It’s one thing to read Ellmann’s 1,030-page novel; it’s another to read it aloud. When tiny press Galley Beggar signed Ducks, Newburyport, they didn’t give much thought to an audiobook, says co-founder Sam Jordison. It still didn’t have an audio publisher when it was nominated for the 2019 Booker prize – but as the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) makes all shortlisted titles available to members of its library, it commissioned US actor Stephanie Ellyne to tackle the challenge.
Ellyne spent almost two months recording the book, and it left a strong impression. As the housewife contemplates violence – historic, domestic, political – she started feeling “more emotional and upset about news coming out of America, the hideous political situation there,” she says. “One thing that was helpful was that I share a lot of those ideas – there’s really troubled times in the States at the moment.”
I quickly learned that my culture’s definition of luxury is not based on brand names, but rather owning something that has a lot of heart put into it. Pieces are valued for their spirit, and not their monetary value. Heirlooms are passed down through the generations, and pieces are considered special because of the hands or stories behind them. In my own family, I think of a beaded medallion necklace my sister made me in the shape of a turtle, to represent Turtle Island (among other tribes, the Ojibwe teachings refer to the Earth as this). I also think of a star-shaped quilt blanket my mother made me. These items are meant to be decorative, but they hold greater meaning—they represent an upholding of cultural practices and traditions.
For the current moment, in which whitewashing still extinguishes opportunity and supports the status quo — despite gains both on the screen and in writers’ rooms — Yu’s novel may seem topical. But it is so much more than that. “Interior Chinatown” represents yet another stellar destination in the journey of a sui generis author of seemingly limitless skill and ambition.
Dusapin’s terse sentences are at times staggeringly beautiful, their immediacy sharply and precisely rendered from French by Aneesa Abbas Higgins: “the rain hammered down, the sea rising beneath it in spikes like the spines of a sea urchin”. Oiled with a brooding tension that never dissipates or resolves, Winter in Sokcho is a noirish cold sweat of a book.
Situating the poems of her new collection amidst voices of postcolonial love from Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz to Rihanna—and saturating her lines with allusions to writers as varied as Homer, Jorge Luis Borges, and John Ashbery—Natalie Diaz makes no pretense that Postcolonial Love Poem is anything but a major work of American literature. “I am your Native,” writes Diaz, “and this is my American labyrinth.”
Every day, we hear about new discoveries that shed light on how brains work, along with the promise – or threat – of new technology that will enable us to do such far-fetched things as read minds, or detect criminals, or even be uploaded into a computer. Books are repeatedly produced that each claim to explain the brain in different ways.
And yet there is a growing conviction among some neuroscientists that our future path is not clear. It is hard to see where we should be going, apart from simply collecting more data or counting on the latest exciting experimental approach. As the German neuroscientist Olaf Sporns has put it: “Neuroscience still largely lacks organising principles or a theoretical framework for converting brain data into fundamental knowledge and understanding.” Despite the vast number of facts being accumulated, our understanding of the brain appears to be approaching an impasse.
There are people who can remember a world without Starbucks, but I am not one of them. For as long as I have been conscious, the existence of the Green Siren has been a fact of being alive. “Oh, there is the sky,” you might think. “There is a tree. There is the bank. There is a Frappuccino.” I am not a Starbucks loyalist. I have no go-to order and own no Starbucks-branded collectible mugs and had not, until last fall, tasted a pumpkin spice latte. I would have said I had no relationship with Starbucks at all, but of course, that is wrong. To say I had no relationship with Starbucks would be like saying I had no particular relationship with the sun.
In the past decade at Starbucks, I have changed clothes for a job interview; interviewed for a job; conducted a job interview; used the internet; used the bathroom; taken a phone call; taken a pregnancy test. I have also bought coffee, especially in airports, and sipped coffee, especially before boarding airplanes. “The first 100 times I went to Starbucks,” a friend told me, “I only used the bathroom.” When he told me this, we were sitting in a Starbucks.
I was in Paris, waiting to undergo what promised to be a pretty disgusting medical procedure, when I got word that my father was dying. The hospital I was in had opened in 2000, but it seemed newer. From our vantage point in the second-floor radiology department, Hugh and I could see the cafés situated side by side in the modern, sun-filled concourse below. “It’s like an airline terminal,” he observed.
“Yes,” I said. “Terminal Illness.”
Under different circumstances, I might have described the place as cheerful. It was the wrong word to use, though, when I’d just had a CT scan and, in a few hours’ time, a doctor was scheduled to snake a multipurpose device up the hole in my penis. It was a sort of wire that took pictures, squirted water, and had little teeth. These would take bites out of my bladder, which would then be sent to a lab and biopsied. So “cheerful”? Not so much, at least for me.
The book wonderfully captures the experience of evacuation during the second world war, which offers a lens through which to study the relationship between growing up and displacement. It’s also a profoundly important story to tell in its own right: a better understanding of what this fracturing of so many childhoods did to people can help us to more clearly understand the latter half of the 20th century.
“Perfect” is a defensive word. Other terms of praise home in on desirable attributes—this view is glorious—or describe an effect on the viewer: look at those ravishing mountains. But “perfect” ruminates on the possibility of flaws in order to deny their existence. Because it depends on the absence of error, it exalts not creation but excision, deletion, its logical endpoint a beautifully intact nothing.
A new book, “Scratched,” by Elizabeth Tallent, is the tale of a life lived in search of that nothing. In the nineteen-eighties, Tallent’s short stories appeared frequently in The New Yorker; she published four works of literary fiction with Knopf. Then, for twenty-two years, she published almost nothing at all. “Scratched,” which is subtitled “A Memoir of Perfectionism,” attempts to explain her long silence. It is a fascinating, busy document. The sentences are worked and reworked, twisted into wires and drawn through multiple clauses. Straightforward memories alternate with meditations on family dynamics and quotes from psychologists and social scientists. Tallent, who takes pass after pass at her elusive subject, evokes a fisherman in a fairy tale, repeatedly casting his rod. There is something compulsive at work here, and a pathos that rises from the simultaneous breadth and modesty of the author’s yearning. Tallent wants nothing less than perfection, because nothing less will make her safe.
As creator and host, Funt masterminded hundreds and hundreds of ruses, leaning on his yen for amateur psychology and sociology more and more as the years went by. Some segments dispensed with the wool-pulling entirely and chronicled revealing interviews between Funt and ordinary folks. He found the peculiarities of homo sapiens endlessly fascinating.
The other thing to know about Allen Funt is that, like many red-blooded Americans, he enjoyed looking at people with their clothes off. It was the marriage of these two great passions — quirks of pathology and full-frontal nudity — that yielded the illuminating historical footnote What Do You Say to a Naked Lady? 50 years ago this month.
