In August of 1972, the Times reporter Ralph Blumenthal was working on an article about theatre in New York’s Chinatown. He was focussing on the challenges faced by performers who had recently emigrated from Hong Kong and Taiwan. They were shut out of mainstream productions, and the grassroots theatre scene was still maturing. Blumenthal’s editor asked a colleague named Frank Ching, who presumably knew a bit more about that part of town, to look the piece over. Ching felt that Blumenthal cast the broader Chinese-American population as foreign. He recommended some more interesting artists to Blumenthal, who ended up including a parenthetical mention of an up-and-coming playwright named Frank Chin. Ching likely believed that he was doing a favor for Chin, whose “Chickencoop Chinaman” had opened at the American Place Theatre months earlier. At the very least, Ching must have felt that he had helped sneak an edgier name into an otherwise drab roundup. But Chin was furious to be included at all.
Chin, who considered himself a fifth-generation Chinese-American, wrote Ching a letter complaining about seeing his name in Blumenthal’s piece alongside the “Chinese from China.” Ching didn’t understand why Chin felt so aggrieved, and responded that “the average person’s” conflation of newer immigrants with those who had been in America for generations was “understandable,” a reflection of ignorance but not of outright racism. Their interest in Chinatown was something to work with. Chin disagreed. “As far as I’m concerned,” he replied, “Americanized Chinese who’ve come over in their teens and later to settle here and American born Chinaman [sic] have nothing in common, culturally, intellectually, emotionally.” Ching reprinted their back-and-forth in Bridge, a magazine based in Chinatown that he helped oversee. As its title suggested, Bridge set out to explore the diasporic bonds of the Chinese in America. Although Chin had explored Chinatown in his plays and in a documentary, he also wanted to be recognized as something different. He and his friends were sketching out the contours of a new identity that had emerged in the late sixties: Asian-American.
I first learned how to journal from a story in the New Yorker. I’ve tried to find it since, without success. Here’s what I remember: in the apartment I grew up in, we had that continually growing stack of waterlogged and disintegrating copies of the magazine stowed next to a radiator in the bathroom. I was on the toilet, a teenager, flipping through one. I was reading an article about anxiety, or maybe addiction. I can’t remember if it was a profile or something more scientific. The article told me: So-and-so kept a list of things that stressed her out, and next to each item, she put a big X. So my attempt at honest writing began as a list of Xs—a list of the things that felt the most emotionally preoccupying on any given day. I could write them down furtively. They accumulated into a collage of my mental life.
The way we think about the present, and how long we think it is, can influence our outlook on life, as well as our behavior. Thinking of ourselves in suspended animation, in a present that’s never ending, is not only wrong according to research on the matter, but also isn't helping us make the best decisions for ourselves or each other.
By using science to realize that, technically speaking, right now is miniscule, we might be able to stop getting lost in the despair of the present.
Traveling is often delightful and stressful in equal proportions. The promise of seeing, eating, and drinking new things outweighs the bustle of airports (or trains), difficulty of language barriers, and effects of jet lag. Though eating well might be the best reason to travel the world, I’m going to suggest one easy way to feel grounded every morning while you’re abroad: Get the hotel breakfast buffet.
“I have not attempted to write what pretends to be a complete or comprehensive history of the oceans,” David Abulafia states in the preface to The Boundless Sea. As the book is over a thousand pages long, and is subtitled A Human History of the Oceans, the uninitiated reader, perhaps already wary at the prospect of the voyage to come, might wonder what a more comprehensive study could entail. Yet Abulafia steers us through the most surprising of waters.
When it comes to difficult travel, no journey outside New York City’s subway system rivals the ones described in “The Book of Two Ways,” a mystical road map to the ancient Egyptian afterlife.
This users’ guide, a precursor to the corpus of Egyptian funerary texts known as “The Book of the Dead,” depicted two zigzagging paths by which, scholars long ago concluded, the soul, having left the body of the departed, could navigate the spiritual obstacle course of the Underworld and reach Rostau — the realm of Osiris, the god of death, who was himself dead. If you were lucky enough to get the go-ahead from Osiris’ divine tribunal, you would become an immortal god.
Today’s habit-happy productivity culture advocates for setting measurable, attainable goals. Finishing what we start is considered a victory. But our reading lives shouldn’t depend on filling in a Goodreads progress bar. That’s because reading isn’t just any old habit to track.
When the creators of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child were working on adapting the wizarding world for the stage, they knew a lot of people have seen the Harry Potter movies. And they didn't want to reproduce the things most people have already seen.
The result is a spectacle that relies much more on human-powered magic than special effects trickery. And the show's creators have documented that process in a lavish new coffee-table book, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child: The Journey. So I went on my own journey, backstage at the current Broadway production, to see how that magic is made.
I weep for my city; it is committing urban suicide. I am a daughter of Gotham, born and bred. My lifelong interest in the vitality of the city included a thirty-year friendship with famed urbanist Jane Jacobs, with whom I, and a small group of activists, founded the Center for the Living City to build on her legacy. My knowledge, writing, and activism also put me on the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission for seven years.
This is a New York story only for now. Upzonings and transfers of newly created air rights are occurring slowly in cities around the country. When it comes to real estate, New York City may lead the way, but others follow in time.
Viet Nguyen says he loved working with his son Ellison on the book.
"It affirmed for me something that I think a lot of artists and writers know, which is that it's really crucial for us to try to tap into the playfulness that's inside of us — and the child's capacity to think beyond the conventions that we've absorbed as adults," he says, adding: "So I hope to continue exploiting Ellison in the future."
In other words, we’ve been learning to write in ways that communicate our tone of voice, not just our mastery of rules. We’ve been learning to see writing not as a way of asserting our intellectual superiority, but as a way of listening to one another better. We’ve been learning to write not for power, but for love.
The heart starts up its thrup-thrup-thrup, a tripping percussion in a chest that now fills with breath. Breathe, breathe. I close my eyes and try to keep hold of that sleepiness, whose call is still there behind the heart’s syncopation. The heart a tough lump of meat, flooded with fear. Fifty minutes pass; it’s almost one. Usually if sleep is going to come it would have come by now; and if it hasn’t come by now, the probability is no sleep at all.
Lying on one side, cradling my head. Sleepiness vanishes, like the picture when you turned off an old TV screen; it recedes to a dot. Then there’s blankness and blackness; the yawning expanse of a night awake.
“We were always coming up with ideas — they’d just pop into our head and we’d scribble them down — but we’d never do anything about them,” Sclafani tells me. “We’d somehow gotten onto drawing novelty glasses and had ideas sketched out. Pete drew the number 2000 and put a couple of eyeballs inside the zeros. I took one look at it and had this vision of the year 2000 in Times Square, and all the people wearing these glasses. It was really a vision.”
Sclafani and Cicero immediately knew they had something, but the year 2000 was still a decade away. “Then Pete draws the year 1991, and we realize, ‘Gee, you could use that too! There’s a circle for the eyes!’ That’s when we really got excited and started dancing around the room,” Sclafani laughs. “I don’t think either of us slept for at least a few days after that.”
“When you classify yourself as vegan, you’re now being watched,” said Mr. Jordan, who posts vegan recipes for dishes such as Cajun seaweed gumbo and raw beet balls along with photos of the vegetarian meals he orders on trips. “In my DMs, I’d get all these messages from activists for protests. I’m just not that guy — I did this for the purpose of eating better.”
Mr. Jordan is one of a growing number of health-conscious consumers embracing a plant-based lifestyle. Unlike many vegans who adhere to a philosophy of animal rights, those going plant-based tend to be inspired by research showing the health benefits of a diet made up of largely fruits, vegetables, beans, legumes, grains and nuts. Free from specific ethical constraints, plant-based eaters often have no qualms buying or wearing items made with or tested on animals.
Since I got Daisy in May, she’s given me all the things I hoped to find in a dog: love, companionship, a friend to go on long walks with during the day and snuggle with on the couch at night. She wakes me up in the morning with licks and a wagging tail. At night, she sleeps curled up in the crook of my legs, right behind my knees. As an emotional support dog, she makes me feel comfortable and safe.
At the same time, as a rescue dog who needs a fair bit of emotional support herself, she’s made me more cognizant of the everyday presence of fear, trauma, and stress—and the importance of accepting the dark and needy parts of ourselves rather than trying to deny them. Which is to say that she’s given me a lesson in how to be vulnerable, and how to see vulnerability in others in a new way.
The title of Kiley Reid's debut, Such a Fun Age, works on so many levels it makes me giddy — and, what's better, the title's plurality of meaning is echoed all over the place within the novel, where both plot and dialogue are layered with history, prejudice, expectations, and assumptions. The title's "fun age" might refer to one of the two main characters, Emira Tucker, a 25-year-old black woman who keenly feels that working part-time as a babysitter and part-time as a typist doesn't count as true adulting. It might refer to her charge, Briar, a white three-year-old whose imagination and speech patterns are so charmingly true to a particular kind of kid that she's both instantly recognizable and entirely her own person.
More broadly, the "fun age" might be our own, prior to the 2016 election — an age that was considered by some to be magically post-racist and post-sexist because it was impolite to be these things in public; an age of performative white feminism; an age of social media and virality and armchair activism and virtue-signaling that ironically requires certain people — often, those already more vulnerable — to exist in specific politically correct ways while allowing others — usually, those with power and privilege — off the hook. Don't let all these layers put you off — the wonder of Such a Fun Age is that it is also a page-turner with beautifully drawn characters and a riveting plot.
Liz Phair's 1993 debut full-length album, Exile in Guyville, didn’t ask permission to rock; she just kicked out a space for herself among all the young dudes. She arrived fully formed and fully feminine: topless on the cover, coming at you snarling, laying bare male-female relationships with unapologetically sexual songs like “Flower” and painfully honest ones like “Divorce Song.”
Her powerful new memoir, Horror Stories, turns the full-frontal rock ’n’ roll life inside out. In beautifully crafted episodes, she trains her brutal honesty on herself and on American culture to look at what lurks beneath a life. It’s a book that side-steps the triumph of her music career in order to squarely confront shadow, and to own the darkness that is hers.
First they started showing up thinner than before. Then they were printed on smaller paper, with local columns replaced by more out-of-town news. Then in some places, especially rural and down-on-their-luck parts, newspapers stopped showing up altogether.
Since the Internet arrived in earnest 25 years ago, almost nobody — not the savviest investment bankers, the most well-meaning editors, local entrepreneurs or generous philanthropists — has figured out a sustainable way to continue producing local news.
A panicked Royal proclamation was swiftly issued in 1615 to stem the tide. It bemoaned the increasing dearth of good old English wood, “great and large in height and bulk” with “toughness and heart,” which is “of excellent use for shipping,” and it set out a series of drastic restrictions for its use for anything but absolutely essential purposes. In particular, the proclamation explicitly forbade that anyone should be so wasteful as to “melt, make or causeth to be melted or made, any kind, form or fashion of Glass or Glasses whatsoever, with Timber, or wood, or any Fewell made of Timber of wood.”
No timber as fuel to make glass? The country’s glass-makers were outraged. They had been burning timber for centuries to make their product: an almost alchemical process of using fearsome heat to melt a mixture of potash and sand. What on earth were they to do now?
