Aphasia Book Club, you ask? It sounds improbable. Five years ago when I first read a notice for the group, which meets weekly at the Echo Park Branch of the Los Angeles Public Library, I thought it must be a misprint, even a joke. Like many others, I mistakenly assumed that difficulty in speaking or reading implied a deficit in intellectual acuity. It’s not true.
Aphasia is a language problem. It’s a condition, but a treatable condition. Literally meaning “without speech,” aphasia, as defined succinctly by neurologist Antonio Damasio, is “a breakdown of the two-way translation that establishes a correspondence between thoughts and languages.” Most often the injuries to the brain are the result of strokes or aneurysms.
“You’ll never find more motivated readers than those who can no longer take reading, or the ability to discuss what they’ve read, for granted,” says public services librarian Francie Schwarz.
Just as money was a stand-in for value, so the alphabet was a stand-in for meaning, separating words into letters for ease of reordering. This beautiful invention allows us to shape whole universes of meaning out of a small number of letters.
Alphabetical order, however, had a much longer and more circuitous road to dominance. A Place for Everything tells this complex and layered story. The alphabet has always been learned in a set order – but it was ages before this order was used for anything other than memorising the letters. Alphabetisation arrived piecemeal and for centuries remained one arrangement among many.
On a summer day in the early 1900s, a stroll down an amusement park boardwalk could include a roller-coaster ride, a ring toss, or a freak show. It might also feature a decidedly more bizarre attraction: the glassed-in compartments of living, breathing, tiny babies. Designed to show off the new technology aimed at keeping premature babies alive, infant incubator exhibits were sideshow spectacles for decades — one was a seasonal mainstay at Coney Island from 1903 to 1943.
The creepy novelty of incubator exhibits is one of several eerie early 20th-century enticements in Elizabeth Hand’s Curious Toys. Hand takes a break from her photographer-sleuth Cass Neary series (Generation Loss, Available Dark, Hard Light) to set this stand-alone novel in 1915 Chicago’s Riverview Park. Demolished in 1967, Riverview is a flickering fixture in the city’s imagination — in 2017, the Chicago Tribune remembered the amusement park as “a melding of heaven and hell, seedy and serene, glitzy and garish.” Hand, as is her wont, homes in on its darkness. Seen through the eyes of Pin Maffucci, the scrawny 14-year-old daughter of the park’s fortune-teller, this Riverview is all underbelly.
Set on the fictional Quarry Lane estate in west London, these 10 tack-sharp tales report back from the frontline of breadline Britain, exploding myths of social mobility and masculine invulnerability. Bold, abrasive and slyly funny, each story pivots on a moment of unexpected tenderness and human connection, glimpses that are made all the more affecting by the hardscrabble lives depicted.
One sure sign that a reader has reached old age is that he or she loses interest in new fiction. Seen it all. Been there, done that. It’s then that people nearly always do return to the books they loved when young, hoping for a breath of springtime as the autumn winds blow. And if they aren’t rereading “Treasure Island” or “The Secret Garden”? Then it’s likely to be the Bible, Plato’s dialogues or Montaigne’s essays because these inexhaustible classics address nothing less than the meaning of life, which really means, of course, the meaning of our own lives.
When Times New Roman started trending on Twitter yesterday, the books world began to panic. Had Comic Sans escaped? Had the sans serifs risen up against their pointy overlords and Tipp-Exed them out?
No. The author Sean Richardson had asked the internet to “reveal the deepest part of yourself: Which font and which size do you write in?”, little realising he was about to open a Pandora’s box of preference and prejudice.
It sounds almost like science fiction: a tiny world that formed around another star, visiting our cosmic neighborhood for us to study. And yet that’s exactly what has happened, twice now as of the last few months. It will only happen more often this decade.
So maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss food snaps (though let’s be real: a lot of it is mundane). “Man is what he eats,” the 19th-century German philosopher Ludwig Feurbach wrote. And also, what he photographs.
Followers is no romantic comedy, and Angelo clearly doesn’t mean it to be, but it’s a satire in which scraps of optimism drift down the streets of Manhattan like torn and trampled flyers. Orla might have been an author, the novel suggests, and her clubbing roommate Floss—a young woman with a truly glorious voice—might have become a singer, and the two of them might even have found true love, if not for a sparkly prize that dangles at a much closer reach. Each wants to be special, but they settle for getting famous instead.
Mazel Tov recounts the years that Margot – a Belgian atheist of Catholic background and probing disposition – spent tutoring the children of the Antwerp-based Schneider family. She first came to them in the late 1980s as a miniskirt-wearing student, wholly ignorant of their way of life; decades later she remains in contact with them all.
Naming a child after a fictional character is a high-stakes proposition. Like naming a kid for a family member, it can be more meaningful than just picking a name out of a baby book, but it also comes with much more baggage. Unlike a family name, however, a name from pop culture carries connotations not just among relatives, but in the wider world as well. Who could meet three sisters named Amy, Meg, and Laurie Jo and not think of Little Women?
David Letterman is ready to talk. He’s “giddy,” he tells me, and “delighted,” and “about to crack with excitement,” and at first he seems to be joking, laying on thick the irony and sarcasm that defined his persona for so long.
But he’s not kidding. “I’ve had no one to talk to about this, since it happened, save my poor wife,” he explained earnestly, and added, “It took me less time to get over the bypass surgery than it did to get over hosting the Academy Awards.”
Yet here we are, 25 years later, discussing the one and only time he hosted the Oscar telecast. He doesn’t mince words; Letterman calls it, at three separate points in our conversation, “the greatest professional embarrassment I’ve ever endured.”
Grocery stores simply stock items that people seek out on a daily basis: vegetables, spices, and condiments regularly used in cooking in that particular neighborhood. The most natural way to observe how people live at my destination of choice is to navigate this annoying, but necessary everyday routine.
I still buy fabric in my travels and give myself new projects: a wool smock dress is next, and a mustard jumpsuit that I might wear on my book tour, if I finish it in time. And I continue to follow fabric stores and pattern makers, saving Instagram photos of tunics and coats alongside recipes. But I’m only sewing for myself, and occasionally for my partner, and I do it on my own timeline. Some projects take months, and that’s fine. My hobbies need space to be unproductive, useless, aimless. My life needs fewer transactional components, not more.
Individually, the chapters exercise hypnotic intensity, but the overall effect is even more profound. With his panoramic vision of the displacements of war, Yoon reminds us of the people never considered or accounted for in the halls of power. Hearing bits of a speech by President Johnson, they ask, What on earth is a domino? What does your Cold War have to do with us?
Yoon makes us care deeply about these adolescents and what happens to them. For all that he eventually reveals, some details are forever dropped between the shifting plates of survivors’ memories. That’s cruel, but like everything else here, entirely true to the lives of people scattered by war.
In Interior Chinatown, the conceit is a world where literally everyone is an actor and the world itself is an omnipresent television production studio (the entire novel is written in the form of a screenplay). Every job is a role. Every actor has only a few roles that are available to them based on the demographic limits of their race, gender, and age. Actors try to land increasingly better roles, bigger roles, within these limits. Roles that pay better. Roles that get more attention. Roles that will deliver them happiness, move them up the social ladder, and bring them to the doorstep of assimilation.
The Roman author Aelian describes a virginity test that involves a woman trying to feed a barley cake to a snake: if it won’t bite or, wearing a blindfold, the woman fails to find the snake, then she apparently isn’t a virgin and should be punished. Although there are plenty of men in this book – and not just oppressors but young lads who become “withered and aged because of … constant masturbating” – it is unavoidably an account of injustice against women, and a compelling one.
If and when the machines take over, it won’t be as we dreamt it. It won’t be a cold, homicidal smart speaker, or an albino android, or living tissue over a metal endoskeleton, shaped like an Austrian bodybuilder. We could’ve guessed they’d eventually beat us at stuff like chess. And Go. And competitive video games. But those are cold and calculating tasks, fit for machines. We told ourselves that they’d only ever be, well, computers: rigid, rational, unfeeling. The truly human features would always be ours. The warm gooey heart, which no algorithm could ever copy.
But in reality, the robots will be much more lifelike—and because of that, even more unsettling. They won’t sound robotic, because they’ll sound just like us. They might look just like us, too. They might have psychoses, and trippy, surrealist dreams. And someday soon, they might even write some decent verse.
The laid-off employees are entering a job market that has been brutal to online comedy. In recent years, digital outlets Funny or Die, NBC’s Seeso, and Turner’s Super Deluxe all shut down; the Onion has suffered corporate mismanagement and a disastrous redesign; and Elon Musk’s satire startup Thud tanked. It’s not all dire. The rise in subscription streaming services has resulted in a corresponding surge in television opportunities, boutique outlets like Reductress and McSweeney’s are surviving and growing, and, it must be said, there is some good stuff on TikTok. But CollegeHumor is joining a swath of medium-sized outlets focusing on shorter-form comedy and general-audience satire that have also been gutted.
If this sounds like a groaner you’ve heard before, it is. The challenges faced by the online comedy ecosystem in the past decade are intertwined with the rise of social media, which fueled many outlets’ mainstream popularity but also ultimately complicated their existence. “How the hell can you plan for the future when the platforms where your money comes from are completely opaque?” says Adam Frucci, the former director of development for Dropout. “That’s not exclusive to comedy or video. It applies to all online media.”
Japan is the world’s second-biggest producer of plastic waste per capita behind the United States, and goes through around 9 million tons of plastic waste each year. Of that, more than 40 percent is disposable plastic such as packaging and food containers.
“Whether you go to a convenience store or a supermarket, you basically have no option but to use disposable plastic,” says Hiroaki Odachi, project leader of Greenpeace Japan’s plastic campaign. “Whatever you buy, it comes wrapped in packaging.”
You don’t need to spend long in Japan to notice how much single-use plastic there is, but is it really impossible to avoid it? I decide to find out, and set myself a goal of not using any plastic that is designed to be thrown away after a single use for a whole week.
To speak of a cockroach’s personality or a marmot’s mood is no longer scientifically irresponsible; in fact, many behaviorists consider it imprecise and behind the times not to do so. Anthropomorphism — projecting human traits onto other animals — is of course to be avoided, but thanks to an expanded understanding of shared neurobiology, advances in comparative genomics and a better grasp of behavioral ecology, the very meaning of the word is under reconsideration. Decrying someone’s research for being anthropomorphic may have more to do with a critic’s unexamined assumptions about human exceptionalism than inaccuracy on the scholar’s part.
There’s never been a better time to explore, scientifically and philosophically, conditions formerly considered uniquely human. In “Friendship: The Evolution, Biology, and Extraordinary Power of Life’s Fundamental Bond,” Lydia Denworth seeks to “deepen our understanding” of how friendship “affects the course of a life,” by drawing on research from both the human and animal kingdom. What makes us connect with some individuals but not others? And, more metaphysically: What are friends for?