But for the most part, the half a dozen or so national critics in the UK are the writerly equivalent of bareknuckle fighters. Where US critics generally give restaurants three months to bed in, we may go the moment the soft launch has finished. If they’re charging full price, they’re surely fair game? US critics go three to five times. Generally, we go once. As I often say, how many times do you need a lousy meal to know a restaurant is lousy?
In countries such as the United States and India, the populists of the far right are dominating politics. To paraphrase Hannah Arendt, they are overturning democracies degenerated into ochlocracies (mob rules) into majoritarian tyrannies. Against such a depressing backdrop appears the English translation of Yoko Ogawa’s novel, originally published in Japanese in 1994. The Memory Police is a work of extraordinary artistic defiance, an exploration, urgent and seething, of the abrasive relationship between the role of dissidence in shaping public consciousness and the modern state’s totalitarian proclivities to create a political order founded on the organizational principle of fear.
Indeed, perhaps the most striking feature of this well-crafted novel is the highly selective access we are afforded to the narrator’s inner life. He is candid and transparent when ruminating on family and friends, but of his sexual machinations we get zilch. This makes for a convincing rendering of the compulsive, thoughtless nature of certain kinds of destructive behaviour.
Teddy Wayne's fourth novel is written in the key of Edward Hopper. Apartment is a portrait of loneliness and male insecurity set against the backdrop of the hyper-competitive world of Columbia University's graduate writing program, where ambition and self-doubt go hand in hand, and the workshops seem designed to separate the anointed from the hacks — or, in this case, the men from the boys.
Leduc follows the bread crumbs back into her original experience with fairy tales — and then explores their residual effects. Her daring approach is a hybrid of memoir, literary criticism and cultural commentary. She moves fluidly between grade-school memories and scholarly analysis. She quotes from medieval texts and TV shows. She’s equally familiar with the Brothers Grimm and the X-Men.
Halfway through her debut essay collection, Minor Feelings, author and artist Cathy Park Hong makes clear her mission: "I have some scores to settle ... with this country, with how we have been scripted."
The "we" here are Asian Americans and how we're seen in this country in a time when the us-versus-them dynamic can feel overpowering. In Minor Feelings, the author asks us to reconsider the effects of racism against Asian Americans and how it persists.
We love what’s best in our beloved, what’s worst in them.
You have to like what time does. Each day I talk to the part
of me that is my beloved from a tiny telephone in me.
Spend some time with masters of finance over a few glasses of whiskey and you may detect a curious streak of mysticism running through these apostles of the empirical, these obsessive quantifiers. Often they stray into metaphor when explaining cold calculation; they may speak of the market in terms of the currents of history or the spirits of the vasty deep. They’re fully aware that finance is tied up with intangible, mysterious elements that can scarcely survive scrutiny. The U.S. dollar, the basis of the world economy, was once backed by gold. Today it is backed by . . . nothing. A bank like Lehman Brothers can be a pillar of the community today, then collapse overnight. Bankers listen eagerly to the music of the spheres.
Yet few bankers are men of letters, hence few are equipped to sing to us of the twilight zone of the inscrutable. Here it is useful to consider the multiplier effect of two seemingly unrelated talents. Walter Bagehot was not the most revered banker who ever lived, and he was not the most revered essayist who ever lived. But among bankers, he was an unusually gifted essayist, and among essayists he had an unusual knowledge of banking.
The first time the writer Thomas Wentworth Higginson met Emily Dickinson, he remembered five details about the way she entered the room: her soft step, her breathless voice, her auburn hair, the two daylilies she offered him—and her exquisite white dress.
Dickinson’s white dress has become an emblem of the poet’s brilliance and mystery. When Mabel Loomis Todd moved to Dickinson’s hometown in the 1880s, she gushed about the poet’s attire. “I must tell you about the character of Amherst,” she wrote her parents. “It is a lady whom the people call the Myth … She dresses wholly in white, & her mind is said to be perfectly wonderful.” Jane Wald, the executive director of the Emily Dickinson Museum, believes Dickinson began dressing primarily in white in her thirties, and it was common knowledge around town that a white dress was the poet’s preferred article of clothing. Dickinson realized people gossiped about what she wore, and once joked with her cousins, “Won’t you tell ‘the public’ that at present I wear a brown dress with a cape if possible browner, and carry a parasol of the same!”
Because I grew up around bad English, I was bad at English. I was born in L.A. but wasn’t fluent until the embarrassingly delayed age of six, maybe even seven. Matriculating at school was like moving to another country. Up until then, I was surrounded by Korean. The English heard in church, among friends and family in K-town, was short, barbed, and broken: subject and object nouns conjoined in odd marriages, verbs forever disagreeing, definite articles nowhere to be found. Teenagers vented by interjecting Korean with the ever-present fuck: “Fuck him! Opa’s an asshole.”
The immigrant’s first real introduction to surviving in English is profanity. When my cousins came over to the United States, I immediately passed on a cache of curses to them to prepare for school. My uncle said he used to start and end all his sentences with “motherfucker” because he learned his English from his black customers when he was a clothing wholesaler in New York. My uncle, a profane and boisterous man, has since returned to Seoul and keeps up his English with me.
In Yuri Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World, originally published in 2009 and released in translation from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman in 2015, we meet Makina, who crosses the United States and Mexico border in order to find her brother. Makina knows what is required to cross the border: while the physical threats are very real, crossing also carries with it existential threats. Lots can be lost on the journey. Crossing the border also means that Makina will subject herself to a crossing within herself—it’s not just the land and countries that change, but it is the language, the thoughts. Time away from home changes a person.
As Norah moves through the public and private lives of Katherine O’Dell, she not only re-creates a great actress in all her fascinating complications, she plumbs the depth of her own affection for a woman she was often too quick to judge. Stripped raw of any sentimentality, the result is a critique, a confession, a love letter — and another brilliant novel from Anne Enright.
But, does it even matter? And who’s to say what’s right or wrong anyhow? One of the most fascinating things about language is its dynamic nature. By necessity, it evolves to reflect how the world is changing. So do shifting habits regarding apostrophe use just mirror more general developments in language?
You, the professor, are aware your students are taking notes. Usually, this is a dull awareness—perhaps you make a mental note that student X appears to be very engaged in note-taking. That might please you. Or—
perhaps it troubles you. Here you are, speaking about a book, let’s say a book-length poem (or, as Anne Boyer declares, an “anti-poem”) called The Hermit by Lucy Ives, and student X is taking notes—is taking note—of what you say in her notebook, and this gesture puts a pressure on what you’re saying. (When students don’t appear engaged—when they doze, when they look at their phones, or they just sit there—well, that’s easy. You, the professor, don’t care about students who don’t care. At the end of the semester, they vanish, and you never give them another thought.) Or—
perhaps the idea that people are writing down what you’re saying amuses you. Who are you? Yes, yes, you’re the professor. But what does that mean? Why does student X take you seriously? Is it because of something you earned, or simply because you’re in front of the room?