“Philip Goff’s engaging Galileo’s Error is a full‑on defence of panpsychism. It’s plainly a difficult view, but when we get serious about consciousness, and put aside the standard bag of philosophical tricks, it seems that one has to choose, with Wallace, between some version of panpsychism or fairytales about immaterial souls. This is of course too simple; Galileo’s Error lays out many of the complexities. It’s an illuminating introduction to the topic of consciousness. It addresses the real issue – unlike almost all recent popular books on this subject. It stands a good chance of delivering the extremely large intellectual jolt that many people will need if they are to get into (or anywhere near) the right ballpark for thinking about consciousness. This is a great thing.”
American Dream may be selling experiences, but the mall always was an experience. The shopping was mere pretense; the being-there part was free. Just as Baudelaire’s flâneur roamed the arcades of Paris with his leashed turtle, converting the halls of commerce into a kind of poetry, the American’s eye for sociological observation was forged in the glow of the Orange Julius. The commercial backdrop of the mall provided the uncanny feeling of becoming commodities ourselves, a prospect we could embrace or resist.
Readers know from the outset that none of the trio died in ’Nam, as the lottery scene is a flashback from the summer of 2015, when the men, now 66 and burdened with medical and financial urgencies, reunite for a weekend at a Cape Cod holiday home belonging to Lincoln’s family.
Their survival, though, is the point. Russo, born in 1949, dedicates this book to all those listed on the Vietnam Veterans memorial, and the story feels informed by a strong sense of fortune in having his name on dust-jackets rather than the long granite wall of mourning in Washington DC. The heroes’ professions of real estate, academic publishing and sound engineering – sketched in with small but resonant details – might be thought boring in ordinary times, but for their generation represent a glorious escape. Russo’s subject is the guilt and responsibility of having fallen on the better side of fate.
Here are just a few of the threads braided across the 180 pages of Loop: dwarves, swallows, rubbish trucks, notebooks, the sea, survival, sex, friendship, corruption, the future, longing, Ovid, avian transformation, bad poetry, Coriolanus, power, meaning and triviality in art, fame, significance, gang violence, convalescence, rebirth. All these themes and more are woven into a glorious tapestry of literary enthusiasms.
Many officials “saw the roundabout as a kind of fashionable object,” said Éric Alonzo, a professor at the École d’architecture de la ville & des territoires in suburban Paris who has written a book on traffic circles.
“I heard from technicians who weren’t necessarily recommending that solution,” he said, “but elected officials were saying, ‘I want one.’”
For others, roundabouts are a constant reminder of an overreliance on cars and have come to symbolize deeper worries about French cultural identity, as urban sprawl and giant malls suck the life out of city centers, killing traditional bakers and butchers.
“I don’t remember ever thinking they were funny,” Ira Glass writes in a new anthology of writing about the quintessential American comic strip. “Who ever laughed at ‘Peanuts’?”
But Glass writes this in the context of his deep love for Charlie Brown and company. It’s just that instead of finding much humor in their stories, he enjoyed the comfort they provided to a “sulky little kid” who thought of himself as “a loser and a loner.”
“The Peanuts Papers” hammers home that fully appreciating Charles M. Schulz’s juggernaut, which ran in newspapers from 1950 to 2000, requires looking aslant at its genre. It is, as John Updike once described it, a “comic strip at bottom tragic.” This collection of deeply personal essays will help you see it clear, if you don’t already, as a psychologically complex epic about stoicism, faith and other approaches to existential struggles.
Imagine for a moment that the World Republic of Letters had a library. Now imagine that the librarians who selected, distributed, and in some cases produced the books circulating among the patrons were a loose confederation of Marxist professors, publishing lobbyists, and government bureaucrats from every nation on earth. Upon what common ground might such an institution build its foundation? From what raw materials might they select its keystone, such that it bears the load of its design and does not collapse, immediately, in some spectacular catastrophe?
It’s difficult to imagine the labor that could bring such a colossus into the world, but what’s more surprising: that it can be made, or that it could be unmade?
Marmee rarely figures in the most pleasurable contemporary discussions or interpretations of “Little Women.” She’s not usually featured in the personality quizzes. There’s no essay devoted to her in “March Sisters,” the wonderful recent essay collection about the novel. It has only been relatively recently that the real-life Marmee’s sharp wit and insight have received sustained critical attention at all (namely in Eve LaPlante’s groundbreaking work on Abigail Alcott’s journals and letters). Yet Marmee is central to the story that Louisa May Alcott wanted to tell. “Little Women” is about four sisters trying to make the leap from girlhood to womanhood. The plot is theirs. But the ending, Alcott was clear, is Marmee’s, because her girls, each in their own way, both love and despise what’s waiting for them at the end. The prospect of becoming a Marmee, “Little Women” tells us, is simultaneously an aspiration and a threat. Marmee is at once far more interesting than many readers may recognize and also a major narrative problem.
In any case, DNA analysis of meat from the 1951 dinner eventually proved it was none of the above. It wasn’t even prehistoric at all. Its DNA matched green sea turtle, a modern and living species. As for the 1901 banquet, well, that couldn’t have been mammoth either. “All stories published in newspapers of this country of a dinner in St. Petersburg where the meat of the Beresovca mammoth was served, are a hundred per cent invention,” the paleontologist I. P. Tolmachoff wrote in the Transactions of the American Philosophical Society back in 1929. As Tolmachoff also wrote, woolly-mammoth meat frozen for tens of thousands of years is “absolutely unpalatable” with “an intolerable putrid smell.” It is not something that belongs on a dinner table. It is certainly not something that belongs in a human mouth.
Which brings us to the true stories of eating—or attempting to eat—frozen mammoth.
In the popular imagination, Italy is a country of ripe tomatoes, fresh pasta, virgin olive oil and other staples of the Mediterranean diet. In practice, increasingly corpulent Italians — and especially Italian children — are united by an insatiable hunger for snack food.
Children eat cookies for breakfast. So do many of their parents. The supermarket aisles are full of breakfast cookies and snacks called merendine, which, generally speaking, are industrialized miniatures of traditional Italian cakes and tarts. It’s all more Hostess than homemade, but, in a country of regional cuisines, it is also the sugary, sticky stuff that binds.
When we turn away from the news, we will confront a startling loneliness. It is the loneliness of life. The loneliness of thinking, of having no one to think for us, and of uncertainty. It is a loneliness that was always there but that was obscured by an illusion, and we will miss the illusion. We will miss the illusion that we had a place in history, the sense that we were celebrities ourselves, actors on the grand stage. We will miss the voices and images that came to us daily and convinced us they were our friends. We may, if we listen closely to the echo inside this loneliness, hear the expectant beating of our own hearts and understand that what we longed for, what we asked for, and what was given us was a story—a story of such grand metaphysical proportions that reality could never meet it. Reality could only meet it by inflaming itself, and this was the danger—the danger that made our hearts beat faster and the story grow stronger. Then we will see the news for what it was: the narrator of our national epic. “The news of the day” was the next chapter in an evaporating book. And we will miss tuning in each day to hear that voice that cuts boredom and loneliness in its solution of the present tense, that like Scheherazade assures us the story is still unfolding and always will be. I don’t know whether we can give it up. We may need it too much, miss it too sharply. We may never get to the quiet place where we can read a poem, because this will mean distinguishing happiness from pleasure and understanding that happiness means boredom, means loneliness. Means life among one another, in the world: a place where drama subsides and horizons of time stretch to months, to years. Are you not bored already? Who will narrate our epic now? Will we have one? What will bind us? No one knows. What we do know is that some part of us longs for our dreams to come true. Dream of monsters long enough and you bring them into being. We make what we imagine real. And who then reminds us—and what must happen before we remember—that the drama we want in our stories is not the drama we want in our lives?
Though in some ways the front-page decisions have become secondary in today’s 24-hour news cycle, many reporters and editors still measure their success by how many of their stories land there.
It is still a tradition in the newsroom to commemorate a reporter’s first front-page story with a metal plate of the page used by our local plant. (So far, no one seems satisfied with a screen grab.)
When I walked through the restaurant’s double doors for a shift early last December, I noticed a small Christmas tree bearing the weight of candy canes and small carryout cartons. Two thousand napkins folded with bulk paper napkins sat nearby, on emergency reserve. One thousand more new plates had been ordered in anticipation for Christmas Day’s service; so had more forks, more spoons, more glasses. Fifteen hundred ducks were ordered for just Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, nearly 3,000 egg rolls, crab rangoons, and dumplings made. The bar section is usually an area of respite for the family when there’s the odd break, but the days before Christmas, it becomes a storage and organizing area where deliveries stack up and the new dishes rest in their crates.
Despite the restaurant’s history and the long history of Jewish families eating at Chinese restaurants on Christmas, Christmas at Princess Garden is only a 10-year-old tradition. It started when families, mostly Jewish, asked if the restaurant would open for them during the holiday. “I came to America and started working at 19, and now I’m 66,” Robert says. “I’ve seen customers get married, have kids, and then seen those kids bring in their own kids into the restaurant. We’ve fed people through birthdays, weddings, and funerals. Princess Garden is their family gathering restaurant.”
“What are you, Tessa?” the little girl was asked. We think we know our friends intimately, as “other selves” as Aristotle also described it. But this can be a damaging illusion, closing off discovery. I am fortunate. McWatt is a storyteller who in Shame on Me has given me the means to rediscover her: a gift that every reader of her eloquent and moving book can share with me.
It has always been like this: I slept
in a pack on your belly, wanting
to knit myself into your lobe and herd.
I needed to get down into you.
Not for that city of the level sun,
Its golden streets and glittering gates ablaze –
The shadeless, sleepless city of white days,
The book world remains riddled with less visible forms of exclusion and inequity — notably, overwhelmingly white workplaces where microaggressions against people of color are endemic, pay gaps persist and few can even afford to forge a career without a financial safety net. Perhaps the 2020s will see the end of the Standard-Issue White Editor With Family Money. For now, the 2010s may have laid the Great White Male American Novelist to rest, or at least knocked him down a few pegs.
Tarbell’s 19-part Standard Oil series began in McClure’s in November 1902, and the celebrated January 1903 issue—which featured the third installment of the series, a piece on labor unrest among coal miners by Ray Stannard Baker, and an exposé by Lincoln Steffens on municipal corruption—sold out on newsstands in days. (The magazine also had about 400,000 subscribers.) Tarbell became so famous that she was recognized everywhere. McClure, a manic genius, had assembled what an editor of The Atlantic, Ellery Sedgwick, later called “the most brilliant staff ever gathered by a New York periodical” at precisely the time when magazines enjoyed top status as the mass medium of the moment; newspapers tended to be sensational and partisan, and radio had not quite arrived. Among the first-ever magazine staff writers, McClure’s team grasped that when laying a complicated topic before readers, narrative pacing and a strong writerly voice are invaluable. So are facts, facts, and more facts; vivid characters; and a central conflict.
Although sometimes, I’m taking a walk, and I decide to pop into Barnes & Noble, and for a while I move in the soft light and hush of the shelves, picking out random books, looking at how they begin. And that is a kind of happiness. Not to sound corny or whatever. Everyone deserves an actual bookstore where they live, and right now, for a significant number, that bookstore is one founded in 1886. If B&N have to become the thing they destroyed in order to survive, then so be it. I’m gonna keep browsing.
Excitingly new, yet immediately recognizable — that’s the paradox at the very heart of love, and it is what Simon May has achieved.
For McCarraher, it is simply the case that “the Earth is a sacramental place, mediating the presence and power of God”. That cannot change, however obscured the truth is by a destructive lust for power and accumulation. It is simply a question of seeing things as they truly are.