By the epilogue, when the narrative returns to DiGregorio’s personal story, readers will appreciate how medicine lurches forward with leaps and mishaps along with the inevitably tense discussions about which path to take and when. All doctors wrestle with these issues, yet they seem particularly poignant when we are dealing with tiny babies. That’s because, as DiGregorio puts it, the field of neonatology has “changed the way we understand what it means to be alive, what it means to be human, and what constitutes a life worth living.”
For the past century or so, American movies and television have relegated Asian characters and actors to the margins, with few exceptions. Generic Asian Man — he has a name, Willis Wu — is stuck playing Background Oriental Male. If he’s lucky, he might get to speak a few words as Delivery Guy.
Willis is trapped in these roles — not just as an aspiring actor but as a character on a page. That’s because this novel is written in the form of a Hollywood screenplay.
You’re history, said the tree to the wall;
the last crumbling remains of empire.
You are the invader, replied the wall.
For Aristotle, poetry was a “medium of imitation.” For Wordsworth, it was “emotion recollected in tranquility.” Among the thousands of definitions of what is certainly one of the western culture’s oldest art forms, one of my favorites is by the 19th-century Romantic essayist William Hazlitt. In his essay “On Poetry in General,” Hazlitt defined poetry as “the language of the imagination and the passions.” One doesn’t have to be a Romantic to understand what he was talking about — Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan,” Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” and Hart Crane’s “Voyages” are proof of what the imagination and the passions are capable of when working at a fever pitch.
Reduced to its most basic level poetry is words, spoken or printed. But that could just as well be a description of a newspaper. As Hazlitt says, imagination and passion are integral to poetry. Put in slightly different terms, poetry is the emotion of sensitive souls born in the imagination and expressed in the language of the heart. Good poems are as compressed as a diamond (Poe’s “To Helen”) or as expansive as a supernova (Dante’s Divine Comedy). Either way, they illuminate private moments and translate them into universal ones. Poetry unlocks deeper insights into what it means to be human.
During a period of self-imposed exile, I moved back to Macon after college. Living with my parents and my English degree, I marveled at how little had actually changed since I left. My mother still cooked the same Southern dishes, my father still grew the same summer vegetables, and Sheriff Andy Taylor, portrayed brilliantly by Griffith, visited the home every late afternoon.
At this point in my life, when I realized the cool, apathetic version of myself I had fabricated in college was counterfeit, I actually started watching The Andy Griffith Show — really watching it with a critical eye. And I learned about myself, my family, and the twin ideologies of progress and nostalgia, which have often been bitter rivals — at least in the South.
Some five years ago, three years after Rosenhan’s death, the New York-based investigative journalist Susannah Cahalan came across his work. ‘On Being Sane in Insane Places’ was the only significant scholarship he ever produced, and he lived off this famous paper throughout his career. It occurred to her that it would be fascinating to track down as many of the pseudo-patients as she could, and to explore the circumstances under which Rosenhan had come to undertake his study. The Great Pretender recounts the remarkable investigation that she undertook. The book reads like a fascinating real-life detective story, one whose denouement is only hinted at in its title.
I was a devotee of Dungeons & Dragons in the 1980s. My favorite activity in the classic role-playing game was not slaying monsters but creating new characters, which I did by rolling three six-sided dice (in D&D parlance, “roll 3d6”). The resulting numbers generated attributes such as strength, wisdom, or dexterity. But there was another more enigmatic attribute with which each character was blessed or cursed: charisma. It determined how well my paladin or mage could charm, persuade, and coax others to do their bidding. A nimble and charismatic thief could separate a druid from his stave or score a discount when buying a magic cloak.
This quality lies at the heart of Morgan Ames’s book The Charisma Machine. Ames, a faculty member in Berkeley’s School of Information, uses the One Laptop Per Child Program (or “OLPC”) to explore the “complicated consequences of technological utopianism.” Announced at a meeting of the World Economic Forum before an enthusiastic gathering of businesspeople, celebrities, and other thought leaders, the audacious OLPC set out to put inexpensive laptop computers in the hands of tens, perhaps even hundreds, of millions of children in the Global South.
“I feel successful being part of a bigger whole,” she says. “It’s such a man thing to want your effigy. That may be a reason why women have been so forgotten.”
She is referring to her foremothers, the female mathematicians and scientists whose names have been left out of textbooks or who are recurrently “recovered” only to be lost again—women such as Emilie du Chatelet, Sophie Germain, Ada Lovelace and Emmy Noether. When Princeton hired Dr. Daubechies, “they wanted to make a big thing about it,” she recalls. “I didn’t like that. I thought they should be ashamed that they didn’t have a tenured woman on their [mathematics] faculty until 1994.”
Roughly a dozen years ago, a woman I was seeing paid to have an abortion. I went with her to the clinic, but I did not help with the bill. Many details from that time are unclear to me now, like how we met or how long we’d known each other. Mutual friends. A bar. More than a few weeks. Not more than a few months. I was new to the city, she was from around there. I couldn’t tell you what she did for a living aside from the rough idea that she had regular hours and maybe a desk somewhere. I find it hard to even remember what I was doing for a living at that time. Temp agency day labor? Dawn shifts at a bakery? A d.j. gig? We had not seen enough of one another to call it a thing. I know we had a few long conversations about the abortion, though I can’t recall what we talked about. I can tell you there was a second urgent phone call because I missed the first. I don’t remember spending much time talking about who would pay for it. Yet, that’s the part I’m certain of. No one forgets who picked up the tab.
In a fairer — or at least weirder — literary world, Stephen Wright would be as famous as Thomas Pynchon or Don DeLillo. He's has only written five novels since his debut in 1983 with Meditations in Green, but two of them, M31: A Family Romance and Going Native, are among the best of the last century. Wright is an unpredictable author with an unwavering commitment to the surreal; you get the feeling he couldn't write a straight story even if he wanted to. And it's pretty clear he's never wanted to.
Wright's latest book, Processed Cheese, is every bit as bizarre as its predecessors. It's a novel that's simultaneously angry and resigned, a darkly funny satire of American consumer culture in all its greed, lust and sloth — really, just name a deadly sin. Dizzying and bleak, it's Wright at his best.
Woods creates memorable characters in all four settings, each with a distinct purpose that helps make the impossible relatable. Remembrance is a well-researched, epic historical fantasy that, despite its flaws, delivers upon the themes of pain and suffering, loss and survival — and how they can drive the creation of a safe place that by its very existence is timeless.
I wrote the first letter when I was 14, and I stole the idea from a novel. I was alone in my bedroom reading “Emily of New Moon,” a series by L. M. Montgomery, who also wrote the more famous series “Anne of Green Gables.” There are three Emily books, and although I loved Anne, I related more to Emily. Anne is a spunky extrovert, whereas Emily is more withdrawn, more serious. I was a serious, bookish child. I could, in fact, trace my childhood via the female literary characters I loved: Trixie Belden to Betsy and Tacy, Emily of New Moon to Morgaine in “The Mists of Avalon,” all the women in Doris Lessing’s “The Golden Notebook.”
I was 14, and Emily’s bone-deep loneliness resonated with me. When I read the section in the second novel where Emily writes a letter to her future self, I put down the book and did the same thing. It was an impulse; the idea of the letter delighted me. It was a grand gesture, yet of the kind an introverted kid could make alone, with no one noticing. I described the current state of my life and listed my hopes and dreams for myself 10 years later. When I finished writing, I sealed the letter, and from that moment forward, fought the desire to break the seal. I can still remember how hard it was to keep from opening the envelope at the age of 16, and 18 and 20. Talk about delayed gratification! A decade — during that stage of life — was an eternity. I wonder, now, what I was hoping to find in those pages. A truth about myself that, if learned, would allow me to be happy? An answer to the question of who I was, and whether I mattered?
Minimalism, to me, is more about attention than anything else. It advocates seeing the world not as a series of products to consume, but sensory experiences to have on your own terms. A stand-mixer can be as beautiful as the Mona Lisa. Historically, minimalism tells us to focus on what doesn’t at first seem pleasant or beautiful and turn it into art instead of creating a worldview based only on what we already like.
First, eat the pho with your eyes, Tony Chheum told me, when I interviewed him in 2014. Your big, round bowl should be volcanically hot, sending off curls of steam. Next to it, a pile of crisp mung bean sprouts, fresh basil leaves, cilantro sprigs, jalapeño slices, and a wedge of lime awaits. Next to that, if you want, a small platter of thinly cut, extra rare beef.
I was speaking with him in his restaurant, Phonatik, on Dimond. He was sitting across from me at a table in the VIP room, where the graffiti-style artwork on the walls matches his tattoos. I was there to talk about the Vietnamese noodle shops that had been colonizing Anchorage’s strip malls. Drive down any major artery in Anchorage, and a pho shop will eventually appear, tucked in next to a cell phone store or a manicure salon or a dry cleaner.
My friends and I all seemed to be taking stock — considering having kids or feeling exhausted by new parenthood, searching for meaning in careers or seeking balance after working nonstop in our 20s — and speculating all the while thanks to social media if others were enjoying happier relationships, better jobs, and fitter bodies.
This is expected, of course. You make a plan for your life, and then life gets in the way. What is new is that we’re less happy than our 30-something predecessors, possibly because this taking-stock moment is happening during a decade when adulthood milestones — and lack of milestones — are converging in a unique-to-this-cohort way.
In 2019, just twenty-five years after Crocodile’s publication, Taiwan became the first Asian country to legalize same-sex marriage, merging fantasy with reality. Qiu did not live to see that day, but her work remains an indelible tribute to the struggle and tragedy that accompanied the fight for equal rights. It shows us exactly why it is a great thing for a nation to decouple love from anguish. In the novel, Lazi’s intention is to “leave behind some sort of record before… memories evaporate” and one might imagine Qiu’s aim to be similar. As a novel that risks much to say much, Crocodile succeeds on these terms as both testament and novel.
“No metaphors yet / For my father-in-law,” he writes in “Poem Not an Elegy in a Season of Elegies.” “He still in my head belongs to being.”
The line is reminiscent of William Carlos Williams, who is also recollected in these pages: “No ideas but in things.” What Hass, like Williams, is evoking is a way of being — emotional, yes, but also physical, in which abstraction only distracts us from the substance of the world.
That said, revising an heirloom means messing with a lot of people’s memories — including mine: When I opened the 1,080-page hardcover, I found my date bread now calls for walnuts instead of pecans, water instead of coffee, an extra half-cup of dates but no raisins, and oil instead of butter.
I baked one loaf of my old recipe for their visit, and one new one. When I asked why they’d changed my Date Spice Bread to a nutmeg-free Date Nut Bread, the surprise was on me: They had only retested a recipe that had already been updated in editions later than mine.
The ability to be brutal in print and decent in person was a quality I very much admired in Christopher. It went to the heart of his values as a writer and a human being. It belonged to an old-fashioned code, and for all his radicalism, he was old-fashioned. He once said to me, “I’m a Paine-ite,” meaning Thomas Paine. That sounded right. Christopher was born a couple of centuries too late. He was a figure of the Enlightenment, a coffee-house pamphleteer, a ready duelist, an unreasonable fighter for reason, an émigré from England come to the New World to tell us what the universal words of our Declaration meant, and hold us to them.