Hours of each day pass where I encounter nothing truly memorable on my computer or phone. What was I just reading five minutes ago? I genuinely couldn’t tell you. My little rat brain glances upon a screen, processes a tweet and tosses it straight into my mental paper shredder.
But when I read a physical book for fun, things slow down. I hear the words in my head, visualize the scenes being described, pause to contemplate the paragraph I’ve just consumed. It takes forever, but it’s an almost luxurious change of pace.
Viola Roseboro’ (apostrophe intentional), the larger-than-life fiction editor at McClure’s, haunted magazine offices from the 1890s to the Jazz Age. A reader, editor, and semiprofessional wit, she discovered or mentored O. Henry, Willa Cather, and Jack London, among many others. Today she is nearly completely forgotten.
She could often be seen walking through downtown Manhattan alone, recognizable from her preoccupied step, thick dark hair, gray eyes under arching brows, and her purported resemblance to George Sand. She declined to wear corsets and loved cigarettes, and insisted on getting as much fresh air as possible. Instead of occupying a desk, she liked to pack manuscripts into a suitcase and take them to a bench in Madison Square Park, where in all seasons she could be found smoking, reading, and strategizing about how to develop a protégé.
Dezső Kosztolányi’s 1924 novel, Skylark, translated from the original Hungarian in 2010 by Richard Aczel, has all the makings of a pleasant diversion. Its location is provincial, its date historic, and its concerns no greater than one week in the lives of the Vajkay family, a tidy clan whose existence seems as neatly arranged as their “daily walks: Mother to the right, Father to the left and Skylark in between.” It appears unlikely that anything of significance will take place in seven days in such a setting and with such company, but Skylark makes a point of subverting expectations. Within the novel, actions as outwardly mundane as packing, eating, and walking become fertile ground to investigate the discrepancy between how things look and what they are.
Melchor has said that she originally conceived of Hurricane Season as a nonfiction investigation, à la Truman Capote, of a real‑life murder that took place in a village near her hometown of Veracruz, changing tack once she reconsidered the hazards of poking around a narco-inhabited locale as a stranger. If she has any ethical doubts about the project, she keeps them to herself; this is fiction with the brakes off. Not an Oprah book club pick, one suspects, but not a novel to be missed – if you can steel yourself.
“Lurking” doesn’t just highlight the internet’s problems, it also voices her hope for an alternative future. In her final chapter, titled “Accountability,” McNeil compares a healthy internet to a “public park: a space for all, a benefit to everyone; a space one can enter or leave, and leave without a trace.” Or maybe the internet should be more like a library, “a civic and independent body … guided by principles of justice, rights and human dignity,” where “everyone is welcome … just for being.”
But my brain fought back against itself—it does matter. It has to matter. Like so many writers, I have been trained in two ways, often simultaneously: as a critical reader and a creative writer. As a critical reader, I am forced—I force myself, gratefully, joyfully—into the box of the text, having been told that to look elsewhere is dangerous. As recently as 2013, I watched an AWP panel about Plath that asked the audience to look away from her biography and into her poetics. Ironically, the panel’s creator and moderator, the poet Sandra Beasley, opened by telling the packed Boston auditorium the story of how, when Hughes and Plath met at a party in February 1956, she bit him on the face. Ignore the personal details, said that panel, says that training. Yet, as soon as we try, the biography bares its teeth.
As a creative writer, I mine my own life for the conversation, the image, the moment that reveals itself as a deep metaphor for a universal lived experience. As a creative writer, I am stuck on the image I began this essay with—myself, apologizing, Plath in hand, as I leave behind Ted Hughes’s letters for the day. Me, feeling that every act of reading and decoding his work is an act of subterfuge. That library alarm went off because it knew—I was a thief, stealing the evidence of what he did before someone can stop me, the evidence of what I felt in my bones all along.
I discovered the Dover Bookstore in Mineola, NY as a bored suburban teenager in the 1980’s. “The Little Bookshop,” a room the size of my then-bedroom, was attached to a noisy warehouse and printshop next to the railroad tracks. Books containing the oddities of philosophic and mathematical knowledge, children’s literature, design, and history filled shelves stretching up to the ceiling. As a budding zine publisher and visual artist, I purchased books of copyright-free clip art, vintage black and white photographs reproduced on postcards, and craft instruction books from the $1 “damaged” bargain bin.
While my proximity to the Dover Bookstore may have given me unique access to its huge and varied catalog, the publisher is well-loved by people of wide-ranging interests for its affordability, accessibility, and design. Started by Heyward and Blanche Cirker in their apartment in post-war Queens, NY, Dover Publications produced 10,000 book titles over the course of 80 years. They built a profitable company through a number of unique and innovative publishing practices, most notably filling their catalog with republished versions of books that had fallen out of copyright.
Kwok’s exploration of the lies we tell by putting on a mask for the world, or simply avoiding speaking the truth, is often elegantly unrolled.
In his 1985 Jerusalem prize acceptance speech, Milan Kundera spoke about the novel’s ability to transcend binaries, using Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina to illustrate his point. “The novel is the imaginary paradise of individuals,” he said. “It is the territory where no one possesses the truth, neither Anna nor Karenin, but where everyone has the right to be understood, both Anna and Karenin.” In an age of certainty, the novel is the home of doubt, of ambiguity, of multiple truths.
Colum McCann has written something he calls a “hybrid novel,” in which the form’s mutability, its stance on both sides and neither, is used to address the entrenched positions of the Middle East. The title is taken from the mathematical term for an object of an “observably infinite number of sides”, a shape that serves as a model for a new way of thinking about a conflict that is too often reduced to simple, opposed positions.
The cutoff for being born into Generation X was about 1980, the cutoff for Generation Y (a.k.a. the Millennials) was about 1996, and the cutoff for Generation Z was about 2010. What should the next batch of babies be called—what comes after Z?
Alpha, apparently. That’s the (Greek) letter that the unofficial namers of generations—marketers, researchers, cultural commentators, and the like—have affixed to Gen Z’s successors, the oldest of whom are on the cusp of turning 10. The Generation Alpha label, if it lasts, follows the roughly 15-year cycle of generational delineations. Those delineations keep coming, even as, because of a variety of demographic factors, they seem to be getting less and less meaningful as a way of segmenting the population; in recent decades, there hasn’t been a clear-cut demographic development, like the postwar baby boom, to define a generation around, so the dividing lines are pretty arbitrary. How much do members of this new generation, or any generation, really have in common?
I don’t remember ever being afraid of the dark. If my mother were still alive perhaps she’d remind me of times when I begged to leave the light on at bedtime or came scurrying into my parents’ room, terrified of monsters that lurked in the pitch-black corners of my own.
But what I remember is standing on the back seat of a Galaxy 500, looking out the rear window as my mother drives along unlit country roads. I stare, with a deep thrill I can’t name, at the black sky above and then at the rushing road below, so briefly illuminated by the car’s taillights before it disappears into endless shadow.
