so beautiful you couldn't help but say, 'That's a really amazing looking knife,'" Bourdain commented while they filmed, before putting one to the test to chop chives right there in the shop.
It’s rare in life that a story has a clear beginning, a middle, and an end. I would have preferred that Dave had been paying attention when it could have made a difference, but this is the ending I got.
Back descends into a sea of loss, bringing to bear the tools of language in her possession, to explore whether these tools can matter at all.
An American Werewolf in London. The zombies from Michael Jackson's "Thriller." Bela Lugosi's Dracula from Ed Wood. The dark fairy Maleficent.
They're all the work of Rick Baker, who created some of the most memorable movie monsters and creatures of the last four decades. Baker is retired now, having won seven Oscars for makeup. But he's chronicled his long career in a new two-volume illustrated book titled Metamorphosis.
Now, Muriel, no one said that moving was going to be easy. It’s been a chaotic time for all of us. And, true, our new place isn’t perfect. It doesn’t have the crown molding you wanted. There’s no central air. And, yes, every night at 3 AM, we’re awakened by frantic scratching sounds from inside the walls. It’s just the house settling, sweetheart! You know, like we did in ’96.
Alas “the domes,” as one account puts it, “were never lifted heavenward.” The Brooklyn Central Library project, stymied by lack of funds and public support, remained mired for decades in purgatory, its foundation laid on the pointy triangular end of the “hitherto inviolate precincts of Prospect Park,” its Flatbush-avenue wing built up and the rest left for later through the Great War and far beyond.
The incomplete structure became shrouded in legend. Some said dark gloomy waters flooded the basement, obscuring the ghoulish secrets it was rumored to contain. Others speculated that construction had stalled because the library’s foundations were built upon quicksand.
Everybody loves a ghost story. Really, everybody. All cultures have some variety of ghost story, by that name or another. But some are more pervasive and deeply ingrained than others. It isn’t really possible to identify the most ghost-heavy culture on the planet—there’s no clear metric for how one would judge such a thing. But few ghost cultures are as powerful and varied as the ones found in Malaysia. The modern English and North American conceptions of ghosts—from the ones under bed sheets to Victorian-garbed, translucent shades to the poltergeist that makes things go bump in the night—feel downright embarrassing in their limits when compared to the great world of Malay hantu.
Suppose that error could be abolished. What would someone who never makes a mistake be like? There are two very different responses to this question. One is to think of a superhuman, god-like being. The poet Alexander Pope’s line – ‘To err is human; to forgive, divine’ – is based on that thought. God might pardon but He cannot Himself make mistakes. Infallibility would seem to go hand in hand with omniscience and infinite wisdom.
The other possibility is an entity that, far from superhuman, is largely unthinking. In the 1990s, the comedian Bill Hicks would accuse particularly slow-witted audience members of staring at him like ‘a dog that’s been shown a card trick’. At one level, this lovely image calls to mind a hapless showman wasting his craft on an uncomprehending creature. Hicks was, in part, being self-deprecating. Only a sucker would get drawn into such a futile task. But the implied criticism of his audience is more devastating. For it invokes a whole domain of stupidity beyond that of being a sucker.
I wanted to weep. My mother and I primarily communicate in Korean, and we rarely talk about literature. We have a complicated relationship, but in that moment, I felt a new closeness—rooted not in the inextricable tie of family, but in choice. I have an immediate affinity for others who have committed to the impossible act of writing.
But Rushdie’s novel is much more than a parodic modern recasting of Cervantes’s famous novel. Rushdie has listed some of the genres he has used: “[T]he picaresque, the absurd, the spy novel, the science-fiction novel, the realistic, emotional drama.” He says that he wants to “capture a panorama of our own surreal, metamorphic time.” The novel’s time is virtually the present, post-2016, and who better than Rushdie with his well-known exuberance and inventiveness to attempt to give fictional life to this crazy, scary era in which we all find ourselves. As one character puts it, “It is the Age of Anything-Can-Happen.” And just about anything you can imagine does, including the imagined end of the world.
Throughout all the changes, Wintour has remained a constant, the embodiment of the company’s enduring authority. She took over Vogue in 1988 and became Conde’s artistic director in 2013 with oversight of all its monthly magazines. This summer, she added global content adviser to her list of titles, cementing her claim as the keeper of the company’s values at a moment when, with the arrival of Lynch, Condé was consolidating its American and international businesses. Which makes sense: Vogue alone brings in 28 percent of Condé’s global revenue. Jonathan Newhouse, Si’s cousin, who is now chairman of Condé Nast’s board, has described Condé’s international operation as “The Vogue Company.”
Many of Wintour’s current and former colleagues consider her indispensable, someone whose eventual departure — she turns 70 next month — will spell the company’s doom. Others have watched Condé’s decline since she took over as artistic director and wonder how she’s still in charge. Wintour didn’t have a ready answer when I asked if she recognized any missteps in her tenure — “I’ve made so many mistakes” — nor when I asked about particular successes, other than to say she’s proud of the people she has hired. “So much of it has to do with the talent around you and having talent that’s right for the moment,” she said. That made her think of a recent performance she had seen of The Wrong Man, an Off Broadway musical about someone framed for a murder they didn’t commit. At the show, Wintour sat next to a man whose son was going to the same school the man had attended 30 years earlier. “He was so amazed that the boy had the same school-bus driver,” she said. “I’m sure he’s a wonderful bus driver, but you don’t always want the same driver from 30 years ago.” I gingerly pointed out to Wintour that she had been editing Vogue for longer than that. Wintour laughed, looked back out the window of One World Trade, and said, “I’m a really good bus driver.”
There is certainly redundancy, at every step. But could we enjoy the revelations, the series of discoveries through which Edmond Dantès reveals himself to his enemies (and we tremble every time, even though we already know everything), were it not for the intervention, precisely as a literary artifice, of the redundancy and the spasmodic delay that precedes the dramatic turn of events?
She had accepted her fate. She got her own drug addiction in check, took some two dozen classes and eventually earned a place in the so-called “faith and honor” pink-walled dorm.
As she adjusted to the rhythms of life inside Tutwiler, a new normalcy took hold.
She crocheted and watched the news. And the women around her — many of whom had been convicted of violent crimes, including the rape, torture and murder of a teenage girl — eventually became her friends, people with whom she watched “The Young and the Restless.”
Outside the prison’s walls, an evolution in the criminal justice system was taking shape. Activists had gained momentum across the country as they argued that life sentences without parole for nonviolent drug-related charges was unjust.
Although the novel’s structure sounds daunting, “Girl, Woman, Other” is choreographed with such fluid artistry that it never feels labored. The story begins just hours before the debut of a play at the National Theatre in London, and it ends 450 pages later as the audience spills into the lobby. But during that brief window of time, Evaristo spins out a whole world. Novella-length chapters draw us deep into the lives of 12 women of various backgrounds and experiences. There’s nothing forced about the virtual exclusion of white characters from this novel; they have simply been shifted to the periphery, relegated to the blurry sidelines where black characters reside in so much literary fiction written by white authors.
Many of the best stories are toward the back of the collection. I found myself wanting to rearrange their order so that the final story, “Grand Union,” was the first. In that story, the narrator is so upset, she seeks out the ghost of her dead mother, and they hang out together on a sidewalk outside of a Chinese restaurant. Likewise, in the superb “For the King,” a group of friends meet for dinner in Paris. Along the way one encounters a man with Tourette’s syndrome on the train, who is loud but tolerated because “each passenger . . . reached for their earbuds, and thus entered a private world . . . there was a palpable sense of collective gratitude to technology.” This is Smith at her best, integrating a compelling story line with perceptiveness and social commentary.
It's a subtle piece of business. You usually don't even notice, unless you look too quickly at a blinking light and feel for a moment that one of those blinks is taking awfully long. If you ever looked quickly at a flashing alarm clock as a child and felt like you could momentarily control time, that's why.
Saccadic masking is also more or less the experience of reading Mira Ptacin's The In-Betweens, a deft account that begins as a social history of Spiritualism and moves into memoir so quickly it can take a second to realize you've backfilled something that wasn't quite there.
Until four years ago, Megel-Nuber worked as the director of a traveling theater troupe for children, bringing culture and live performance to parts of France that weren’t necessarily equipped for such shows. It inspired him to continue an itinerant lifestyle, but one that carried a mission or project to share with the people he encountered.
Actually making his roving bookstore real, however, required much more effort than he expected. Megel-Nuber—an imposing-looking man with a gentle, natural ease with people—spent six months just trying to conceive of its form and shape.
“Since I was going to be spending a lot of time there, it had to be a space where I felt good, so I couldn’t imagine anything other than wood,” he says. “And it’s logical: After all, books are made of paper.”
While linguists have long rejected the borough accent, Becker and Newlin-Lukowicz bring data to their argument. They proved that New Yorkers themselves can’t make out the difference between Brooklynese and the sounds of other boroughs.
“Don’t you think I look like Hitler?” I asked.
“Not at all,” said Craig. “You look great.”
Then I went to the fake interrogation room to pretend to yell at the beautiful young woman. This was not the tattooed woman, but her friend. The interrogation room had a one‑way mirror in it, and from time to time I would catch myself in it and get mad. Ugh, I would think. Look at Hitler over there, yelling at that nice woman. Between takes I would finger‑comb my hair back to try to de‑Hitlerize it a little. Then Craig would just sneak up behind me before the cameras rolled and re‑Hitlerize it.
“You don’t look like Hitler!” he would whisper as he finished.
Love, according to this collection, doesn’t just transcend the gender distinctions which structure our everyday lives, but the chronological ones too. Our attempts to consign our former lovers to the past — to ‘move on’, as it were — are rendered futile by the simple fact that love never seems to fit within the delineations with which we organise time — that it feels infinite or forever. And love, therefore, is always experienced as something transgressive or boundary-breaking — that is, as something inherently Punk. Or to put it a bit more eloquently: everyone you’ve ever fallen in love with is someone you shouldn’t have fallen in love with.
And the collection’s length is also worth discussing because Donnelly’s work is so intense. The Problem of the Many is not 198 pages of light verse, or prose that happens to be broken into lines and as such reads breezily.
But that Berlin, the city with a wall down the middle, was only one of several. It’s the one Iain MacGregor describes in this lively book of anecdotes and interviews. And yet this great town is a shape-shifter. Every generation or so, it shakes itself – or is shaken - and becomes unrecognisable. From a pretty little provincial dump, it turned in a few years of frenzied building into the towering capital of a Wilhelmine empire. Then radical Weimar; then Hitler. Then the RAF gutted and levelled its centre. Then the victor powers divided it into four sectors. In August 1961 Walter Ulbricht split it with the wall, which stood for 28 years – the Berlin I used to live in (while Berlin correspondent for this newspaper). And then, just 30 years ago, the wall came down and the place became unrecognisable yet again.
To be clear, I wasn’t their teacher, so Dahl’s accusation somewhat missed the mark. I was a school parent who had volunteered for this weekly activity in lieu of registering for the PTA, organizing a holiday party, leading classroom sessions on character building, or — God forbid — chaperoning 24 children on a field trip through Los Angeles. I had suggested this activity to make myself feel like a good parent, to deploy one of my few translatable professional skills, and, on some semi-conscious level, to offset the possibility that I had, through my recent divorce, irreparably traumatized my son.
That I’d envisioned my reception differently was no doubt colored by my own memories of being read to as a child. According to essayist Adam Gopnik, children’s books have to please two audiences at the same time: the child, who uses stories to escape childhood, and the adult, who uses children’s books to recapture it. In the childhood I remembered, there were the hours spent with the books I paged through, but even more, there were the hours spent with the books I heard. More specifically, there was my English professor father, who taught me to revere the act of reading aloud not as a domestic duty, or as a ritual for only the very young, but as a deeply felt display. Love, and be silent — I’d worshipped him as a result.
Why has food, which is arguably an essential part of our day-to-day lives, been so marginal in so many games? It could be due to ingrained assumptions about their intended audiences: If these products were meant to appeal to men, why waste effort on rendering food when one could focus on more masculine motifs, like monsters and spacecraft? And yet, one of the earliest examples of game developers’ thinking outside of the box and bringing food to the forefront is one of the earliest games: Pac-Man. In an interview with Eurogamer, the game’s developer, Toru Iwatani, admits that his inspiration for the overall design had culinary origins. The fruits that Pac-Man eats up are easy to spot, but the design for the protagonist himself is, notoriously, related to food, too: “I was trying to come up with something to appeal to women and couples. When I imagined what women enjoy, the image of them eating cakes and desserts came to mind, so I used ‘eating’ as a keyword. When I did research with this keyword I came across the image of a pizza with a slice taken out of it and had that eureka moment. So I based the Pac-Man character design on that shape.” In a burgeoning scene where games were mainly about shooting asteroids and aliens, Pac-Man stood apart for having gameplay that only asked the participant to eat.
A terrace overlooks the Aegean Sea. Bookshelves swing back to reveal hidden, lofted beds where the shop’s workers can sleep. Somewhere along the way, word spread that visiting writers too could spend summer nights scribbling and snoozing there, and the owner began receiving emails requesting a bunk at earth’s most stunning writer’s colony, on an island Plato believed was the lost Atlantis.
But the writer-in-residence program was also a Greek myth.
“The idea was not to come here to write the great American novel, it was to sling books,” Craig Walzer, the store’s owner, said. “You are here for the bookshop first.”
Over the last 15 years, as cruise-ship hoards and souvenir schlock have overrun the village of Oia on Santorini’s northern tip, Atlantis Books has become an unlikely oasis of authenticity and cultural sanity.
There’s a legend about the New York blackout of 1977: that the dark provided cover for a generation of early hip-hop artists to steal the new equipment they needed to develop their sound but could otherwise not afford. In turn, the blackout catalyzed the development and spread of a new sound and a new culture. It’s unfalsifiable, of course. But it’s a useful story nonetheless, one that traces connections between technology, culture, class, race, and the possibility to build the future on the ruins of the past. Infinite Detail plays it out on a grand scale.
We are a world of migrants, a planet of comings and goings. The itinerant carry stories of pain and remembrance, cruelty and kindness, renewal and possibility. They move among us, a constant pulse, escaping war, persecution and poverty or striking out on an adventure to build a better life in a distant land.
They flow by the millions every year across borders. Their identities lie between departure and arrival. Some live in penthouses; others in tents at the edge of conflict. Some pick our fruit; others heal our sick. Their languages and histories are diverse but each has a different story, a treasure or scourge they bring with them to either bury or celebrate on the path to the unknown.
“I was trying to say goodbye to my ex-husband, who is an important person in my life and a friend,” the actress and comedian said of the story, “I Died: Bronze Tree.” After her divorce from the director Dean Fleischer-Camp in 2016, she heard that sometimes, as a healing exercise, trauma survivors reimagine painful experiences. “I decided to write for myself what my life would be if I had a relationship that lasted till the end,” she said.
Maybe this isn’t what you were expecting from Slate, who is known for voicing animated characters in television shows like “Big Mouth” and “Bob’s Burgers,” as well as the internet’s favorite anthropomorphic shell, Marcel. Nor is it what you might have assumed would emerge from the mind of the stand-up comedian whose monologues are punctuated by “poop and fart jokes,” as she put it, among other bodily concerns. But “Little Weirds” wasn’t really meant to be funny.
"Marriage with children is endlessly sort of elegiac and beautiful, isn't it? ..." Kenney asks, without a hint of sarcasm. "Just endless amounts of sleep, and love, and almost too much sex. It's a joy, is what it is."
Hadley wears his scholarship lightly but at the heart of this antiquarian wild goose chase is an ingenious meditation on what history, in all its complexity and unevenness, really is.
Questions of chronology, sequence and influence are not much discussed here. The mid 20th century is generally considered the heyday of dictators of the right and the left, but Dikötter does not explore why this might have been so, and even obscures the issue by including chronological outliers such as Mengistu. It is important to study dictators, he suggests, because they are an eternal threat to democracy and freedom – but not, it seems an acute current threat. “Dictators today, with the exception of Kim Jong-un, are a long way from instilling the fear their predecessors inflicted on their population at the height of the twentieth century … Even a modicum of historical perspective indicates that today dictatorship is on the decline.” That’s reassuring. Perhaps it would be churlish to ask how we got so lucky.
Theroux traveled to Mexico and found, unsurprisingly, a complex country with a rich history and culture that’s beset by travesty and contradiction exacerbated by class differences and a lack of economic and educational opportunities. But what allowed him to conclude the journey “uplifted, smiling when I set off for home, my hand on my heart, promising to return” was his insistence on celebrating the downtrodden Mexico, which he characterizes as resilient and, despite the odds, self-sufficient. Though his sendoff acknowledges that he has changed, the Mexico he prizes most is the one that adheres (as a form of resistance) to its old traditions and deferential values.
It took her about three years — or maybe four — to reconcile herself to writing a book about being older. In the dance world, age is not freely acknowledged; Martha Graham lied about hers for years. “You don’t do this,” she said of her decision to go for it in her book. “Some people are going to laugh. O.K. That’s their prerogative.”
And with “Keep It Moving,” Ms. Tharp has a clear mission. “I really tried to write it for the person who is completely not familiar with their body,” she said, “and I tried very hard to open up the community of dance, which can seem to the public as elitist — it actually is not.”