As we get further away from his much-too-early death, I find myself missing Christopher more and more. Not so much his company, but his presence as a writer. Some spirit went out of the world of letters with him. And because that’s the world in which I’ve made my life, the only one in which I can imagine a life, I take the loss of this spirit personally. Why is a career like that of Christopher Hitchens not only unlikely but almost unimaginable? Put another way: Why is the current atmosphere inhospitable to it? What are the enemies of writing today?
It was early summer, and I was on the verge of turning 40. I found myself entertaining a recurring daydream of escaping from time. I would be hustling my son out the door to get him to school, or walking briskly to work on the day of a deadline, or castigating myself for being online when I should have been methodically and efficiently putting words on paper, and I would have this vision of myself as a character in a video game discovering a secret level. This vision was informed by the platform games I loved as a child – Super Mario Bros, Sonic the Hedgehog and so on – in which the character you controlled moved across the screen from left to right through a scrolling landscape, encountering obstacles and adversaries as you progressed to the end of the level. In this daydream, I would see myself pushing against a wall or lowering myself down the yawning mouth of a pipe, and thereby discovering this secret level, this hidden chamber where I could exist for a time outside of time, where the clock was not forever running down to zero.
My relationship with time had always been characterised by a certain baleful anxiety, but as I approached the start of the decade in which I would have no choice but to think of myself as middle-aged, this anxiety intensified. I was always in the middle of some calculation or quantification with respect to time, and such thoughts were always predicated on an understanding of it as a precious and limited resource. What time was it right now? How much time was left for me to do the thing I was doing, and when would I have to stop doing it to do the next thing?
It is not surprising in our sequel-saturated moment to see an author return to prior material that so powerfully (and, of course, profitably) resonated with readers and critics. So much is often left out of the lengthy production that becomes an author’s first novel that it provides at least some place to find one’s footing in the rush toward the next. What is surprising is to see it done so well, and so thoughtfully.
Highfire is a briskly entertaining outing centred on the curmudgeonly and slobbish Vern, last of the fire-breathing beasts of folklore.
My work now is astonishment.
Here the breeze—an impulsive playful puppy.
There a lark—perches on budding maple
head thrown back, breast a quiver,
sings straight at the sun,
In New York City, the passage of days and night crosses things out.
Discussions of prose style very seldom concern themselves with the actual grammar of sentences. We think of grammar as strict and harsh, something punitive, prescriptive. And yet grammar is the key to much of what makes sentences sing. It is a subtle art, or can be, and the many brilliant writers who use grammar in this way do so to very different ends. Even a casual comparison of the prose styles of Yiyun Li, Rachel Cusk, Lauren Groff, Julie Otsuka, or Z.Z. Packer reveal such differences. These are all writers of prodigious ability and they are all writers who use sentence structure and its grammar(s) in very specific ways for very specific reasons.
Garth Greenwell’s Cleanness is a novel the sentences of which are particularly engaged in grammar as a function of meaning-making. Greenwell’s unnamed protagonist, an American educator in Bulgaria, is adrift across a set of stories and landscapes, alienated not only by culture and sexuality and circumstance but by his struggle to identify himself as an agent capable of meaningful engagement with the world. His relationships are often marked by their sense of difference, rendered in shades so subtly acute that readers come to understand that Greenwell’s protagonist is removed even from his own experience, watching himself watch others in a kind of mirrored distancing that creates, across the book’s nine stories, a pervading sense of life-as-other, ultimately asking the reader to contemplate not only the path of the novel’s protagonist, but their own place in the world, their own foreignness of experience.
Lauren Groff’s review of American Dirt, Jeanine Cummins’s new novel about a mother and son fleeing cartel violence in Mexico, is one of the odder articles that The New York Times Book Review has published in recent memory. It is less a work of criticism than a lengthy self-examination, with Groff, who is white, agonizing at length whether it is even appropriate for her to review the book.
Things took a stranger turn when, shortly after the review was published, the Times tweeted a pull-quote: “American Dirt is one of the most wrenching books I have read in a few years, with the ferocity and political reach of the best of Theodore Dreiser’s novel.” There was one problem: That sentence did not appear in the review itself. Groff demanded that the Times delete the tweet, which it did. Pamela Paul, the editor of the Book Review, explained that Groff had revised her piece, seemingly at the last minute—and seemingly once she got wind that a backlash was brewing against American Dirt. Groff then quasi-renounced the review: “I give up,” she tweeted. “I wrestled like a beast with this review, the morals of my taking it on, my complicity in the white gaze.”
The story of American Dirt has now become a story about cultural appropriation, and about why publishing as an industry chose this particular tale of Mexican migration to champion. And it revolves around a question that has become fundamental to the way we talk about storytelling today: Who is allowed to tell whose stories?
‘How-to writers are to other writers as frogs are to mammals; they are not born, they are spawned.’ So jeered the influential New Yorker journalist Dwight Macdonald in a 1954 screed against the self-help guides he worried were taking over the culture. Macdonald voiced the prevailing view that the distinct spheres – or species – of literary author and self-help writer had little, if anything, in common. Serious authors create; self-help writers multiply. But the influence of self-help on prestigious literature is much deeper and more sustained than figures such as Macdonald would have us believe.
Several years ago, N. K. Jemisin, the fantasy and science-fiction author, had a dream that shook her. In her sleep, she found herself standing in a surreal tableau with a massif floating in the distance. “It was a chunk of rock shaped like a volcanic cone—a cone-shaped smoking mountain,” she recalled. Standing before the formation was a black woman in her mid-forties, with dreadlocks, who appeared to be holding the volcano aloft with her mind. She was glaring down at Jemisin and radiating anger. Jemisin did not know how she had triggered the woman’s fury, but she believed that, if she did not ameliorate it quickly, the woman would hurl the smoldering massif at her.
Jemisin awoke in a sweat and jotted down what she had seen. “I need to know how that person became who she is—a woman so angry that she was willing to move mountains,” she told me. “She was angry in a slow burn, with the kind of anger that is righteous, enough to change a planet. That’s a person who has been through so much shit that she has been pushed into becoming a leader. That’s an M.L.K. I needed to build a world that would explain her.”
When I meet with Errol Morris, the browser on his desktop is open to his Twitter profile. On another desk close by sits a wooden box, inlaid with velvet, and filled with row after row of glass eyes. They remind me of the strabismus that robbed Morris of stereoscopic vision as a boy. They’re also an unavoidable metaphor for the lenses of the camera through which Morris has forged his life’s work. But it’s the intrusion of that other prosthesis, the many-eyed lens of social media, that permeates this scholarly, Saturday quiet at Fourth Floor Productions in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It’s a bit like noticing the unmistakable bulge of swollen lymph nodes beneath the robe of a plague doctor: a grim reminder that we really are all in this together.
When surveyed as a single effort, Morris’s work — 12 documentary features, two television series, three books — is the pursuit of the point at which falsehood bifurcates from truth. Sometimes that point is concrete, and sometimes it’s elusive, and sometimes it’s beside the point entirely. But to say that even — and perhaps especially — he is not immune to the chaotic and ambiguous beam of our networked discourse is to point out certain pervasive, underlying realities about the nature of information in 2020, realities that have a particular bearing on Morris’s latest film, what you think about it, and why it matters.
With schools having largely withdrawn from the practice of making students memorize poetry, few of us today have anything approaching the interior resources of a rhapsode. You might argue that we don’t need them: books are inexpensive and widely available, and we can use the Internet to look up pieces of writing that we may have forgotten or that we want to read. The rhapsodes themselves were obsolete long before the digital age was a glimmer in the eye of the future. Still, though they’ve long since disappeared, their role in the ancient world is a reminder that in reading aloud, we are taking part in one of the oldest and grandest traditions of humankind. Indeed, the long and rich lineage of reading aloud, as a type of oral storytelling, stretches back to the days before anything was written down.
But, ultimately, boiling the argument down into two sides misses the point. It’s 2020, baby—the future. Cutting books into two separate volumes is basic stuff.
Each chapter in “Recipe for a Perfect Wife,” by Karma Brown, begins with either a laughably dated recipe from a Betty Crocker-era cookbook (Chicken à la King, Tuna Casserole) or a quote from vintage advice books for wives and mothers that have titles like “How to Make Him Propose” or “Don’ts for Wives” or “What a Young Wife Ought to Know.” (That last one, written in 1902, instructed the young matron to “shape her life to the probable and desired contingency of conception and maternity. Otherwise she has no right or title to wifehood.”)
Funny how the world used to be so backward! Hahahaha! The joke is on the kitten-heels-and-apron-wearing 1950s housewife wielding a can of cream of mushroom soup, right?
The adage ‘stay in your lane’, beloved of creative writing and journalism circles, has become a mantra for a generation seeking to navigate an era of fast-moving identity politics. It pushes against a tendency more common to writing of the past, of the majority-white, upper-middle-classes spokespeople of an elitist media proffering their inexpert opinion on any given subject. Staying in one’s lane refers to the tendency by which we each recognize the limitations of our knowledge, and straying outside of it can lead to fairly justified reprisals from an army of online commentators. So how do we square this with the latest offering from Irish novelist Edna O’Brien, which sees her veer wholly outside of her lived experience, yet emerge, I think, triumphant?
It’s an irreducible tension that’s never quite resolved, because resolution would be beside the point. “The Longing for Less” generates more questions than it answers — which is only appropriate, considering that the “deeper minimalism” Chayka pursues is more about vulnerability than control.
“Pronouns are suddenly sexy,” Dennis Baron declares at the start of “What’s Your Pronoun?” For “pronouns,” read one specific pronoun, or rather its long-lamented absence in English: the third-person singular gender-neutral pronoun. And for “sexy,” read thorny. Pronouns now come up in lawsuits, school regulations and company codes of conduct. Colleges ask students to provide their preferred pronouns; online dating sites offer pronoun options. “It used to be nerdy to discuss parts of speech outside of grammar class,” Baron, a professor emeritus of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois, writes. “Now it’s cool.”
After this slightly forced attempt at with-itness, “What’s Your Pronoun?” settles down into a scrupulous and absorbing survey. Its great virtue is to show that these issues are nothing new: Gender-neutral pronouns like “ze,” “thon” and “heer” have been circulating since the mid-19th century; others as far back as 1375.
“Waterlog” is subtly political. Deakin was intent on challenging the privatization of once public waters. “The right to walk freely along river banks or to bathe in rivers, should no more be bought and sold than the right to walk up mountains or to swim in the sea from our beaches,” he writes. In one rousing passage, he yells back at censorious river keepers who chastise him for swimming in the trout-filled Itchen, which runs through the grounds of an élite boarding school: “I already felt invigorated after a really first class swim, and now I felt even better after a terrific set-to.” For Deakin, swimming in open waters is a subversive act—a way to reclaim nature cordoned off by capitalism, and to “regain a sense of what is old and wild in these islands.”