One of the books’s greatest strengths lies in its descriptions of caring for an elderly person: the patient’s misdirected rage, their loss of dignity. Kemp relays these descriptions bluntly, which makes them all the more moving.
Actress is the story of (fictitious) Irish theatre legend Katherine O’Dell. As with Enright’s previous novels, this one – her seventh – takes the form of a long backward glance, a biographical tour through the years. Unlike her past work, this offering features a decidedly stripped-back family – for the most part just a mother-and-daughter pairing. Fortunately, smaller scale doesn’t mean fewer rewards. This is another skilfully crafted, emotionally charged novel from an expert practitioner.
It is hard now to recapture the shock of 1962 when the iterations of Campbell’s soup went on display at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles (New York wasn’t interested). But the cumulative effect of their pristine forms, their tromp l’oeil construction, their obsessive reiteration (there were 32 prints, one for each flavour), luminous banality and, above all, their thereness, was to blast apart everything that we thought – and think – we know about art.
Madeleine L’Engle, a fixture in the lives of generations of American children and teenagers as the author of the classic novel A Wrinkle in Time, looked back on the 1950s as her “decade of failure.” After finding critical success in the 1940s with fiction for both young readers and adults, she had a run of persistent bad luck. One novel went unpublished; the next found a home only after years of effort. She and her husband had moved from New York City to run a general store in rural Connecticut, where many knew her simply as “the grocer’s wife.” After she received a rejection letter for another book on her fortieth birthday, in 1958, she wondered if she ought to give up writing and focus on being a housewife and mother to her three children: “Stop this foolishness and learn to make cherry pie,” she told herself. A practicing Christian who was active in the local Congregational church, she also had begun to struggle with her faith.
During the summer of 1959, L’Engle and her family embarked on a cross-country road trip. At night, after the children had gone to bed, she read books of higher math and physics by flashlight. As she recalled in “How Long Is a Book?,” a lecture from the early 1970s that is included in the second volume of the Library of America’s recent collection of her writings, she was seeking a light in the dark: “Not just to learn the various theories of the creation of the universe, the theories of relativity, of quantum [mechanics], but because in the writing of Sir James Jeans, of Einstein, Planck, I got a vision of a universe in which I could believe in God.” In the work of scientists and mathematicians, she continued, she found “a reverence for the beauty and pattern of the universe, for the mystery of the heavenly laws which argued much more convincingly to me of a loving creator than did the German theologians.” Driving through the Painted Desert in Arizona—an environment “as much out of this world as any of the planets” she later imagined in her fiction—she turned to the children and announced that she was going to write a new novel about three characters whose names had just come to her: Mrs Whatsit, Mrs Who, and Mrs Which. (L’Engle deliberately left off the period after the “Mrs” in their names, to emphasize that they were “extra-special as well as extra-terrestrial.”)
Law school sharpened my mind—and my writing. I was taught to think in terms of logic, to break down every argument into its component pieces, and to reinforce them with the necessary evidence. And truthfully, I relished it. I vividly remember the high of hammering out 21-page long papers in my 3-hour final exams. I did well at it, because that year had molded me into a ruthlessly logical, analytical thinker and writer.
But as it sharpened, my mind lost some of its softness, the ability to put words together in a way that was fluid, emotional, visceral. I could churn out countless facts and arguments, but I had lost sight of stories and sentiments. For years afterwards, when I tried to flex my creative muscles, it felt like my brain was in a vise: numb and stripped of feeling. For so long, I couldn’t write a poem—an impulse that had flowed freely until then.
I call them “this thing is late capitalism” essays. There are several variations on this genre of lifestyle writing. They don’t always invoke the “late capitalism” phrase explicitly, but all offer a critique of a popular brand or product in terms of its relationship to the system. Some are formulated as takedowns of companies that market themselves as millennial-friendly, or environmentally focused or, most often, feminist. In these essays, a writer will explain that, while this brand claims to be offering you empowerment, it is selling you a product at the end of the day: the enlightened brand is actually capitalist, but you might be fooled into thinking otherwise. Another type is the one in which writers chronicle their journey as they use a selection of hip, socially conscious products for a week, ultimately finding that, although these products promised to improve their life, it has, disappointingly, remained the same. Even the fanciest things cannot make you a better version of yourself, the writer will conclude, but it’s easy to be conned into thinking they might. Finally, there are the essays that credulously profile a company seeking to make a statement about, or better still, “shake up” capitalism.
Still, there is real poignancy in this novel, as wounded characters struggle to regain childhood loyalties. Ward nails how family expeditions are ruined and saved, over and over again, by fleeting moments of connection and the consensus to survive without killing one another.
Many progressives hold these truths to be virtually self-evident. The United States Supreme Court has the hallowed role of protecting the most vulnerable in society. At a minimum, it does not engage in judicial activism to burden them further. And only now, when the court has shifted decisively to the right, is it in danger of relinquishing that function.
Adam Cohen’s “Supreme Inequality” shows that these beliefs utterly fail to capture the court’s treatment of the poor. For 50 years, he explains, it has exacerbated economic inequality through its aggressive jurisprudence.
Cathy Park Hong’s latest book, asks readers to be open to nuance and hold two sometimes contradictory notions simultaneously. The Los Angeles-born writer details the peculiarities of identifying as Asian American—a term stretched to encompass a broad swath of people whose ancestors emigrated from the same continent. As Hong makes clear, religion, creed, custom, and even privilege in the United States aren’t binding factors among this group of people.
What can we offer the child
at the border: a river of shoes,
This is what all beginning memoirists fear. Mark Doty experienced it first hand, when his father returned the manuscript to his book “Firebird,” with a note that read: “You cannot sing your ancestors’ songs as they intended them to be sung . . . if you sing them at all, you betray them.” This is, as Doty points out, “every memoirist’s nightmare: that we will lose the people in our lives by writing about them.”
The book reads like a novel, and even though everyone (hopefully) knows how the war ultimately ended, he keeps the reader turning the pages with his gripping prose. It's a more than worthy addition to the long list of books about World War II, and a bravura performance by one of America's greatest storytellers.
Blumenthal has done her job well: presenting the history, and leaving readers to wrestle with what the future may hold for families facing unwanted pregnancies.
Willis may not become the hero of “Black and White” but he is the hero of his own story; he even gets to be the romantic lead, a turn that at first confuses him, as it’s not a role he thought he could play. Yu wanted to explore the idea of “performing Asianness,” as well as the blurred line between life and performance in general. “We perform lots of stuff every day. I perform a bit when I’m with my parents, as the son, and with my wife, and now with my kids, as a dad. The totality of all the roles we play is basically what we are, and yet even if you add them all up, there’s something underneath that is not captured by any of the roles. There are still cracks between them.”
We wanted people to learn about us—we wanted our stories to be told. And yet, when it was revealed that Yoon’s latest novel, released late last month, would be about the events surrounding our escape, the Lao-American community reacted with mixed feelings. For some, seeing our history discussed at all on national platforms felt like validation. But for many, it felt as if a stranger had assumed our voice. It was like watching the movie of our lives, with our lines dubbed over.