Uncanny Valley is a different sort of Silicon Valley narrative, a literary-minded outsider’s insider account of an insulated world that isn’t as insular or distinctive as it and we assume. Wiener is our guide to a realm whose denizens have been as in thrall to a dizzying sense of momentum as consumers have been. Not unlike the rest of us, she learned, they have been distracted and self-deluded in embracing an ethos of efficiency, hyperproductivity, and seamless connectivity at any cost. Arrogant software developers, giddy investors, and exorbitantly paid employees—all have been chasing dreams of growth, profits, and personal wealth, without pausing to second-guess the feeling of being “on the glimmering edge of a brand-new world,” as Wiener puts it in the middle of her book.
I’ve read Sun Tzu several times, in different translations. I’m not sure why I return to it: It’s short, it’s a classic, it’s there. The book’s lessons in deception seem not to stick with me. In my mind, I’m the least devious person in the world, my motives there for all to see. But that is what a devious person would say, isn’t it?
Nylan is a professor of early Chinese at the University of California at Berkeley, and the author of several well-regarded scholarly works. Her translation is the first in any modern language by a female scholar. (Her first name is no tactical feint, but if it were she would have Sun Tzu’s admiration.)
The wreckage was still smoldering when Christopher Allen reached the wheat fields where 298 people had fallen to their deaths. Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur had exploded in the air, scattering bodies and hunks of plastic and metal across miles of Ukrainian countryside.
Chris picked his way through the debris, trying to take in every detail. He was torn between recording everything and keeping his eyes firmly on the ground, trying not to step on body parts. Some bodies had lost skin or limbs. Others were still strapped into their seats. “They look as if they are manikins, twisted, turned and rearranged,” he scribbled in his notebook, “their limbs bent at impossible angles, their skin like dull yellow plastic.”
The history of Christmas is complicated and much of what we celebrate now seems to be a 19th-century invention – the trees and the birds, some of these traditions imported from Germany and some of them helped along by a certain famous writer. As the American satirical songwriter Tom Lehrer put it: “Kill the turkeys, ducks and chickens, / Mix the punch, Drag out the Dickens …” But the 20th and 21st centuries have added their own flavour, and novelists have learned to exploit its dramatic potential as the occasion for a particular kind of family misery. “Even though the prospect sickens,” Lehrer sings on, “Brother, here we go again.”
Take a walk through Toronto’s financial district and you probably won’t realise that you stand atop the largest underground shopping complex in the world. You might see the occasional doorway at street level bearing the words “Retail Concourse” in a nondescript font, but for the most part the more than 100 entrances to this labyrinth, known as the Path, are accessible only from within the office towers.
The stats certainly inspire awe, of a sort: 30km of networked passageways; 75 connected buildings; 1,200 stores, eateries, and services; 200,000 daily users; 4m sq ft feet of retail; C$1.7bn (£1bn) in annual sales. But the Path is a monolith that at no point feels monolithic. When I asked a financial district-employed friend of mine how he felt about it, he could not muster a single feeling.
I can appreciate that at the beginning of a country — and one as vast and empty as America was — the idea of pursuit, both chase and hunt, of happiness had an invigorating appeal to the founding fathers. (I’m not sure the founding mothers would have phrased it the same way.) But the truth is that the longer I have lived, and the shorter my future, the less pursuing I have done. Some of this may come from a peculiarly Irish positive pessimism — be happy, things will get worse — more of it from the history of disappointment all artists know and the rest from a remnant Catholic guilt that says you don’t deserve happiness anyway. The point is, in my case, happiness seemed a thing that could not be pursued, only realized and chosen.
A glimpse at the front cover of Karolina Pavlova’s A Double Life already shows that this is not what most of us think of as the typical 19th-century Russian novel. After all the thick tomes by Fyodors and Leos and Ivans, here we have a slim tale authored by a woman, and that alone should alert us that our old expectations may need to be altered. By the end of the first chapter, this possibility has been confirmed: little of our experience with various Raskolnikovs and Kareninas has prepared us for the forms and themes of this book, which was first published in 1848, about 20 years before the great flourishing of the Russian novel. And yet this is very much a familiar Russian novel in at least one substantial sense: it is a story of defeat whose principal interest lies not in realized aspirations but in its recuperation, for art, of the creative potentials of unsuccess.
But any raggedness seems entirely fitting for a book created from a vantage point of both magisterial confidence and profound uncertainty – looking back on a life of extraordinary artistic achievement from the vulnerability of old age. There are smudges and rubbings out, feints and wavering handwriting; impressionistic scribbles, in which the dog Jess is a joyous scrawl of life-force energy, contrast with calm vistas of landscape. In studies of that long-lived breadboard, or a light switch or door handle, decades of wear and emotion are miraculously made visible.
When I made sushi, customers would sometimes ask me, “What’s good tonight?” These men (and they were all men) misunderstood where they were and what I did. The restaurant was in a ramshackle strip mall, a few doors down from a laundromat. I didn’t sample the fish before dinner service or skulk around a market at dawn. As far as I was concerned, all our fish was sourced from the same place: the freezer. I would tell the customers it was all good. I wish I’d told them the truth: That it was all the best, the best in town, the best in the world.
The Encylopédie’s true intention was to secularize thought during a time when the Church and monarchy were supreme in France and in much of Europe. What Diderot and his confreres thought “the best interests of the human race” were not shared by the Church, monarchy, and much of the aristocracy. To make their views prevail the establishment had the weapon of censorship on its side. Censorship in that day had real muscle behind it; prison, even execution, could accompany it. Before he took up editorship of the Encylopédie, Diderot served three months in prison for an early essay called “Letter on the Blind for the Use of Those Who Can See,” and never afterward wrote without looking over his shoulder.
Reading this book, while trying to forget the many retellings of it, constantly takes us on these surprising journeys. This is no dusty relic, but instead something sparkling and modern. The theme is a narrator asking himself if he’s to become the hero of his own life, and giving as his answer 800 pages in which he seems not to know who he is, shuttled from memory to memory, sanctuary to sanctuary, and even from name to name: each new relationship David forms is marked by a fresh christening as he gets called Davy, then Trotwood, soon shortened to Trot, then suddenly Daisy followed by Doady. If I were an academic, I’d say we’re in the realms of meta-fiction (I’m not, so I won’t).
When it was announced that the legendary bookshop Le Pont Traversé would definitely close down on the 31st of December in Paris, many French TV stations put in phone calls and tried to convince Josée Comte-Béalu to do a filmed interview. She refused every single one of them.
“They are like vultures,” she said on a recent afternoon, while Paris was paralyzed by an unrelenting general strike and suspended public transportation. Her carefully cluttered bookshop was unusually calm, and Josée took advantage of the quiet moment to attach a price tag to her opaline glass chandelier—a rare early 20th century piece, now for sale along with the rest of her 11,000 books.
Writing is often considered a solitary act, but some writers have figured out a way to make the process more collaborative even before editors, agents and other publishing professionals get involved. Zhang’s group, which includes Alice Sola Kim, Karan Mahajan and Tony Tulathimutte, has been meeting about every month since most of them were undergraduate students at Stanford University. Their sessions are highly structured, with deadlines for submitting drafts and detailed manuscript notes, while other groups gather more informally to talk about their careers, commiserate over deadlines or gossip about the publishing industry.
It’s hard not to throw everything I’ve written so far out the fucking window right now because I don’t want you to know this, because I don’t want you to hate me for being so sad and not normal, but then I think, What if you know exactly what I mean? What if you, like me, would at times throw your whole life out the window and walk away, in hopes there was somewhere you could go and buy an entirely new life with new problems, new people, new everything, as if you were replacing a shitty sweater you’d worn through? Except you get only one sweater for your whole life, and anything can happen—theft, weather, cars that splash you with dirt stains that do and don’t come out—but you can’t trade it in or take it off. It’s just yours and it’s you, forever and ever and ever.
It’s probably happened to you: You’re strolling through the produce section at the supermarket, perhaps underwhelmed with the flavor of the Fuji apples you’ve been getting lately, or finding that the kids aren’t as into the Flame Seedless grapes as they used to be.
Suddenly you come upon a display of a fruit that’s new to you: Cotton Candy® grapes, Cosmic Crisp® apples, mandarins branded as Cuties®. Into the cart they go — a simple choice — though it’s hard to imagine the complex corporate machinery that brought the glossy displays and colorful bags to you, and how they signal a fundamental change in how fruit today is being grown and sold.
L’Heureux’s own expertise is in our sites of afflictive potential. Even in his weaker stories, he lands, with gleeful precision, on death, sex, regret and then death again.
As writers, Lowell and Hardwick were to some degree public figures; their pain was destined not to remain private. And Lowell exacerbated the degree of exposure, and the pain that attached to it, by incorporating their ordeals and his adventures into his poetry.
A figure drawing session frequently starts with gesture drawings—quick, thirty-second poses, which allow the artists to warm up with looser, broader marks, filling up the page. For quick poses, emphasizing vertical and horizontal lines, one might draw on some early examples of figurative sculpture: Egyptian funerary statues, in standing and seated poses, like this one of Hatshepsut at the Met. The ancient Egyptians believed in life after death; the statues were intended to be images of the body that the immortal soul could return to. As such, they’re made to last forever: sturdy, straight-spined, shoulders and hips in perfect alignment. The funerary and religious statuary of the ancient Egyptians wasn’t dissimilar to that of the Archaic Greeks, whose kouros sculptures depicted beautiful male youths, their backs straight, weight evenly distributed, one foot extended aristocratically as if midstride.
Many fiction writers say that their characters seem to have minds of their own. Writers sometimes report that they feel that the events in their novel, or even the words themselves, are being dictated to them outside of their conscious control. Some writers report that they need their characters to do something, presumably for some plot reason, but the character “refuses” to do it.
This feeling, the “illusion of independent agency,” is quite common. I was at a writers’ panel and one author said that her characters wouldn’t do what she said, and another writer said that he was in complete control of his characters. Marjorie Taylor surveyed 50 fiction authors and found that a full 92 percent of them experienced this phenomenon of their characters having their own agency. Some writers even report that writing feels more like dictating what their characters do and say than creating the story deliberately. Some characters feel so real authors have imaginary conversations with them, much like children have conversations with imaginary friends.
A few months ago, in a house near Vancouver, nine actors in festive aprons gathered around a kitchen island to shoot a montage for the Hallmark Channel movie “Christmas in Evergreen: Tidings of Joy.” The island was covered in cookie-making ingredients. The director, Sean McNamara, a veteran of Hallmark movies and Disney kids’ series, sat at monitors nearby. “O.K.!” he called out. “You’re having fun, you’re making cookies, it’s Christmas, and action! ”
In most stories, the moon is a woman. Often, the sun is a man. Greek mythology has Apollo and Artimis, Roman mythology has Luna and Sol, Slavic mythology has Dazhbog and Jutrobog. In Bali, there’s Dewi Ratih, whose sexual rejection of the giant Kala Rau led to him becoming an immortal floating head that chases the moon across the sky, swallows her whole, and spits her out again. The Mayas thought the phases of the moon were associated with phases of a woman’s life. Chinese mythology includes tales of a lunar deity named Changxi, who gave birth to twelve beautiful daughters who became the twelve months.