The letters he carries to make his impassioned plea—and the tens of thousands more he donated to establish the Center for American War Letters at Chapman University in California—are the personal stories of war, intimate descriptions of the battlefield and the home front that often get overlooked by history books focused on troop movements and casualty counts. They are also a democratization of history: Hundreds of handwritten missives of a World War II Air Force pilot remembered only by his family will be preserved as carefully as the previously unheard audio recordings created by then Army Col. George Patton IV, of the famed Fighting Pattons, in his command tent in Vietnam.
“These letters are America’s great undiscovered literature. They give insight into war and into human nature,” says Carroll. “We can’t lose this kind of history.” He calls his project the Million Letters Campaign—but he still has a long way to go.
It’s an odd phrase, right? The speaker says “excuse my French” literally, as “embonpoint” isn’t a curse word, it’s just a regular old French word. Further, while the speaker apologizes, he’s not apologizing for calling the other guy fat. He apologizes for using a French word to levy the insult. It’s a strange thing to apologize for — until you look into the history of it.
Mermaids: What and who are they? What do they look like? How are they different from sirens? How are they related to other water beings around the world? What are the cultural, religious, and popular beliefs that sustain specific plots of human‑merfolk encounters? Why do we continue to tell stories about eerie mermaids and other water spirits in the 21st century?
Is everything made of particles, fields or both?
This question is not front and centre in contemporary physics research. Theoretical physicists generally think that we have a good-enough understanding of quantum electrodynamics to be getting on with, and now we need to work on developing new theories and finding ways to test them through experiments and observations.
That might be the path forward. However, sometimes progress in physics requires first backing up to reexamine, reinterpret and revise the theories that we already have. To do this kind of research, we need scholars who blend the roles of physicist and philosopher, as was done thousands of years ago in Ancient Greece.
Being shielded from thoughts of our future death could be crucial for us to live in the present. The protection may switch on in early life as our minds develop and we realise death comes to us all.
“The moment you have this ability to look into your own future, you realise that at some point you’re going to die and there’s nothing you can do about it,” said Dor-Ziderman. “That goes against the grain of our whole biology, which is helping us to stay alive.”
Pie — that quintessential symbol of coziness and culinary Americana, a dish so enticing that being simply left on a windowsill to cool causes it, in caricature, to extend wavy tendrils of scent into the surrounding air and draw neighbors in by their noses. Sadly, although I grew up in decidedly suburban Ohio, we weren’t so rural as to have pies cooling on window sills. My family was Indian; we weren’t in the habit of making pies at all. Instead, my mother would either make barfi, a traditional Indian confection composed of sweet condensed milk, coconut, and cardamom, or Betty Crocker chocolate cakes from mixes, which my dad brought home from his job at General Mills.
Chain restaurants geared toward women, such as Schrafft’s, proliferated. They created alcohol-free safe spaces for women to lunch without experiencing the rowdiness of workingmen’s cafés or free-lunch bars, where patrons could get a free midday meal as long as they bought a beer (or two or three).
It was during this period that the notion that some foods were more appropriate for women started to emerge. Magazines and newspaper advice columns identified fish and white meat with minimal sauce, as well as new products like packaged cottage cheese, as “female foods.” And of course, there were desserts and sweets, which women, supposedly, couldn’t resist.
That act of translation, of revelation, was new to me. Even as someone who mined every meal for deeper meaning, I rarely found it at the fine dining table, which seemed primed only to pamper the braggadocio of the 1 percent. Here was something different, something deeper, something that mirrored the ambitions and accomplishments of ... well ... artists.
That the experience was enrobed in layers of pleasure — the food was delicious! the very good wine made me tipsy! the service was delightful! — all of a sudden made the case for true, heartfelt fine dining stronger, rather than weaker. Like a play; like a novel. Like a poem in edible form.
“Once upon a time there was and there wasn’t a woman who went to the woods … ” US author Laird Hunt’s riddling, shapeshifting novel makes full use of the fertile ambiguity of fairytale: its wide-eyed rhetorical certainty and resistance to final interpretation. Crumbs of information dropped throughout the text suggest that we are in colonial-era Puritan New England, where a woman has settled with her husband and son. “It was a great wide new world we had come to after we had left our troubles behind.”
On the surface, Sam Roberts' A History of New York in 27 Buildings: The 400-Year Untold Story of an American Metropolis is a book about the architectural history of New York City.
But, actually, the book is much more. For starters it's a love letter to some of the lesser known buildings in one of the world's most important cities. It's also a nuanced, richly researched book that delves deep into the history of the city and speaks volumes about its past, present and future — as it tells the story of some of its residents and the politics, laws, disasters, and businesses that shaped it.
Many of us keep a tchotchke of some kind on a mantelpiece or dresser in our houses — a stone from a vacation beach, a dime-store gift from a grandchild now in college, a folk sculpture picked up in Mexico, a thing that embodies a memory of a place or a time in our lives. In “Cabinets of Curiosities,” Patrick Mauriès tells the story of some truly awesome collectors.
Wilmers has often said in print, repeating a variation of it to me, that the L.R.B. was the creation of its co-founder, Karl Miller, a London literary editor, and that she “kept it up” after his departure, in 1992. “Certainly it wasn’t my intention to change it,” she writes in the introduction to “London Review of Books: An Incomplete History,” published this month.
The novelist and journalist John Lanchester, a contributor to the L.R.B. for 32 years who started out, as many of the paper’s editors have, as an editorial assistant, disputed Wilmers’s claim. “It isn’t even slightly true for Mary-Kay to say that about merely perpetuating what Karl brought,” Lanchester wrote in an email. “They had worked together for a long time already, and the editorial character of the L.R.B. was always an amalgam. Karl’s paper had more literary-critical pieces than Mary-Kay’s. You can see the paper becoming more political and historical under her — differences of emphasis and degree rather than kind.”
Without question, the political profile of the L.R.B. has risen during Wilmers’s tenure, with a routine focus on foreign affairs, ideological debate and national crises. “Mary-Kay gets up in the morning,” says Andrew O’Hagan, also a three-decade contributor to the L.R.B., “and wonders if there isn’t someone somewhere who might write a first-rate piece on the relationship between Isis and the Taliban, or the queen’s position in the Brexit debate, or the zeal to abolish guns in New Zealand, or the pathos of Michelle Obama.”
I think one of the reasons that writers, beginner and seasoned, settle for vague endings is because they’re tasteful. And literary fiction is supposed to be tasteful, right? Tastelessness is the purview of genre fiction, of TV and action movies. Literary fiction is meant to appeal to our higher virtues, a rarified place of deep thought and complex emotion that would be sullied by something big and unsubtle.
Except, this is not true. Great short fiction is usually unsubtle, pushing through a potentially decorous finale with all the rude impatience of a business traveler catching the red-eye home. Consider Chekhov’s ‘The Lady with the Little Dog’, Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Lottery’, Baldwin’s ‘Sonny’s Blues’. Where’s the subtlety? Whither taste? Flannery O’Connor’s acclaimed ‘A Good Man Is Hard to Find’ has perhaps the most indelible, and tasteless, ending of all time. In the story’s final pages, the Misfit has his henchmen drag the grandmother’s family into the woods and shoot them one by one, a scene of literary torture porn that ends with the Misfit shooting the grandmother and drily joking about what a horrible person she was. This ending still retains its power to shock, in part because of how reluctant so much modern fiction is to give us something this concrete and final. Which is to say, relative to most modern fiction endings, it is tasteless – or perhaps better put, it is untasteful. We are accustomed to, comfortable with, stories that tactfully turn away, and this story does not do that.
Newsweek has the name and the professional website it has built in years past, but it’s increasingly repurposing the work of others—whether the Washington Post, the outrage fiends at Fox News, or a dozen people on Twitter—and packaging it as its own. Plenty of news sites aggregate, and in many ways the story of Newsweek is the story of the industry. But whereas other aggregators—Mashable, BuzzFeed, Upworthy; the list goes on—built their sites around this kind of internet-first strategy, Newsweek is selling off its own legacy while hoping that readers won’t notice. Reporters and editors there tell me they’re willing to do good work; the question is whether Newsweek is willing, or even able, to find a business model that allows them to do it.
So if today’s advanced economies have reached (or even exceeded) the point of productivity that Keynes predicted, why are 30- to 40-hour weeks still standard in the workplace? And why doesn’t it feel like much has changed? This is a question about both human nature – our ever-increasing expectations of a good life – as well as how work is structured across societies.
Bread evokes memories of sharing a meal with loved ones during peacetime and of hunger satiated, a distant feeling for a nation attempting to rebuild from the defeat of World War I, the economic severities of the 1920s and 30s, and the political turmoil of the Weimer Republic. During World War II, the Nazi party exploited the comfort that bread provided. In its daily bulletin of 15 October 1941, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency informed its readers that in addition to the recession and the killing of Christ, the Jews were now also being blamed by the Germans for the creation of white bread. “The baking of white bread,” a Nazi broadcaster quoted by the agency had explained, “was promoted by Jews both for speculative reasons and also for the purpose of undermining the health of the German people. Before the Jews settled in Germany, the people generally ate whole wheat bread. For the last century, however, the Jews pushing themselves in between the producer and the consumer, fostered the production of ‘dead flour’ which is deprived of the main nutritive value.” This was a particularly insidious piece of propaganda because of the psychological values that bread connotes. Blaming the Jews for creating white bread—weak stuff cropping up in bakeries and grocery stores across the Germany—set them in diametric opposition to traditional values.
Because of its central role in human nutrition, bread has appeared in countless cultural and religious keystones: the epic of Gilgamesh; the description of Egypt as the land of bread-eaters; Jewish oppression and the feast of Passover (bread of the afflicted); the Roman cry of “bread and circuses”; bread as a symbol in the poetry of Omar Khayyam; bread that signifies the body of Christ in the Eucharist. In short, made with simple, wholesome ingredients, bread is the staff of life. German bread continues to exemplify this tradition, one that Jews were supposedly destroying with processed white bread.
Winterson’s work is at once artfully structured, unexpectedly funny, and impressively dynamic. It repeatedly asks the unanswerable question that have plagued humanity since the beginning. Frankissstein also hints toward a time in the not-too-distant future when humans will not be the most intelligent beings on earth, but when the same questions will still arise. What is reality? What is time? What are the responsibilities of creation? Where are the boundaries between a story and real life, between consciousness and an idea? “I do not know if I am the teller or the tale,” Winterson’s characters ask again and again. Perhaps the answer for all of us is both.
I hover above garage
flying like a slow owl.
See my child-home
like I did in a dream
many years ago.
As a writer of nonfiction, memory is the stuff I trade in, and people are often surprised I don’t journal, although I’ve periodically attempted to over the years. Instead, I rely on my “scary good memory,” as my friends call it. Tell me once, and I’ll remember your birthday and the name of all your pets. I’ll also remember your food quirks and the outfit you were wearing the last time we were together four months ago. I’ve learned to trust my memory on multiple-choice and trivia questions because whatever answer pops into my head first is almost always right.
I love this memory of mine, but sometimes I feel awkward or even a little ashamed about remembering so many details of people’s lives that I was only exposed to once. While I may at times relish remembering so much, it can feel suffocating, a wheel of slides spinning too fast, bombarding me with a density of color and light.
His condition stabilised, and Ethan was transferred to Duke University Hospital, the major medical centre in that part of North Carolina, where he was monitored and fitted with an inbuilt defibrillator. It was clear to staff that Ethan had also experienced an acute cardiac event consistent with ARVC and that another attack was likely. The defibrillator was designed to restart his heart in the event of another attack. An MRI scan of his brother, Austin, confirmed he also had ARVC. The two brothers had inherited the same genetic problem as Hogan, despite all the tests finding nothing to indicate a genetic cause. Yet how else could three brothers raised in different families, in different parts of the state, develop the same condition?
With local medical staff stumped, and no further avenues of investigation available, Ethan and Austin were referred to the Undiagnosed Diseases Network (UDN), a group of 12 clinical research hubs designed to delve into chronic illnesses that have previously been undiagnosed, misdiagnosed or simply written off as psychosomatic. Bringing together experts in neurology, immunology, cardiology, endocrinology, genetics, rheumatology and more, the UDN had been custom-built to delve into just such a medical mystery.
Intelligence seems to depend on a chain of improbable events. But given the vast number of planets, then like an infinite number of monkeys pounding on an infinite number of typewriters to write Hamlet, it’s bound to evolve somewhere. The improbable result was us.
“I feel like we’re protecting the last tree, in a way.” That’s what Flagstaff, Arizona city council member Austin Aslan said at a recent meeting. The subject of that earnest statement might surprise you: it was streetlights. To be more specific, he was talking about a careful effort to prevent streetlights from washing out the stars in the night sky.
Flagstaff became the first city to earn a designation from the International Dark Sky Association in 2001. That came as a result of its long history of hosting astronomy research at local Lowell Observatory, as well as facilities operated by the US Navy. The city has an official ordinance governing the use of outdoor lighting—public and private.
Since then, I have stayed put — notwithstanding a few half-hearted attempts to cross the Atlantic, looking for international schools for my daughters in Paris when the divorce was final, or briefly putting my New York apartment on the market while fantasizing about quaint seven-story walk-ups near Bastille, when I had a boyfriend who lived in Europe.
Now, as the years pass, I have less and less desire to leave New York, where my roots have pushed down through the cracks of its broken sidewalks, even though, technically, at past 70, I suppose I am truly getting old. But the idea of going back to France would seem alarming, a tolling of a bell of sorts. Of course, staying in New York, the city I fell in love with at 22, might seem like waving a garlic branch in front of the grim reaper, a kind of vade retro satana, a vain attempt to stay forever young, or at least delay the inevitable.
In 2013, I moved to New York City alone. I had just divorced and graduated from the Iowa Writers Workshop. My first novel had been released—waiting for it had been my only remaining tether to a former life. With its release, my last connection to the functional adult world was severed and I was unmoored. My roommates bought me a cake. My classmates came to my readings. I felt their love and support, and yet I was terrified. I felt like I was being pushed out of a very comfortable nest. How would I survive?
My ex-husband and I were still friends then, and he had offered to drive me and my giant truck to my new home in New York City. Two years before, he had helped move my things from our home in Amsterdam to Iowa City, where I had taken up a place at the workshop. Now, he would install me in New York and our life together would be finished—one final road trip. But the night before he was set to arrive, he called from Amsterdam and cancelled.
“Marley was dead,” Dickens begins. “There is no doubt that Marley was dead.” When Scrooge endures that spectral visitation from his old partner in chains, the man has been underground for seven years.
But now — to borrow the words of another great Victorian writer — the rumors of his death are greatly exaggerated. Marley lives. Jon Clinch has revived the life behind the famous ghost in a prequel that fleshes out the early relationship between the two old misers in “A Christmas Carol.”
In this world of grief and division, it is heartwarming to be reminded that not everything is getting worse. These days, they are even making good cheeses in Suffolk: the mushroomy baron bigod, made near Bungay. “Unlike the old Suffolk bang,” Palmer observes, “this is not a cheese you could sharpen knives on.”
The equation of upscale readers and upscale brands with profit, projecting an aspirational image of the ideal consumer through both editorial and ads so that vulnerable readers would chase it, made Nast’s fortune many times over. His company established the template of the editor as a heroic, godlike figure casting down commandments from a print Mount Olympus, a status that continued after Nast’s death through the twentieth century. As recent eulogistic memoirs from iconic Condé editors, including Tina Brown and Ruth Reichl, demonstrate, the aspirational model worked pretty well—paying for private cars, lavish launch parties, and personal office renovations—until it ran squarely into the internet in the 2000s and, even worse, played catch-up to image-heavy social media in the 2010s.
Suddenly print magazines and editors-in-chief were no longer the arbiters of aspirational taste nor of class-based advertising. Google’s algorithms took over the latter and Instagram influencers the former. Many of Condé’s magazines, including the old Glamour, are now shuttering, getting sold, or cutting down their print schedules. At a moment when the media industry is less glamorous than ever, the story of this man and the empire he built is not simply a story about the power of magazines to define the style and mood of an era. The elitism that ensured Condé’s long reign over taste has lately also brought about the company’s precipitous decline.
Like all of us, Daffy Duck was perennially put upon by his Creator. The sputtering, stuttering, rageful water fowl’s life was a morass of indignity, embarrassment, anxiety, and existential horror. Despite all of the humiliation Daffy had to contend with, the aquatic bird was perfectly willing to shake his wings at the unfair universe. As expertly delivered by voice artist Mel Blanc, Daffy could honk “Who is responsible for this? I demand that you show yourself!” In animator Chuck Jones’s brilliant and classic 1953 episode of Merrie Melodies titled “Duck Amuck,” he presents Daffy as a veritable Everyduck, a sinner in the hands of a smart-assed illustrator. “Duck Amuck” has remained a canonical episode in the Warner Brothers cartoon catalog, its postmodern, metafictional experimentation heralded for its daring and cheekiness. Any account of what critics very loosely term “postmodern literature”—with its playfulness, its self-referentiality, and it’s breaking of the fourth wall—that considers Italo Calvino, Jorge Luis Borges, Vladimir Nabokov, and Paul Auster but not Jones is only telling part of the metafictional story. Not for nothing, but two decades ago, “Duck Amuck” was added to the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as an enduring piece of American culture.