Russia had a Dr. Seuss. Same deal as ours, except his hot decade wasn’t the fifties; it was the twenties. There’s a lot to be said here.
What is actually there? These days, it seems to be mostly an eternal grump factor that transmits strongly even in his gentlest performances. Like other veteran actors who originated numerous classic roles in the 1970s and ’80s and then swam out into toward murkier, choppier water in subsequent decades—mostly looking at you, Al Pacino—it is difficult to pinpoint the special, personalized spark Ford might put into the new roles he takes on. It’s almost impossible to detach him from the deep sociocultural mythology surrounding him and his widely impersonated mannerisms. Sometimes, one wonders whether a certain later-period performance is actually good but our bias is clouding our view—making an actor’s work seem egregious and farcical. Is Pacino’s egomaniacal, washed-up film director in Simone, for example, a logical progression from Michael Corleone? Is Ford’s chillingly unemotional, bowl-cutted Colonel Hyrum Graff in the aesthetically ghastly 2013 Ender’s Game adaptation actually his best sci-fi role? When I die and access the objective aesthetic truth of the world from the afterlife, I hope to resolve ambiguities like these immediately.
“Maybe not funny at the time, but it broke down every day,” he said. One night when it was minus 18 degrees Celsius in eastern Turkey, “helpful locals tried to build a fire under the engine to warm it up,” he added.
The truck broke down all the time, but the Hylands had planned for that. It was cheaper to fix it on the road with inexpensive local parts and labor than restoring it before they left Chilliwack (a town near Vancouver, British Columbia), where they live. Local people stopped often to help, even if language was a barrier.
It is interesting that two groups, musicians and the clergy, have been re-examining the implications of their traditional costumes in recent decades. Since the Second Vatican Council, priests and members of religious orders have changed the way they dress. Almost no nuns today still wear traditional habits, and many musicians, particularly soloists, have stopped wearing the white tie and tails that were de rigueur for so many years.
Both groups now desire a greater informality and have expressed this through dress reform. But are we better musicians or priests if we wear a particular costume?
Writers lead pretty solitary lives – working alone more or less comes with the turf – and those who write about their, and our, tea are no exception. According to Diana Henry, a leading light of the modern genre, perhaps the single most important aspect of cooking for one is to view it as an opportunity: “You don’t have to please anyone but yourself,” she says, “and that’s a real bonus. And plan your meals for the week, so you have things to look forward to.”
Ladies, picture this: you’ve come home from a long day of work and a commute which you spent scrolling through a wasteland of garbage takes about the US primaries, climate change, neoliberalism, and what makes the perfect woman. Your partner is already at home, curled up on the sofa with a book. He has not put the water on to boil like you asked because he was too engrossed in reading Normal People. Over dinner, he wants to discuss the book, and also have you read that 10,000-word essay in the New Yorker about prison abolition that he sent you last week yet? He moans loudly about the fact that Love Island is back on TV; “why do people enjoy watching brain-dead idiots with plastic surgery sit around all day?” he scoffs, as you daydream about leaving this man and a new life spent running your tongue up and down one of the 21-year-old-contestant’s rock-hard abs. You imagine a different, simpler life… one spent alongside a man who can’t read.
In Good Boys, Megan Fernandes’s second volume of poetry, Fernandes considers the many ways that one can be “good.” In poems that fizz with both irony and vulnerability, Fernandes points out that sometimes being “good” simply means being obedient, the way we say Good boy! to a well-trained and affectionate pet. Yet, the poems also remind us that it can be dangerous to consider submission a form of love.
“Study Bach,” Johannes Brahms wrote. “There you will find everything.” This advice has endured for good reason. When listening to Johann Sebastian Bach’s astonishing creativity, which appears to be routed in many disciplines, we hear and feel what it is to be human. In Philip Kennicott’s immensely moving memoir, “Counterpoint: A Memoir of Bach and Mourning,” The Washington Post’s Pulitzer Prize-winning art and architecture critic dissects Bach’s complexities while excavating difficult emotions at the time of his mother’s death. As Kennicott grieves, he decides to finally learn the formidable Goldberg Variations, arguably Bach’s most important keyboard work. Throughout this process, the author seeks to understand who his mother really was; how she loved him, failed him and shaped him during his childhood in Schenectady, N.Y. With gorgeous prose and granular inspection, Kennicott has created a subtle and profound portrait of love, loss and the human condition.
She hadn’t flown for 20 hours to marvel at Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument in the world, or stroll the white-sand beaches of Sihanoukville. Instead, she spent eight sweltering days in the Cambodian capital on a five-figure shopping trip.
Songster works at the Mark Twain Branch of the Long Beach Public Library, home to one of the largest public library collections of Khmer (pronounced Ka-mai) books in the United States. She and fellow librarian Christina Nhek had traveled more than 8,000 miles on a mission that faces libraries across the country: to serve the readers of rapidly changing cities.
Nomenclature in the solar system and beyond remains a complex topic today. Officially coordinated and governed by the IAU, the process of naming things in space extends from newly discovered exoplanets to the surface features of planets and moons in our own solar system. As Herschel’s role in the establishment of this nomenclature shows, despite the best efforts of astronomers to keep space names neutral, they’re always entangled in human affairs – our history, our culture, and sometimes even our politics. And this is how it should be. Herschel’s best attempts to keep names in space transnational still enshrined Eurocentric biases, and his second legacy around the moons of Uranus were even more tightly Anglocentric. Today, instead of a neutrality that is in principle unobtainable, a better goal is inclusion. The things we name in the Universe – which in itself bespeaks a certain hubris – should be named for all of us, and strides that have been taken in recent years to draw upon the mythology of cultures around the world, though they still have far to go, are at least steps in the right direction.
The book’s one-line synopsis might go: A lesbian who’s not a lesbian walks into a bar, and heaven and hell break loose. More specifically, the lesbian who’s not a lesbian — she picked up the appellation in high school, converting an insult into an identity — walks into a bar and instantly becomes the object of obsession to a clutch of characters, most of whom desire her, some of whom scorn her, all of whom cannot stop blabbering about her. Through their voices, Vollmann gives a documentary accounting of life on the margins, riffing on such themes as bigotry, idolatry, gender fluidity, vulnerability, consent, resilience and love.
The lyrical Hong is no less furious, but she’s wryer and sharper, less blunt and more subversive. She sees how she benefits from the model-minority myth even as it traps her, absorbing her accomplishments to fuel a system she doesn’t believe in. American culture might thrive on noise and bombast, but Hong knows that power can accumulate elsewhere: “The circuits of a poetic form are not charged on what you say, but what you hold back.”