Deakin died, from a brain tumor, in 2006. A year later, Walnut Tree Farm was bought by a couple, Jasmin and Titus Rowlandson, who have maintained his commitment to ungentrified country living. There is still no central heating in the farmhouse; it is warmed by an Aga stove and an enormous open hearth, over which dinner is typically cooked. Last year, Titus, who restores classic automobiles in the barn, and Jasmin, a jeweller and a painter, began offering overnight stays in two renovated cabins on the property. In early November, I took the train from London to Suffolk, with the aim of swimming in Deakin’s moat. Heavy rain had fallen all morning, sluicing the windows of the train as it rolled through the port of Ipswich. Deakin’s book begins with an ecstatic moat swim in summer rain, amid “water sprites springing up on tiptoe like bright pins over the surface.” A chilly, wet autumn day seemed considerably less enchanting.
Humans were supposed to be “the rational animal”! Are we instead just doomed to keep making lots of terrible decisions?
New research says there’s another way to look at it. What if people often choose to be irrational in cases where doing the rational thing would violate something they value more — like socially conscious behavior? And if that’s the case, should we actually embrace some instances of irrationality rather than discounting it as an embarrassing nuisance?
An otherwise straightforward writing style becomes abrupt, slippery; the anxiety and disorientation readers feel largely mimics the experience of trauma or grief — life is largely happening to you without your consent or agency, and you’re left running to keep up. It’s a unique reading experience, but one I’ve had in various forms last fall with three different Nordic novels in translation.
The title is appropriate. Clarke is writing about dying, but also, eloquently, about living. Saul Bellow wrote that death is “the dark backing that a mirror needs if we are to see anything”: it gives life its value and time its precious meaning. In Clarke’s hospice, on good days, she sees her patients living as they approach their ends, freshly aware of life’s everyday loveliness. And the passages in her book that made me want to weep were not the ones about dying, but the ones about living, loving, learning how to say goodbye.
Bentley emphasized the inexpensive nature of his handsomely produced compact volumes, ornamented with elegant frontispiece illustrations and title-page vignettes: “price only 6s.” and “Cheap Edition.” He was an early adopter of publisher-issued bindings in cloth, and his prices reflected not only the paper savings of his three-in-one-volume format but also the sudden freedom from traditional leather bindings.
Scholars have amply recorded and praised Bentley’s reprintings of Austen as “Standard Novels,” stressing their authority (that is, he paid for proper copyrights) and importance as Austen’s reputational turnkey. As a result of this attention, Bentley’s sedate volumes are now highly sought after. However, Bentley’s influence upon Austen’s reception may be greatly overplayed, for his books were quickly joined by far cheaper versions with a wider impact. The role of these less-princely reprints has been largely ignored in the dominant fairy-tale version of Austen’s reception.
Scientists and theologians can debate whether the first spark of life on our planet sprang from thermal vents on the ocean floor or divine inspiration (or both), but most everyone who believes in science recognizes that around 3.8 billion years ago the first single-cell organisms emerged. These microorganisms would have died after one generation if they couldn’t find a way to reproduce. But life found a way, and the microbes that started dividing were the ones able to keep their little microbial families going. If each division of these early cells had been an exact copy of the parent, our world would still be occupied solely by these single-cell creatures.
But that’s not what happened.
It’s a tragic fact of life that most of us will experience the loss of a loved one. Approximately 50 to 55 million people die worldwide each year, and it is estimated that each death leaves an average of five bereaved individuals. The experience of loss usually causes a range of psychosocial reactions, such as withdrawal from social activities, deep sadness, confusion about one’s role in life, and bursts of loneliness. In the acute phase of bereavement, these types of grief reactions are often all-consuming, excruciatingly painful, and highly impairing. It can feel as if the love directed towards the deceased person suddenly loses its tangible object, leaving the bereaved individual with an intense emptiness.
Thankfully, over the longer term, most people, most of the time, have sufficient resources to adjust to their new life without the person they’ve lost. They don’t necessarily ‘get over’ their loss, but they learn to cope. Sadly though, this isn’t true for everyone. Accumulating research within psychiatry and psychology has shown that a significant minority of people – approximately one in 10 – do not recover from grief. Instead, the acute reaction persists over the longer term, leading to trouble thriving socially, mentally and physically.
There were only four of us in the room that first day. Three students (two old, as in over 50, and one young, as in under 20) and Filippo Pelacchi, the teacher (who was very young himself, although not in dancer years—he had just turned 28). If I cannot recreate every one of the 75 minutes of that first adult beginner class I took in the summer of 2017, it’s because by now I’ve spent approximately 84,000 more minutes in that studio—that is, 1,400 hours, something like 950 dance classes plus rehearsals for performances, and those minutes run together in my mind. But I do know this—that in that very first class, long before I had any idea what I was doing, long before I was part of the community of devoted adult beginners that would form at Filippo and his husband Russell Lepley’s studio, I had a moment of what seemed like perfect clarity: My body and my mind were working as one.
Adults is a tale rich in keenly observed relationships – between mothers and daughters, best friends and boyfriends, idols and rivals – yet its central, inseparable pairing is that of thirtysomething heroine Jenny and her phone. Theirs is a supremely dysfunctional affair. At one point, it even gives her a black eye when she falls asleep while gazing up at it, though its sabotaging influence on her life is generally both more insidious and more damaging.
Chasing intangible chemical highs ultimately ends up a proxy for the strange business of writing itself, as a quest not merely for experience, but its re-creation. As Rob says, almost poignantly: “It wasn’t enough, somehow, just to be.”
Fans of Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women” can’t stopping talking about it: Marmee March’s confession to her headstrong daughter Jo that “I’m angry nearly every day of my life.”
It’s a line that had never been spoken on film, and only once in a television mini-series. And to those of us who’d buried Louisa May Alcott’s novel about four rambunctious Civil War-era sisters deep in our cobwebbed memories, it sounded unfamiliar and almost shocking.
From quinoa salads discarded at farmers’ markets to pub grub abandoned by fellow diners, it can be quite a varied regime. Park yourself in a central London square on a nice day, and the pricey rice bowls from eateries such as Itsu or Benugo, often still laden with dumplings and prawns and spicy vegetables, pile up alongside overflowing bins. Once I ate my children’s leftovers. Now I eat leftovers from strangers.
I’ve fought a lifelong battle with an urban environment that encourages unhealthy eating – the obesogenic environment, as it has now been defined – and, after being diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, I seemed destined to be on the losing side. But after adopting a diet that friends and family and experts had deep reservations about, I feel transformed.
This writer understands beauty and loss, sorrow and hope, his fluid writing making the telling seem effortless.
The everyday is the everyday, and within it is built the stuff of heartbreak, beauty, tragedy and joy. Who we are is picked out in the ephemera of who we were. Our junk can be our cornerstones, and Motherwell is an object lesson in memoir.
It’s now within
an hour of sundown of a late
On a recent Friday afternoon inside his Laguna Niguel home, Frank Cruz, now 80, looked back at his extensive life — from his boyhood in Tucson’s Barrio Hollywood, to his post-Air Force days at East Los Angeles College, to the succession of achievements he details in his memoir “Straight Out of Barrio Hollywood: The Adventures of Telemundo Co-founder Frank H. Cruz,” co-authored by Rita Joiner Soza.
Over his long career, Cruz has infiltrated spaces where few Latinos had stepped foot before — namely, media spaces that ignored the diverse and growing Latino population in Los Angeles. But this wasn’t his plan as a boy back in Tucson. As he puts it, Cruz likes to say he got into journalism “totally by accident.”
Meng Jin’s ambitious, formally complex debut opens in Beijing at the climax of the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations, as a woman gives birth in a hospital ward that will soon be filled with the wounded. The maternity nurse who tends to Su Lan and her new baby is skeptical of the idealistic pro-democracy protesters: “Little gods, she thinks. Desperate to turn their own growing bodies, their own aches and despairs, into material that might reset the axes of worlds.” This desperation is also what drives Su Lan, we see in the three linked monologues that circle back to tell her story after her death 17½ years later.
We don’t need Marie Kondo to tell us that we stockpile way too much stuff. So you might ask why you should acquire another book, especially one that may not spark joy — actually, it’s more likely to spark deep dismay about the staggering amount of waste that contemporary consumers produce. You might think of Adam Minter’s “Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale” as the hair shirt you don after relishing your brand-new Christmas booty. But this fascinating account of what happens to that sweater you bag for Goodwill or the totaled car your insurance company writes off, is eye-opening — and even surprisingly hopeful. Sometimes one man’s trash is indeed someone else’s treasure.
Should we try to think of ourselves not as individuals but as parts of the physical and cultural ecosystem? Tom Oliver, an ecologist specialising in land use, the climate crisis and biodiversity, believes we need a major shift in that direction. His view is that science now demands this change, and that only by making it will we become capable of responding to global warming and a host of other problems. The idea of the self as a relatively closed system is a delusion that has often conferred advantage, but is now a dangerous trap. Moving through difficult science with valuable clarity, Oliver tells us why.
The affliction of the vast majority of writers is to know what everyone in the world should buy and never to have any money. To be a writer is to be able to stride into a billionaire’s home and critique the gauche fussiness of an ormolu clock over the mantelpiece when you couldn’t afford the cut flowers in the powder room. But every writer I know owns at least one object he or she cannot afford but has to have — a vintage YSL jacket, a Linn LP12 turntable, a collection of prisoner-made demon sculptures. For me, it’s Thomas Browne. These books are not conspicuous consumption. I don’t show them to anybody. They sit in a safe place in my office, where I rarely go. I need them for myself, not others.
In the spirit of airing out our hang-ups, I’ll tell you I’ve historically had a hard time saying no for other reasons, too. For example, I’m competitive; I don’t like to admit defeat and sometimes saying no can feel like a loss. Also, I’ve been known to equate being busy with being virtuous, and I take pride in being the kind of gal you can rely on to get shit done. Whether that pride is worth the extraordinary effort expended to attain it is, as they say, the rub.
So how about you?
I made the decision to write full time in the summer of 2008. I was leaving a teaching position in Beijing, and moving back to Oaxaca, Mexico, my husband’s hometown. I said I was going to “live from writing.” I had no idea what that really meant, but it was a leap I wanted to take.
War is the natural enemy of sleep. From the point of view of soldiers, the need to stay awake, alert, and fearless on the battlefield inspired ancient Inca warriors to use coca, European and American soldiers in the 20th century to pop amphetamines, and Nazi military leaders to serve up cocktails of opium, cocaine, and crystal meth. The field of sleep research itself has been fed by — and has fueled — military combat. One of the first large-scale sleep studies into circadian rhythms conducted by Nathaniel Kleitman, the so-called “father of sleep research,” was a post–World War II military-funded investigation into the disturbances in sleep patterns experienced by submarine sailors. This quest to create more efficient and effective fighters led to a 1997 study on the effects of caffeine, amphetamines, and modafinil on troops who were kept awake for up to 85 consecutive hours; the idea, according to sociologist Simon Williams, was to “turn sleep into an item of logistic supply […] to treat it like fuel” (modafinil has now found a receptive civilian market, in which it is advertised and prescribed as a remedy for sleepiness caused by sleep apnea, narcolepsy, and shift work sleep disorder).