Whenever i’m misidentified as an atheist writer, which happens frequently, I always find it inordinately frustrating. Such an accusation is understandable, but born from a superficial reading of my theological eccentricities. To be an atheist proper, I’d have to know what the word “God” means exactly in the first place; my entire writing career has been an attempt to find out just that. Call me disingenuous or cagey, but I’ve got enough of a drunken sense of the numinous that I’m confident that “atheist” isn’t the correct designation for myself. Mine may be an idiosyncratic gospel, but it’s no less God-intoxicated because of it. Not that the presumption of some pure abstracted atheism would necessarily offend me, but the term has acquired a certain connotation in modern parlance. Where once atheists may have been figured as brave free-thinkers, today their contemporary descendants have (perhaps no less admirably, if in an ironic way) proved that an atheist can be just as proudly stupid as everybody else.
I’m speaking of the so-called “New Atheists,” the indomitable quartet of the late essayist and Trotskyite-turned-neoconservative-apologist Christopher Hitchens, the biologist Richard Dawkins, philosopher Daniel Dennett, and I’m unsure what exactly he is, but the media personality Sam Harris. In the decade after the 9/11 attacks, the New Atheists dressed up warmed-over positivist fallacies, as well as historical and literary misinterpretations, with a bourgeoisie politics whose radicalism was in inverse relationship to how interesting its proponents thought that they were. Where atheism was once the position of metaphysical radicals like Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, now it was the refugee of “Well, actually…” guys on the internet. Philosophers, theologians, and religious studies scholars have made a veritable genre out of the anti-Dawkinsoniade, but this essay won’t be in that tradition (mostly).
Places like Perlan — magnets for visitors and secondary representations of the country’s natural charms — are increasingly a necessity for Iceland, which in recent years has become synonymous with the term “overtourism.” Overtourism is what happens to a place when an avalanche of tourists “changes the quality of life for people who actually live there,” says Andrew Sheivachman, an editor at the travel website Skift, whose 2016 report about Iceland established the term. In other words, Sheivachman says, “a place becomes mainstream.” Iceland has about 300,000 residents, but it received more than 2.3 million overnight visitors last year. Tourists have flooded the island, crashing their camper vans in the wilderness, pooping in the streets of Reykjavik, and eroding the scenic canyon Fjaðrárgljúfur, where Justin Bieber shot a music video in 2015, forcing it to close temporarily. No wonder the museum is safer.
Overtourism also comes with a kind of stigma signified by that word “mainstream.” A reputation for excessive crowds means the tastemaking travel elite actually start avoiding a place, like a too-popular restaurant. “The early-adopter travelers are already onto the next cool, cheap, relatively intact place,” Sheivachman says. Since the Skift article, the term has been widely applied to places like Barcelona, Venice, and Tulum to suggest that no one who’s in the know would want to go there anymore.
The concept might seem odd to those who didn’t grow up drinking bagged milk, but to roughly half of Canadian milk consumers, the milk bladder is a way of life. It’s estimated that 75 to 85 percent of Ontario residents purchase their milk in a pouch, but Canadians aren’t the only dairy drinkers repping sack milk. People in India, China, Israel, Russia, Ukraine, Iran, Columbia, Uruguay, Argentina, Hungary, South Africa, and even in some parts of the U.S. drink milk in bags, which some argue is a more economical and environmentally friendly packaging style.
So why did some countries adopt the milk pouch, while others did not? And how do those pouches work, anyway? Here, now, are the answers to all your burning questions about milk in bags.
When I tell people I run ultramarathons, a common response is: I don’t even like driving that far. Don’t you get bored running for so long? It’s so repetitive. Yes, well, yes, I say, it is repetitive, and sometimes it is boring. In a sense, it’s just one foot in front of the other a million times until you’re done. And then you do it again tomorrow. It doesn’t get much more repetitive than that. But all the same, I enjoy doing it. I just enjoy running. The conversation only goes downhill from there. Usually, we change to another topic. We’re unsettled because something seems amiss here: We think we shouldn’t enjoy things that are repetitive and boring.
There are a handful of novelists who excel in describing, often from ludicrously comic heights, the Russian-American experience. Call it the Borscht Shelf: Gary Shteyngart, Boris Fishman and the resplendent Lara Vapnyar. Vapnyar’s latest novel begins with an exquisitely distilled example of her gifts: “One week before my mother died, I went to a Russian food store on Staten Island to buy caviar.” The moment is couched in depressive humor (“I was brought up in the Soviet Union, where caviar was considered a special food reserved for children and dying parents”) and chased with deflating truth (her mother doesn’t even want the caviar). The narrator eats it herself, feeling “as if I were robbing a grave.”
It may be the irresistible temptation and ultimate folly of someone who studies 19th-century Russian literature — like the author of this review — to impose that era’s tight-knit intertextuality on a collection of 21st-century stories. But there are myriad clues that Osipov’s tales are intended, at least in part, to engage this past tradition, and paying attention to those moments reveals the author’s interest in the ways that the relationship between literature and life can become a question of life and death.
That’s the novel’s through line — Victor lies in a hospital bed in New Orleans while everyone else waits for him to die — and in lesser hands this might be static. But Attenberg gets so deep into the psyches of her characters that the story ends up seeming electric with ruin, and with possible resurrection.
O’Brien finds more of the secrets of life in Hemingway than I do, and even I, when confronted with his most overweening examples of parental joy (no matter how self-effacing the delivery), had to shake my head. Yet O’Brien’s narration is gentle and genuine. As the reader of his audiobook, he’s not an actor; he’s simply a dad, talking to you.
For all his quirks, Morris reminds us, Edison never lost sight of the future. And that, perhaps, is the key takeaway from this elegant, loosely crafted, idiosyncratic book. No inventor did more to nudge the world toward modernity, and few had a better feel for what the next generation of inventors might pursue. Topping that list was a plea for a greener country — not because Edison was an environmentalist, but because he despised the excess and inefficiency that had come to define American industry and leisure, thanks in no small part to his close chum, Henry Ford. “This scheme of combustion in order to get power makes me sick to think of — it is so wasteful,” he grumbled. “Sunshine is a form of energy, and the winds and the tides. … There must surely come a time when heat and power will be stored in unlimited quantities in every community, all gathered by natural forces.” He added, in true Edison fashion: “I’ll do the trick myself if someone doesn’t get at it.”
Lizabeth Cohen’s new book, “Saving America’s Cities: Ed Logue and the Struggle to Renew Urban America in the Suburban Age” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), is an attempt to salvage the villain’s reputation, mostly by putting it in the Tragedy of Good Intentions basket instead of the Arrogance of Élitist Certainties basket, albeit recognizing that these are adjacent baskets. Cohen, an American historian at Harvard, reminds the reader, as any first-rate historian would, that what look, in the retrospective cartooning of polemical history, like obvious choices and clear moral lessons are usually gradated and surprising. Logue, whose career was more far reaching and ambitious than that of any other urbanist of his time, helped remake New Haven, Boston, and New York, and his ambitions for city planning were thoroughly progressive: “To demonstrate that people of different incomes, races, and ethnic origins can live together . . . and that they can send their children to the same public schools.” Despite his reputation as a “slum-clearer,” Logue was uncompromising about the primacy of integration. “The pursuit of racial, not just income, diversity in residential projects animated all his work,” Cohen writes. (Jane Jacobs, to put it charitably, didn’t really notice that her beloved Hudson Street, in the West Village, tended toward the monochrome.)
I can’t recall whether music writers took issue with the accuracy or relevancy of Almost Famous when it was released in 2000, but I imagine they might’ve seen 1973 as “the good ol’ days” before everything got corporate. Sure, file-sharing and streaming had yet to fully decimate the music industry and print journalism was thriving in all genres, but publications had to play nice with teen pop, nu-metal, rap-rock, pop-punk, and Southern hip-hop, all modes of music that critics could casually disregard or outright mock in the past. Meanwhile, Almost Famous: The Musical premiered during the most brutal stretch in a year when “profoundly demoralizing” is the baseline for music journalism.
Lifting the lid from the thin gold box, I found my anniversary gift: a stack of papyrus-style paper on which my husband had printed the email correspondence of our early courtship.
Well, half of it. During the 90s, emails were not yet recorded in conversation threads; he’d been able to recover the emails he’d received from me, but not his responses.
As a joke, he added a title page, The “Best” of Dheepa. Back then, rather than “Love” or “Sincerely,” I closed my correspondence with the word “Best,” which I’d adopted from a college professor. I thought it was refined and sophisticated.
My husband thought it was ponderous and formal.
André Aciman’s 2007 breakthrough novel, Call Me By Your Name – later made into an award-winning film directed by Luca Guadagnino – told the story of a blossoming romance between 17-year-old Elio and 24-year-old Oliver. Exploring themes of passion, obsession and time, the book has since acquired the status of a modern gay classic.
In Find Me, Aciman returns to the lives of Elio and Oliver some 20 years later, albeit via a circuitous route: we have to wait until almost halfway through the novel for Elio’s first appearance, and are not reacquainted with Oliver until the penultimate section. But what Aciman offers us in the meantime is an intense and rewarding prelude.
Written before most of her other work that Stephen Snyder has translated into English, it shows her digging into many of the same concerns as her later work: art, loss, beauty, love, memory, caretaking, and old age. There are tropes and moments present that one might reasonably label “Orwellian,” but at its center The Memory Police is a story about what it means to be a writer and the impermanence of art, all masquerading as a dystopian fable.
“If we weren’t covering it, no one would know what’s going on,” said Ms. Sourine, 21, who also plays rugby and is taking a full schedule of classes this semester. “It’s really hard to take time out of my day, especially when breaking news hits. But a lot of people rely on us to stay informed, not only students, but the people of Ann Arbor.”
For more than a decade, The Michigan Daily, the university’s student newspaper, has been the only paper in town. After The Ann Arbor News shuttered its print edition in 2009 — and eventually its online presence, too — a staff of about 300 student journalists has worked hard to provide incisive coverage about the city’s police, power brokers and policymakers, all while keeping up with school.
Canadians call this “reconciliation,” and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who faces a tight re-election vote on Monday, has made it central to his government and image.
In Ooloosie Saila, many might see the embodiment of these aspirations: an accomplished artist being feted for her depictions of the Inuit landscape in brilliant pinks and oranges — a young Indigenous woman who is making it.
But the world she returned to after the opening, the hamlet of Cape Dorset, is plagued by poverty, alcoholism and domestic abuse. The possibility of brutality is never far away. The relative raging in Ms. Saila’s house on the eve of her trip has assaulted her repeatedly, and has gone to jail for it.
The superfood thus seemed to have everything going for it: It would be the basis for a sea change in public health among the world’s poorest people. It would be cheap to grow and indefinitely sustainable, because low-income farmers could save the seeds from any given harvest and plant them the following season, without purchasing them anew.
But in the 20 years since it was created, Golden Rice has not been made available to those for whom it was intended. So what happened?
Turning and turning, the wheel of fortune keeps spinning. Can we ever escape it? Are we circling or spiraling? Whatever the answer, Atwood’s references to the moon cycle remind us this cycle of fortune is inevitable, too. Telling stories helps us find an anchor in this chaos and navigate difficult circumstances. We can learn to work with nature rather than resist it. The Testaments is also a rallying cry to become conscious of the stories we are told, and tell, and the roles we assume. Which choices would we make if in Aunt Lydia’s shoes? Which parts of history do we wish to claim as our own? Which do we reject? Becoming aware of the mythos that constrains us also means we can collectively help dismantle it. As readers, we can imagine and work toward a better world.
The novel’s job has never been to be at the centre or the margins or, frankly, any specific place. The novel’s job is simply to be whatever it is, with as few worldly encumbrances restraining it as possible. The novelist’s role is to facilitate this. And this is not to say the novelist must hold no opinions or take no stands. It means that whatever position they are starting from, they must understand that – no matter how great their technical skill – they remain a conduit through which all they have managed to accumulate within themselves will mix and change before it can be poured. The novelist must never deceive themself with the idea that they are in charge: the novel is. And this is not always an easy role to accept when the demands of the industry and the readership and the ego are so great.
The novel demands to be written outside the bounds of the self. It disregards what we would like to say, and be, and appear to be. Tolstoy complained that with Anna Karenina, he sat down to write a condemnatory tale about a woman incapable of self-restraint but that she herself would not permit it. She demanded the more difficult, socially unacceptable and errantly human truth about herself be heard instead. Luckily Tolstoy’s talent proved equal to the challenge and knew he had to follow where she led.
Jakarta, a megacity of 30 million people, is sinking. In places along the coastline the ground has subsided by four metres over the last few decades, meaning that the concrete barricades are the only thing preventing whole communities from being engulfed by the sea.
Although many coastal cities, from New York to Shanghai, have been forced by the threat of climate change to build high walls to protect themselves, there are few places in the world as vulnerable as Jakarta, where a decades-old problem of land subsidence has intersected with sea level rise caused by global warming, creating an existential threat to the city.
By the third night, I became aware that I was thanking the staff in the hotel restaurant with the over-emphasis of someone exhibiting largesse to those less fortunate than herself, and that they were talking to me in the gentle tones of trained professionals managing a 43-year-old woman who hadn’t left the hotel for 24 hours and had clearly only packed one sweater.
A week after the poet Anne Boyer turned 41, she was diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer, necessitating aggressive chemotherapy and a double mastectomy. When the novelist Jenn Ashworth was in her 30s, she suffered an uncontrollable haemorrhage in the wake of a caesarean. The epidural had worn off and, unbeknown to her doctors, she was conscious during the surgery that followed, though unable to speak or move, an experience that triggered a long bout of post-traumatic psychosis, in which she believed that as a child she had killed a baby.
These are narrative events, calamitous episodes in ongoing lives, but they are also events that disrupt narrative, especially for people whose job it is to create it. Both of these extraordinary books are memoirs against memoir, personal accounts that refuse the personal, attempting instead to discover a language and formal structure for what Boyer beautifully calls “pain’s leaky democracies, the shared vistas of the terribly felt”.
We’re swimming in data, and we can’t help but use it. Likes on Facebook measure our social standing, financial indicators slice up company growth, standardized tests track student progress, and smartwatches count our every step. Measurement generally allows for prudent planning, but sometimes it focuses our attention on mere proxies for what we care about. We optimize short-term metrics — teaching to the test, worshiping the watch — at the expense of long-term goals, from corporate to corporal health.
That’s one of the takeaways from “The Optimist’s Telescope” by Bina Venkataraman, a former journalist and senior adviser for climate change innovation in the Obama White House. The book, wise but not wonkish, is an argument for foresight, by which Venkataraman means not the ability to look into the future but the willingness to do so. A number of social, psychological and structural forces deflect our gaze, and the book offers ways to retrain our sight toward the horizon, citing scientific experiments, historical events, business case studies and personal anecdotes.
When I first watched this scene in Rosemary’s Baby (1968) I had been a vegetarian for two years, but was oddly compelled by it: the yellow kitchen, the rose-red of the meat, the graceful ease with which Mia Farrow plunges into the steak’s fleshy center with a fork. I woke up craving steak the next day: blood pooling against the lip of a plate, the tangy taste of metal against my teeth. I was ravenous and repulsed by my own appetite.
But maybe what I was feeling was not so much the desire to eat steak, but the desire to be allowed to desire. The desire being met, being recognized, something clearly being given in to. An appetite satiated, without complication.
But the differences between British and American English go beyond words, sounds and spelling to grammar itself. Here they can be subtle, but they are many: the index of the “Cambridge Grammar of the English Language” mentions regional differences in 95 places. America being the parvenu, most people assume that any variations between the two countries result from American innovation, to the (sometimes mock) horror of Britons. In reality, America has often been the conservative one, and Britain the innovator. When British speakers borrow American habits, they are sometimes unwittingly readopting an older version of their language.
In Sharlene Teo’s wise, tenderly grotesque novel the introduction of teenaged protagonist Szu is effected in a cloud of body odor. “When I was eleven,” Szu grumbles, sitting in a classroom that smells of Impulse body spray and soiled sanitary towels, “I used to hope that puberty would morph me, that one day I’d uncurl from my chrysalis, bloom out beautiful. No luck! Acne instead. Disgusting hair. Blood.” Overflowing with monsters and matriarchs, Teo’s novel is at least partially a horror narrative and draws much of its impetus from the backstory of Szu’s mother, Amisa, a former horror actress, who once starred in a movie named Ponti! The film, telling the story of a deformed girl who makes a deal with a bomoh—a shaman—to become beautiful, pins the theme of transformation at the novel’s heart. Her wish is granted, but the transformation is a dual one. She does become beautiful, but she also becomes a bloodthirsty monster who feeds insatiably upon men. Teo’s novel stresses this duality, writing female adolescence as, in effect, synonymous with female monstrosity, with the becoming of something other. Szu is nicknamed “Sadako,” after another classic horror movie monster, and her adolescence is a lank, disquieting thing, at once disappointing and horrendous. She is turning into a woman, she is turning into a monster; the two things are one and the same.
Bibliomania required, or at least implied, a librarian, except in those circumstances where collectors felt that they themselves had the time, interest, and expertise to take on the role for themselves. Some owners were confident that they did, but others were more doubtful. At Chatsworth, for example, the 6th Duke of Devonshire, though a graduate of Trinity College, Cambridge, was self-conscious of his lack of learning, writing to his librarian, the Shakespearean scholar and notorious forger John Payne Collier (1789–1883): “I am not worthy of my own collection, I am sorry to say; and I want you, as far as you can, to make me worthy of it by informing my ignorance.”