There’s a darkness to dystopia: it’s embedded in the very word— the opposite of a utopia, a world gone wrong. The magic of Gish Jen’s latest novel, “The Resisters,” is that, amid a dark and cautionary tale, there’s a story also filled with electricity and humor — and baseball. At its heart, the novel is about the act of resistance and its attendant forces of courage and hope.
In the past several years, working alongside fellow writers and translators who strive to operate with feminist, decolonial aesthetics (including my cohort of contributors to Sophie Collins’s edited volume Currently and Emotion: Translations, as well as Tilted Axis Press), I’ve become invested in the active ethos of not italicizing supposedly “foreign” words—words that supposedly aren’t used in the dominant culture. I’ve come to understand the practice of italicizing such words as a form of linguistic gatekeeping; a demarcation between which words are “exotic” or “not found in the English language,” and those that have a rightful place in the text: the non-italicized.
What a question. Why the hell not? That would be the impression one gets when reading the work of Mark Sargent, and even more so when speaking with him.
As wildlife-watching locations go, Tongass National Forest in the panhandle of southeast Alaska is hard to beat. An unfathomable 16.7m acres of old-growth spruce, hemlock and cedar, as well as glacial fjords, rivers and valleys, it is North America’s largest forest – 20 times the size of Yosemite National Park and as big as Ireland.
Some of the trees have been here for 1,000 years; all of them play a hugely important role in absorbing large amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere – more than any other forest in America. It is also a brown bear-watching hotspot, although glossy black bear, wolf, otter, beaver and salmon swell the rivers and fjords, too. There are also mountain goats, flying squirrels, river otters, humpback whales, orcas and bald eagles. Small wonder it was one of the favourite places of renowned Scottish-American conservationist John Muir.
Janelle Lynch invites you to look closer, and slower. She'd want you to see each image as a world in itself — not an accidental grouping of plant matter, but a well-ordered composition created by nature and fixed in time and space by her 8-by-10-inch large-format camera.
Her implicit message is that one needs only to be still, take your time and pay close attention to find the beauty that surrounds you. But, like meditation, this seemingly simple act is often more difficult than it appears.
“In the fullness of time all that lives will die.” With this bleak truth Brian Greene, a physicist and mathematician at Columbia University, the author of best-selling books like “The Elegant Universe” and co-founder of the yearly New York celebration of science and art known as the World Science Festival, sets off in “Until the End of Time” on the ultimate journey, a meditation on how we go on doing what we do, why and how it will end badly, and why it matters anyway.
Adams’s book was different because Adams was different. He was emotional and impulsive, and those traits pushed him to write an autobiography that was shockingly intimate. You could see this when he wrote about his private life: “My children may be assured that no illegitimate brother or sister exists.” You could see it when he wrote about his enemies, including Alexander Hamilton, who’d recently died after a duel with Aaron Burr. Hamilton’s grisly death did not give Adams pause. In fact, Adams wrote that he would not forgive his rival for their disagreements just because “the author of them, with a pistol bullet through his spinal marrow, died a penitent.”
And yet the best place to see Adams’s passion, I came to realize, was in his thrilling retelling of his time at sea during the Revolutionary War. It’s one of the longest and most revealing episodes in his forgotten book, a story that captures the adventure and brutality of a transatlantic voyage in the 18th century during wartime. Here, largely in Adams’s words, is that lost tale.
People imagine the ocean as serene, but the deep has never been the silent world that conservationist Jacques Cousteau once called it. Data suggests most of the 34,200 species of fish can hear, and there’s plenty to listen to. Whales aren’t alone in singing; at least 800 species of fish click, hoot, purr, or moan. A healthy coral reef sounds like corn popping. Storms and earthquakes add to the score. But the industrialization of the sea over the past 70 years has generated enough din to make hearing anything else difficult. For years, few worried about it, because what did it matter in all that water? Yet mounting evidence shows that our racket profoundly impacts marine creatures great and small—and could shorten their lives.
Writing in The New York Times in June 2003, less than two years after the events of September 11 shattered the complacency with which many Americans conducted their lives, the British critic Michael Pye lamented an unlikely casualty of the new era: the ability to occupy ourselves with a superficial novel while sitting in an airport lounge or drifting at 30,000 feet. With tanks now standing guard at London’s Heathrow Airport, what was once an ordinary plane trip had acquired “an element of thoroughly unwanted suspense.” The usual reading material, Pye argued, would no longer do. “We stand in need of something stronger now: the travel book you can read while making your way through this new, alarming world.”
The Canadian writer Emily St. John Mandel used these lines as an epigraph to her second novel, The Singer’s Gun (2010), a book haunted by 9/11. But her entire body of work—her new novel, The Glass Hotel, is her fifth—can be read as a response to Pye’s demand. Mandel’s deeply imagined, philosophically profound reckonings with life in an age of disaster would indeed be appropriate companions alongside a plastic cup of wine and a tray of reheated food (if we’re lucky). But they are equally welcome at home during anxious days of following the news cycle or insomniac nights of worrying about the future. “You can make an argument that the world’s become more bleak, but I feel like we always think we’re living at the end of the world,” Mandel said in a recent interview at the University of Central Florida. “When have we ever felt like it wasn’t going to be catastrophic?”
The Boatman's Daughter pushes up against the weirdest corners of horror fiction. There are witches, demons, dwarves, strange people, nightmares, awful memories of slaughtered children, severed heads, an evil old preacher, and bad things in the bayou that are not of this world. However, Davidson anchors his narrative on the land and the reality of a young girl forced into a life of crime. As a result, even the strangest passages feel real.
Black women and their sexuality – what is projected on to it; its weight, beauty and ease – are at the heart of Red at the Bone. Woodson seems to understand that there has never been a way for youth or love or desire to play it safe. A young girl’s sexuality is hers to discover, and not her parents’, nor her lovers’, to assume or take away. It is the mystery that keeps unravelling, like blood, truth and memory.
A third of the way through this absorbing and engagingly written book, Albert Costa describes a family meal: “The father speaks Spanish with his wife and his son, but uses Catalan with his daughter. The daughter in turn speaks Catalan with her father but Spanish with the rest of the family, including the grandmother, who only speaks Spanish though she understands Catalan.” It’s what Costa calls “orderly mixing”, and, depending on which restaurants you visit, a common enough situation: everyone is bilingual here, but the language used changes according to who it is directed at. Given that everyone at the table understands both languages, would it not be easier and less confusing if everyone just chose one language and stuck to it? That sounds logical, but the bilingual mind doesn’t work that way. If you do not believe it, Costa suggests “having a conversation with a friend in the language you do not usually use and see how far you get”.