Although I’ve come across moon gods as well as moon goddesses, it’s clear to me that the moon is a woman. Her herness is right there in the word, full of round letters, soft as breasts and wombs. It sounds like a mother cooing to her baby.
A few months ago, the New York Post’s Steve Cuozzo bemoaned the death of the Manhattan power lunch. Gone were the long, decadent afternoons filled with networking and Negronis: “Suit-and-tie-wearing machers in media and Wall Street gave way to ‘influencers’—millennials in Untuckit shirts,” he wrote. The new Masters of the Universe preferred “picking at salads at their desks.”
But if you define the power in “power lunch” more like the power in “power walk”—an activity defined by arm-pumping and joyless, ruthless efficiency—Cuozzo’s wrong. Millennials have that kind of power lunch mastered.
After the love I had for my mother, food became my second love. It turned into an obsession. But not until recently did I realize that it is what allowed me to figure out who I am.
By retracing that history, Price guides us to question a series of myths. There’s the “myth of exceptionalism,” which tells us we live in an unprecedented era of technological change. There’s the “myth of the ideal reader,” which imagines pre-internet youths reading rapturously, immersively, for hours on end. And finally there’s the “myth of the self-made reader,” which casts that immersive experience as a form of unmediated access to the author’s brain. “Each of these myths credits long-form print with producing a certain kind of individual,” Price writes. “A longer view, though, makes books’ effects look less predictable.” The debunking gets rolling here through anaphora, a series of sentences that begin with “well before,” “instead of,” and “long before.” Collectively, those modifiers drive home the thesis: we have always been distracted multitaskers — and deeply anxious about that fact.
The Penguin Book of Oulipo already feels indispensable. It’s also a welcome celebration of the contribution of literary translators, including Bellos, Gilbert Adair and William Weaver, to the popularising of this initially reclusive group. Terry’s anthology connects us to a wider world of Oulipian wordplay, and beyond. Perhaps that’s the point. After all, as Calvino reminds us in The Castle of Crossed Destinies, there are certain fountains that “once you drink from them, increase your thirst instead of slaking it”.
Woolf always used the novel as a means for acute social criticism—to dilate those moments of moral complicity and complacency found in the daily lives of middle-class Westerners. Her celebrated style brought ordinary syntax into ever-closer contact with the layers of consciousness that operate just below our cultivated personalities, turbulent areas of inner life where the stability of human character and morality breaks down and creates, as Zadie Smith put it recently, “grave doubts about the nature of the self.” Woolf’s faith in this moral power of fiction allowed her to wager that the lived quality of a black person’s experience, however dimly apprehended, was not ultimately divorceable from the deepest self-understandings of white people.
Woolf, in other words, dared to insist that there are “other” people in our midst; all around us (and within us) are hidden facets of humanity. Virtually everything in our society encourages us to deny, repress, disavow, distort, or irreparably damage that truth, which is, of course, one of the main goals of racism. Part of this invisibility is the result of a social system beyond any individual’s making. But Woolf’s point is that the perpetuation of this invisibility is our collective responsibility. To make us safe from the abjection of living in a society built on the foundations of violence and stratification, we assure ourselves that such a status belongs only to a well-defined stranger. The power of great fiction to challenge that common sense lies only partially in reflecting our lives to us like a mirror; a great deal more resides in its capacity to dispossess us of our preferred assumptions, plunging us into knowledge like photographic paper into its chemical bath, revealing, even against our will, all the gray areas we find inconvenient, unpleasant, even impossible to acknowledge.
Ninety years ago, “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” was banned in the United States. Today, a popular literary novel can contain so many oral sex acts that readers yawn.
This is progress, mostly. But how did we get here?
I was 40,000 words deep when I realized that my book was not working. Titled Poet’s Calculus, it was a tour of the concepts of calculus, connecting each to a topic in the humanities. Interested in mathematical limits? Check out the fluid meanings of Adrienne Rich’s poetry. Curious about velocity and acceleration? Turn your attention to these paintings by Edgar Degas. The flaw that has taken you 30 seconds to see—my connections were strained, baffling, and defiantly obscure—took me ages to accept. Finally, my editor told me that the titular word “poet” wasn’t playing well with the marketing team. Also, she added delicately, they weren’t crazy about the word “calculus.”
The book was due in four months.
I had precisely one card up my sleeve. A now-abandoned chapter had explored this exact phenomenon: the life cycle by which a piece of writing collapses, improves, and evolves.
Over time, curtain calls grew to include underscoring, bits of comic business or a brief reprise of a beloved song. Stars like Al Jolson, Pearl Bailey and Sammy Davis, Jr. would often come to forestage after a show had finished and do a few of the numbers they had made famous — strategies to extort a standing ovation and goose word-of-mouth.
These days, when standing ovations are de rigueur and box office records break weekly, many still want in on the post-curtain action. Reprises have given way to glossy remixes and confetti canons. Remember that old theory that you should leave them wanting more? This is more like leave them wanting to post an Instagram story.
The pizza toast was like liturgy, like an old friend comforting me as I wept into my hands. The pizza toast was everything I needed it to be at the very moment it arrived.
You see: I was in the middle of an epic walk across Japan. On this trip I was following the old Nakasendō historic highway, and would go on to walk more than 1,000 kilometers (about 621 miles) in total. On this particular day I was grappling with an eight-hour stretch of scorched asphalt that I had nicknamed “Pachinko Road.” The Nakasendō connects Tokyo and Kyoto and parts of it cut through forests, others through sleepy farming villages, and others still through suburban hell-sprawl. I loved the sprawl, how it made you contend with how a certain portion of the world is just one continuous big-box store. But on Pachinko Road, it all had a slightly Japanese twist: Japanese Duane Reades, tonkatsu fried-pork chain restaurants with piglet mascots, chain udon noodle and curry shops you can find in any Japanese prefecture and, yes, pachinko parlors — those loud, smoke-filled gambling warehouses so alluring, so Sirenic, they necessitate warning signs throughout their parking lots. Warnings that implore parents not to leave their infants in their cars as they play, hypnotized for hours by small metal balls. This was the belt of Japanese road I had now been walking for two days. A belt where parents accidentally roasted their children.
In Samuel Beckett’s classic play “Happy Days,” a woman sits on stage, buried up to her neck in a heap of sand, keeping up a patter of cheerful conversation. At one point, she pauses and surveys her situation.
“Ah earth,” she says. “You old extinguisher.”
The three central characters in Hiroko Oyamada’s enigmatic novel “The Factory” also watch themselves being slowly and systematically buried alive, but by another great extinguisher of the self: work. They are new hires at a large corporation called the Factory. What the company creates remains a mystery; its only discernible product appears to be the dread and wild confusion it induces among its employees.
There is also a noblesse oblige quality to all of this insistence on empathy as if our highest obligation as cultivated people were to think well of others despite all evidence to the contrary. One of the goals of our formal education, however — and of our reading — should be that we learn to discriminate, not on invidious bases, but on the quality of other people’s actions rather than their status. Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim is a joyously hateful book — in the sense that all good satire is motivated by some original antipathy — but it also serves to illustrate that vanity and folly are often found in high places, even in university departments of English.
My tween will never know the sound of me calling her name from another room after the phone rings. She'll never sit on our kitchen floor, refrigerator humming in the background, twisting a cord around her finger while talking to her best friend. I'll get it, He's not here right now, and It's for you are all phrases that are on their way out of the modern domestic vernacular. According to the federal government, the majority of American homes now use cellphones exclusively. “We don't even have a landline anymore,” people began to say proudly as the new millennium progressed. But this came with a quieter, secondary loss—the loss of the shared social space of the family landline.
There are four forces that are canon in our universe: gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear forces. But scientists are searching for evidence of a new, unknown force that could explain some of the wildest mysteries facing humanity.
The effects of the four known forces on matter, from the tiny realm of atoms all the way up to the colossal scale of galaxies, are well documented and mostly understood. But when you consider that about 95 percent of our universe’s mass is made up of shadowy unexplained stuff known as dark matter and dark energy, it’s no wonder that scientists have long suspected that those four forces do not represent the entire blueprint of the cosmos.
I’m no longer writing in secret. I’m talking to them about my ideas, even picking their brains for their experiences in Asia. I’m no longer dreaming alone.
Death is like painting rather than like sculpture, because it’s seen from only one side. Monochrome—like the mausoleum-gray former Berlin Wall, which kids in West Berlin glamorized with graffiti. What I’m trying to do here.
What Time Is It? examines the different ways we may think about what is on a chronometer: personal time, clock time, the way time bends and stretches and loop-de-loops for each of us in a unique way as we walk through the world, and how we are always walking in the shadow of our own death, whether or not we know it. Time in one place for one person is not necessarily the same as time for another, even if both may be measured by the same clock—and, of course, as Einstein famously observed, time is relative: clocks tick slightly differently, depending on how fast they are moving in space.
“Cats” was my first experience doing musical theatre, and I can blame much of my subsequent decade of semi-committed chorus-line participation—and some of my ongoing attraction to cultural phenomena that reside on the border between hellscape and paradise—on this baptism into Webber’s feline world. The magic began with the shimmery melodrama of the musical’s overture, its melody descending like a diva on a staircase; then came the opening number, “Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats,” which is lyrically unhinged but musically transporting, a series of syncopated adrenaline spikes and key changes, to which we flung our tiny cat selves around in a big, stupid whirl. The heavy-handed pop-rock pastiche of the “Cats” soundtrack turns adult sentiment into an accessible playground—I was entranced by “Macavity,” with its “Pink Panther” burlesque swing, and “The Rum Tum Tugger,” with its cartoonish version of rock and roll. Fittingly, the show’s story line, insofar as it has one, is like something that a five-year-old would invent while coming down from dental anesthesia: there are a bunch of cats, and they’re called Jellicle Cats, and they’re about to go to the Jellicle Ball, which is where an old cat named Old Deuteronomy decides which cat goes to the Heaviside Layer to die and be reborn. One cat is named Skimbleshanks, and he lives on a train; one cat is named Mr. Mistoffelees, and he’s a magician; and there’s a fancy lady cat named Grizabella, except she’s not so fancy anymore; and, in the end, Old Deuteronomy picks Grizabella and she dies and gets to ride a big tire up to heaven, and that’s the end!
Lloyd Webber first had the idea for “Cats” in the late seventies. He grew bored one day during the technical rehearsals for “Evita” and got to thinking about writing music for existing lyrics, something he’d never done. Maybe he could use a book of poems—say, that old T. S. Eliot book his mom used to read to him. Those poems had a rhythmic flexibility, as though they’d been written to music. Later, Eliot’s widow, Valerie, would tell Lloyd Webber that Eliot always composed his light poems with popular songs in his head. Lloyd Webber approached her in 1980, inviting her to an annual arts festival that he threw at his country home, called Sydmonton. There he played her four sample songs from the musical he envisioned. He had set “The Naming of Cats” as an eerie, dreamy admixture of sharps and flats and had given “Macavity” an undertone of prowling lust. Eliot had once refused an adaptation offer from Disney; Lloyd Webber promised Valerie that he wouldn’t turn her late husband’s chimeric creations into mere “pussycats.”
The story seemed to be getting at some big question the culture was still struggling to figure out how to frame in 2010, one that was beginning to take on vital importance. At the time, the mainstream was only just starting to find the words to ask this question, but it went something like this: What kinds of stories do we consider to be worthy of respect? And to whom do those stories belong?