Nonetheless his papers include detailed notes outlining what would now be called a job description for a librarian, while Payne Collier was paid a handsome £200 a year. The well-bred bachelor duke enjoyed at best an uneasy relationship with his self-made librarian, whom he thought “simple and vulgar.” But at Stowe, the 1st Duke of Buckingham (1776–1839), had a closer and more affectionate friendship with the learned Dr. Charles O’Conor (1764–1828), a Catholic priest, but also a member of an ancient and aristocratic Irish family, whose grandfather the antiquarian Charles O’Conor (1710–91) had once owned many of the famed Irish manuscripts. Going down to Soane’s Gothic Library in 1827 to take his leave of O’Conor for the last time, Buckingham was deeply moved to find that his “old friend,” a man with a history of mental illness and by then apparently senile, was struggling to pack for his final journey back to Ireland, and was upset when the librarian displayed no signs of emotion as his employer kissed his forehead.
Back in 1875, when salmon runs first started to crash, the Smithsonian scientist and U.S. fish commissioner Spencer Fullerton Baird was hired by the Oregon legislature to draft a plan. He knew and identified the real problems: overfishing, the degradation of high mountain streams, and an overabundance of dams, many with no fish passage. But Baird, calculating that there was no political will to solve the underlying problems, proposed a cheaper solution: hatcheries. The salmon life cycle would be reproduced by scientists, the eggs fertilized and sown into rivers like wheat into fields. For just $15,000 a year in operating costs, he promised an unlimited harvest, and Oregon and the rest of the Columbia watershed set about building hatcheries that cranked out billions of fertilized eggs over the course of the next century.
It didn’t work. Salmon runs plummeted, despite the constant supply of artificially fertilized fish. Even when the first run of salmon was listed under the Endangered Species Act, in 1991, and the United States began spending tens of billions more on hatcheries and other salmon-restoration projects in the Pacific Northwest, the runs only marginally improved. While the threat of extinction has receded since 1983’s record low of 185,000 Columbia Chinook, the few million-fish runs have still been well below historic levels, and last year only 336,000 Chinook surged up a river that drains more water than all of France.
Today, about 300 million salmon are planted annually in the American Pacific Northwest (Alaska and Canada plant hundreds of millions more). They are grown in some 300 public fish hatcheries scattered around the watershed, many of them jointly operated by the state and the feds. Rapid River’s design was typical: a series of twelve long cement pens, all of which were stained with black mold and topped with rusting walkways. About 3 million tiny fish were spread out in front of me. In the spring they would be released directly into the river, or transported in tanker trucks and poured out upstream using long plastic chutes. Here they were still growing and waiting, circling slowly—a dark cloud of life.
On Monday, May 13, Jean-Georges Vongerichten got into a car outside his apartment in the West Village and asked to be taken to the airport. It would have been an odd time to leave town: The next day he was opening a new restaurant, the Fulton, in Lower Manhattan, on the waterfront facing Brooklyn. But Vongerichten wasn’t flying anywhere. He was going to check in on another restaurant, this one opening on Wednesday, inside the new TWA Hotel at J.F.K.
Opening two restaurants back to back, on consecutive days, would be impressive for a Chipotle or an In-N-Out Burger. It’s absolutely unheard-of for a fine-dining chef like Vongerichten. It also wasn’t part of the plan. The two openings had been years in the making, both tied up in larger redevelopment projects that the chef had no control over, so he could do little but watch as the deadlines slowly converged on each other: The opening date for the Fulton kept getting pushed back, while the other, for the Paris Café, didn’t budge. As late as mid-April, Vongerichten still thought he would have a few days’ buffer between them, but then that, too, disappeared.
The spirit of that moment (and I knew it then) is the perfect flow through to Gail, whose writing is one you want to tell things to. The only way to read Heroine is to be in it. A few days later I was in London and I made a note to tell Gail (the book) about the people praying in the cafe this evening.
So what I mainly want to assert is that Heroine is more a work of reading than of writing, it is all studio, by which I mean it’s something fabulously risky and alive. It’s literature and the possibility of it.
His third essay collection, “Ecstasy and Terror,” is a master class in criticism, a rangy, perspicacious, occasionally spiky excursion into cultures both ancient and contemporary. His breadth of reference is characteristically formidable – “From the Greeks to Game of Thrones” (the book’s subtitle), “from Corneille to ‘The Crown’ ” – and put to good use. He knows that a well-chosen example, especially one that collapses traditional distinctions between high and popular culture, can be erudite, authoritative, even cool, all at once. There are dozens here. But they always feel earned; he’s done the hard work. To read Mendelsohn is to gain a synoptic view of a subject, whether it’s the novels of Ingmar Bergman, “the Sappho wars” or the unexpected relationship between robots and Homer.
Ruth Reichl recently told the Columbia Journalism Review that we can tell every story through food. “If you want to read about women’s lives throughout history, you can do it through cookbooks,” she said. “If you want to teach math, you want to teach history, there’s nothing you can’t get to through food. It is one of the major forces in the world.” Her new memoir, Save Me the Plums, tells the story of her decade as editor-in-chief of Gourmet Magazine by detailing the food she ate, prepared, and tested during her time at the magazine. In Gourmet’s glory days, Reichl ate caviar-stuffed baked potatoes named after Condé Nast’s chief executive and took prospective advertisers out for Serrano ham carved at the table, imagining she could taste the acorns the Iberian pigs ate “in the soft lacy fat at the edge of the meat.” But as the 2008 financial crisis changed Americans’ ideas of luxury and possibility, Gourmet’s menus changed too. If food can tell any story, this one tells the story of a nation’s heyday and financial collapse, tracing the interconnection between food and money.
In 1859, around 450 passengers on the Royal Charter, returning from the Australian goldmines to Liverpool, drowned when the steam clipper was shipwrecked off the north coast of Wales. What makes this tragic loss of life remarkable among countless other maritime disasters was that many of those on board were weighed down by the gold in their money belts that they just wouldn’t abandon so close to home. Humans have a particularly strong and, at times, irrational obsession with possessions. Every year, car owners are killed or seriously injured in their attempts to stop the theft of their vehicles – a choice that few would make in the cold light of day. It’s as if there is a demon in our minds that compels us to fret over the stuff we own, and make risky lifestyle choices in the pursuit of material wealth. I think we are possessed.
Of course, materialism and the acquisition of wealth is a powerful incentive. Most would agree with the line often attributed to the actress Mae West: ‘I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor – believe me, rich is better.’ But there comes a point when we have achieved a comfortable standard of living and yet we continue to strive for more stuff – why?
Aside from a few researchers, most mental-health professionals in Japan don’t use the term “modern-type depression.” It isn’t a clinical diagnosis, and despite its “modern” tag, characteristics of the condition likely have always existed alongside other forms of depression. The term first gained prominence in the 1990s, when Japanese media seized on it to portray young workers who took time off from work for mental-health reasons as immature and lazy.
While the term still carries stigma, Kato believes it’s useful to examine as an emerging cultural phenomenon. In the West, depression is often seen as a disease of sadness that is highly personal. But in Japan, it has long been considered a disease of fatigue caused by overwork. The traditional depressed patient has been a “yes man,” someone who always acquiesces to extra tasks at the expense of his social life and health. What makes modern-type depression different, according to Kato, is that patients have the desire to stand up for their personal rights, but instead of communicating clearly they become withdrawn and defiant.
In summer 2018, Jeff Sisson, a 31-year-old software engineer, was a new arrival to Queens, the largest borough in New York City by some 40 square miles. Sisson was getting to know his new environs by foot and bike, and one day while surfing Google Maps, he noticed something strange. He saw a designation on the map for something he had never heard of before, a place called Haberman.
“After having to route myself into some areas that are near that particular place in Queens, it just sort of stood out to me,” he says. “The size of it was large enough that implied something very real, present, and visible, but it was not totally clear what it referred to.”
Known both in Japan and abroad as bento boxes, they’re the famous, compartmentalised containers filled with rice, vegetables, meat and more, eaten by kids and grownups alike. In fact, over 70% of that five billion is for adults, as bento offer a cheaper and healthier option for many workers, as opposed to quick takeaway meals.
But it’s the expectation that falls on mothers to fashion stunning bento for their kids every day that builds stress and pressure – especially when those mums are working ones.
What happened next felt like a trance. My body dropped to the low hum of pure instinct — emotions switched off, mind emptied. I glided back to my desk, pulled up Airbnb on my computer, and, in a dreamlike state, began to type. After work, I left and got an oil change. Early the next morning, without telling a soul, I got into my car and drove to Florida.
Still, among this generally arrogant species, some, like Bryson, have always appreciated the glorious complexity and privilege of our unlikely existence.
Having described the physical nature of our world and beyond, from the atomic to the intergalactic, in “The Body” he now turns inward to explain — in his lucid, amusing style — what we’re made of. Along the way, as he has before, he weaves in stories of the astonishing characters who have been figuring humans out.
For Gioia the music that truly matters is the kind that upsets Mom and Dad — and it almost always emerges from the dispossessed. Slaves, outlaws, criminals, poor country folk, foreign emigrants and inner-city kids aren’t hampered by genteel aesthetic strictures. Besides, while heard melodies are sweet, those never heard before can be even sweeter, albeit sometimes a bit loud or strangely syncopated. Ultimately, Gioia points out, most of the important developments in American music spring from African American roots. Spirituals, gospel choruses, ragtime, the blues, jazz, rock, hip-hop — these define our nation’s ever-changing soundscape.
“Music: A Subversive History” covers the entire 4,000 years that humankind has been making rhythmic and harmonious noise. Did you know that there are more than 1,000 references to music in the Bible? Or that the United States “supports 130 military bands, spending three times as much on military music as on the National Endowment for the Arts”? Or that the oldest songwriter known by name is Enheduanna, a high priestess of Ur in Sumeria? From the beginning, music has always been linked with magic, medicine and mysticism.
Looking back at her career now, Andrews, who’s 84, told me in October—when she called from her home in Long Island to discuss Home Work—that what surprises her most is how arduous it all was. “What I learned from writing the book was how hard I was working on any given day, whether I was doing the movie or learning the choreography or perfecting something or doing a costume fitting,” she said. Andrews has lived in the U.S. now for longer than she lived in England, but her diction is still markedly precise and she occasionally blesses humble words with more syllables than they typically get to contain. (Hawaii is pronounced huh-why-YEE, while “mum” is thrillingly continuant, like mumm.) Andrews is a dame of the British Empire, an Academy Award winner, an author with what she describes as a “small, you know, imprint,” and No. 59 on the BBC’s polled list of the 100 Greatest Britons, 11 spots ahead of Jane Austen. At this point in life, she’s settled into her status as one of the most regal, gracious, and reassuring presences in entertainment, serenely embracing “dear Lady Gaga” onstage at the 2015 Oscars, and spoofing her own reputation by voicing the cruel matriarch Marlena Gru (“the worst lady I’ve ever played”) in the Despicable Me franchise. What she wants to make clear now isn’t that Mary and Maria were characters, but that they were work.
Choosing one’s favourite Elton John story – like choosing one’s favourite Elton song – can feel like limiting oneself to a mere single grape from the horn of plenty. Leaving aside the music for the moment, Elton’s public and maybe even private persona can be divided into two phases: first there was the raging drugs monster, as extravagantly talented as he was costumed. Now that he’s sober, there’s the more conservatively dressed, happily married elder statesman of British pop, a proper establishment figure, albeit one who’s still unafraid to pick fights with everyone from Keith Richards (“a monkey with arthritis”) to Madonna (“looks like a fairground stripper”). Both eras have yielded a steady crop of outstanding Elton anecdotes, often retold by Elton himself, who, possessing the kind of self-knowledge few of his fame and wealth retain, tells his stories better than anyone else. Probably the most infamous of all is the one about the time he’d been up for several days (this, clearly, was from the pre-sobriety era) when he decided something really needed to be sorted out. No, not his devastating drug addiction or his lack of sleep – the problem was the weather. So he called a chap in his office and told him to sort it out: “It’s far too windy here, can you do something about it?”
This has always been one of the cardinal problems of biography: to what extent can or should one tell the truth—and what, indeed, is the truth about any of us? The second question is the more difficult one to answer. “The world will never know my life,” said Carlyle (and the words stand on the first page of his Life by his closest friend, Froude) “‘even if it should write and read a hundred biographies of me. The main facts of it are known, and are likely to be known, to myself alone, of all created men.” Not only are there facts that we do not tell, but some that we ourselves do not know; at best, some small facet of the truth occasionally catches the light, and it is that which the biographer must try to seize. “For there is,” as Virginia Woolf remarked, “a virtue in truth; it has an almost mystic power. Like radium, it seems to give off forever and ever grains of energy, atoms of light.”
Which is, in some sense, ridiculous. No one expects a medical student to perform surgery correctly on his first try. And no corporate lawyer would be allowed to negotiate a merger without experience and years of law school behind her. Lawyers and doctors learn by doing. Writers feel we should already know. Proust never got an MFA. Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein at twenty. Helen Oyeyemi wrote her first novel while she was still at Cambridge. And it’s not as if we’re the only people telling ourselves this. As the writer Tim Parks once put it in an essay for the New York Review of Books, “No one is treated with more patronizing condescension than the unpublished author or, in general, the would-be artist. At best he is commiserated. At worst mocked. He has presumed to rise above others and failed.”
No one knows why we walk. Out of some 250 species of primates, we are the only ones that have elected to get up and move around exclusively on two legs. Some authorities think bipedalism is at least as important a defining characteristic of what it is to be human as our high-functioning brain.
Many theories have been proposed as to why our distant ancestors dropped out of trees and adopted an upright posture—to free their hands to carry babies and other objects; to gain a better line of sight across open ground; to be better able to throw projectiles—but the one certainty is that walking on two legs came at a price. Moving about in the open made our ancient forebears exceedingly vulnerable, for they were not formidable creatures, to say the least. The young and gracile protohuman famously known as Lucy, who lived in what is now Ethiopia some 3.2 million years ago and is often used as a model for early bipedalism, was only about three and a half feet tall and weighed just 60 pounds—hardly the sort of presence to intimidate a lion or cheetah.
We are nearing the end of 2019, the Year of the Pig, and the global pork market is facing disaster. African swine fever, a viral disease with a 100 percent fatality rate among pigs, in the past year has spread to more than 25 countries in Europe, Africa, and Asia. ASF hasn’t reached the United States, but if it does, estimates put the damage at more than $4 billion. China, by far the largest pig-producing country in the world, is estimated to have lost roughly half of its swine population to the outbreak. There’s talk of China domestically raising pigs the size of polar bears to combat the domestic decline; North Korea has officially reported only one instance of ASF, but unofficial internal reports suggest an apocalyptic collapse in stock. Meanwhile, the McRib is back.
On the night of 14 June 1904, New York’s Chinatown was plunged into a deep gloom. For the past 20 years, it had thrived off the city’s seemingly insatiable appetite for chop suey. Every night, restaurants along Moot and Pell were thronged with sophisticates clamouring for a taste of ‘authentic’ Chinese cooking. But suddenly, all that seemed at risk. A few days earlier, a chef named Lem Sen had arrived from San Francisco. Chop suey, he claimed, was ‘no more Chinese than pork and beans’. In fact, he had invented it a decade before, while working at a ‘Bohemian’ restaurant in San Francisco. His recipe had been ‘stolen’ by an American diner, who had since grown rich off the profits. Now Lem wanted compensation. Through his lawyer, he demanded that restaurants stop making chop suey – or pay him for the privilege of using his recipe.
Happily, Lem soon dropped his suit. Even he must have known it was absurd. But the myth of the dish’s ‘American’ origins persisted. Over the next few decades, newspapers regularly claimed it as Uncle Sam’s own and mocked those who were ‘gulled’ into believing that it was really Chinese. Even today, the expression ‘as American as chop suey’ can still be heard.
Early in Oksana, Behave!, Maria Kuznetsova’s smart and insightful debut novel, Oksana’s grandmother, Baba, explains to her how life works: “You are born, you have some laughs and a rendezvous or two, and then you fall into the void. Just try to enjoy the ride, darling.” Baba is wise, and while she is describing her outlook on life, Kuznetsova is also, in this moment, outlining the trajectory and style of her book. Told in discrete moments, Oksana, Behave! moves differently from many other novels.
Most traditional novels rely on cause and effect for forward momentum, with unanswered questions often pulling the reader forward through the book. Chapters come to a close, but lingering questions or events often urge the reader to continue on. In novels comprised of stories, though—like Oksana, Behave!—each chapter can stand alone. So, how does the writer convince the reader to keep on reading? How does time work in these novels, both as a narrative device and in the reader’s experience? Both Oksana, Behave! and Olive, Again, the newest novel-in-stories by Elizabeth Strout, are wonderful examples of how such novels marry their content and form.
Deborah Levy, one of the most intellectually exciting writers in Britain today, has produced in this perplexing work a caustically funny exploration of history, perception, the nature of political tyranny and how lovers can simultaneously charm and erase each other.