Not far, he observes. And Costa should know – not just because he was an expert in language acquisition (he died last year), but because the family he is describing is his own. One of the reasons this book makes sense of its complex material – from basic code-switching tests to the latest technology in brain imaging and transcranial magnetic stimulation – is that Costa is such a charming and witty guide. This is a rigorous book about complex science, and much of it could have been intractably technical or riddled with statistics. But Costa has a winningly informal style, a deadpan wit, and mixes laboratory findings of cognitive neuropsychology with examples from everyday life, TV programmes, sports and politics. In one set of cognitive tests, he shows how people are more risk-averse in their second language, and more gung-ho in their first. Costa suggests the practical applicablity of such research by advising us to visit casinos where people speak a language we are less comfortable in – it substantially reduces the likelihood of our going home shirtless and barefoot.
Reading poetry is a willful act. Making sense of strange groupings of words requires an agile form of listening—one that can bridge ambiguity and keep pace with a poet’s linguistic leaps.
It’s precisely these skills that make poetry pleasurable, and also useful in the workplace, says Pádraig Ó Tuama, an Irish theologian, poet, and the host of the new podcast Poetry Unbound. “In poetry, one allows ambivalence and ambiguity of multiple meanings to coexist. It creates space for hospitality and complexity,” he says.
Granted, as meat historian Roger Horowitz notes, these are rarely everyday items. Most were only made, historically, right after an animal was slaughtered, or during the winter, when cold northern climes could preserve blood. Yet blood is still, thanks to practicality, tradition, and taste — many do appreciate its thick earthiness — an active part of most nations’ foodways. In some regions, like the British Isles or Germany with their blood sausages, or Scandinavia with its tradition of blood pancakes, blood as an ingredient is not only commonplace, but beloved.
It’s odd, then, that blood does not factor at all into what’s now generalized as “American food” — not in any of the items that populate fast-food menus (perhaps the most American of inventions), in common dishes descended most directly from European traditions (like meatloaf, pancakes, and various meatballs), or even in dishes closely associated with meat byproducts (like hot dogs, scrapple, and livermush).
Glass extended, I asked her to elaborate. Don’t we all intuitively eat? We do not, she said—and explained that intuitive eating was a kind of insurrectionist anti-wellness strategy, a countermovement to the restrictive diets, fasting trends, and other dubious self--improvement strategies so many of us are committed to.
But how does one…do it? I asked tentatively, and her answer caused me to spill some of my wine. “I eat what I want when I want.” And she had never felt better in her life.
A con man is only as good as his charm. Frank William Abagnale, reincarnated by Leonardo DiCaprio in “Catch Me if You Can,” inhabited half a dozen identities by the time he was 21 and did so with such brio that he was able to fool hundreds. Charles Ponzi was a dapper operator who tooled around in a Locomobile. And Ronnie Cornwell, the father of the novelist John le Carré, was an insurance fraudster who later became the model for the charismatic Rick Pym in le Carré’s “A Perfect Spy.” The most famous image of Cornwell shows him in a top hat and buttonhole striding confidently through a top-class English crowd, with a look of knowing concentration mixed with an offhand breeziness. You can feel the charm coming off the image.
In Adam Sisman’s amusing and elegantly written biography of the midcentury British impostor Robert Parkin Peters, excitedly styled “Peters the Parson” and “Romeo of the Church” by the yellow press, the subject is a curious and relatively harmless man of many faces who managed to attract the attention of one of Britain’s most august modern historians. The suavely aristocratic and yet strangely gullible Hugh Trevor-Roper first encountered Peters at Oxford in 1958 when Trevor-Roper, then a Regius professor of modern history, received a letter from an unknown supplicant on behalf of a Mr. and Mrs. Peters. They were young academics suffering “vindictive persecution from outside the university.” Could the professor help?
Today, Obama’s story feels as simple and obvious as a Wikipedia page. Yet it took him years to process this story—to understand it, to interpret it, to create it. These were the years he spent writing (and failing to write) Dreams from My Father. “Writing a book,” he later said, “forced me to be honest about myself. . . . It was good training for the kind of politics I try to practice now.” Obama-the-writer came before Obama-the-candidate.
Flannery O’Connor allegedly said that endings should be “surprising yet inevitable.” Whether or not she actually said this, the internet will not easily verify. But it does apply well to her stories, most notably “Good Country People” and “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” (Or as we like to think of them together “A Good Country Man Is Hard to Find.”) The experience of reading to the end of these stories is certainly surprising—in the first, a lonely academic woman’s leg is stolen by a “simple” bible salesman, in the second, a grandmother is executed point blank by an escaped convict—but inevitable? It’s only in retrospect and through subsequent readings that you realize O’Connor doled out the material for those endings from the first page. Inevitability is crafted: it’s what separates “surprising,” which energizes the reader, from “a twist,” which makes the reader feel tricked.
When he used the phrase “the children of the night,” Dracula was following an ancient tradition. He was avoiding the word “wolf.” In many societies, words have power, the power to summon what they name. This idea probably emerges from rituals that took place in preparation for the hunt. It was a way of calling prey so the hunt would be successful. But if words can summon prey, they can also summon danger.
Speakers had to find ways of referring to wolves without naming them. The word for wolf becomes taboo: It shouldn’t be said. Instead, the magic of summoning through a name can be tricked. By changing the sound of the word, by using another word, perhaps borrowed from another language, or by using a descriptive phrase rather than the word itself, speakers could talk of wolves, but avoid the dangerous word itself.
Dr. Lightman is best known in literary circles for his 1992 novel, “Einstein’s Dreams,” which is all about the vicissitudes — romantic, physical and otherwise — of time. It recounts the nightly visions of a young patent clerk in Bern, Switzerland, as he struggles to finish his theory of relativity. Each dream explores how a different version of time might play out in the lives of the clerk’s fellow citizens.
But before that, Dr. Lightman was an astrophysicist, a card-carrying wizard of space and time, with a Ph.D. from the California Institute of Technology and subsequent posts at Cornell and Harvard In 1989, at the peak of his prowess as a physicist, he began to walk away from the world of black holes to enter the world of black ink and the uncertain, lonely life of the writer.
Though she’s performed in two dances at City Ballet since November, her return to the stage is still a cautious one. It has involved six doctors, five of whom advised surgery.
“They were all telling me different things,” she said, “but basically the scary thing was that they made me feel like if I was walking down the street and somebody were to nudge me, I could never walk again.”
It can be a knotty business, articulating what you love about a book — knotty, yet fun. Case in point: “And I Do Not Forgive You,” the new collection of 22 stories from Amber Sparks. Every story pulls off a convincing blend of the ordinary and the surreal, and altogether they offer an eye-popping range. One piece will tumble along full of event, and the next will stretch the mind, bit by bit. A single page may erupt in a cornucopia of feeling: groans of heartache, yips of delight, a fine wisecrack or two and the rage of a woman wronged.
As a reader, I was so won over I pressed the book on strangers on public transportation. As a reviewer, tasked with making sense of the magic, I’ve got my work cut out for me. Not that I mind.