Persily hopes to pass the reins to a committed journalist willing to live in Skagway, a town of 1,000. Ideally, it would be someone who has lived in Alaska and knows the state’s quirks. “It’s weird up here,” he said. “It’s weirder than Sarah Palin is weird.” Getting to the printer requires a 125-mile drive through snow and ice over a mountain pass. Businesses close in the winter and there’s just one grocery store. Persily describes it as, if not an isolated life, then a “self-motivated” one.
They are London’s lost cathedrals. A few people still worship in them, a few more know of them, but few visit them. Whenever I have dropped by, they have been locked and seem deserted. Yet inside, these are masterpiece monuments of London’s age of confidence and flair, that of high Victorian gothic. They must be revived.
Where the novel’s first part was a character study, the second is a caper. Shafak’s narrative shifts from the internal to the external, from thoughts to action, and from the summing up of an entire life to the twists of one hectic day. Her skills as a writer — her confident pacing, emotional honesty and political consciousness — unite the two halves, making for a gripping and moving whole. Not every bit is perfect; a few characters are unevenly developed and the language can feel stilted in places. But these flaws hardly diminish the book’s overall quality.
Following on the heels of other books about exiting a religion (Educated and Pure being the most obvious), Leaving the Witness offers an intimate — at times painful, at times humorous — exploration of what it means to leave not only a religion, but an entire life.
The Library of America recently published an anthology of essays called The March Sisters, about the bonds writers have formed with each of the siblings. The attitude that Little Women is somehow limited in its offerings is representative of how female-character-driven novels are treated in general—they’ve become relegated, ignored, and treated with a lack of seriousness. This same treatment carries over to how girls and women are treated. And that should make us as angry as Marmee. If we want this to change, we have to start by fighting for this work to be treated like the great American novel it is. Little Women is genius. And Gerwig’s film might be the first to joyfully treat it with all the seriousness of that fact.
Exchanging letters is a practice that crisscrosses centuries. But its continued relevance in our digitized daily lives is somewhat of a marvel. In the age of Amazon Prime, why go online to order a physical card, receive it, handwrite a message, then send or hand-deliver it? We have texting, email, WhatsApp, social media and numerous other means to constantly keep in touch. Nevertheless, cards, in their own analog, inherently unhurried nature, endure.
The rules I truly care about are the ones that aren’t written down, like “don’t bother each other” and “keep your eyes on your phone screen at all times.” Sometimes, when I take a break from staring at mine and stretch my crooked little neck up to see how many stops I have left, I accidentally lock eyes with someone else. We frown at each other and go back to our screens. As it should be.
That said, every now and then, paying attention can be wonderful.
Why is it so difficult for people to tell the truth? I’m not just talking about pathological liars or bull-spouting politicians, pundits, and partisans who cynically spin stories to further their own opportunistic ambitions. On a subtler level, in conversations with friends, colleagues, and lovers, we justify and rationalize, exaggerate, dismiss facts, and generally create a version of reality as we want it to be, not as it is. And what’s really interesting is that we aren’t even aware we’re lying — we believe we’re being honest. French author Emmanuel Carrère writes about many things, but he’s perhaps most interested in the lies people tell themselves and call truth.
A man was walking in New York City when he passed a street vendor with books laid out on the pavement. In the $1 pile was a copy of the latest Philip Roth novel, which he’d loved. He picked it up, turned to the first page – to find a very loving inscription, written by himself, to his newly ex-girlfriend.
This is a true story, says rare book dealer and author Rick Gekoski, told to him by a good friend. “He said it was very embarrassing. I said: ‘Did you buy it?’ He said, ‘Of course. Then I threw it in the nearest wastepaper basket.’”
Looking back at this culture-shifting review, we might wonder whether such a moment can be replicated in our modern literary and journalistic landscape. The persuasive power of an individual review today is vastly diluted by the fragmentation of the media and the frantic chirping of cable channels, Facebook posts, Twitter feeds and text messaging at all hours. Abbreviated attention moves on at an almost mindless speed. A trend rises and vanishes, all but forgotten before it ever sticks. A book and a book review — even if capturing a cultural turning point — today can’t help losing the competition for eyes to Twitter bursts and viral videos. One might wonder what social transitions are never noticed these days in all the noise.
What is the lure of this great land, this ultimate Northwest, Ultima Thule? Something other than the sum of its natural wonder and the drama of its history. There is no other place on earth like it, not even remotely, and if you have spent considerable time here, as have I, it keeps tugging at you when you are gone. It offers, as few other places do, the promise of flat-out old-fashioned adventure. It is inhabited by a kind of people who just do not exist anywhere else. Furthermore, it is heartbreakingly beautiful. It has had its bards but never the epic poet it deserves because before its grandeur and its ferocity one can only be overwhelmed, humbled, silenced. You can live there even now and be a true pioneer, but that will not be true for very much longer—and it is this knowledge too that draws one back, for over this land hangs a vague but palpable melancholy. And through it all winds one road, a lifeline, an achievement of heroic proportions that opened up unlimited potential, brought the world to a few thousand people and revealed a land that since time immemorial had existed in its grandeur and its permanence. The road brought the world, the road brought riches, and the road inevitably cannot but fail to bring the end to a way of life we will never see again.
Everyone dies, but almost nobody expects to die today. Yet, accidents do happen. In 2017, accidents and unintentional injuries were the third-most-common cause of death of Americans. Although we live in a remarkably safe world by historical standards, many of us needlessly increase our risk of sickness, injury and even death without realizing it. Let’s look at a hypothetical day and see which choices have the greatest potential benefits to our well-being.
Before even its title page, Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming comes prefaced with a “warning”. Over the course of seven pages, which may or may not have anything to do with the 550 pages that follow, an orchestral conductor delivers a peroration that is also a rant that is also a kind of philosophical projectile missile. Though it seems to be addressed to his musical performers, it’s unclear whether this isn’t actually one long interior monologue, bringing to mind the troubled babble of Samuel Beckett’s Not I.
This conductor is obsessive. About his violinists he declares: “I want to know even their most idiotic thoughts concerning the falling resin dust, or how often they trim their nails.” A glass-completely-empty type, he tells his musicians: “Apart from your admittedly modest compensation there is no reward whatsoever, of course, accordingly, no joy, no consolation.” And he is happy being thought of as a dictator: “There is no point trying to oppose me, no sense at all.”
Joyce Bellinger, who had been hired ten days earlier to work aboard the Mark Twain, said of opening day, “I always remember that I was out there the night before. It was really a mess, you know. There was paint all over, and tools, and drop cloths. The windows were still covered with paint. Everybody was running around. And there were knives and hammers. The ticket booth for the Mark Twain wasn’t even half finished. And we thought, “My gosh! How are they going to be able to open it for the press and all the celebrities and everybody who’s going to be here the following day?” So we came back the next morning, and it just sparkled. Everything was clean and beautiful, and it looked just simply great.”
But she got there at eight in the morning. Most of the guests that day would have agreed with C. V. Wood: “It was a madhouse!”
Gardeners usually say that time in the garden is shorter than it actually is; that planned hour simply slips away. The beginning and end of gardening depends on the tasks that day, or physical limitations such as darkness falling. In the process, time passes from objective clock time to subjective or nature’s time. Tasks such as weeding or checking on progress are neverending; mowing the grass is episodic – it happens regularly, but each time the task is finite. Natural time relies on sunrise and sunset, and seasons, determined by something beyond ourselves. It is measured by the time it takes for seeds to germinate and become carrots or cornflowers, or the arrival of favourite birds. Working with nature’s time disconnects me and other gardeners from externally imposed rhythms of activity punctuated by events such as commuting, meetings or meals.
Fiction is, of course, by definition an “unreal thing,” but by emphasizing the “incidental” nature of her (nonfictional) columns, Ferrante suggests that whatever truths she arrives at in them are just as “unreal” as the truths arrived at in fiction. In the column “The False and the True,” she explains that indeed, she “can’t trace a line of separation between fiction and nonfiction.”
“A Bookshop in Berlin” is her account of her life there, and then of her flight to safety — from Germany through France to Switzerland — in the early years of World War II. Originally published in 1945, it was rediscovered in a jumble sale in Nice in 2010 and republished in France in 2015 with a beautiful preface by Patrick Modiano. Stephanie Smee’s English translation captures the storytelling cadences of the original French, which is touching, considering that Frenkel would have acquired them through her own deep reading of French literature and the devoted friendships she formed in France. Her affinity with that country would save her life on more than one occasion.
When we say the world is haunted
we mean untranslated
Earlier this year, at a literary festival in Jaipur, I met the Tamil writer Perumal Murugan. I had just finished reading his book “Poonachi,” which will be published in the U.S. this month as “The Story of a Goat.” (The translation is by N. Kalyan Raman.) Here is how the novel begins: “Once, in a village, there was a goat. No one knew where she was born. The birth of an ordinary creature never leaves a trace, does it?” When I read those lines, a thrill ran through me.
Murugan is nothing if not a chronicler of the ordinary. Schoolchildren in India—and here I’m speaking from what I remember of my own experience—are taught that Mahatma Gandhi believed that the soul of India lived in its villages. While that is arguable, it cannot be doubted that most of India’s population is rural. But you wouldn’t know this from reading Indian fiction written in English. Indian writers who work in English are mostly from the middle or upper classes, educated in English-medium schools, and, if not residing in one of India’s busy metropolises, then living in the West. Their characters tend to be well-heeled urban citizens of a mobile republic. In contrast, Murugan lives in a small, agricultural town in southern India, and he writes in Tamil. His characters are overwhelmingly villagers or people in remote, small towns.
An eccentric group of citizen-scientists called Old Weather has transcribed millions of observations from long-forgotten logbooks of ships, many from the great era of Arctic exploration. As the polar regions grow ever warmer, the volunteers have amassed a rich repository of climate data in a 21st century rescue mission.
Separation of “truth” from “fiction” is, it seems, really the artificial construct. The world rushes in, exploding her attempt at English domesticity. Which is either another argument for the necessary evolution of the novel – or a rediscovery of how it has always worked.
Jane Austen aficionados think that they know the story of their favourite author’s posthumous dis-appearance and then re-emergence. For half a century after she died in 1817, her books were little known or read. A few discriminating admirers such as George Henry Lewes and Lord Macaulay kept the flame of her reputation burning, but most novelists and novel readers were oblivious to her. Then, in 1869, her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh published a memoir about her and the public got interested. Her novels started being republished and widely read. She has never looked back.
Janine Barchas’s The Lost Books of Jane Austen puts us right. Her book about books is a beautifully illustrated exploration, indeed compendium, of the popular editions of Austen’s novels that have appeared over the last two centuries.
The drunk text is familiar now. It needs no more explanation than a butt-dial or an autocorrect typo or cellphones in general. (Drake’s entire career arguably hinges on his audience’s shared understanding of the universality and import of drunk dialing and drunk texting as social behaviors.) But there was a time when we needed examples, thousands of them, to understand what a drunk text was and what purpose it served.
With global temperatures steadily rising in recent years, Lake Suwa rarely freezes solid, even in the coldest months of the year. The ice, once so thick that military tanks could rumble over it, is often too thin now for the mythic omiwatari to appear.
And the lake, once so central to the town’s identity, is slowly vanishing from the everyday lives of the people who surround it. As winter nears, Lake Suwa provides an intimate reminder of damage wrought by climate change – and its ability to erase the very things people hold most dear.