Elliptical, elusive and endlessly stimulating, Deborah Levy’s new novel, her third to be nominated for the Booker Prize, packs an astonishing amount into 200 pages. “The Man Who Saw Everything” is a brilliantly constructed jigsaw puzzle of meaning that will leave readers wondering how much they can ever truly know.
The latest writer to take up Frankenstein’s scalpel is British novelist Jeanette Winterson. Her “Frankissstein,” longlisted for this year’s Booker Prize, is a brainy, batty story — an unholy amalgamation of scholarship and comedy. She manages to pay homage to Shelley’s insight and passion while demonstrating her own extraordinary creativity.
But what also becomes crystal clear is that the restaurant is a key piece in the mise-en-scène of another equally subtle and unforgiving game: spycraft.
"Restaurants and cafés are in many ways the lifeblood of espionage," is how Amaryllis Fox puts it. Fox was a real spy. Her memoir, Life Undercover: Coming of Age in the CIA, released this month, recounts her adventures as a clandestine CIA operative from 2003 to 2010 deployed to 16 countries to infiltrate terror networks in the post-9/11 world. "Restaurants offer the opportunity to meet the people we most seek — those with access to a government or terror group that might be able to help us predict or prevent the next attack. Sometimes those meetings are accidental. Mostly, they are planned to look accidental."
Near the end of Adrienne Brodeur’s exquisite and harrowing memoir, she makes this powerful statement: “Malabar was the only mother I had, but she was not the mother I wanted to be.” “Wild Game: My Mother, Her Lover, and Me” tells the story of the author’s long, complicated and ultimately successful struggle to extract herself from her charismatic mother — a textbook narcissist for whom “love was conditional” — to become a different kind of partner, person and parent. The book is so gorgeously written and deeply insightful, and with a line of narrative tension that never slacks, from the first page to the last, that it’s one you’ll likely read in a single, delicious sitting.
Even if I still had the clothes I wore,
those first twelve years, even if I had
the clothes I’d take off before my mother
Here’s Elton John on his day off, in a sleek, modern house by the water somewhere in Vancouver, sitting at a kitchen-adjacent table with a book of crossword puzzles, dressed like — well, like Elton John on his day off. Iridescent black Gucci tracksuit, white moon-boot sneakers adorned with crystal-studded belts that gently jingle-jangle as he moves. They turn out to be Gucci FlashTreks that retail for $1,590. The belts are removable, should you wish to entirely defeat the purpose of paying $1,590 for gemstone-accented sneakers.
John, 72, has been living here with his family while playing a run of shows around Canada. Tonight he and husband David Furnish, 56, and their two sons will fly home to Los Angeles. Right now Furnish has taken the kids to Dairy Queen and the house is tranquil. Outside the afternoon sun glints off the rain puddles on the patio and the wings of distant seaplanes descending silently into Departure Bay. Soon a chef named Gaultier will bring around coffees white with foam and sugar-free cookies that look like tiny cakes of birdseed — the finest birdseed, the kind you’d feed an ungainly beautiful bird that might be the last of its kind on the planet.
“I like to move forward,” Elton is saying. “I’m not nostalgic. I don’t dwell. I’m not interested.”
That doesn’t mean dinner parties have become obsolete in 2019: They’ve just evolved. Millennials prioritize friendships, so they still value gathering with their friends and loved ones over food and drinks, but they’ve changed the playbook to adapt to our post-recession economy. That means formal dinners served on china with a roast and martinis have been replaced by having friends over to your apartment for chili night and White Claws. The cornbread might get a little burnt, some people might have to sit on the floor, but the important thing is getting together with friends and enjoying each other’s company — not stressing out about tablescapes and etiquette.
“I think the millennial dinner party now equates to casual but well thought out: good group of like-minded friends; easy-going cooking; BYO approach; on-point music on the record player in the background,” says Alisha Miranda, a 33-year-old writer in Philadelphia. “Most importantly, it’s about low-key chill vibes.”
The tradition evolved from the 1930s Oslo Breakfast, a government program that provided a free meal of bread, cheese, milk, half an apple and half an orange to school children at a time when Norway was a poor country. “It’s become a symbol of frugality and egality, but for those who are not big fans, it’s a terrible thing,” says Viestad. “It has many good things to be said about it, but there’s also this element of something a little bit gray and boring.”
“It can be very plain,” confirms food writer Nevada Berg, an American who has traveled to and lived in Norway for the past 15 years (and married a Norwegian). “For outsiders, it can look kind of sad — in the States we’re kind of used to a sandwich that is full. Here it’s the bread, and one little thing. It’s very simple, nothing extravagant at all.”
Kathy and I were getting serious. We’d talked about everything — we wanted to get married. We wanted children. But we hadn’t yet had “The Talk.” I was nervous, but I knew it was time to come clean.
I had to tell Kathy that I was … a fainter.
I’ve passed out enough times in my life that I don’t have an exact count. A few experiences stand out. When I was 10, my family went to Disney World. At Epcot Center, we saw the movie The Making of Me, which I now know was my parents’ way of teaching my brother and sister and me about the birds and the bees.
There’s much to love about Christopher Smart’s Jubilate Agno, but its most famous section is that about his cat, Jeoffrey. Smart calls him “a mixture of gravity and waggery,” which may be the most apt description of cats ever written.
But that’s hardly all Smart has to say about Jeoffrey: Jubilate Agno’s Jeoffrey section goes on for a total of 77 lines, some quite long (e.g., “For he will not do destruction, if he is well-fed, neither will he spit without provocation.”) and each beginning with “For…” Written between 1759 and 1763 when Smart was quarantined in London’s St. Luke’s Hospital for Lunatics, Jubilate Agno—Latin for “rejoice in the lamb”—is marked by religious fervor, often-bewildering word emphasis, and frequent changes in direction. There’s a touch of madness to the overall poem, and Smart’s praise for his cat is no exception. Here are its last few lines:
The great food writer Julia Child once said British white bread tasted “like Kleenex”. Maybe that is why we load our white sliced toast with so much jam and chocolate spread and peanut butter. Wholegrain, sourdough bread is a very different beast; crunchy, crusty, chewy, with a complex taste that is rich, nutty and tangy. Quite often, I find a couple of thick slices, spread with a generous swathe of butter, a satisfying lunch.
The revival of ancient varieties of wheat is inspiring a new movement of agronomists, farmers, millers and bakers in the UK. They are coming together to develop and grow new kinds of wheat that do not need dousing with chemicals, to mill the grain in such a way as to keep taste and nutrition intact, and to bake loaves that are delicious and healthy. In the process, these artisans want to challenge the dominance of chemical agriculture and the supermarket loaf, to establish a new kind of supply chain that links our diet to nature and creates healthy communities.
What constitutes cosmic horror? The term has been in use for decades, usually to describe the work of H. P. Lovecraft and his ilk — that is, authors who explore the marrow-deep terror humanity feels in the face of the unknown. We're not talking about things that go bump in the night. We're talking about inscrutable beings with godlike proportions who straddle the universe, who wield mysterious forces that predate the Earth itself. It's not just that we're afraid of being hurt or killed, cosmic horror seems to be saying; it's that we're existentially petrified by the knowledge that human civilization is nothing but an insignificant smudge when placed against the gaping vastness of reality.
So when John Hornor Jacobs writes "We are but small vibrations on the face of the universe" in "My Heart Struck Sorrow" — the second and final novella comprising his new book, A Lush and Seething Hell — he's making it abundantly clear that cosmic horror is his literary turf.
Raya and Sarah's story is a credit to Rebele-Henry's own teen voice, mature beyond her years. The emotionally dramatic narrative, though loose and seemingly disjointed at times, rings incredibly true. It is a tale, much like the myth referenced in the title, similarly painful and beautiful.
The son of a mother who is “unambiguously white” and a father whom none has described as “anything other than black,” Williams grew up in middle-class New Jersey suburbia, where he sought to assert his black identity through hip-hop, basketball and BET. Blackness, and America’s racial binary, became “so fundamental to my self-conception that I’d never rigorously reflected on its foundations,” he writes.
But now Williams has reflected, and he finds blackness lacking. Not just blackness but whiteness, too, and any divisions and hierarchies based on race or color, those resilient constructs to which Americans attach such weight. Williams, a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine, has come to see himself as an “ex-black man,” a transformation he contemplates in a thoughtful yet frustrating memoir, “Self-Portrait in Black and White.” The precipitating force was the birth of his daughter, Marlow, who entered the world with blond hair, light skin and “a pair of inky-blue irises that I knew even then would lighten considerably but never turn brown.”
Patti Smith and Debbie Harry went to something like rock’n’roll high school together, as the Ramones might have put it. But that’s the only common denominator to be found in their two memoirs. New York in the 70s was a school of hard knocks, from which these fellow travellers emerged with honours of very different sorts.
“I never anticipated any of it,” Andrews says of her film career. “I just took the opportunities that were in front of me and waded in.”
That degree of candor — and Andrews’ refreshing unpretentiousness and gentle sense of bemusement at her life’s adventures — make “Home Work” a book that will appeal to fans of her films, as well as anyone who wants to be reassured that being a celebrity doesn’t have to involve scandal.
For me, the most significant aspect of every Oz book I ever read as a child — or later reread to my son several decades later — was never simply the stories and characters they conveyed. Rather, they resounded with visions of my mother’s childhood in San Francisco, a landscape as far away and interesting to my youthful imagination as the color-coordinated kingdoms of the Winkies, Quadlings, Gillikins, and Munchkins.
For 68 years, 365 days a year, Ms. Richards has been the gatekeeper of an industry built on easing elopement. In fact, it was her entrepreneurial ingenuity that led to the creation of the famed one-stop-shop business model, which became the standard on the Strip.
But it’s no secret that marriage rates in the United States have dwindled significantly in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, and that shifting social values coupled with the burdens of student debt have made tying the knot for millennials unfeasible or unappealing, and sometimes both.
“I don’t know what the longevity of the wedding industry is,” said Ron Decar, 61, the owner of the Viva Las Vegas wedding chapel, a three-minute walk down the boulevard. Although he was wearing his full Elvis get-up, complete with a bedazzled jumpsuit and black pompadour, his tone was gravely serious.
If Room forced home truths on us, about parenthood, responsibility and love, Akin deals with similar subject matter more subtly, but in the end just as compellingly; like Noah and Michael, the books are superficially different, but fundamentally connected. This is a quietly moving novel that shows us how little we know one another, but how little, perhaps, we need to know in order to care.
But for this Constant Reader, King displays a revitalized writing style that I have not seen — or, rather, felt — since Duma Key (the friendship between Edgar Freemantle and Jerome Wireman is beyond touching and enduring), and for that I commend him. All in all, I cannot help but agree with Luke Ellis’s mother when he asks her, “Do you think memory is a blessing or a curse?” and she replies, “Both, dear.” The memory of The Institute I will carry is little Avery Dixon perhaps channeling the final lines of Tom Robbins’s book Still Life with Woodpecker: “It’s never too late to have a happy childhood.” But I will also carry the burden, or curse, of a first impression artfully and dismayingly destroyed, of knowing the horror that such a small hinge — friendship and decency — is denied to too many children, fictional or real.
On the final page, she admits, “I still have so much more to tell but being such a private person, I might not tell everything … It’s always best to leave the audience wanting more.” Holding back is an understandable maneuver for someone who’s been stared at so much, and it’s not quite right to call Face It evasive. She always comes off as tough and matter-of-fact and New York–y, very much the voice that complained about love as a “pain in the ass” in “Heart of Glass,” or that facetiously took down some “groupie supreme” in “Rip Her to Shreds.” Knowing that there are still those who expect her to be simply “a blonde in tight pants,” she tells her life story how she wants to tell it. And when she gets tired of sharing, Harry is kind enough not to extend a middle finger.
It all began with a book review. Last year, I read an article by David Aaronovitch in The Times of London about Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind. The book concerns a resurgence of interest in psychedelic drugs, which were widely banned after Timothy Leary’s antics with LSD, starting in the late 1960s, in which he encouraged American youth to “turn on, tune in, and drop out.” In recent years, though, scientists have started to test therapeutic uses of psychedelics for an extraordinary range of ailments, including depression, addiction, and end-of-life angst.
Aaronovitch mentioned in passing that he had been intrigued enough to book a “psychedelic retreat” in the Netherlands run by the British Psychedelic Society, though, in the event, his wife put her foot down and he canceled. To try psychedelics was something I’d secretly hankered after doing ever since I was a teenager, but I was always too cautious and risk-averse. As I got older, the moment seemed to pass. Today I am a middle-aged journalist working in London, the finance editor of The Economist, a wife, mother, and, to all appearances, a person totally devoid of countercultural tendencies.
And yet… on impulse, I arranged to go. Only after I booked did I tell my husband. He was bemused, but said it was fine by him, as long as I didn’t decide while I was under the influence that I didn’t love him anymore. My eighteen-year-old son thought the whole thing was hilarious (it turns out that your mother tripping is a good way to make drugs seem less cool).
From the very beginning my daughter asserted her editorial rights over the memoir I was writing about our family. Early in our yearlong trip around the world, I told Lyra I was including a detail she disagreed with, and she replied, resolutely, “When I edit the book to cut out all the things about me you’re not allowed to write, I’ll change it.”
Allowed to write? I scoffed. That’s not how it works between writers and subjects. Like all journalists, I’d never let someone I was writing about read a piece before publication, much less weigh in on it. Not even when the subjects were grown adults. I certainly wasn’t ceding control of my book — my book! — to a 12-year-old.
But as the stories I was writing about my family got more charged and more challenging, I found myself rethinking my reflexive rejection. Twelve is a tough age for anyone, and Lyra had spent her 12th year uprooted from her comfortable life and forced to follow along on her dad’s notion of a family adventure. The book reflected that: It chronicled her annoyances and our bitter fights, not to mention her three-month guerrilla campaign against what she viewed as a repressive Dutch classroom.
On the other side of the equation, it’s all too easy to take idleness for granted. Society prepares us for years and years of being useful as it sees it, but gives us absolutely no training in, and little opportunity for, idleness. But strategic idleness is a high art and hard to pull off – not least because we are programmed to panic the moment we step out of the rat race. There is a very fine divide between idleness and boredom. In the 19th century, Arthur Schopenhauer argued that, if life were intrinsically meaningful or fulfilling, there could be no such thing as boredom. Boredom, then, is evidence of the meaninglessness of life, opening the shutters on some very uncomfortable thoughts and feelings that we normally block out with a flurry of activity or with the opposite thoughts and feelings – or indeed, any feelings at all.
Brodeur’s book about her mother’s very long con and her own miserable role in it manages to be both elegant and trashy at the same time, elevating 40-year-old gossip to an art form. To situate her on the “Mommie Dearest” scale, Brodeur combines the you’re-not-gonna-believe-this outrage of a Sean Wilsey (“Oh the Glory of It All”) with the high-test filial devotion of a Mary Karr (“The Liars’ Club.”)
On an early-evening, late-summer outing, my hiking partner and I were booking it up a steep forest path to get to a Salish Sea overlook while daylight still permitted. The descending mountain bikers we’d encountered a short while before had assured us it wasn’t far. But cycling down a path and marching up it are very different ways of considering time and distance. My friend and I agreed to allow ourselves another 20 minutes of upward hustle, until a muddle of clouds on the horizon induced a premature dusk and confounded our calculations. OK — so we’d at least get up to that bend in the trail to take a peek … and … drat! All we saw around the bend was more tree-encased trail leading uphill. We took rueful chugs from our water bottles, and headed back down.
It helped — at least a little — that I had been reading David Guterson’s latest book before going on that hike. “Turn Around Time” is a slender moss-green volume that’s been touted as a walking poem for the Pacific Northwest.
It’s as if Brown anticipated the concept of “separation-individuation,” first developed by child psychiatrist Margaret Mahler in the 1960s. Separation-individuation is the process of understanding the self as apart from the mother (or more broadly, the caregiver). At this stage of the little bunny’s development, the whole great green room, with everything in it, is the bunny’s consciousness. On the book’s final pages, with eyes now closed, the bunny-narrator’s goodnights to “noises” and “air” are the closest we get to “goodnight me.” The bunny’s consciousness expands and contracts to the senses available, until, ultimately, consciousness gives way to slumber, and the book ends.
I realize my thoughts on all this could be borne from a mushy, sleep-deprived daddy-brain, but I have also read this book after a good night’s rest, looked into Brown’s life and times, and concluded something else. This book, which is fast approaching its 75th birthday, has become the classic bedtime story not only for the insights Brown has invited us to have into the child’s experience, but also, given its deep and lasting resonance, for its insights into the caretaker, the other character in the room who is identified — in Brown’s words, as “a quiet old lady who was whispering ‘hush.’”
Children don’t buy their own books, after all. We parents, grandparents, nannies, family friends, babysitters, quiet-old-lady caregivers of every kind continue to read this book because we need to know: while we want our little bunnies to separate-individuate themselves, once they do, what becomes of us?
“We are made up of layers of time. We move chronologically — as we must, we have no choice — but our imaginative life, our emotional life, our mental life, doesn’t move in straight lines. It moves more like a boomerang,” she said. “You know, the thing keeps coming back and back. Things you were, places you were, who you were, it just returns to you.”
This idea is reflected in “Frankissstein,” not just as a project but in its structure, in the relationship between her characters. They boomerang between past and future, across fiction and history, returning and remaking gender and identity.