Regardless of Gibson’s shifting ratios of glee to cynicism, he can always be counted on to show us our contemporary milieu rendered magical by his unique insights, and a future rendered inhabitable by his wild yet disciplined imagination.
People have long dreamed of dehumanising decision-making, purportedly because it will lead to greater objectivity and justice, but at least as much because it prevents those who have, after all, ticked the boxes from being blamed for any bad consequences. But any such system bakes in the biases of the designers and the data it is fed.
In 2012, a new landlord took over the pub, and, fairly or unfairly, a wave of negative publicity followed. There were newspaper stories about a police search for unlicensed hunting firearms at the Old Forge in 2014 (the guns were confiscated but no criminal charges were filed) and unpaid utility bills (the owner reportedly settled with the electricity company out of court). There was talk that the owner was excluding locals and muddy visitors. Those of us who watched from afar wondered if it was going to be the end of the legend.
Then, earlier this year, British papers reported that disgruntled regulars had constructed their own drinking spot directly across the road from the Old Forge in protest. Called the Table, it was said to have started as a plank of wood that evolved into a little shack and essentially served as a DIY pub, built, maintained, and patronized by the most remote community on mainland Britain.
The Art of War reminds us of the immense range of human experience and feeling, also that people are not Pavlovian creatures to be led easily by carrots and sticks, and we hold such contradictory views that our “considered” judgments are apt to turn on a dime. Eschewing abstractions, this classic returns us, time and time again, to the human scale and the extraordinary deeds that men (and women) find themselves capable of, given the right situation.
Reading Emerson’s essays did not feel like reading other books. Later, when I tried to describe the experience to a friend, I asked, “Have you ever read a book that made you feel, like, drunk?” Emerson’s aphorisms are forceful, his cadences dizzying, his appeal to individual will seductive. Normally I am an orderly, chapter-per-day kind of reader, using up a pack of Post-it flags and then typing up the important quotes later. But my copy of Emerson’s Essays has only one Post-it flag, in the introduction by Douglas Crase (an Emerson quote: “It seems the one lesson which this miraculous world has to teach us, to the sacred, to stand aloof, and suffer no man and no custom, no mode of thinking to intrude upon us and bereave us of our infinitude”). After that, I lost my bearings. I was always just somewhere in the book, underlining and circling, hunched over, my face too close to the page.
Right after he died, all I ever wanted to do was talk about how great my dad was. People never quite related to that urge properly, leaving me feeling frustrated and thwarted at every turn. I was so dialed into my grief that it was unimaginable to me how people could talk to me about anything else. I wanted other people to tell me funny stories that made my father sound as cool and charming as I’d always believed him to be, without my having to ask for it. That was the thing that my dad’s old coworker did for me. I shot the signals of my mourning into space for months, fully expecting them to die unreceived. And when I least expected it, someone sent signals back that said, “You are not the last living witness to the relationship you had with your father.”
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, however, could never quite understand why his detective stories excited such hoopla. While grateful for the pots of cash they brought in, he firmly believed that his name would live in literary history because of his two deeply researched historical novels, “The White Company” (1891) and “Sir Nigel” (1906). The first and more famous is available this month in an exemplary annotated edition by Doug Elliott and Roy Pilot, while the second is arguably an even better written, more thrilling swashbuckler.
In this way, “A Long Petal of the Sea,” a page-turning story rich with history and surprising subplots that keep the novel unpredictable to the end, serves as a counterpoint and companion to Allende’s first novel. This time, though, she focuses on the lives of the downtrodden but no less heroic figures of war.
I was working as a bookseller when Fifty Shades of Grey was published and spent weeks stacking shelves with the glossy tomes, only for them to be whisked away as soon as they arrived. I soon amassed a range of excuses from customers who so often seemed to be embarrassed to be buying what everyone else was buying. “I’m getting it for my wife,” men announced, unprompted, while women – often younger than the label “mummy porn” suggested – would recount whole conversations with unnamed friends who had deemed the erotic thriller “quite good”.
The trilogy by EL James, the writing moniker of the British author Erika Leonard, was published between 2011 and 2012. Late last year it was announced that they had been the runaway bestselling books of the decade. In the UK alone, Fifty Shades of Grey sold 4.7m print copies, Fifty Shades Darker sold 3.3m and Fifty Shades Freed sold 3.1m. (The fourth biggest-selling book, Jamie’s 30-Minute Meals, sold 1.8m.) At its peak, two copies of the first book sold every second; for a time, the UK ran out of silver ink, thanks to its use on the books’ covers. Worldwide, by 2015, more than 150m copies had sold, with millions more ebooks on top. But alongside the huge number of copies sold, was there a lasting cultural influence?
The idea of smart cities is born of what Watson describes as “the same human superiority-complex that thinks nature should be controlled”. What’s missing is symbiosis. “Life on Earth is based upon symbiosis,” Watson says. She suggests we replace the saying “survival of the fittest” with “survival of the most symbiotic”. Not as catchy, perhaps. But smarter.
Little in “sanitized” adult American life, where Wood is productive and content, seems to have the same kind of purchase as those bygone places and people, that bygone music. He does not tell us — he does not need to — where those vivifying details can still be found (“the poplar, the lilac and the roses”). “To notice is to rescue, to redeem,” Wood writes. “To save life from itself.”
The enemies-to-lovers story is a classic, and How to Speak Boy honors that tradition with charm and humor.
Some days no one is my mother
but my mother. & my mother is no
longer a distance that cinches itself—
the flush on flush of the new
Is fiction more like the covert violation of the liar, or like the overt violation of the ironical speaker? Unlike the liar, the fiction author doesn’t hide her untruthful intentions: they’re on the book’s cover, or announced by a library classification sticker. When you pick up a Harry Potter book, watch one of the movies, or listen to a podcast discussion thereof, there is no deception – in fact, a proper appreciation of the work presupposes that we know that Harry Potter is a fictional character, made up by J K Rowling. However, unlike in the case of irony, the fiction author’s words have their regular meaning. The apparent flouting doesn’t trigger the expected nonliteral reinterpretation of the author’s words in order to restore adherence to the maxims.
So while we have managed to distinguish irony from lying, the place of fiction in our typology remains unclear. There are two hypotheses to explore. First, we can stick with the idea that both fiction and lying are quality-violating assertions – ie, speech acts presenting something believed to be false as if it’s known truth – and then look for some other feature to distinguish them. Second, outward appearances to the contrary, we can analyse fictional discourse as constituting a different type of speech act, where the usual norms and maxims don’t apply in the first place.
Bunn and Salzer had come to the Whites to lay the groundwork for a study of very old bristlecone wood. Bunn is keenly interested in tracking climate change through bristlecone data. Salzer has long wanted to fill out a comprehensive chronology of bristlecone tree rings, carrying on work that began at the Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research in the mid-twentieth century. After breakfast, we drove up a narrow, twisting road leading into the Whites. Upon picking a camping spot, we headed to the chief attraction of the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest: the Schulman Grove. It includes Methuselah, and was named for Edmund Schulman.
Bunn, the more loquacious of the pair, said, “What is the oldest tree? It’s trivia. Matt and I don’t find it that interesting. It’s unanswerable. A lot of these trees have been dated; a whole lot haven’t.” He paused. “Of course, I get a chill from standing next to something that’s been living in the same place for five thousand years. We can’t begin to comprehend the mechanisms of birth and death on that scale.”
But if humans’ fears that technology would replace them have been unfounded in the past, this time is different. So argues Daniel Susskind, a fellow in economics at Oxford, in his new book, “A World Without Work: Technology, Automation, and How We Should Respond.” Susskind declares that machines are getting so smart that they’ll soon replace humans at a growing list of jobs, potentially including doctors, bricklayers and insurance adjusters, thus ending what he calls the “Age of Labor.” Without some sort of intervention, he says, the inequality inherent in today’s economy will metastasize into an even greater divide between the haves and have-nots.
They say the rules are: be forgotten, or proclaim myself.
I’m reasonably tired of that game, myself.
I'll never forget the first time I woke up in New Zealand, having arrived late at night from the other side of the world, beyond exhausted and unable to focus on anything except getting to my hotel room and crawling into bed. I had traveled widely but had never before crossed the International Date Line, or indeed the equator. So, on that first morning, I was unprepared for what happened when I drew back the curtains: an assault of light such as I had never before experienced. Once outside, I found that I couldn’t see properly unless I had sunglasses on, such was the light’s intensity. I was meeting a friend for coffee in downtown Wellington, and when I told him about my experience, he laughed and said, “Yes, of course! This is your first experience of southern light. I expect your poor old Northern European eyes will adjust eventually.” But they never did, and despite many more trips to New Zealand over the years, they never have.
According to New Zealand historian Jock Phillips, the Māori word for the country, “Aotearoa” — usually translated as “land of the long white cloud” — can also be translated as “long bright world” or “land of abiding day.” New Zealand’s most iconic author, Katherine Mansfield, who spent half her short life in Europe away from that light, remembered it vividly in her short story “At the Bay,” conjuring up memories of her childhood holidays by the sea: “[T]he leaping, glittering sea was so bright it made one’s eyes ache to look at it.”
On Monday the New York Public Library, celebrating its 125th anniversary, released a list of the 10 most-checked-out books in the library’s history. The list is headed by a children’s book—Ezra Jack Keats’ masterpiece The Snowy Day—and includes five other kids’ books. The list also includes a surprising addendum: One of the most beloved children’s books of all time didn’t make the list because for 25 years it was essentially banned from the New York Public Library. Goodnight Moon, by Margaret Wise Brown, would have made the Top 10 list and might have topped it, the library notes, but for the fact that “influential New York Public Library children’s librarian Anne Carroll Moore disliked the story so much when it was published in 1947 that the Library didn’t carry it … until 1972.” Who was Anne Carroll Moore, and what was her problem with the great Goodnight Moon?
The surest signal that one is watching one of the nine films in the Star Wars Skywalker saga isn’t something on the screen. It’s not the opening crawls or the scene wipes. It’s not the lightsabers, blasters, or starfighters. It’s not even the indefatigable droid duo of R2-D2 and C-3PO. All of those things are present at some point in each movie, but not from moment to moment. The only true constant in the Skywalker saga is the sound of the score. And for five decades, that sound was the work of one man, John Williams, who announced in 2018 that The Rise of Skywalker would be his last Star Wars soundtrack.