But for transportation, digital maps, “only tell you one thing—how to get there,” he said. “It shows the journey from point A to point B. But an analog map allows you to ask questions about your city. Because you might know where point A actually is.”
The Crying Book is itself a physical record of crying. Bearing witness to both the physicality and emotionality of crying, Christle’s sermon is analytical, elegiac. A watercolor painting. I’m reminded of Mary Poppins’ chalk illustrations, washed away by rain. The colors cohering into something altogether new, sadder, full of sorrow.
Idiot Wind is Kaldheim’s record of that escape from New York, a journey that ends, eight months and 5,000 miles later, when he finds a job at last as a cook in Montana. Along the way, he lives from one meal to the next, hitching rides across 20 state lines, hopping trains, donating blood plasma for cash, scrounging for leftovers in bins, spending countless nights in the open.
Suppose you’ve been asked to write a science-fiction story. You might start by contemplating the future. You could research anticipated developments in science, technology, and society and ask how they will play out. Telepresence, mind-uploading, an aging population: an elderly couple live far from their daughter and grandchildren; one day, the pair knock on her door as robots. They’ve uploaded their minds to a cloud-based data bank and can now visit telepresently, forever. A philosophical question arises: What is a family when it never ends? A story flowers where prospective trends meet.
This method is quite common in science fiction. It’s not the one employed by William Gibson, the writer who, for four decades, has imagined the near future more convincingly than anyone else. Gibson doesn’t have a name for his method; he knows only that it isn’t about prediction. It proceeds, instead, from a deep engagement with the present. When Gibson was starting to write, in the late nineteen-seventies, he watched kids playing games in video arcades and noticed how they ducked and twisted, as though they were on the other side of the screen. The Sony Walkman had just been introduced, so he bought one; he lived in Vancouver, and when he explored the city at night, listening to Joy Division, he felt as though the music were being transmitted directly into his brain, where it could merge with his perceptions of skyscrapers and slums. His wife, Deborah, was a graduate student in linguistics who taught E.S.L. He listened to her young Japanese students talk about Vancouver as though it were a backwater; Tokyo must really be something, he thought. He remembered a weeping ambulance driver in a bar, saying, “She flatlined.” On a legal pad, Gibson tried inventing words to describe the space behind the screen; he crossed out “infospace” and “dataspace” before coming up with “cyberspace.” He didn’t know what it might be, but it sounded cool, like something a person might explore even though it was dangerous.
But perhaps the most devastating scene in the book involves Brian, who has AIDS, diving into a public swimming pool and, in Meg’s words, “everyone losing their minds.” Meg had picked it out in the brief, but was understandably worried that images of swimming pools were becoming too commonplace on book covers. The scene had such an effect on me, though, that I really wanted to try and work it into a visual of some sort, and that’s where I ended up starting the process.
Compared to the unsolved mysteries of the universe, far less gets said about one of the most profound facts to have crystallized in physics over the past half-century: To an astonishing degree, nature is the way it is because it couldn’t be any different. “There’s just no freedom in the laws of physics that we have,” said Daniel Baumann, a theoretical physicist at the University of Amsterdam.
Since the 1960s, and increasingly in the past decade, physicists like Baumann have used a technique known as the “bootstrap” to infer what the laws of nature must be. This approach assumes that the laws essentially dictate one another through their mutual consistency — that nature “pulls itself up by its own bootstraps.” The idea turns out to explain a huge amount about the universe.
For years there was darkness. No comet raged in the sky. No further fire swallowed up Europe. As many as could be hoped, which is not many at all, read Copernicus’s On the Revolutions. Copies bled across the continent and into England. Non-astronomers heard about it. They laughed. They disagreed. They quit thinking about it and went to bed. And then there was light.
In November 1572, stargazers all the world over looked up and saw something new. A supernova. To them it looked a star, a new star, a day star, a space dragon, blazing in the heavens alone with the Sun, brighter than Venus in the night, usurping the throne of the princess, constellation Cassiopeia. Four hundred years later, it had changed everything. None understood what this new star meant, especially once it began to fade.
In the very first scene of Johanne Bille’s brief but incisive novel, Elastic, we find a woman in the shower. She’s probing her own vagina, these “pink curtains of flesh” that she hates, considering it an alien entity. “Today, I think cunts are ugly,” she concludes, and this is where Bille’s book begins: an exploration of gender identity and body discomfort from the inside out, often in an excruciatingly literal sense.
This woman in the shower is Alice, our narrator, and the locus of an extreme interiority of perspective. We only experience the narrative through her eyes and her mind. It is the core strength of the novel that Alice’s mind, as expressed through Bille’s elegant control of narrative voice, is acutely attuned to the sensual, physical world. Nearly every page is awash in sensuous, erotic similes. A half-erect penis is described as “caught between two poles, like a ripple moving across the surface of the ocean.” A door with a faulty latch keeps “creeping open like a stab in the back.” Mathilde, the centre of Alice’s attentions, her lusts and desires, and, increasingly, sense of self, is described as “enthroned like a kingfisher in a nest of cotton.”
What follows is a series of essays — sometimes more like memories or musings — that don’t subscribe to a particular classification. They share the theme of travel, since they’re often associated with, but not anchored to, a visited or inhabited locale. Food (although rarely given as much attention as the lives and work of the people Condé meets, her irreconcilable sense of alienation or her thoughts on her writing) is the connector from one place or time to the next.
Gillian Tindall is a high-minded Autolycus, devoted not merely to snapping up the “unconsidered trifles” of past lives but holding them to the light to glean the stories they might conceal. “Most objects, like all people, disappear in the end,” she writes at the start of The Pulse Glass, an excellent suite of essays on transience and remembrance. And yet not everything crumbles to dust; some bits and pieces defy the odds by surviving, and it is Tindall’s delight – albeit of a measured and low-key sort – to describe their escape from “the quiet darkness of forgetting”.
As a crippling drought and mismanagement have left more than a dozen Australian towns and villages without a reliable source of water, the country is beginning to confront a question that strikes at its very identity: Is life in Australia’s vast interior compatible with the age of climate change?
In the outback — a landscape central to Australian lore, far removed in distance and spirit from the coastal metropolises — rivers and lakes are disappearing, amplifying fears that wide swaths of rural territory may eventually have to be abandoned.
This could all be incredibly turgid, like subjecting yourself to some dreadful art installation, but it’s not. The stories are nastily funny – sick jokes – and Etchells is a latter-day Menippean satirist. The biggest influence on his early stories, he notes in an afterword, was Mark E Smith of the band the Fall, whose lyrics were glorious, ferocious rages. “Some persons have accused that these writings are full of narrational gaps and sudden perplexing changes of topic brought abt by my total failure to appreciate that the reader does not share important vital background information which I possess. However it is my intention to continue regardless.” The book is horrible, brilliant, deliberately provoking. At times I wished it was over; now I wish it had never stopped.
The Revisionaries takes place in at least three locales across at least four levels of reality and is composed in at least five typefaces. It is, by turns and often at once, surreal, absurd, horrifying, earnest and satirical. It's written with a playful elegance belied by its first 50 pages, which give the impression of irresponsible self-indulgence — but the rest of the book balloons to absorb that beginning into itself and make it cohere with a very different aesthetic project.
There’s a long tradition of agonistic dinosaur portraiture, great beasts roaring and chomping with a special prehistoric savagery. Their size and the nature of their weaponry has stirred a primal terror in humans ever since they were first discovered. But it’s not just the creatures that cause this. It’s also the way they embody the shock of the Darwinian outlook on life. In Darwin’s Plots (1983), her classic study of evolutionary narrative, Gillian Beer notes that “the unused, or uncontrolled, elements in metaphors such as ‘the struggle for existence’ take on a life of their own” outside the particular scientific claims of Darwin’s theory, and those elements rampage across the pages of popular science writing about dinosaurs.
If it's difficult to describe Jeff VanderMeer’s work, maybe this is because the weirdness of his novels is less about the genre-bending that has come to characterize accounts of weird fiction, and more about the ways in which it seems to actively resist summary or synthesis. His novels, as one might claim is true of the larger project of the contemporary Weird, collectively attempt a kind of un-knowing — an engagement with what cannot be represented, stories that cannot be told. Rather than shy away from attempts to inhabit unknowable, often nonhuman narratives, VanderMeer’s fiction seems to acknowledge the limitations of the human while still committing to the imaginative work of exploring the impossible. Offering only partial understanding and knowledge for readers, VanderMeer’s work engages in a form of critical negativity that perhaps reflects the increasing estrangement of humanity from the ability to comprehend and act (effectively, collectively) in response to the global devastation of colonialism, late capitalism, and the effects climate change. His new novel, Dead Astronauts, perhaps the most stylistically weird yet, is an exploration into the ways in which resistance to these forces (which are embodied in the novel as the nefarious “Company”) can and should persist even in the face of impending failure.
Reverie feels like a dream. People shift from one thing to another, locations switch when you're not looking, and logic and forward momentum take a backseat to the exploration of the subconscious. At times, that can make it a little hard to follow the progression of the plot, but if you think about it, dream logic is good logic in a book about fighting dreams.
The title OF Timothy J. Hillegonds’s debut memoir, The Distance Between, aptly captures the tension that saturates the book’s narrative — the points of measurement are unstated, creating the feeling of a sentence fragment with blanks the text promises to fill in. But the title’s strategy is even deeper than that, highlighting one of the major dilemmas that almost every memoirist faces when embarking upon a project: how do you calculate the distance between two points when one or both of those points are not known? The question reveals a daunting truth — the task of the memoirist is, in this sense, in constant flux. They may be able to fix an exact time and location to examine in the past, but they cannot help doing so from a present that is always on the move. Time changes the way we tell stories.
Manifestos give vent to thoughts of things that are desperately wanted, which may never happen, but which might. The original Communist Manifesto even began by mentioning the ghost of something that hadn’t happened. The spectre of Communism: a ghost of the future. Manifestos are for writers what two tails might be to a dog — although, if one thinks about it, very few writers, characters better known for their writing in other places, are renowned for their writing of manifestos. Words in manifestos often take on a life of their own and maybe that’s disconcerting to a certain kind of writer, the kind that cleaves to authorship.
Julian Hanna’s absolutely wonderful little book continually riffs over these kinds of thing. His ninety-five mini theses, written ‘rapidly and rashly, with passionate conviction and not a lot of forethought,’ does the best job anyone ever could of showing us the true hand of the manifesto.
“How old do you think I’ll be when I have my first kiss?” Ryan asked during dinner.
I put down my salad fork and turned to look at my son.
My eleven-year-old son.
“What’s the rush?” I asked.
Recently, while driving through the town where I live, I noticed a sign at a new restaurant. “EAT WELL BE TRUE,” the sign said. I was confused, at first. “Eat well be true?” What does that even mean?
Then I became angry. Why was some random restaurant in my own hometown telling me how to live? On the rare occasion that I do require input on how life should be lived, after all, it is to close friends that I turn, not restaurants — or department stores, or bikini wax clinics, or even the local Jiffy Lube.
There is no denying that Paris-based journalist Elaine Sciolino is a badass. As part of her encyclopedic research for her new book, “The Seine: The River That Made Paris,” the former Paris bureau chief for the New York Times, 70, stripped down to her undies and jumped into the Seine about 125 miles southeast of Paris on a July day. The water was less than 60 degrees.