Yet it’s also about how we read, and why we return to stories like the one Mary Shelley published 201 years ago. “When we are reading, we return to or access emotional and imaginative states that we have known,” Winterson said. “This is very beneficial, it’s nourishing, it’s as though things are not lost to us, they can be returned.”
The equal sign is the bedrock of mathematics. It seems to make an entirely fundamental and uncontroversial statement: These things are exactly the same.
But there is a growing community of mathematicians who regard the equal sign as math’s original error. They see it as a veneer that hides important complexities in the way quantities are related — complexities that could unlock solutions to an enormous number of problems. They want to reformulate mathematics in the looser language of equivalence.
“We came up with this notion of equality,” said Jonathan Campbell of Duke University. “It should have been equivalence all along.”
Then Schine tapped into an endearing and slyly philosophical story that crosses the high spirit of Jane Austen with William Safire’s long-running New York Times’ “On Language” column.”
The result is “The Grammarians,” an intelligent escapist read for contentious times when the way we use words can reveal so much about our identity, our education, our worldview.
John Humphrys is the first to admit he doesn’t deal well with authority. He inherited it from his father, who refused to use the service entrance at the grand houses where he worked as a French polisher and, as a child, once watched his aunt get a humiliating dressing-down from the vicar for missing church. Humphrys had his own brush with condescending authority figures when he was in hospital with a cyst on his spine at 13, and an “arrogant posh bastard consultant” told his retinue of trainees it was because he didn’t wash regularly. “I don’t like being defined or told what to do, whoever is in charge,” he notes, a stance that has proved useful for grilling politicians (he has interviewed eight prime ministers), though it has also landed him in hot water.
His memoir mixes engaging snapshots of his early career and analysis of the evolution of broadcasting with diatribes and petty score-settling. The early chapters tell of his passage from teen lackey on the Penarth Times in Wales, where his main task was standing outside the local church taking the names of those attending weddings and funerals, to being the first journalist on the scene at the Aberfan disaster, near Merthyr Tydfil, in which 116 children and 28 adults died after a colliery tip collapsed. Later he became a BBC foreign correspondent, reporting on the 1971 war in Pakistan, the military coup in Chile in 1973, and the Rhodesian bush war, which culminated in the election of Robert Mugabe in 1980 and where, for his own safety, Humphrys was encouraged to buy a submachine gun and put it on expenses.
i let summer take over the house
for however long it needs
and what is it
about the clawed opening of dawn
that makes me want to call it that
The curator, especially the curator of contemporary art, is a young figure in art history; we critics have thousands of years on them. Aristocrats, physicians, and clergymen proudly oversaw the connoisseurship and display of their own Wunderkammern in the early modern period, while at the Louvre, the first of the national museums established in the late eighteenth century, the décorateurs who hung paintings and installed sculptures were artists themselves. Audiences discovered new painting and sculpture at artist-juried exhibitions such as the Salon in Paris, and later at commercial art galleries; braver souls might first see the modernist avant-gardes in exhibitions artists organized on their own.
Only in the middle of the twentieth century did the curated exhibition take over from the salon, the dealership, and the independent show as the principal launch pad of contemporary art. In fits and starts, the professional curator arrogated responsibilities once held by the artist, the collector, the historian, or indeed the critic, becoming the figure who assigned meaning and importance to new art: someone the art historian Bruce Altshuler has called “the curator as creator.” Soon after, the curator stepped beyond the single museum or institution to become a roving organizer and analyst of contemporary art.
Yet no one could read Mizumura for long without realizing that her lament over her “unhappy” fate as a Japanese writer is at most half-serious. She may feel indignant on behalf of the Japanese language—and other national languages that she fears are being eclipsed by English—but she was never tempted to become a writer in English herself. On the contrary: in her polemical nonfiction work The Fall of Language in the Age of English, a best seller in Japan when it appeared in 2008, she writes that even though she lived in the US for twenty years, “I never felt comfortable with either American life or the English language.” Studying French, she says, was a way of parrying the English that surrounded her. She remained “the prisoner of an intense longing for home,” and that home always remained Japan: she was an exile, not an immigrant.
This experience lies at the center of the myth that Mizumura, like many writers, has constructed about her life and calling. As she says, “The kind of life I lived so affects everything about me that I can scarcely write a word without addressing it.” Indeed, A True Novel, a work of fiction that appeared in Japan in 2002 and in English translation in 2013, opens with an ostensibly autobiographical section in which we meet Minae, a Japanese teenager living unhappily on Long Island: “How could anyone allow himself to leave Japan, with all the neon delights of the Ginza and the fastest train in the world—a country in every way as good as America?” she wonders.
I had a fear when I started out that people would know I was Stephen King’s son, so I put on a mask and pretended I was someone else. But the stories always told the truth, the true truth. I think good stories always do. The stories I’ve written are all the inevitable product of their creative DNA: Bradbury and Block, Savini and Spielberg, Romero and Fango, Stan Lee and C.S. Lewis, and most of all, Tabitha and Stephen King.
The unhappy creator finds himself in the shadow of other, bigger artists and resents it. But if you’re lucky—and as I’ve already said, I’ve had more than my fair share of luck, and please God, let it hold—those other, bigger artists cast a light for you to find your way.
I should warn you, drinking too much tea can make you high and reckless.
I have seen chefs bouncing off the walls of my tasting rooms. Really. They get so revved up on the caffeine and the rush of new experiences that they’re unable to sit down. Uncaged from their chairs, they roam around the room, touching the hand-made cups, sniffing the tins of tea, looking in drawers.
It all starts demurely enough, with the sipping of tiny tasting-cups of tea no bigger than the circle made by your thumb and first finger. They might not always be expecting much, and they often play hard to impress. I manipulate my gaiwan—a traditional Chinese tea set. The pot is really a small cup with a lid. There is no spout, so all the aromas are kept within. To pour, you tilt the lid at a slight angle, just enough for the tea to flow, but keeping the leaves inside. It takes practice to use a gaiwan and not burn your fingers, but the skill allows you to manipulate a high leaf-to-water-ratio infusion quickly and precisely. I handle my pots the way chefs might show off their knife skills if I were in their kitchens.
Ask astronauts what spacewalking around the International Space Station is like, and they get a dreamy look on their faces almost instantly. They might say something about how the view “just takes your breath away.” Or that the experience “is what it truly feels like to be on top of the world.” That “nothing compares to being alone in the universe, to that moment of opening the hatch and pulling yourself outside into the universe.”
But without the surreal view of Earth, spacewalking isn’t much more than hours of maintenance work in a sweaty spacesuit. Follow the script laid out in the training back home. Listen to detailed instructions from mission control, carry out the task without screwing up, repeat. After a while, the magical becomes the mundane.
I arrived in New York in 2013 and moved into a rent-stabilized apartment on a prime stretch of Bank Street in the West Village. My circumstances suggested time travel: the cracking plaster on my living room walls and my monthly rent had barely been altered since the early Eighties. From my rear window, I gazed at the privacy-glass panes enclosing the four-story townhouse next door, formerly owned by A-Rod. I dropped downstairs to Little Marc Jacobs—the brand’s now-closed children’s clothing outpost, then in my building’s ground-floor—to pick up babysitting jobs with the store’s customers, later finding myself in the living rooms of their nearby townhouses, worth millions.
The apartment was never mine; my aunt’s friend had lived there for decades and wanted someone to watch over her place while she cared for her elderly parents in another state. Our landlord took a hands-off view of the arrangement, and, without qualms, I seized the nepotistic advantage that has for decades granted a shrinking and somewhat arbitrary class of New Yorkers access to affordable housing from bygone eras, even as the rest of the Village became increasingly expensive.
Of course we’ve heard this before. “We cannot say any longer that we are handicapped by lack of space or equipment or technology,” one of the museum’s chief curators told The New York Times on the occasion of the Modern’s 1980s supersizing. “We have enough exhibit space, storage space and study space so that our primary problem now is love, talent, energy and passion.”
Actually, the problem back then turned out to be that Pelli’s expansion transformed the Modern into what looked like a suburban shopping mall. It didn’t solve the problems of space, modernism or love. And neither did the expansion that replaced it.
I suspect droves of visitors to the new Modern will still try to make a beeline for “The Starry Night.” They’ll want to know where the museum starts. Sociologists and executives at Trader Joe’s will tell you that consumers don’t actually like having too many choices. The new layout will require lots of signs, staff in the halls to direct people, apps and maps. We’ll see if visitors find it liberating or confusing.
Mr. Wiener takes his duties seriously. Like the rest of the judges, he lives, breathes and believes in pizza. He was among his people: pizza people, who can toss dough acrobatically, drop technical terms like cornicione — it’s the edge of the crust — and wear shoes printed with pepperonis.
They also wear pizza-spangled socks, neon-colored pizza-covered pants, and sew-on patches of melting slices with a dagger through the middle, and all manner of tattoos: chubby-cheeked pizza-makers tossing dough, psychedelic slices, and at least one heart ribboned with the slogan “pizza for life.”
An adolescent named Adam Gordon is the protagonist of Ben Lerner’s new novel, The Topeka School. He shares this name with the narrator of Leaving the Atocha Station, Lerner’s debut novel from 2011. Leaving the Atocha Station was about the quarter-life crisis of a talented misanthrope; 10:04 (2014), Lerner’s second novel, was a negotiation with the success that Adam Gordon of Leaving the Atocha Station both desired and reviled. In 10:04, Lerner’s narrator, also named Ben, frets over how to act meaningfully in a world that often feels meaningless. Though we are more interconnected than ever, this phenomenon is most akin to the sensation of spiraling on a mass scale; daily life requires reckoning with being an actor in the thrall of forces far more powerful than any individual.
How We Fight for Our Lives is at once explicitly raunchy, mean, nuanced, loving and melancholy. It's sometimes hard to read and harder to put down. Jones' memoir effectively deep-sixes any illusions I had that it must've been a little easier in recent decades to come of age as a queer black boy in Texas. Granted, Jones' public high school is open-minded enough to host a touring production of The Laramie Project, the play about the hate-crime murder of Matthew Shepard; but what Jones takes away from that performance is that he'd better closet himself even more securely at school. Jones recalls his younger self realizing that, "Being a black gay boy is a death wish. And one day, if you're lucky, your life and death will become some artist's new 'project.'"
“Everyone needs chicken sentries,” Boynton explained when I arrived at her studio, a red barn that sits behind a centuries-old farmhouse in western Connecticut’s Berkshires. With her publishing royalties, she has outfitted her real farm with the storybook trappings of her fictional ones. The barn’s two-and-a-half-story interior looks less like Boynton’s studio than Boynton’s Country Store. On display are books, cardboard stand-ups, records, hundreds of critter-emblazoned greeting cards, and stuffed animals (an enormous, fuzzy pig fills a rustic dining chair).
Noise is never just about sound; it is inseparable from issues of power and powerlessness. It is a violation we can’t control and to which, because of our anatomy, we cannot close ourselves off. “We have all thought of killing our neighbors at some point,” a soft-spoken scientist researching noise abatement told me.
As environmental hazards go, noise gets low billing. There is no Michael Pollan of sound; limiting your noise intake has none of the cachet of going paleo or doing a cleanse. When The New Yorker recently proposed noise pollution as the next public-health crisis, the internet scoffed. “Pollution pollution is the next big (and current) public health crisis,” chided one commenter. Noise is treated less as a health risk than an aesthetic nuisance—a cause for people who, in between rounds of golf and art openings, fuss over the leaf blowers outside their vacation homes. Complaining about noise elicits eye rolls. Nothing will get you labeled a crank faster.
What if they make a mistake and bury me when I’m just in a coma?
Okay, so to be clear, you don’t want to be buried alive, is that correct? Got it.
Lucky for you, you don’t live in Ye Olden Times! During Ye Olden Times (before the 20th century), doctors had a less-than-flawless track record when it came to declaring people dead. The tests they used to determine if someone was honest-to-God-really-dead were not just low-tech, they were horrifying.
If Tomorrowland really wants to make anyone optimistic about the future, it would figure out a way to make greywater reclamation as fun as rocketships. It would be covering the the Space Mountain queue in solar panels, or showing off carbon-fixing kelp forests in the Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage. What about getting Disney park visitors as excited for high-speed rail as we all were for Asimo in the year 2000?
Obviously, Disney has no incentive to do this; it’s more lucrative to let people relive the cantina scene from Star Wars than do anything difficult. It seems impossible to meld anticonsumerist sentiments with corporate sponsorship, but Disney’s done it before. At Disney World, Animal Kingdom is an entire park themed on conservation... with heavy sponsorship from McDonald’s. Every ride emphasizes our obligation to the planet, and to the McFlurry.
I like to imagine that the creator of Eggs à la Benedict was a woman, at a time when Delmonico’s was the first place to let them dine by themselves. (It was a women’s press club that had their first ladies’ supper there, another point in Mrs. Le Grand Benedict’s favor.) Plus, maybe she knew old Horace Vachell, as they were both writers. Maybe she knew Cornelia Bedford. Either way, she was definitely bold enough to ask for exactly what she wanted for brunch.
It was in Calcutta, 40 years ago, a steaming hot Friday monsoon morning, and I had come down from my newspaper’s office in Delhi to write about the industrial tea trade. I was at the headquarters of Macneill and Magor, a tea giant of the time, whose red brick godowns lined the banks of the Hooghly River. I had a breakfast-time appointment with the company spokesman, a genial Anglo-Indian named Pearson Surita, a man possessed of an accent so plummy that on the side he did cricket commentaries for All-India Radio.
The elevator creaked us up to the penthouse, with its fine view of the Maidan. Pearson sat me down by his desk, then promptly called the bearer and demanded two pink gins. But it wasn’t even 8 o’clock, I protested. “Don’t worry, old boy,” Pearson replied. “It’s Poets Day.” Puzzled, I sipped timidly at my gin while Pearson threw his down in one gulp, then called the departing bearer. Another two, he demanded. I yowled still more forcefully. It was early morning. Pink gin? “Don’t be silly,” he repeated. “It’s Poets Day.”
Ahern’s insights are a gift to readers as she outlines the steps that brought her closer to things that matter: writing, creativity, time with family and community, the cultivation of gratitude and spirituality — as well as all the ways these things are bound up in and amplified by great food. One of the big messages of the book is about the treasure of balance itself. Gradually, she comes to a richer sense of where and how life is best lived. In this way, she offers up the wisdom of contentment; the joy of embracing what is enough.
Edna O’Brien, the Irish writer of novels and short stories, doesn’t type. She wrote her new novel, “Girl,” which is about a Nigerian teen-ager, on loose sheets of paper, in a corner of her living room, in London, amid orchids, embroidered cushions, and a framed quote from Yeats’s “The Celtic Twilight.” Every Monday for three years, a typist who has worked with O’Brien for decades came to the house, and O’Brien dictated new pages. O’Brien, who is eighty-eight, recently told me that she may yet write “some little poem, or fragments,” but almost certainly couldn’t manage another novel. She added, “The time is getting shorter. Some melancholy—not to say fearful—thoughts crop up in my head. I saw a program last night about people in a care home, and, along with pity, I felt terrible apprehension: This is how it ends, this is how it ends.”
I glanced down at my left thumb, still resting on the Tab key. What have I done? Had my computer become my co-writer? That’s one small step forward for artificial intelligence, but was it also one step backward for my own?
The skin prickled on the back of my neck, an involuntary reaction to what roboticists call the “uncanny valley”—the space between flesh and blood and a too-human machine.
For several days, I had been trying to ignore the suggestions made by Smart Compose, a feature that Google introduced, in May, 2018, to the one and a half billion people who use Gmail—roughly a fifth of the human population. Smart Compose suggests endings to your sentences as you type them. Based on the words you’ve written, and on the words that millions of Gmail users followed those words with, “predictive text” guesses where your thoughts are likely to go and, to save you time, wraps up the sentence for you, appending the A.I.’s suggestion, in gray letters, to the words you’ve just produced. Hit Tab, and you’ve saved yourself as many as twenty keystrokes—and, in my case, composed a sentence with an A.I. for the first time.
And then, if you are destined to become someone who belongs to language, who lives in language, whether as a writer, an editor, a reader, or just a thoughtful speaker, something happens one day that puts you in a state of marvel. I remember that moment for me clearly. I was in grade one, attending an American school in San José, Costa Rica. The teacher had written a sentence on the board, one that included the word in and the word to. They were side by side, those two words. The teacher stepped up to them, and with her piece of chalk, she drew a curved line under the space between them, signifying that the two words could be joined. She erased the two words and did just that, joined them. She wrote the new word: into. I don’t know how the other students in the class reacted that day, but that indication that language was plastic, elastic, malleable, adaptable, blew my mind. That first feeling of surprise and marvel at language is still with me. Did I know then that I was going to be a writer? Of course not. I was six years old. I was going to be an astronaut. But I was going to be an astronaut who was into language.
No drink conjures a blue ocean, hot sand, and swaying palm trees more vividly than the pina colada. There are no pithy Hemingway or Mencken bromides about the consummate blend of pineapple, coconut, and white rum, but Beyoncé has sung about “pina colada-in’.” There’s also that song, which manages to sound how it feels to drink one — if admittedly more curbside Middle America than beachside Caribbean. The pina colada is often considered a tiki classic, even being hailed by some as “the most beloved cocktail to emerge from the tiki era.”