Few institutional building booms come without stylistic commonalities: America has dozens of neoclassical art and natural history museums built within a decade or two of 1900. So it was with the science center. The majority of science centers date from a similar span from 1980 to 2000, a less promising architectural moment, when Postmodernism had blurred back into the mainstream. Although a few of them are proper starchitecture (for better or worse), most are less fancy. Some science centers are wonderful; many are OK.
This all occurred at a hinge moment of museum popularization, at which nearly all museums undertook steps to increase their attendance, adding theaters, gift shops, larger public spaces, and splashier traveling exhibits to lure visitors. These measures weren’t only of interest to museums themselves—they were avidly sought by civic authorities and boosters.
When novelist Joanna Kavenna was recently asked what subject she found most challenging to write about, she answered: “General Reality. What is it? Who decides? Is it just the physical things we can see and touch? Atoms, no atoms? Thoughts only when they become deeds? Whose thoughts? (Whose deeds?)” Her newest novel, “Zed,” doesn’t answer these questions, but rather asks them over and over again, until what begins as a familiar addition to the dystopian or techno-horror genres becomes far stranger and more appealing.
But Wade’s book rises above the publishing cliches to tell a deeper story about women’s autonomy in the early 20th century, about their work and education, politics and activism. What emerges is an eloquent, pellucid, sometimes poignant study of five female intellectuals, each of whom disdained convention to fulfil their potential as thinkers and writers.
It’s tempting to call Uncanny Valley a coming-of-age tale, but what the memoir offers is less about Wiener’s own personal narrative and more of a sociological study on tech-bro, start-up culture. There is something Swiftian about her professional journey, which first takes her to a small e-book company in New York that allows her to “fail up” (her words) then to a rapidly growing analytics start-up before landing in a more established open-source platform enterprise. Each step up the economic chain proves to be more grotesque, as the promise of technology devolves into the threats we understand today, and it becomes clear why: Despite tech leaders’ and workers’ belief that their products are ahistorical, apolitical, and practically atemporal—perpetually relevant and futuristic in their mind—the systems they create are political by design.
The House of Mirth was the first literary classic that I picked up entirely on my own, without prodding from a teacher or a parent, and adored. I read it as a teenager, during a stifling summer visit to my grandparents, when my literary tastes were unsophisticated (Archie comics were high on my list). I recall the experience as my coming of age as a reader – when I learned, years before discovering that I wanted to write, what transformative power a work of fiction can have.
Because my attachment to the book is so personal, I tend to reread it with slight trepidation that the magic may have fled. After all, the world and I have both changed quite a bit since I was a teenager. But each time, I find the novel’s tragic power intact, even as the nature of the tragedy seems to shift – from the perils of living by one’s looks (teenage reading) to the cruelty of the world towards women (early adult reading) to the struggle for personal freedom in a money-obsessed culture (adult reading) to my most recent (middle-aged, I’ll reluctantly call it) appreciation of the novel as an artefact of the Gilded Age that lays bare that era’s pathologies. All of which moves me to assert that Edith Wharton’s second novel is a masterpiece that remains electrifying and relevant in our 21st century.
In 2016, William Gibson was a third of the way through his new novel when Donald Trump was elected president of the United States. “I woke up the day after that and I looked at the manuscript and the world in which the novel was set – a contemporary novel set in San Francisco – and I realised that that world no longer existed. That the characters’ emotional basis made no sense; that no one’s behaviour made any sense. Something of this tremendous enormity had just happened and I felt really lost – and sort of mournful. I was losing this book.”
The great chronicler of the future had been overtaken by events. This had happened once before. Gibson had been 100 pages into Pattern Recognition – the first of his novels set in a near contemporary version of reality – when the Twin Towers fell, forcing him to rewrite that novel’s world and the backstories of its characters. His future had to catch up with the present.
I sit and contemplate how much Laurie has lost. She can no longer write. She can’t even sign her own name. The television’s remote control mystifies her. When we go out for dinner, she can’t read the menu. She no longer showers, seemingly afraid of the water. She wears the same clothes, day after day. Her hair has grown ragged and when the telephone rings, she simply looks at it.
I understood the word “progressive” when her neurologist first diagnosed it. But I realize I never really absorbed it, fooling myself into thinking that however she was would remain the same way. When I’d notice some new diminishment, I’d just reorder my thinking, believing that this was now the new normal.
I now understand none of that’s true. I’ve lost her. And she’ll never come back.
But although ‘the’ has no meaning in itself, “it seems to be able to do things in subtle and miraculous ways,” says Michael Rosen, poet and author. Consider the difference between ‘he scored a goal’ and ‘he scored the goal’. The inclusion of ‘the’ immediately signals something important about that goal. Perhaps it was the only one of the match? Or maybe it was the clincher that won the league? Context very often determines sense.
By femaleness I do not mean femininity, in its traditional codes of behavior and dress. Rather, I mean an embrace of what it means to live as a woman in America in the millennium, of the emotional and experiential arcs this can entail, and of how for many women it requires a perpetual decision-making process about how to engage with the male realm.
It’s a book designed to appeal to anyone like you or me, the proverbial common reader, who has been reading books for longer than we can remember, yet who perhaps knows next to nothing about the history of the fleuron or the architectural origins of the epigraph and the frontispiece (from medieval Latin, meaning ‘looking at the forehead’ and referring originally to ‘the front of a building’).
During the Jim Crow era and beyond, travel for African Americans was frequently yoked to humiliation or terror. Black travelers knew that even a simple road trip required props and a plan. Part of that essential prep included “The Negro Travelers’ Green Book,” a travel guide first published in 1936.
Taylor’s new book revisits the nesting stories behind the “Green Book,” which helped black tourists navigate racial minefields implicit in a road trip — whether across counties or cross-country.
Evenings, I would sit
on a moldy, high-back couch
and watch the light outside go mauve, then die.
“It’s a lieder cycle,” Greenwell said, borrowing a term from classical music. “That’s what the ideal, platonic version of the book is in my head.”
Indeed, the nine stories of “Cleanness” have the cohesion of a song cycle, the genre of Schubert’s “Winterreise” and Schumann’s “Dichterliebe.” While they don’t appear in chronological order, there is a symmetry to their organization, with a life-altering love affair rippling out from the center.
For me, fiction is a kind of Schrödinger’s box — a way of simultaneously being in the world and not being in the world. Some books deliver that uncanny feeling better than others, but in the right context any book can do that, not just the “literary” ones that studies typically advocate.
What if reality truly sucks and, while depressed, we lose the very illusions that help us to not realise this?
A ball pit is nothing but a big empty hole with a bunch of plastic spheres dumped inside. But there’s also something strange and special about it: the half-swimming, half-freefalling sensation of playing neck-deep in a pool-like space that your brain knows should be filled with water, but instead feels like the inside of a giant gumball machine.
For the better part of 50 years, the ball pit has been a mainstay of the childhood experience for millions of kids across the globe. But whether it’s at an amusement park, a fair or inside a McDonald’s, all of the world’s ball pits can be traced back to one man: its inventor, an English man named Eric McMillan.
At home working on a client’s website
—an archive of Yiddish memories—
I look up in time to see a yellow poplar topple.
By his own account, 2019 was a “roller-coaster” year for poet and fiction writer Ocean Vuong. In June he published his debut novel, “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” to rapturous reviews, and it became an instant bestseller.
In September, Vuong received a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant, freeing him from financial worries, at least for the next five years. Less than six weeks later, his mother, Rose, died at age 51, not long after being diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer.
We are now in the mature stage of a book-to-film boom that is quietly transforming how Americans read and tell stories—and not for the better. The power of this force is hard to quantify because intellectual property is now being bought in Hollywood in such unprecedented volume and diversity of source material. Almost all written works that achieve prominence today (and many more that don’t) will be optioned, and increasingly it is becoming rare for film and television projects to move forward without intellectual property attached. America’s higher echelon of long-form journalists can now expect to make more money from Hollywood than they do from the publications that print their stories. The emergence of streaming services from Amazon, Netflix, Apple, Disney, and even Walmart has driven a demand for writing on a bulk commodity scale at a time when the business of publishing—especially but not only in the world of magazines—has largely abdicated its responsibility for paying writers an amount that would secure a decent life.
The cultural weather has changed since David and Goliath in 2013. In response to raised political stakes, the discourse has acquired an urgency and stridency at odds with Gladwell’s cool, playful tone. He has thrived on riding the zeitgeist, but today, if you had to identify the public intellectual who captures the moment, it would not be Gladwell, but Jordan Peterson. Both are Canadians of a similar age (Gladwell 56, Peterson 57) and Peterson teaches at Gladwell’s alma mater, the University of Toronto. I ask Gladwell what he thinks of him. “He’s unbelievably interesting. He’s not someone you need to agree with in order to value.” What people misunderstand about Peterson, he says, is that in Canada, raging against liberal norms makes you a contrarian. In America, it just makes you a Republican.
While Peterson tells the world how to live – and you’re either with him or against him – Gladwell is essentially happy for you to live however you want. And while Peterson is certain about everything and responds with truculence to criticism, Gladwell is OK with being wrong and would like more people to consider that they might be, too. To use Christopher Hitchens’s distinction, Peterson is a literalist, Gladwell an ironist. No wonder Peterson is in the ascendant.
In Jorge Luis Borges's very short story “On Exactitude in Science,” the imperial cartographers perfect their art. As they hone their practice, the maps become larger and larger to accommodate more detail. Finally, “the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it.” There is a joke here: a perfect map is a futile map. A map requires exclusion to be of use. A narrative is a useful map, a way through that retains a settled — even relentless — relationship to what it discards. The reliable narrator brings forward what is necessary, with no emotional remainder.
The unreliable narrator has an unsettled relationship to what has been left behind. She charts a useless map, offering no promise to lead us from here to there such that, upon arrival, here and there are magically inverted as though where we end up is where we’ve been headed all along. In her brilliant debut poetry collection, Hard Damage, Aria Aber writes, “I understood what it meant to have an unreliable narrator as a mother.” Afghan refugees living in Germany — like Aber’s own parents — the parents in Hard Damage are shaped by what they’ve lost, as well as by the brilliance of their creation in the face of that loss.
The overarching joke of Such a Fun Age is that while the white characters fret over what black people think of them and their progressive values, the black characters are busy getting on with their lives and trying to keep up with one another.
Say the name McDonald’s, and what comes to mind? Tasty hamburgers or hardened arteries? Entry-level jobs or dead-end McJobs? Responsive community outreach or mercenary corporate power?
In “Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America,” Marcia Chatelain has written a smart and capacious history suggesting that McDonald’s should summon all of those thoughts, and then some.
Offhandedly, de la Mare described the drama-free book club of her dreams to her friend: one where all she had to do was meet people at a bar with whatever book she was reading. No forced deadlines. No reading books she didn’t want to read. No vacuuming the house. No preparing deviled eggs or canapés.
Gluhanich loved the idea. Why not make it a reality?