You could call it immersive journalism. Because, let’s face it, there’s nothing like an American in Paris to truly enthuse over every aspect of France, its beautiful Seine and all things French, no matter how frigid.
Historians have often cast the story of cigarettes in 20th-century America in epochal terms. Smoking, as that narrative goes, insidiously afflicted public health and life expectancy decade after decade through the 1960s, after which it was gradually banished by the light of science. The stories within this narrative are familiar: elite conspiracies against the public; the struggle for truth in science and policy; popular consumer products secretly delivering dependence and death.
We know those stories well. But in her new book, The Cigarette: A Political History, Sarah Milov tells a different story — or, more accurately, several different ones. She delivers not a singular epic, but descriptions of historical episodes that function like well-observed, interconnected short stories, each untangling a unique aspect of the tobacco industry’s embeddedness in the United States’s political economy. By the end, the clear outlines of the old epic’s heroes and villains are considerably hazier.
“Goliath” retells the history of the last century as the rise and fall of populism itself. (In Stoller’s view, populism means opposing monopoly and is synonymous with democracy. Indeed, early versions of the book swapped those words in the subtitle.) Largely skimming over the agrarian politics of the late 19th century, Stoller argues that populist anti-monopolists emerged as an intellectual force during Brandeis and Wilson’s time before ousting the plutocrats during the New Deal in the 1930s. The result, briefly, was what Stoller calls a “democracy of small business” by the 1950s.
Within a few decades, however, the monopolists were back, and Americans lost sight of their once-proud anti-monopoly tradition. By the 1970s, liberals robustly embraced the regulatory state while Chicago-school conservatives promised neoliberal market-based solutions to every social problem. Cut from both sides, antitrust law no longer sought to prevent market power or promote competition, but rather simply to keep consumer prices low. Antitrust suits against IBM, AT&T and Microsoft, while splashy, did little to stem the tide of concentration.
The World of Interiors is essentially a decorating magazine, but this is like saying Vogue concerns itself with sewing. It showcases seemingly every facet of the decorative arts and crafts over centuries, from the pop artist Roy Lichtenstein’s Manhattan studio to an antique dealer’s 16th-century Shropshire pile to a shepherd’s hut, while reviewing books like “The People’s Galleries: Art Museums and Exhibitions in Britain 1800-1914.” It’s intelligent, witty and wide-ranging in its curiosity: a bible.
And a rarity.
To this day, I often think of that distant silver head in a spotlight, blurry, so far away in the dark auditorium. I drove home that night, happier than I’d been in years, reciting what lines I could remember in my head. I had a glass of wine. I sat down to my typewriter, and as I often did at the time, rolled in a sheet of paper, and typed away at it, just for the sheer glorious sound of the clacking keys.
In the last years of the 19th century a small part-Sioux girl was musing on the wide world about which she was learning at school. “In some of the countries,” she wrote, “the people have very strange ways, and are very queer themselves.” By 1930 that girl, Ella Cara Deloria, had been commissioned by Columbia University to return to the Great Plains to investigate the ceremonies and beliefs of her father’s people. She made a note – one that could be read as a reproof to her own childish self. She was to remember that people outside the dominant culture were not “queer” – just different. “Get nowhere unless prejudices first forgotten. Cultures are many; man is one. Boas.”
Boas was Professor Franz Boas. To Charles King, author of this illuminating biographical history of the then new-fangled study of “anthropology”, Boas was the founder and wise steersman of the science, and an indefatigable advocate for the important concept that one of his protégées was to call “cultural relativity”.
Christmas dinner, when you’re the one cooking it, is an oddly spiritual gesture. It’s not just roast meat and spuds on a plate, like any other Sunday. It may look just like it, give or take a blob of cranberry, but Christmas dinner is imbued with memories. Oh, and hopes, dreams, love and loss, too. All the good, emotionally churning stuff that pairs well with a glass of brandy.
Great chefs are mysterious. They work miracles behind a swinging kitchen door, saying little, piquing our curiosity. And why not? They have the skill to transform what we eat, play with our tastes, change what we think food can be. In the right hands, an artichoke or tomato becomes sweet enough for dessert. A tough cut of meat melts in the mouth.
The woman at the heart of Marie NDiaye’s new novel is known to the reader only as the Cheffe, a “recently minted” French word meaning female chef. The book’s translator, Jordan Stump, notes that “no good English equivalent exists.” And maybe a new word is necessary, as few could adequately describe this woman, if she ever let anyone know her well enough to try. The closest she has to a confidante is her former kitchen assistant, our narrator, who loves her fiercely and unrequitedly. He tells the story of her life in rambling sentences, questioning himself often, and occasionally losing touch with what may or may not be true.
Learning a new language is a lot like entering a new relationship. Some will become fast friends. Others will hook their arms with calculus formulas and final-exam-worthy historical dates, and march right out of your memory on the last day of school. And then sometimes, whether by mere chance or as a consequence of a lifelong odyssey, some languages will lead you to the brink of love.
Those are the languages that will consume you – all of you – as you do everything to make them yours. You dissect syntax structures. You recite conjugations. You fill notebooks with rivers of new letters. You run your pen over their curves and cusps again and again, like you would trace your fingers over a lover’s face. The words bloom on paper. The phonemes interlace into melodies. The sentences taste fragrant, even as they tumble awkwardly from your mouth like bricks built of foreign symbols. You memorise prose and lyrics and newspaper headlines, just to have them at your lips after the sun dips and when it dawns again.
It began with butter, a surreal amount of butter, glistening with tiny pinpricks of fat. It was studded with fragments of fresh herbs and whipped nearly to a foam. There was bread as well, but it was a supporting character. It, too, was excellent, a dark rye loosely stacked in rough slices on the right-hand side of a plate-size slab of black lava rock. The butter was mounded up on the left side, a lump the size of a Christmas orange, melting gently where it lounged against the warm stone slab. The stone itself was of the same sort found in the walls of the restaurant and rimming the pool of steaming azure water outside the window. This stone played hide-and-seek among the drifting snow from here to Reykjavík. I took a moment to gaze out on the falling flakes and on the tall blond bathers revelling in the shimmering water. Some perched on the rocks, and others floated in the pool’s volcanic embrace. I’d spent the morning there, and after the meal and perhaps a short period of digestion, I would return. But, for now, there was butter.
When my grandmother died she owned no property, personal or real; no goods, durable or consumable. Personal property is also called movable property, personalty, movables, chattels (chattels first meant goods and money, and later came to be associated with a beast held in possession, livestock, cattle; chattel, as slaves, came into use in the seventeenth century), and under U.S. law can be further divided into tangibles and intangibles. Tangible property can be felt or touched and intangible property is immaterial. Personal effects are tangibles; debt and goodwill, intangibles. (And then there was paraphernalia, a specifically female version of personal effects: these are called her paraphernalia< … the apparel and ornaments of the wife, which also included tableware and sometimes her bed.) Real property, with its echoes of real estate, realty, royalty, realm, kingdom, is immovable property, land and the structures on it. Durable goods, also known as hard goods, have a useful life of three or more years, and consumable goods, also known as soft goods, get used up or discarded; a further subset is known as perishables, goods prone to disintegration or decay. Personal or real, tangible or intangible, durable, hard, soft, consumable, or perishable: my grandmother owned none of it. Goldyne Alter died with no possessions. She didn’t leave a thing, save her body and that, of course, would be gone soon, too.
Night after night, my father and I distracted ourselves, temporarily, from our own lives by watching the unchanging world of “Jeopardy!” Unfortunately, it was precisely then, in the middle of this consolatory ritual, that the terrible news crossed over. In March, Trebek announced that he had Stage 4 pancreatic cancer. This was hard to accept. It almost didn’t make sense. It was like the Grand Canyon getting leukemia.
Microdosing LSD has become fashionable over the last few years, with some users reporting improvements to mood and productivity. Reading Irenosen Okojie’s stories is more like taking an old‑fashioned megadose: familiar reality peels away to reveal a world of bizarre transformations, stutters in time, encounters between gods and humans, and the fragmentation, or even the dissolution, of the self.
“The Innocents” is a work of lyrical naturalism dressed as an allegory. Crummey isn’t interested in chronicling his characters’ journey to spiritual salvation. Religion is repeatedly rejected in the novel. Evered declines an offer to be baptized by Mr. Clinch and only grudgingly permits an after-the-fact funeral for his parents. For the orphans, the celestial realm is “dry goods and flour and salt meat and tea.” Their quest is not a search for divine grace, but the slow and arduous acquisition of the skills and habits that will allow them to eke out an existence in this hardscrabble place.
If Pyongyang embodies the architect’s dream of a model city, its facades are also suggestive of a Potemkin village. In their new monograph “Model City Pyongyang,” architects Cristiano Bianchi and Kristina Drapic lead readers on a panoramic tour of the North Korean capital while borrowing the visual language of the country’s propaganda posters. In these photographs, the sky appears in dreamy pastel hues, thanks to photo editing, replicating the sense of “fictional reality” the authors say permeates their journeys through the city as foreign visitors.
Year after year you keep on being gone, gone
after years and years of gone, of marginal, mute,
In 1994, Derrida published the lectures as a book, “The Politics of Friendship.” Each of its chapters opens with a recitation of Aristotle or a consideration of his influence on other philosophers, including Nietzsche, Kant, and the political theorist Carl Schmitt. As usual with Derrida, what’s at stake is the questionable stability of oppositional couplings that we take for granted—the friend and the enemy, private life and public life, the living and the “phantom.” One chapter hones in on the distinction between individual amity and collective “fraternity.” Another scrutinizes the role that secrets play in friendship, and in society.
Modern life, theorists say, is full of atomized individuals, casting about for a center and questioning the engine of their lives. As a practical matter, friendship is voluntary and vague, a relationship that easily slides into the background of life. For some, friendship is enduring and rhythmic; for others, it’s a sporadic intimacy of resuming conversations that were left years prior. There are people we only talk to about serious things, others who only make sense to us in the merriment of drunken nights. Some friends seem to complete us; others complicate us.
But weirdness, it turns out, can be a good thing.
While it might seem obvious that a spice mix sold by McCormick wouldn’t be considered authentic, things got complicated as more Indians and South Asians — the pseudonymous food writer My Annoying Opinions prominent among them — argued that plenty of Indians use curry powders and list curries on their menus, and that just because British colonizers are responsible for the widespread and limited understanding of curry doesn’t mean Indians and South Asians haven’t made it their own. Yes, the phrase “curry” can be used derogatorily, but as My Annoying Opinions wrote, “curry in the Indian context means something very different than what it has come to mean in the American (and European) context.”
The Twitter debate was a bit of a tweetstorm in a teacup, with each side consisting of smart people who care deeply about how their culture’s cuisines are interpreted by a white supremacist society. And the core of what they were arguing about is authenticity — what it is and who gets to define it, as well as what counts as a taint on a cuisine and what has been lovingly adopted into the traditions. Lucky Peach’s book 101 Easy Asian Recipes cheekily billed itself as “100% inauthentic,” putting okonomiyaki in the same book as “Mall Chicken.” New restaurants like Call Your Mother and Nightshade ditch verisimilitude for a more open-minded approach to their cuisines, with Call Your Mother advertising itself as “Jew-ish.” The authenticity is not the sell, and in fact, it sounds a lot like “fusion.” It’s clear that something about the conversation on authenticity has changed, broadening into a debate about innovation, interpretation, and change and recognizing that no cuisine, or culture, is static. Welcome to Authenticity 2.0.