But the pina colada is not a tiki drink. It did not originate in the fevered island fantasia of an erstwhile Texan or through the relentless cocktail experimentation of a savvy bar mogul. It was definitively born, even in its most fantastic creation myth — which involves the folk hero pirate Roberto Cofresí in the early 1800s — in Puerto Rico. And though there multiple competing claims to its origin, the most generally accepted one for the drink as we know it is the Beachcomber Bar at the Caribe Hilton in San Juan, where it was created by Ramón “Monchito” Marrero Pérez in 1954, using local Don Q rum and Coco Lopez canned cream of coconut. It is distinctly a tropical drink.
The one time I had an opportunity to meet Martin Amis, I ended up taking heroin instead. I’m not especially proud of this fact, it was a kind of accident, but also perhaps a lucky swerve from the more difficult experience of having to have dinner with Mr Amis himself. It was the very late 90s and I was teaching undergraduate courses in Creative Writing and Literature at the University of East Anglia. The university was, and still is, famous for having nurtured the talents of a generation of British writers – think Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro – and the department regularly hosted dinners for the writers who came down from London to give talks and public lectures.
I was working, largely, in a world of men, most of whom were privileged white men. Although there were some female academics in the department, the main tutors in the writing department at that time were men, the writers who came to speak were mostly male, and the grand fromage of the whole department had developed something of a bad reputation with the ladies. It was the poisoned duckpond of the late 20th century. And yet, it was the water in which I was swimming, and it’s hard to atomize the water while you’re trying to stay afloat. To an extent, this is an attempt to explain how I survived as a queer woman trying to make good on the freedoms, however limited, that the women who had gone before me had won.
“How could you publish this novel?” That’s what I heard after I chose to write about a girl falsely accusing a man of sexual assault during the #MeToo era. When The Liar was first published in Israel, a male journalist told me I should have delayed the publication. “You are hurting the struggle,” he said. It’s always nice to have a man telling me what a woman should or shouldn’t write about. But in the following weeks, I wondered: Am I a bad feminist?
“The Topeka School,” is an extraordinarily brilliant novel that’s also accessible to anyone yearning for illumination in our disputatious era. If you’ve been nervously hopping along the shore of Lerner’s work, now’s the time to dive in. As in his previous novels, this story is semi-autobiographical and the structure is complex, but “The Topeka School” is no Escher sketch of literary theory. Its complexity is beautifully subsumed in a compelling plot about two psychotherapists and their son. As Lerner revolves through these wholly realized characters, we come to know exactly who they are. And as we turn these pages with growing excitement, we know exactly where we are: here, in the middle of a rage-filled country tearing itself apart.
The form speaks eloquently. Indeed, the great pleasure of reading “Celestial Bodies” is witnessing a novel argue, through the achieved perfection of its form, for a kind of inquiry that only the novel can really conduct. The ability to move freely through time, the privileged access to the wounded privacies of many characters, the striking diversity of human beings across a relatively narrow canvas, the shock waves as one generation heaves, like tectonic plates, against another, the secrets and lapses and repressions, at once intimate and historical, the power, indeed, of an investigation that is always political and always intimate—here is the novel being supremely itself, proving itself up to the job by changing not its terms of employment but the shape of the task.
On the last bus from Dublin to Limerick
Raindrops pelted the landscape
And held little photos
Seamus Heaney was real. Were he a fictional character, however, we likely would call him unrealistic, his life story and his career too good to be true. Like Robert Frost and W. H. Auden, but perhaps with fewer missteps and regrets, Heaney became the sort of modern poet whose best-known phrases circulate without attribution. At least four books are called, after Heaney’s “Song,” “The Music of What Happens”; Joe Biden and Bill Clinton have repeatedly quoted Heaney’s optimistic lines about peace in Northern Ireland, where “hope and history rhyme.” When casual readers of poetry think about Heaney, his Irishness, his charisma, his connection to thousands of years of poetic tradition (as shown by his translation of “Beowulf”), and his irenic political attitudes first come to mind.
But Heaney was also a poet of private life, and the happiest such poet among the accomplished writers of his generation. A new book, “100 Poems”—a short, career-spanning selection—completes a project that Heaney began during his lifetime. Compiled by Heaney’s “immediate family,” with a preface by his daughter Catherine, it highlights his work as a poet of friendship and family, of careful and long-felt affiliation, not only to land and language but to the people who stayed with him throughout the decades. Some of the poems are what classical musicians call warhorses, work many readers will know; others—especially the late work, and the work on domestic themes—surface parts of his talent that Americans, in particular, may not have yet seen.
The lights are dim, set to eternal dusk. You enter and blink. If there are booths, they should be plush: Naugahyde or brocade limned in gold. Napkins are linen, tables likely cloaked. Maybe a Persian rug lies underfoot. Taxidermied animal heads peer from the walls. From your seat, you might see a living white-tailed deer out the window; like you, it is ready to feed.
But eating is only half your purpose here, for this is a Wisconsin supper club, a distinctly American subgenre of restaurant that for nearly a century has largely and triumphantly ignored the passing of time. The owner greets you at the door and shows you to the knotty pine bar — no rush to get to the dining room — where there might be a cracker table waiting, with cheese spreads to sample, and a relish tray of cold crinkle-cut carrots and sweet-and-sour pickles. The bartender makes you a drink, muddled by hand. It’ll be a brandy old-fashioned, if you’re doing this right, a cocktail that bears only the faintest resemblance to the whiskey version found elsewhere in the land; the German immigrants who settled the state preferred their alcohol on the sweet side, and, according to Holly L. De Ruyter, the director of the 2015 documentary “Old Fashioned: The Story of the Wisconsin Supper Club,” the drink was refined during Prohibition, when people had to use fruit and sugar to mask the taste of rotgut liquor.
Despite its on-the-nose title, “Frankissstein” (which was longlisted for this year’s Booker Prize) is far, far more than a reimagining of Mary Shelley’s 19th-century monsterpiece. It’s a novel fizzing with ideas, one that toys with timelines and intertextuality. It veers from the Gothic to the satirical and seamlessly interweaves social commentary on everything from gender to the cultural hegemony to our obsessions with social media and future tech. The Frankensteinian notion of creating a sentient being has obvious parallels with artificial intelligence, and that’s what Jeanette Winterson has in her sights.
A novel about a Soviet military factory whose workers must eventually adjust to a post-Soviet way of life does not sound like a thrilling read. Yet there’s a very good reason why Ksenia Buksha’s The Freedom Factory (Zavod “Svoboda”) won Russia’s National Bestseller Prize in 2014 (Buksha is only the second of three women to do so since the prize’s founding in 2001) and was also a finalist for the Big Book Award. In the author’s hands, this unpromising raw material is skillfully transformed into a genuinely and unexpectedly compelling narrative. The Freedom Factory belongs to the faction genre, a combination of fact and fiction: the material comes from interviews of workers in a real-life factory built during Soviet times in what used to be Leningrad and is now St. Petersburg. The workers’ lives are intertwined with that of the factory itself, as it and they move from the Soviet era to the heady chaos of the 1990s, and then to the more stable yet more circumscribed 2000s.
The stories all come together in the end — a swirl of blood and heartbreak, fentanyl and magic. But in the middle of it all stands Galaxy Stern, the girl who sees ghosts. And for all the good work that Bardugo does in crafting a believable alternate world where Yale's secret societies work powerful magic to alter the course of fortunes and history, it is Alex that makes Ninth House so readable. She is as disbelieving as any of us, as innocent, as skeptical, as furious. She is equal parts hard and soft, vulnerable and powerful. She may see ghosts, but she doesn't understand magic — real, nasty, visceral magic. And in Ninth House, Bardugo gives us the chance to see it all — the real and the imagined versions of Yale, the rich, the powerful, those they prey on — through Alex Stern's eyes.
Just another girl who doesn't think she belongs.
What would you do to save the world? Not the strapline for a Netflix series, but rather the question that sits behind Jonathan Safran Foer’s second work of nonfiction, We Are the Weather. The answer to the question appears to be “not very much”, given that despite the looming threat of global heating, despite the fact the next generation (and those that follow) will live more precarious lives, with food, water and clean air in ever-shorter supply, despite the fact that the future of our planet appears to be one of flooded cities, scorched forests and sulphurous skies, we continue to behave as if the climate crisis is someone else’s problem. In 2018, despite knowing more about climate change than we have ever known, we produced more greenhouse gases than we have ever produced, at three times the rate of global population growth.
Peattie’s book is the portrait of an elusive, paradoxical man, a poet who thought that words were as expendable as breath, a narcissist who disliked himself and a celebrity who laughed at his own publicity.
remember what the blacksmith
knows – dim light is best
at the furnace, to see the colours
go from red to orange
Our local bookstore went out of business a few years after it opened, and I’ll never forget the confusion and hurt I felt when I saw the darkened windows for the first time. It was my first experience of losing something that seemed so obviously good.
And so when I found myself in a position, many years later, to open a bookstore in my adopted hometown of Plainville, Massachusetts, I was eager to make it happen. It felt like a way of righting the wrong that I experienced as a kid, while at the same time fighting back against the creeping suffocation of a world that was changing a little too quickly. But long before we opened our doors, we needed to actually build the doors. And the walls, and the floors, and everything else that went into the construction of what we would come to call An Unlikely Story.
Foot rails in bars are noticeable mostly when they’re absent. You belly up to a bar, start pawing one foot in the air like a dog begging for a treat and find no firm platform upon which to land. You wonder: What kind of place is this?
Well, I hope you all enjoyed your Fall! If you blinked, you might have missed it. Yes, folks, the Hallmark Channel is primed and ready, the shelves at Michael's are fully stocked, and even in the publishing industry, the halls are decked for Christmas!
Okay. I know, I know. Before you roll your eyes so far back they fall out of your head, bear with me. We all understand that there is a limited release window for holiday-themed titles, and October is just the first wave of those. This way, book lovers have plenty of time to pick out the perfect stocking stuffer (or 12). And I am here to tell you right now that Ashley Elston's 10 Blind Dates should absolutely be on that gift list. In fact, buy an extra copy for yourself and read it as soon as comfortably possible. It is POSITIVELY DELIGHTFUL — all caps — from beginning to end.
The vibrancy of Litt’s narrative voice – at times heartbreakingly plaintive, but also clever, funny and suffused with tenderness – carries the persistence of hope in circumstances of deep despair. This is a very beautiful book, and deserves to be widely read.
Writers are sometimes described as being so good that one would gladly read their shopping list. Livia Franchini is kind enough to provide the list.
So Real It Hurts is anything but a cosy bedside read. It won’t make you sleep easy. But that’s the point. In self-lacerating spasms of undiluted fury, Lunch peels back her skin to reveal a grinning skull.
In Metcalf’s analysis, Canadian critics in the second half of the twentieth century (and the first part of the twenty-first) were seduced by misplaced concern for political, social, and moral issues into treating fiction primarily as a vehicle for ideas rather than promoting prose that is “alive.” To counter this perceived heterodoxy, he offers a 442-page “Century List” consisting of the fifty short story writers Metcalf declares to be the best Canada has produced since 1900. (Actually, none of the stories were written earlier than 1950, and many of them were written after 2000—a span of time that just happens to coincide with his own career.) It is an exercise, he notes in the list’s introduction, that he hopes will be a “starting point for a literary discussion which has not yet taken place but that is essential for our literary sanity.”
But, by treating the short story as a purely aesthetic object, Metcalf severs the beauty of prose from the profundity of what it communicates. This not only hampers his appreciation of writers who can’t pretend beauty is apolitical but ignores what makes the writers he does champion worthy of praise. In many cases, it is even at odds with his own practice as a critic. As the culmination of Metcalf’s tastemaking, The Canadian Short Story reveals the risks of insisting on the supremacy of one’s palate: it leads to a cramped vision of literature, one that cannot provide a full account of its pleasures.
Like elevators, page turners are only remarkable when things go awry. And go awry they do. Pianist Charles Owen recalled a 1998 recital in Scotland. The page turner, “a little old lady,” had forgotten her reading glasses. She exhorted Owen to “do a very big nod” to signal the turn backwards for the repeat of the exposition. When the time came, Owen nodded vigorously and, seemingly involuntarily, she shouted “BACK!” The second time around, on reaching the beginning of the development section, she cried “ON!” with undimmed vehemence. At another concert Owen’s page turner kept leaning on the piano’s fallboard—the lid that goes over the keys—so emphatically that it ran the risk of crushing his fingers. Owen had to hold it up with one hand and play with the other. “You know,” he said during the intermission, “I’m really in the mood to turn my own pages for the rest of the night.”
A memorable page turner is rarely a good thing. “I never wanted to do it,” said a musician friend of mine. As an usher at London’s Wigmore Hall he saw his colleague, a fellow music student at the time, “berated onstage” by a very famous accompanist after messing up the first page turn. The pianist started the work again from the top. “If it was me,” he added, “I would’ve walked off and told him to go fuck himself, and taken the sacking that would’ve followed.”
Philip Pullman's The Secret Commonwealth is a big novel full of big ideas, big characters and big sorrows. It is a tale of spies and philosophies and wit, of factions vying for control of the truth — or the public's opinion of the truth. It's an adventure, global in scope and epic in shape, but it's also a story about being unsettled in one's life, about living with consequences, of what happens to us when we are estranged from ourselves. I was fascinated, occasionally contemptuous as the story had me siding with one character over another, and always curious to know more about the world and what would happen and always in awe of Pullman. This book feels like a response to the darkness in our time as Lord of the Rings feels like a response to the darkness in J. R. R. Tolkien's.
in the years after you left
the world remains the same
only planet earth becomes elusive
Perhaps A Series of Unfortunate Events is so special simply because Handler saw children as people. He only wrote a children’s book after his publisher, passing on his first novel, The Basic Eight, told him to. Thinking all children’s books were “crap”, he set out to write something he would want to read. He took his readers seriously. Where Harry Potter was aggressively simplistic, Handler used devices such as alliteration and repetition to the point of absurdity, while referencing everything from Shakespeare to Melville. Books are an essential part of the plot: our heroes love reading and use literary references as code, whereas “wicked people never have time for reading. It’s one of the reasons for their wickedness”.
Petry bristled against the limelight immediately upon finding success and sought to safeguard her privacy her entire life. This “rage of privacy,” as her daughter, Elisabeth Petry, puts it in her memoir, At Home Inside: A Daughter’s Tribute to Ann Petry, determined many of her life choices and had a direct impact on what now remains of her archive. And as scholar Farah Griffin puts it, Petry “so feared the possibility of exposure that she destroyed much of her own writing, including letters and journals.”
Leaving New York in 1947 to seek a more quiet life for her writing, Petry and her husband, George, moved back to her native town, Old Saybrook in Connecticut, and throughout her career she deflected all inquiries into her life or into her as a person back toward her oeuvre. Publicity campaigns, she wrote in one of her surviving journals from 1992, made her “feel as though I were a helpless creature impaled on a dissecting table—for public viewing.”
My favorite used bookstores don’t pad their shelves with outdated computer manuals collected from garage sale free bins. Each one offers a considered selection of literature that has outlived passing trends. They’re also a good place to start when I get anxiety over the impossibility of making a dent in the world’s literary offerings. Many secondhand-seekers lean on Thoreau’s advice to “read the best books first, or you may not have a chance to read them at all.” A used book’s very endurance is a reassuring vote of confidence that’s harder to find in a new bookstore, where untested titles offer little to go on besides literary world hype and a polished publisher’s blurb.
No figure in classical music is more iconic than the conductor, or more misunderstood. The authoritarian figure on the podium, waving his arms and demanding that everyone follow him, is the embodiment of the worst sides of patriarchal classical tradition. Yet the conductor also is the ultimate communicator, the person charged with bringing the best out of a hundred musicians to create compelling music. No job in music is harder to quantify, and no job is, when it’s done well, more important.
So here’s a brief look at the function of the conductor.
I had the idea to write a book of literary selfies almost by chance. I was leafing through a book on Frida Kahlo (who isn’t my favourite artist, but I admire her courage, and how her numerous self-portraits form a sort of painful autobiography). I came across the painting Tree of Hope. It is a dual self-portrait: a Frida lying on her side, draped in a sheet, on a wide gurney, and a Frida sitting up very straight on a seat against the gurney, facing the viewer, and wearing a gorgeous red dress.
I was stunned: this dual portrait echoed precisely a situation I had experienced myself. It was so similar that I immediately imagined the picture I would paint if I could. But I am no artist. And so it was a matter of painting in words an image that existed only in my imagination: two Sylvies, one lying on a radiotherapy bed and the other sitting on the edge of the bed, wearing a very beautiful dress.
“Make It Scream, Make It Burn,” a new collection of essays by Leslie Jamison, meets many of the prerequisites conjured by the phrase “collection of essays by Leslie Jamison.” It explores notions of witness, storytelling, and authenticity; of art and morality; and of pain—others’ and one’s own. Stylistically, the book is almost frustratingly eloquent. Jamison, who has also authored an addiction memoir, “The Recovering,” can pin an idea with the speed and fluidity of a pro athlete. (A stepmother becomes “a token mascot of the dark maternal.”) She thinks ethically but feels aesthetically. Her writing, although lyrical, proceeds with a precise, searching sobriety—each sentence a controlled swoon.