Few large groups of English speakers have borne as great a burden of stigma as black people. In the time of slavery, that stigma was enshrined in law—and even after emancipation, legal measures have been used to ensure that black people could not easily vote, could not access decent education and transportation, and so on. Since the civil rights era, many legal barriers to equality have been removed, but society has yet to catch up. As of the second decade of the twenty-first century, black people are almost five times as likely to be jailed as white people, despite making up only 13 percent of the population. It’s not surprising, then, that the dialect many black people speak is stigmatized, too—to such a great extent that it’s often denied the status of dialect, becoming merely “bad” English. That assumption has become so ingrained, it’s even taken up by some black people themselves.
Goya. A small word, but one that contains multitudes. It is one of those mythic beasts, the “untranslatables,” the foreign words that supposedly lack any equivalent in English. Lists of them spread virally online. Someone may have shared one with you on social media: it might have included utepils, sgrìob and saudade—of which more later. But for now, let us examine goya.
In addition to being visually striking, Halley VI provides researchers with a more spacious and comfortable living and work environment. It is set on hydraulic stilts, allowing operators to lift it up out of accumulating snow drifts. And if the entire station needs to be moved — it sits on a drifting ice shelf — skis at the base of those stilts make that possible.
“Before, these projects were all just about keeping the weather out,” Mr. Broughton said. “Engineers would be told, ‘This is the weather, this is the wind speed, these are the restrictions.’ But now these projects are about using architecture as a means of improving both well-being and operational efficiency.”
The Mathematical Bridge is a wooden footbridge across the River Cam, connecting the old and new parts of Queens' College in Cambridge. The bridge is much admired because of its intriguing design—it is constructed entirely out of straight timbers, but has an arched shape.
In The History of the University of Cambridge, author Edmund Carter praises the bridge as “one of the most curious pieces of carpentry of this kind in England”. The timbers of the bridge are “curiously joined together, and supported on abutments of rustic stone-work, between which is a passage for the Cam, 40 foot in the clear, and of such height, that the waters in a common flood cannot reach the lowest timbers thereof.”
While race dominates, Reid is far too engaged a writer to let it define a narrative that has equally incisive observations to share about everything from maternal ambivalence to dating mores and dining fads. Hypocrisy and forgiveness get a look in, and in some respects, this is a novel that’s as much about money and class as anything. All in all, it’s a cracking debut – charming, authentic and every bit as entertaining as it is calmly, intelligently damning.
Now Greenwell is back with “Cleanness,” a collection of stories that revisits that teacher’s experience in Bulgaria, a country the author knows from his own stint as a teacher at the American College of Sofia. Three of these nine stories have appeared in the New Yorker — and almost all of them are extraordinary. Although the form is smaller, the scope is broader, and the overall effect even more impressive than his novel. Greenwell’s style remains as elegant as ever, but here it’s perfectly subordinated to a fuller palette of events and themes.
In Miranda Popkey's slim but potent first novel, Topics of Conversation, sex, desire, and failed relationships are ever at the fore. Her unnamed narrator, a troubled young woman, reports on a series of conversations with various other women — a classmate's mother, fellow graduate students, fellow single mothers — over a span of 17 years following her graduation from college in 2000.
This is a book full of the turbulence of thought and desire, piloted by a writer who never loses their way. That compass — provided by friends, influences, collaborators — stays steady. “I need no savior,” Smith writes, “but their love.”
In a leafy cafe courtyard in San Francisco, Anna Wiener is cradling a cup of tea while eavesdropping on the next table. “There’s a man wearing shiny pants, holding forth on artificial intelligence and ‘the Chinese hegemon’,” she says, eyes glimmering with amusement.
It will come as no surprise to readers of her debut, Uncanny Valley, that Wiener is as quick witted in person as she appears on the page. “All writing is a sort of performance,” she says. In the book Wiener condenses four years of working at tech startups in Silicon Valley into a neat narrative about outsized male egos, dramatic wealth disparities and the psychological toll on young female employees.
We like to think that what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, or more resilient, or . . . something. Deeper. Wiser. Enlarged. There is “glory in our sufferings,” the Bible promises. “Suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.” In this equation, no pain is too great to be good. “The darker the night, the brighter the stars,” Dostoyevsky wrote. “The deeper the grief, the closer is God!” We atheists get in on the action by insisting that the agony of loss elucidates the worth of love. The hours spent staring into the dark, looping around our own personal grand prix of anxieties, are not a waste of time but a fundamental expression of our humanity. And so on. To be a person is to suffer.
But what if our worst feelings are just vestigial garbage? Hypervigilance and pricking fear were useful when survival depended on evading lions; they are not particularly productive when the predators are Alzheimer’s and cancer. Other excruciating feelings, like consuming sadness and aching regret, may never have had a function in the evolutionary sense. But religion, art, literature, and Oprah have convinced us that they are valuable—the bitter kick that enhances life’s intermittent sweetness. Pain is what makes joy, gratitude, mercy, hilarity, and empathy so precious. Unless it isn’t.
Until recently, it was almost unanimously assumed that huge amounts of invisible dark matter was the key to galaxy formation; the gravitational effects experienced and induced by clumps of dark matter in the universe produced swirling disks of gas clouds, stars and dark matter. Dark matter had to make up the majority of matter in these galaxies, according to standard models of the universe, otherwise they would never have formed.
But since 2016, researchers keep stumbling upon galaxies that don’t seem to be dominated by dark matter. Some calculations imply that these galaxies lack dark matter entirely. Either way, galaxies which have far less dark matter than expected would give physicists a lot of explaining to do: why are they lacking dark matter, and how did they form in the first place?
Bad listeners are not necessarily bad people. You likely have a dear friend, family member, or maybe a romantic partner who is a terrible listener. Perhaps you, yourself, are not the best listener. And you could be forgiven since, in many ways, you’ve been conditioned not to listen. Think back to when you were a little kid. If a parent said, “Listen to me!” (perhaps while holding you firmly by the shoulders), it’s a good bet you weren’t going to like what was coming next. When your teacher, Little League coach, or camp counselor beckoned, “Listen up!” what followed was usually a bunch of rules, instructions, and limits on your fun.
And certainly the virtues of listening are not reinforced by the media or in popular culture. News and Sunday talk shows are more often shouting matches or exercises in “gotcha” than respectful forums for exploring disparate views. Late-night talk shows are more about monologues and gags than listening to what guests have to say and encouraging elaboration to get beyond the trite and superficial. And on the morning and daytime shows, the interviews are typically so managed and choreographed by publicists and public relations consultants that host and guest are essentially speaking prepared lines rather than having an authentic exchange.
Napolitano’s fearless examination of what took place models a way forward for all of us. She takes care not to sensationalize, presenting even the most harrowing scenes in graceful, understated prose, and gives us a powerful book about living a meaningful life during the most difficult of times.
With this entertaining novel, Reid subverts our notions of what it means to write about race and class in America, not to mention what it means to write about love. In short, it’s a great way to kick off 2020.
“How many times as black men have we heard something before and had to bite our tongues?”
DeRon Cash, his tattooed forearms resting on his knees, curled a paperback revered by the late Nipsey Hussle in his hand. He didn’t really mean it as a question — and the other black men huddled around a coffee table in Boyle Heights knew not to answer.
Once a month, Cash and a group of men come together for The Marathon Book Club — one of several chapters across the country that were founded after Hussle was killed outside his South Los Angeles clothing store in March.
Any skilled endeavour entails concentration, but chess is unusual in requiring that we concentrate not for a few minutes at a time, but for several hours at a time, within tournaments, for days at a time, and within careers, for years at a time. Concentration is the sine qua non of the chess experience.
In chess, concentration usually unfolds in quick succession through perceiving, desiring and searching. But it’s recursive, so I often find something I didn’t expect in a way that leads me to see my position differently and want something else from it. My perception is pre-patterned through years of experience, so I don’t see one square or piece at a time. Instead, I see the whole position as a situation featuring relationships between pieces in familiar strategic contexts; a castled king, a fianchettoed bishop, a misplaced knight, an isolated pawn; it’s a kind of conceptual grammar. The meaning of the position is embedded in those patterns, partly revealed and partly concealed, and my search to do the right thing feels fundamentally aesthetic in nature.
The elder of the two is an edited volume on American literature as world literature. In his introduction, Di Leo states that he doesn’t mean this in the obvious, unobjectionable sense that American novels are read throughout the world, sometimes in the original as well as in translation, and that they have an international status and influence far beyond that of, say, Estonian literature. He tells us he means “world,” “American,” and “literature” in a more complicated way, which I have several problems with, particularly with his indiscriminate use of the word “literature.” But rather than start this review on a combative note, let me first describe some of the more satisfying contributions to this volume before circling back to the unsatisfying introduction, and Di Leo’s own provocatively titled essay, “Who Needs American Literature?” (What follows is drive-by criticism that can’t do justice to the complexity of these essays.)
The Missing Course is part education theory, part reflection on labor, part toolkit. Gooblar critically diagnoses how teaching gets done (or doesn’t) in modern colleges and universities, but he goes beyond critique, offering a series of activities, approaches, and strategies that instructors can implement. His wise and necessary book is a long defense of the idea that a university can be a site of the transformation of self and society. A profound sense of care motivates it: “The students are the material,” and to teach well is to practice “the mysterious art of helping people change.”
But the same sympathy that drew me towards Mary made me reluctant to accept in its entirety Austen’s version of her. The qualities that condemn her in Pride and Prejudice did not seem so heinous to me. I thought her efforts to educate herself, in the face of her family’s indifference, commendable rather than ridiculous. And the earnestness that resulted from her lonely endeavours seemed rather sad and touching. The Mary I wanted to write about would look rather different from Austen’s character. But could readers ever be convinced to accept her? Once a character is established as fundamentally unlikable, can anything be done to make us change our minds?
In 2015, The Times began following six people age 85 and up, documenting their journeys through a stage of life that is often invisible.
Four were still alive at the start of 2019. Jonas Mekas, 96, began the year at home from the hospital, tired, hoping to finish a film he was making for a performance of Verdi’s Requiem. “Another year,” he said last New Year’s Day. “Hope it will be busy and productive.”
On Jan. 23, he asked his son, Sebastian, to sit him upright in a chair — a preparation, Sebastian said, for his spirit to go forward to the next adventure. He died at the small wooden table where he’d sat with so many friends.
Jonas was the last of the three men in the Times series. Of the three women, two also died in 2019. Both were 95.
One does not read the Maigret novels in expectation of wild revelation or plot twists, but to inhabit the vividly realised world of Parisian streets, dives, bistros and high-class hotels. If the books are sketches, they are the sketches of an old master. But the thread that runs though all the books is Maigret’s inquiries into the psychology of his adversaries, and it is this unfailing humanity that makes the Maigret books truly worth reading.
My father was forty-five or forty-six when he had a heart attack. This trouble with his heart was surprising, since for all the years we had known him as children his trouble was his stomach and his indigestion, requiring bottles and bottles of a particular brand of medicinal stomach powder, which he never had the foresight to buy when he was all right, preferring instead during a crisis to send his children on the long walk to the local pharmacy for the powder.