In the more than 30 years that I’ve lived in Japan, I’ve eaten hundreds of bowls of ramen. Regardless of the weather, the visceral craving for a bowl of soupy, chewy ramen noodles creeps up on you, and cannot be satisfied with any other food. For ramen aficionados, this is a bit of an addiction. But I never expected that one of the most memorable bowls of ramen I’d encounter – and the only one that I’d ever eaten in its entirety, along with every drop of its clear chicken-based broth – would be inside the waiting room of a defunct used-car dealership.
If you are in love with language, here is how you will read Brian Doyle’s posthumous collection of essays: by underlining sentences and double-underlining other sentences; by sometimes shading in the space between the two sets of lines so as to create a kind of D.I.Y. bolded font; by marking whole astonishing paragraphs with a squiggly line in the margin, and by highlighting many of those squiggle-marked sections with a star to identify the best of the astonishing lines therein; by circling particularly original or apt phrases, like “this blistering perfect terrible world” and “the chalky exhausted shiver of my soul” and “the most arrant glib foolish nonsense and frippery”; and, finally, by dog-earing whole pages, and then whole essays, because there is not enough ink in the world to do justice to such annotations, slim as this book is and so full of white space, too.
I spent 24 hours clawing through the tangled thicket of A.R. Moxon’s gargantuan debut novel, “The Revisionaries.” Throughout that lonely ordeal, I was baffled, dazzled, angered and awed. In between bouts of hating it, I adored it. “The Revisionaries” is a self-indulgent muddle; it’s a modern-day classic.
Amid all its grimness, the novel finds some small redemption in the power of love. But VanderMeer’s brilliant formal tricks make love feel abstract and unconvincing by the end, a flimsy human ideal. Late in the book, the blue fox recalls his capture by the Company, staring into his mate’s eyes as he’s dragged away from her. “The sentimental tale,” he tells us coolly. “The tale you always need to care. Which shows you don’t care. Why we don’t care if you care.” It’s precisely that ferocity that makes “Dead Astronauts” so terrifying and so compelling.
This is a near-perfect evocation of childhood’s elegiac end. And it proves Iyer’s literary talents can occasionally match his philosophical ones.
If you’ve heard of Canadian writer Elizabeth Smart, it’s likely because of By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, her thin but thunderous book of prose poetry first published, in England, in 1945. Based loosely on Smart’s obsessive pursuit of married British poet George Barker during her mid-twenties and the doomed chaos that ensued when they passionately collided, the book slowly gained an international cult following after its initial print run of just 2,000 and was eventually hailed as a masterpiece of rhapsodic fictionalized memoir. “Like Madame Bovary blasted by lightning,” was how novelist Angela Carter described it in the sixties. Gloomy British singer-songwriter Morrissey plucked lines from it in the eighties to coopt as lyrics, including the novella’s final sentence, “Do you hear me where you sleep?” The BBC recently adapted it as a radio play, and on YouTube today, viewers can hear Smart’s lines tremulously intoned over shaky hand-held footage of the titular New York station.
Densely metaphorical, seemingly written at a fever pitch, and—as Smart herself freely admitted—only grudgingly plotted, the book has the richness and cadence of scripture. “There are no problems, no sorrows or errors: they join us in the urging song that everything sings,” she writes of angels and the transformative effects of love. “Just to lie savoring is enough life. Is enough.” Though Smart published a few other books later in life, and even her gardening notes have been immortalized in print, it is By Grand Central Station that anchors her literary reputation.
If there is someone thinking these are “just” cosmetic, mandarin matters, it is not so! For us—for me and my good editor—this is what matters. The word that matches what we see and feel explains us to ourselves and does what Robert Frost says of poetry: It stays our confusion.
“The lotteries” not only changed how the Selective Service chose men for the conflict in Vietnam, they also marked a turning point in the history of science. By assigning military induction via an arbitrary factor uncorrelated with personal traits, the lotteries amounted to an experiment.
Yet, unlike most academic experiments, its treatment condition utterly changed individuals’ lives. And, unlike previous draft lotteries, the Vietnam lotteries arrived at a Goldilocks moment in the history of human science. They began just when the systematic collection of data in durable formats had taken root, but before social and behavioral scientists became so enamored with field experiments that excessive efforts to study them degraded their “naturalness.”
Now, 50 years later, the Vietnam draft lotteries have become the drosophila of the social sciences: the model organism for researchers to discern how a life-changing intervention carries implications for the individuals who experienced it, versus those who escaped it by chance.
In the first grip of grief, Riley hears language more acutely – the world’s slipshod tactlessness is all around. She writes about how kindly intentioned people say they can’t imagine how she feels. She argues that they should try (her book will help). She observes the world’s obliviousness: “where people rush about loudly, with their astonishing confidence. Each one of them a candidate for sudden death, and so helplessly vulnerable … Later everyone on the street seems to rattle together like dead leaves in heaps.”
“I just don’t think of writing as a career,” Lutz says. “If I had chosen that as a career, I would have failed at it, obviously. It’s just: get the degree, get an agent, get the book, get the job, get the tenure. And coast. But me, I’ve always been a dab hand at introducing hardship and difficulty into my life.”
He is, however, easy enough to find on a map. For almost 40 years, Lutz has lived in low orbit around Pittsburgh, specifically in the bland burb of Greensburg, where he currently teaches remedial English at a branch of the University of Pittsburgh. He doesn’t like to travel. He fears flying. The city is his one great solace, the place where he goes to wander among gluts of people without chafing too much against any of it.
IN THE SPRING of 2019 at Loyola University New Orleans, the English department once again offered a particularly difficult course on critical theory. It wasn’t “difficult” in the usual ways: not just because Marx’s formulation of base and superstructure is subtler than it seems at first, or because Freud’s “unconscious” is so frustrating because, well, it’s unconscious. It wasn’t because we’re in a so-called post-theory moment, or because the subject seemed abstruse. Rather, it was the very pertinence of the ensemble that makes up what is called “critical theory.” Together, our class came to an alternative, anxious definition for the term: “crisis thinking.”
The crisis, in this case, related to how it felt to be alive in 2019, in New Orleans — many of the students on the verge of graduating into a precarious (if not outright apocalyptic) future to come. Near the end of the semester, we took a detour and discussed Hua Hsu’s New Yorker article about “affect theory” and the work of Lauren Berlant. The article was also a review of Berlant and Kathleen Stewart’s book The Hundreds, a collaborative text that demonstrates affect theory, in short sections of 100 words, or multiples of hundreds. It’s an experiment in constraint.
An estimated 23 million people in Britain now use electric toothbrushes. Their rise is partly driven by our – somewhat belated – national realisation that oral health is important, and by the fact that we have more disposable income than we did a generation ago.
But it is also a story about the rise of an industry; about a struggle between market pressures and medical requirements; about the blurry line between research and public relations. And, in the end, about whether spending the cost of a weekend away on an ergonomically designed, ultrasonic, matte-black thing which looks like a defunct lightsaber will actually do more good than a £1.50 manual toothbrush from the supermarket. Is the electric toothbrush just a marvel of modern marketing or does it deserve plaudits for achieving what frustrated dentists (and parents) have struggled to do: getting us to spend a little more time brushing our teeth?
As I sat in the bar, I realized why I kept returning. It was the sense of community, which had been missing since I separated. More than I wanted a new partner, I wanted to connect. And because my shared parenting schedule involved five-night stretches without my daughter, I had to find ways to cure the loneliness, even if it was drinking at a comedy bar with a bunch of maladjusted guys young enough to be my sons.
“You are hereby warned,” Ralph Ellison wrote to his friend Albert Murray in 1951, “that I have dropped the shuck.” After years of struggle and doubt, Ellison had finished “Invisible Man,” his epic of midcentury African-American life. The novel would win the National Book Award. His life was about to change.
An essential new book, “The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison,” presents this writer in all his candor, seriousness, outrage and wit. Nearly all of these letters are previously unpublished. What brings them alive is that while they brood on the largest of issues — identity, alienation, the political responsibilities of the artist — they’re earthy and squirming with all the vital things of everyday experience.
What did these women have in common? Not prostitution, as Rubenhold shows (only two of them appear to have been paid for sex). In the end, it comes down to this: they were destitute, largely invisible and, at the time of their deaths, probably asleep. Alan Moore called his graphic novel about the Ripper From Hell. But if these women died in such a place, they had already long lived in it. As Rubenhold writes of Annie’s end: “What her murderer claimed on that night was simply all that remained of what the drink had left behind.” Did the misapprehension of the police over the status of these women pervert the inquiry into their deaths? The answer to this question is almost certainly yes, just as it did a century later when Peter Sutcliffe was murdering women in Yorkshire. Then, as in Victorian times, a prostitute was all too often deemed to be a woman who was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.
When German researchers began working on a new Latin dictionary in the 1890s, they thought they might finish in 15 or 20 years.
In the 125 years since, the Thesaurus Linguae Latinae (T.L.L.) has seen the fall of an empire, two world wars and the division and reunification of Germany. In the meantime, they are up to the letter R.
With a heavily Mandarin-speaking population of 23 million, compared with 1.4 billion in China, many of the democratic island’s filmmakers are attracted to the larger market across the Taiwan strait. But bigger-budget films like “The Assassin,” a 2015 release by director Hou Hsiao-hsien, have had to comply with increasingly restrictive Chinese censors, whose demands include downplaying or erasing Taiwanese identity.
Some filmmakers, though, are succeeding with low-budget Taiwan-centered stories told by young directors and aimed at the local market. John Hsu’s hit film “Detention” offers a prime example of how Taiwanese films can find success. Not only is the film Taiwan’s highest-grossing release this year, it landed a slew of awards at the annual Golden Horse Awards held in Taipei on Saturday.
I am not supposed to say this, because a feminist cultural critic can’t sound like a bored fashionista even for a second, but I got tired of leggings. More to the point, so did the industry. All fashions are made to wane. This once-popular nether garment now gets its inevitable toss into the dustbin of fashion history, becoming merely utilitarian rather than stylish. And, once again, I get to observe a cultural moment that is stranger than it appears: the end of one major fashion cycle and the beginning of another. For me, the entire fashion cycle has meanings that vibrate in our unconscious. This moment of symbolic transition can be dangerous to your sense of self-worth as you grow older.
Relying on the history of trends that change women’s looks by driving to the opposite pole, after tight I have been expecting loose. I wanted graceful, well-made, wide-leg pants. I was right. In London two summers ago, on Regent Street, I found the seasonal version. Dark navy cotton, with pockets (finally!), cool, airy, and short enough to show an ankle. Almost everybody, tall or short, wide or skinny, walking or chair-bound, has an ankle for display. Baggy jeans and balloon-leg jeans are also coming back in, my 13-year-old granddaughter tells me. These are styles that almost all females can embrace — they are not meant only for children, yogini, dancers, the hyper-confident (skinny, curvy, young), or wealthy celebrities. I’d almost call them equal-opportunity pants, except the fashion police will say that the top has to be tight-fitting.
At a Chinese banquet, the eating is the least important part. The problem, though, is that Chinese food is irresistibly delicious, especially if you’re someone who’s lived outside China for the last four years. And so this summer, when I returned to my home city of Chengdu for a visit, and a friend called to ask me to meet up at a local restaurant, I said yes without any hesitation.