We are told that novels are meant to teach us something. It’s as if the objective goals in life can be projected outward in the imagination, and novels are there to help us discern our trajectory through this projection. Each character’s choice marks the carving of a particular path, by which we might judge our own. There are some out there (Malcolm Cowley, among others) who believe that even an author’s choice to use a “hard” word as opposed to an “easy” word is an inherently moral decision — one that, we can assume — impacts the reader’s engagement with the text on moral terms (whatever those might be). It is tired news now to note that even when novels are not explicitly instructional, they can still be read as guides, with subtle ethical or behavioral insinuations. One can walk away from Madame Bovary — a novel in which moral and aesthetic tropes are continuously undermined — still having “learned” something: do not — you impressionable fool! — be brainwashed by popular, romantic novels, lest you run the risk of becoming the vulnerable, reckless, impulsive, naïve eponymous Emma.
But then there are those authors for whom even the most faintly moral suggestions are so foreign that they are simply out of the realm of possibility. These novels often have a certain coolness, a swiftness, or, alternatively, they charge forth with a certain brashness, a revelry, a laissez-faire. These are the words one might use to describe Fleur Jaeggy, in the first instance, and Thomas Bernhard in the second. How do we examine the work by these authors, whose parabolic qualities so thrillingly elude us?
This latest book presents a curiosity cabinet of topics: Jamison travels the world with a whale nicknamed “52 Blue,” takes a fraught trip to Sri Lanka, visits the Museum of Broken Relationships in Croatia and writes frankly about pregnancy after anorexia. It also includes criticism, such as a review of a major exhibition of Civil War photography and an essay on James Agee. (The collection’s lack of a consistent theme may stem from the fact that it’s largely composed of previously published magazine pieces.) These pieces have only the barest of connective tissues: Jamison wrestling with herself to find common ground with other humans or, as she puts it, “writing about lives or beliefs that others might have scoffed at.”
It begins simply. “Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun. Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-two million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.”
Astonishingly, it is 40 years since Douglas Adams published The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. We’ve since replaced digital watches with smartphones and virtual assistants, and we rarely describe them as “neat”. Yet the themes of the book have hardly dated. As ecosystems are destroyed to make way for roads, artificial intelligence (AI) threatens to get seriously unruly and the Universe continually reveals it’s a lot more complicated than we thought, Adams’s creation and its deadpan surreality never seem to fade.
The best conspiracy theories make sense of what has always seemed senseless. They let you believe you are finally connecting the dots, finding the missing pieces, experiencing the world as it really is. The most powerful theories—the mind blowers—name something you’ve always known, even if you hadn’t known it consciously, or did not believe it could be named. There is no invention, just discovery. The best explain why you feel like you’re being watched, have lived all this before, knew what would happen before the film even started. That’s the case with what’s become my favorite conspiracy theory: the notion, argued by futurists and tech visionaries, that we live not in the real world but in a simulation, an intricately detailed game cooked up by a demigod, hacker, or AI mastermind, which, if true, explains the uncanny sense that this is not my real life, that these are not my real memories. Or, as my friend Mark, standing on Oak Street Beach at 2 A.M. with Chicago aglow behind us, said, “None of this shit’s real, man. We’re all just figments in a crazy dream.”
This idea that this is not the real world is way older than Pink Floyd (“We’re just two lost souls / swimming in a fish bowl”) and way older than the defining movie, The Matrix. You hear it in the Hasidic wisdom of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool”: “No doubt the world is an entirely imaginary world, but it is only once removed from the true world.” You hear it in the writing of the nineteenth-century naturalist Philip Henry Gosse, whose book Omphalos argued that the fossils that proved the world is older than the six thousand years of Genesis had been put in the ground by God to test man’s faith. You hear it in the Buddhist folk tales, most famously the “butterfly dream” of Zhuangzi, in which the author is uncertain if he is a man who dreamed he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming that he’s a man. It’s the uncanniness you experience not when you are drunk and not when are you are high, but when you are drunk and high, the insight you stumble across the way you stumble across certain bars only when it’s very late and you are very lost and absolutely need them to exist. It’s not that the stimulant creates the dream, but that it opens your eyes to the big truth you’ve been trained not to see.
Yet dutifully record them I will, in order to maintain employment — and because I recognize that there are many, many cooks who don’t share my sloth, who are perfectly willing to take a paring knife to whole artichokes, even though there are innumerable less-onerous vegetables that deserve to be eaten, or crank out fresh fettuccine, which unless you have serious pasta-making chops is never nearly as good as boiled De Cecco. I, too, aspired to such grandeur until recently, when, for reasons of emotional maturity and poor time-management skills, I reexamined my personal culinary dogmas and decided that I will never again, of my own accord, zest a lemon.
And so, with the verve of a cooking guru devoted to helping level up your dinner, I present to you my advice on leveling down: a litany of personal heresies that bring me shame to report but pleasure to perpetrate. My hope is that these don’ts embolden the apprehensive among you in the same way that the typical pro tips animate the rest.
My father would call me from time to time during this period to tell me that my mother spent her days either weeping or angry, veering back and forth between these two emotional poles. Weeping for what she could grasp had become of her, anger at my father who had claimed the unenviable task of trying to take care of her. She didn’t like for him to tell her what to do even if he was just trying to help her. To her, he was interfering, pressing her and pressing upon her, and she didn’t like it. She lashed out at him, as he was the only person available to blame or resist or absorb whatever knot of emotions welled up in her from time to time. She had to lash out, and he was there. When my sisters and I tried to intervene, which we did, he abruptly hung up the phone or showed my sisters the door.
A few weeks before she died, my sisters, in conjunction with my father, told me I had to come regardless of whether my mother would want it or not. They kept my impending visit from her and I drove with my children from Michigan to Allentown. In a way, the last frontier had been reached. She had given up caring about her hair and that was truly unthinkable. She couldn’t be cajoled to get it cut and she refused to wash it. Her teeth had chipped and she wouldn’t fix them either. The innumerable pairs of glasses she had were strewn about her bedroom with their arms missing or snapped in half, as if she had stepped on them in the dark. Indeed, my mother was in the dark. The whole house of cards had collapsed.
Stories within stories within stories: It's a conceit that could easily turn into a mess in lesser hands. But Kingfisher pulls off her complicated construction with both ease and charm. There's a wry, Southern-droll sense of humor underpinning The Twisted Ones, especially as Mouse — a book editor by trade — begins to deconstruct Cotgrave's text. It all unspools on the page, and it's a testament to Kingfisher's skill that an entire two chapters of literary examination and annotation are enough to keep you on the edge of your seat.
Lee Rourke’s admirably economical third novel is an intellectually playful exploration of entropy, mutability and chance. It’s also a moving portrait of a son caring for his ailing mother, and coming to terms with the grief of losing her.
Grieving in the internet age is weird. Despite what many make out, millennials are actually reticent to get real on social media. Instead of being emotionally candid we’re perpetually sarcastic, self-deprecating and deliberately unpolished. Being “too online” or oversharing too readily is uncool. There’s a saying that you get one sincere online post a year; use it well. So then what do you do when someone has died?
One day in a Los Angeles bookshop in the mid-1970s, a thick City Lights softcover with a stark black-and-white spine magnetized a suburban adolescent’s eyeballs. “BUKOWSKI” the cover read at the top in big block letters, and at the bottom, in smaller letters: “Erections, Ejaculations, Exhibitions and General Tales of Ordinary Madness.” Between the author’s name and the title, the cover was … er, graced by a black-and-white photograph of an unbelievably ugly face, bleeding to the edges: a battered, pockmarked, leathery, lumpy mask covered with craters and burst blood vessels. That face looked like the result of some prolonged torture session. Little did I know (or at that larval age, really care) what manner of human experience had produced that hellish, baked-looking carnage.
Clearly a face like this “meant” something to a mature human being, but to a prurient kid that ghastly specimen said only: “Hey, you like ugly movie monsters, don’t you? Well, you’re gonna love this book!” Did I flip through the pages before I bought it? Not necessarily. But for the next few weeks I read the short stories in that hefty quarter-pounder while riding the bus to and from school, and they did turn out to be lotsa fun for a teenager ever on the lookout for new, perverse art-thrills. The sordid and funny “tales” all featured Henry Chinaski, the author’s alter ego, and recounted his athletic sexual encounters with boozed-out prostitutes and clumsy fistfights with drunken lowlifes in East Hollywood bars. Vomiting, too, was a running gag (as it were) in the Bukowski brand of avant-garde slapstick. And Chinaski’s violent arguments always seemed to end with all-cap, bilious outbursts like: “I’LL SUCK BOTH YOUR SNATCHES!” That part of Bukowski’s routine, I thought even then, got kinda old quick …
To avoid giving away too much—Frankissstein is, at its heart, a good read, and one best enjoyed cold—I'll refrain from dissecting the plot further. But, as with so much of Winterson's work, the most brilliant parts are in the connective tissue, the joints between themes and characters.
In the story notes section of his new collection, “Full Throttle,” Joe Hill muses that one of these days, he’ll “learn how to write a story with a happy ending.” I hope he never gets around to it. He’s already so good at endings of the unhappy variety. Shocking, terrible, whoa, cover-your-mouth-and-gasp endings. Endings that are perfect and yet a page early, arriving before you’re ready. Endings that tear off the story’s edge, leaving it ragged and bloody, leaving you wanting more. So yes, Hill has a way with endings.
Years ago, the magazine US Catholic ran a headline that had the air of being written by a devout believer who had just had an appalling realisation: “Heaven: Will It Be Boring?” If he believed in heaven, the Swedish philosopher Martin Hägglund would answer with an unequivocal yes. And not merely boring: utterly devoid of meaning. “If I believed that my life would last forever,” he writes, “I could never take my life to be at stake.” The question of how to use our precious time wouldn’t arise, because time wouldn’t be precious. Faced with any decision about whether to do something potentially meaningful with any given hour or day – to nurture a relationship, create a work of art, savour a natural scene – the answer would always be: who cares? After all, there’s always tomorrow, and the next day, and the next.
I sometimes feel oppressed by my seemingly infinite to-do list; but the truth is that having infinite time in which to tackle it would be inconceivably worse. The question at issue here isn’t whether heaven exists. In This Life – a sweepingly ambitious synthesis of philosophy, spirituality and politics, which starts with the case for confronting mortality, and ends with the case for democratic socialism – Hägglund takes it for granted that it doesn’t. Instead, his point is that we shouldn’t want it to. Religious people, even if they don’t believe in a literal place called heaven (“white bean bags, 24-hour room service, fat babies with wings”, to quote Alan Partridge), nonetheless believe that what truly matters most in life belongs to the realm of the eternal and divine. The result is “a devaluation of our finite lives as a lower form of being”. Hägglund’s alternative, “secular faith”, insists that our finite lives are all we have – and that this finitude, far from being a cause for regret, is precisely what gives them meaning.
Architectural feats in inhospitable spots have long exerted a powerful fascination. How we build and live at frontiers, and how the sites thrill us or increase our anxieties, are the subject of four important new books.
I don’t claim I imagined any of this correctly—only compulsively. And what I did in life, I did with books. I lived in them and felt them live in me. I felt I was Jane Eyre and Celie and Mr. Biswas and David Copperfield. Our autobiographical coordinates rarely matched. I’d never had a friend die of consumption or been raped by my father or lived in Trinidad or the Deep South or the nineteenth century. But I’d been sad and lost, sometimes desperate, often confused. It was on the basis of such flimsy emotional clues that I found myself feeling with these imaginary strangers: feeling with them, for them, alongside them and through them, extrapolating from my own emotions, which, though strikingly minor when compared to the high dramas of fiction, still bore some relation to them, as all human feelings do. The voices of characters joined the ranks of all the other voices inside me, serving to make the idea of my “own voice” indistinct. Or maybe it’s better to say: I’ve never believed myself to have a voice entirely separate from the many voices I hear, read, and internalize every day.
For thirty-two years, Thomas Joshua Cooper has been working on a project that he calls “The Atlas of Emptiness and Extremity,” a collection of some seven hundred black-and-white photographs that he makes from remote, forbidding, largely unpeopled, all-but-forgotten outcroppings, on five continents and at both poles, along the perimeter of the Atlantic basin. He sets his camera in places with names like Cape Frigid on the Frozen Strait, the Lighthouse at the End of the World, Finisterre—places infused with human awe of the unknown and with the yearning of explorers embarking on a journey from which they will likely not return. “I thought maybe I could learn something by standing on the continental edges of the source of Western civilization and trying to imagine, with my back to the land, what happened when the carriers of the culture went over the edge of the map,” he told me. Another time, he said, “Emptiness and extremity are what I was searching for, with the firm belief that it’d kill me or transform me.”
Part Cherokee and part Jewish, Cooper was born in California and has lived in Scotland since the nineteen-eighties. In images that are romantic and psychologically severe—the angular grandeur of rock and the terror of the ocean, befuddled by clouds, fog, and breaking waves—the “Atlas” documents an exile’s search for home. He looks for what he calls “indications”—rocks or wave patterns that form arrows, pointing him in the right direction—and avoids horizons, preferring pictures from which there is no clear escape. “He is part of the conceptual-art tradition of artists traversing space to create sculpture,” Michael Govan, the director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and a champion of Cooper’s since the early nineties, told me. “He is also one of our greatest formal photographers. He captures the motion of the environment, which is near-impossible to do.” In late September, the “Atlas” had its début, at LACMA, in an exhibition called “The World’s Edge.” At Cooper’s request, the show opened on the five-hundredth anniversary of Magellan’s departure for his trip around the globe.
We’ve been here before, if here means trying to assert the primacy of the person—the pedestrian, the cyclist, the transit rider—in the matrix of city streets. We’ve been here before if here means realizing that, for the health of the planet, we need to make the pedestrian life easier than the windshield view.
Once upon a time in the 1960s and 1970s, urban leaders pushed cars out of downtown. Why is it so hard to do that now?
Before Lady Macbeth took center stage as Shakespeare’s leading femme fatale, the bard experimented with a number of scheming women, most notably in his first works: the trio of history plays covering the tumultuous reign of Henry VI. The scheming women in these plays are all known historical figures: Joan la Pucelle (more commonly known as Joan of Arc), Margaret of Anjou (queen to Henry VI), and Eleanor Duchess of Gloucester. Each of these women possessed a significant amount of power in their time and were perceived as showing ambition for further power; Shakespeare’s depictions of these women as sexualized, unfeminine, and/or in concert with malevolent occult forces reveals the suspicion and scorn with which powerful (and, arguably, power-hungry) women were viewed. Written and performed towards the end of Queen Elizabeth I’s reign, these plays underpin the prevailing attitudes of the time and the careful line Elizabeth walked as a female monarch.
At the risk of too strongly emphasizing any anti-woman sentiment in these works, it is worth noting that some of these representations rely on political as much as gendered prejudices. It was convenient, for example, for the English, who burned the teenage Joan of Arc (now a saint) at the stake, to cast her as a wanton harlot in league with devils rather than, as France claimed, a righteous crusader following the voice of God. Whatever the motivations, however, the negative portrayals of these women are constructed with reference to contemporary ideas of an aberrant femininity, distorted by its proximity to power.
Before Donna got her diagnosis, she thought of herself as a musician, a busy professional, a volunteer, a mother, a grandmother. After she got her diagnosis – Parkinson’s disease, at age 58 – she thought of herself as a patient. The time she used to spend engaging in the things that gave her life meaning was eaten up by doctor’s appointments, diagnostic tests and constant monitoring of her symptoms, her energy, her reactions to medication. Her sense of loss was profound and undeniable.
Unfortunately, Donna’s experience is all too common. Heart disease, arthritis, multiple sclerosis, diabetes, depression, cancer, asthma, Crohn’s disease, cystic fibrosis, autoimmune disorders, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, Lyme disease: the list goes on. I would guess that most people know someone close to them who is suffering from one of these debilitating chronic conditions, if not struggling with a diagnosis themselves. Globally, three in five deaths are attributed to one of four major diseases – cardiovascular disease, chronic lung conditions, cancer or diabetes. Moreover, approximately a third of adults suffer from multiple chronic conditions, wreaking untold havoc on healthcare systems and economies across the globe. In developed countries, it might be closer to three in four older adults who suffer from multiple conditions. The proportion of patients with four or more diseases is expected to almost double between 2015 and 2035 in the UK alone. Frighteningly, these statistics don’t even account for chronic illnesses in children, which are on the rise. In sum, this means that billions of people are, at best, not functioning at their highest level and, at worst, are severely debilitated, living limited lives, and requiring chronic medical care.
“Frankissstein” is not a particularly good novel, if we limit our definition of a good novel to one that, at minimum, has characters and/or a plot in which one feels invested. Winterson seems to know she’s boxed herself into a facile and jokey situation, and she’s decided to shoot herself out of the corner. This novel is talky, smart, anarchic and quite sexy. You begin to linger on those three s’s when you speak the title aloud.
“Frankissstein” also has, if you squint just slightly, an intelligent soul. Winterson has always been interested in gender fluidity and there is room, in our glimpses of Ry, for real feeling between the satire and bickering.
in a stage play every scene is driven by OBJECTIVES.
Every scene is driven by WHAT A CHARACTER WANTS.
DRAMA is created when objectives clash.