A couple of years after this heart trouble, my father was put on half pay by the Trinidad Guardian, the newspaper for which he worked. I was in school in England when this happened, and I worried about the effect of this half pay on my family; things had been bad enough on my father’s full pay. But my father, now near the end of things, was possessed by a strange lightness of spirit. It was as though the heart illness, officially recognized by doctors and the newspaper, gave full expression and an extra validity to the unhappiness he had felt for years, with the Guardian, with my mother’s family, with his poverty, with prejudice and the British Empire and the unhappy state of India, and with many other things; and it was no longer necessary now for him to go over any of the points.
The first one plummeted into a supermarket parking lot that was then under construction. That was in 1996. Two years later, a couple on a date swore they saw a second body hit the same spot, though this has never been confirmed. Another few years, another dead person in another parking lot, this one across from the supermarket which had by then been completed. The area received a decade-long reprieve from the bodies after that, but nothing lasts forever. In 2012 residents found one on a leafy side street; then, in 2015, on an air-conditioning unit on top of an office building. And this past summer, the latest: It plunged headlong into a walled back garden, neatly cracking the pavement open and landing next to a sunbather who responded with an appropriate mixture of shock and horror. That is supposed to have been the nearest near-miss.
The bodies are not from London. They appear to have only the fact of their difference in common. They were foreign, they were poor, they were black or brown, and when they were alive they would have been correct to surmise it would be difficult to enter the United Kingdom by filling out the usual paperwork. So, they skipped the forms.
Rodrigo Márquez Tizano’s debut novel, “Jakarta,” is a journal of the plague years. Or, more accurately, of the post-plague years, although such eras here are one and the same. Set in a small, imaginary country in Latin America, the book is a kaleidoscopic take on love and loss and longing, written in a voice that is sharp and cynical yet somehow without despair.
“Long Bright River” — a book that has garnered much pre-publication buzz — nervously twists, turns and subverts readers’ expectations till its very last pages. Simultaneously, it also manages to grow into something else: a sweeping, elegiac novel about a blighted city.
This is one of those books that turns a discipline upside down – the cold war, state socialism, eastern Europe and 20th-century architecture all look different in the light of its findings. Based on multilingual research, it concentrates on how the development of several postcolonial cities – mainly, but not exclusively, Accra, Lagos, Baghdad, Abu Dhabi and Kuwait City – were in large part the product of architects and planners from the USSR, Yugoslavia, Poland, East Germany, Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania. It sketches in a strange geography, where an architect couldn’t legally go from one end of Berlin to the other, but could travel across the world and reconstruct it.
The questions Burrell and Ropper raise are as intriguing as their answers. How do we distinguish between brain and mind? And which mind do we mean: our accumulation of experiences or the way we process them? It’s a complex and convoluted story but one made highly readable and hugely entertaining by this authoritative book.
To call Samantha Irby’s book scatological would be an understatement. This is a book about assholes – yes, the kind who cheats on you, or never calls, or is “a grown man with a college degree who told me that he only ate angel-hair pasta” – but most of all it is a book about Irby’s bowels and how they ruin her life. Meaty is – like Irby’s blog, bitchesgottaeat – an episodic collection of diaries, memories and views on life with no narrative beginning, middle or end. It’s in the tradition of Helen Fielding and Candace Bushnell, certainly, but this rackety life of dating, renting and running out of money is heavily overshadowed by Irby’s Crohn’s disease, and is set in the social media age. Irby will tell you how to cook an inflammatory bowel disease-friendly frittata, while hungover, for a date who has woken up in your apartment, and how to Instagram it, too. Or inform the reader that Martha Stewart “calls for fresh squeezed” orange juice “but, like, LOLWAT”.
From a chimpanzee with a photographic memory to beetles that navigate by means of the Milky Way, Tong’s revelatory examples inspire a sense of wonder. In doing so, the author succeeds in highlighting the folly of the idea of human exceptionalism and how, if we are to survive as a species, we need to get very good at scale, and fast. But she doesn’t preach, nailing the “show don’t tell” technique that is so important in such a work. The book doesn’t appeal to a mawkish sympathy for animals, merely showing why there is a balance to nature, while making clear that there is so much about other creatures we are blind to.
At first, I didn’t understand why I was asked to review “Uncanny Valley,” Anna Wiener’s memoir about working for Bay Area start-ups in the 2010s. Wiener reports on technology for The New Yorker; I’ve only written about technology to say that I think social media is very bad. I’m much more interested in metafiction than metadata, not least because I’m confident I can explain what metafiction is.
But when I started reading, I realized that former liberal arts majors who halfheartedly resist the app-enabled future — mainly through willful ignorance and sweeping complaints — are the intended audience for this book. Wiener was, and maybe still is, one of us; far from seeking to disabuse civic-minded techno-skeptics of our views, she is here to fill out our worst-case scenarios with shrewd insight and literary detail. It isn’t that those of us with skill sets as soft as our hearts don’t need to know what’s going on in “the ecosystem,” as those “high on the fumes of world-historical potential” call Silicon Valley. It’s more that everything over there is as absurdly wrong as we imagine. “Tone = DOOM,” I wrote in the margins, and that was before an up-and-coming C.E.O. introduces Wiener, a new hire, to his favorite dictatorially motivational phrase: “Down for the Cause” (DFTC).
For one thing, my love for books divided me from everybody, including my family — most of whom seemed to be busily doing the things people were supposed to do, such as socializing, developing professional careers, dating, and watching television. With the exception of my mother, who read less as she grew ill in the late ’60s, most people I knew didn’t read anything and those that did read passed around the usual cultish ’60s books that, I’m sorry to say, never stopped being cultish books over the next half century, such as Catch-22, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (I always hated that book), Fahrenheit 451, and the novels of Hesse, Kesey, and Vonnegut. Occasionally, someone introduced me to something unusual, such as Dos Passos’s USA trilogy, George Stewart’s Earth Abides, or Daniel Keyes’s Flowers for Algernon; but, for the most part, when anyone came to my room and saw the secondhand bookshelves filled with paperbacks — most of which I purchased or stole from the local Woolworth’s — they looked at me askance and made clear that they had better things to do with their time than read books, or walk to the store to buy books, or try to write books themselves — which were, of course, the only things I ever did. (And to be totally honest, I haven’t done much else since.)
But even more significant to my poorly developing self-image, it was hard to imagine any important writer living my life. I’m speaking specifically about a life in either Daly City or San Luis Obispo, the two cities where I spent my youth. There weren’t any writers showing up at career days or wandering in and out of my home or the homes of friends and neighbors. Instead, everybody with “grown-up” jobs did sensible things like work as machinists, or auto repairmen, or administrators in local schools and government buildings — a lot of jobs that, quite frankly, puzzled me then and still puzzle me now. (Seriously, I have no idea what most people do for a living.) And, however widely I read, and however many writers I read about, there didn’t seem to be many California writers running loose among them. In fact, I wasn’t entirely sure what being a Californian meant. I didn’t know then and I don’t know much more now.
When Carl Sagan set about designing the Voyager Golden Record, he understood humanity’s first musical interstellar message was unlikely to ever be intercepted by an extraterrestrial intelligence. Nevertheless, he recognized that “launching this bottle into the cosmic ocean says something very hopeful about life on this planet.” The same holds true for all future musical interstellar messages, even if our terrestrial melodies never grace an extraterrestrial ear.
“Don’t Believe a Word,” a new book by the Guardian writer and editor David Shariatmadari, delves into the riddles of language: the opacities, ambushes, dead ends, sudden ecstasies. It’s a brisk and friendly introduction to linguistics, and a synthesis of the field’s recent discoveries. So much more is now known about how language evolves, how animals communicate and how children learn to speak. Such findings remain mostly immured in the academy, however. Our “insatiable appetite for linguistic debate,” Shariatmadari writes, is born out of confusion. “Why do millennials speak their own language? Do the words they choose reflect the fact that they are superficial, lazy, addicted to technology? How can you protect a language against outside influence? Does the language we use to talk about climate change, or Brexit, change the way we think about them?”
This critical triumvirate is leading a literary reformation of the field. Building on the pioneering model of Jonathan Gold, they promise to tackle greater civic and social questions than the cooking on the plate. The old ideal of critic as neutral arbiter gives way to a modern vision of the critic as hip, multicultural storyteller. “I don’t see the critic’s task as one of simply deciding if a food or restaurant experience is pleasing,” writes Soleil Ho, “but rather using an aesthetic evaluation of restaurants to tell stories about the connections between people, cultures, and communities.”
Now I need to figure out how to make the cookies. I find a recipe online that seems impossibly easy to do, uses everyday ingredients, and sounds delicious. I can almost taste the success emerging from my oven. The night before the meeting, I throw pizza at the kids for dinner and lock them in their rooms by 8 p.m., giving me a full 12 hours before my 8 a.m. meeting. The recipe calls for baking the cookies for five to 20 minutes. I’ll do 12 minutes. At that rate, I figure, I can bake four cycles of six cookies each. I’ll be done in 48 minutes, then I can work on the actual meeting agenda.
It’s difficult to smooth out each round into a four-inch circle. After 25 minutes of mushing and pushing, I settle for three-inch circle-like masses. The first batch goes in — and comes out crumbly and overdone. I try for eight minutes. I get one cookie out, fold it — it works! I slip the little fortune in and drop it into a muffin tin.
I go to pick up the next one, and it cracks in my hand. I taste a crumb, and it’s yummy. I pick up the pan, forgetting my oven mitts, singe my fingers, and drop the pan on the floor. As I soak my burning fingers, I recalibrate. I will bake the cookies for six minutes, and I will only bake three cookies at a time. It is now 11:30 p.m., and I’ve made exactly one cookie. At this rate, they’ll be ready for the spring company picnic.
Canadian mountain climber, alpine guide and inspirational speaker Sharon Wood says many people have asked her this question recently, in the wake of her recent book, “Rising: Becoming the First North American Woman on Everest.” After all, as the titles suggests, she was the first North American woman to summit Earth’s highest peak in 1986, more than 30 years ago. So what prompted her to write a book now?
Many reasons, she explains.
“A buffer of three decades has given me the courage to expose both my frailties and my motivations, and allowed for admissions that I would not have had the insight or courage to disclose when I was younger.” She didn’t anticipate that Everest would never go away, that it would become an almost-daily part of her life as it led directly to her speaking career.
Lee Goldberg's Lost Hills is not only the first book in what promises to be a superb series — it's also that rare novel in which the formulaic elements of mainstream police procedurals (blood, violence and forensic science) share narrative space with a unique female protagonist. All that, and it's also a love letter to the chaos and diversity of California.
But the cruelty of this aspect of the novel’s structure is countered by the astonishing tenderness of other sections. Amid the wreckage of that downed jet, one passenger is found alive: a 12-year-old boy named Edward.