How do we carry on without succumbing to the despair and nihilism that only the wealthy can afford? Kate Aronoff recently observed that many of the calls for climate defeatism come from successful male novelists who have relatively little to lose as the result of climate change. Maybe the willingness of Franzen, Foer, and the rest to place the planet on palliative care stems from the fact that American literature has usually assumed that the future would be better than the past. With the prospect of an ever-brighter future removed, these men can’t envision any livable way forward.
In her brief, brilliant third novel Weather, Jenny Offill tries harder. The question of how to navigate the present while preparing for a climate-changed future preoccupies her narrator. When the novel opens in present-day New York, Lizzie, a middle-aged librarian already facing a mountain of domestic worries, has taken on a side gig answering emails for her former academic advisor, whose climate podcast Hell and High Water has left her inbox flooded with comments from hippies and evangelical doomsayers alike.
Offill pulls us in close in order to make us worry about things outside us; mirrors the self to show us what we are selfishly ignoring.
Novels became central to the culture partly because they were the only available art form spacious enough for all the details authors needed to draw increasingly realistic pictures of their characters. But most of all, novels described what seemed the crisis of the modern self. And at their highest and most serious level, they offered solutions.
The sad truth is that the novel now doesn’t occupy the same cultural high ground, and it doesn’t typically feel to readers like a practical device for addressing problems. The decline of the novel’s prestige reflects a new crisis born of our culture’s increasing failure of intellectual nerve and its terminal doubt about its own progress.
It’s a high-class but increasingly common problem: being a former magazine editor in a digitized world that cares little about whose name used to be on top of a defunct masthead. (A masthead, for those unfamiliar with the term, lists in careful hierarchy the top staff of a publication and is most often printed on paper — which tells you pretty much all you need to know.)
At 48, Dan Peres is already an old hand at being a former magazine editor. Condé Nast shut down Details, the men’s glossy that he had been editor of for 15 years, in 2015. Overnight Mr. Peres went from two decades spent as a coveted presence at fashion shows and parties in the world’s capitals to a divorced dad adrift in the ’burbs.
In distinct ways, Wiley and Sherald are committed to making black people present in painting: in portraiture, in museums, and by extension, in the American cultural imagination. Through experimentation and by plainly subverting the genre’s conventions, both artists take on this task deliberately in order to bestow dignity and humanity on those who have for centuries been marginal or invisible in the Western canon.
As documents of both the Obamas’ White House tenure and contemporary artworks that challenge tradition, these portraits cement the Obamas’ reputation as powerful shapers of history who are also modern, innovative taste-makers with a brand of their own. At the same time, the entry of these portraits into the museum’s collection represents a significant moment in the institution’s recent sustained effort to evolve longstanding ideas about the nature of American portraiture and its power through time to determine who is inscribed in this nation’s history and who is erased.
“I’ve never said my name on air in the 20 years I’ve been on,” C-SPAN founder and now-retired CEO Brian Lamb told an interviewer in 1998. “We asked a question in our polls a few years ago to see if anybody knew who the interviewers are. Of the seven of us who are regularly on the air, about 2.5 percent of people in the United States knew anybody by name.”
“That’s been our goal all along — to have that kind of feeling for people, that they came in, told their story and we weren’t there to intimidate them or be stars,” Lamb said.
In the late ’90s, it seemed the only place to find certain spice blends, outside of a few villages in India, was the kitchen cabinet of my parents’ house in southern Connecticut. Growing up, I’d aimlessly peruse our pantry, stumbling upon Skippy containers filled with mysterious powders in deep browns, reds, and oranges. A container of fresh masala eternally lived in the fridge crisper drawer. At the time, I didn’t fully understand these ingredients or how, exactly, they arrived in our New England kitchen. I just knew they turned bland pink chicken into delicious brown curries flecked with neon yellow turmeric, and transformed plain cubes of pork into bright orange sorpotel.
Almost every year until my sisters and I hit high school, my family would go to India to visit relatives. Unbeknownst to me, my parents weren’t coming back just with memories of home. They were also bringing back some of its tastes: foods from small villages in Mangalore, seaside towns in Goa, and big cities like Bangalore. They double-bagged masala packets, nearly the size of burritos, and stored them in aroma-concealing containers like pharmacy jars from my grandfather’s medical clinic in Mumbai. Other family members employed more elaborate measures. My great aunt would vacuum-seal her homemade masala and affix a homemade but very slick-looking label, disguising her mysterious sack of red powder as a fake store-bought product called Magic Masala.
If the 22 stories ("& Other Revenges") that make up Amber Sparks's newest collection, And I Do Not Forgive You, were a mix tape, or mix CD, or more contemporarily, a playlist, it would be the kind you'd listen to after a breakup. But also the type you'd sing along with while driving on a perfect summer afternoon. Or that you'd put on late at night, curled up next to your best friend, sharing headphones and a mattress and each other's warmth. Each story feels like it belongs here, but also like it stands alone so well you want to read it on repeat, and while the range of emotions evoked in the collection as a whole is broad, I found myself most often sitting with that indescribable ache that characterizes the bittersweet.
Part-way through this memoir of hospice medicine and living with loss, Rachel Clarke lists a few troubling ideas she prefers to avoid thinking about: global warming, far-right populism, email overload, menopause, declining numbers of bees and, of course, mortality. It’s become a truism that western societies have difficulties accepting death, but Clarke, whose daily work is to ease the suffering of the dying, has a different view. She sees sense in avoiding the contemplation of death, and often applauds her patients for it – right up until they no longer have any choice.
Daniel M. Lavery’s last book, the 2018 short story collection “The Merry Spinster,” was published several days after he came out as transgender. Those stories, rooted in fairy tales and children’s literature and trading in a blend of the wondrous and uncanny, employed a thin veil of allegory to tell a series of narratives about emotional abuse and toxic relationships. Inasmuch as they reflected his personal experiences, it was in the manner of all fairy tales — through archetypes and deep dives into the subconscious.
Lavery’s new book, “Something That May Shock and Discredit You,” pulls away that veil, dealing with his evangelical youth and his life as a transgender man. In pieces that seep through the barriers separating fiction, memoir and cultural criticism, characters wrestle with the consequences of their decisions as well as changes beyond their control. Chief among those characters is the author.
The poems in this collection are appetizing and remind us of the complexities of the simplest things. We can’t afford to take food for granted if we are lucky to have it. In a sense, the political elements of the collection are a protest against infringing on another’s choice of sustenance when food is a blessing. The international scope of the anthology, ranging from India, the United States, Iceland, Spain, Poland, England, and Nigeria, shows us how connected we are and explores the ways this connection is possible. Using imagery, situation, history, ritual, and humor, these poems tell a story beyond the common act of consuming we take for granted. The cultural specificities of the poems and their choices of subject are somewhat offsetting for the uncultured (or region-specific) reader, but footnotes offer insight into their backgrounds. The collection is not only commentary as such but also a wonderful place to garner insight into foods and customs across the world.
Shakespeare, as usual a step ahead of everyone else, summed up this paradox in a few feet of iambic pentameter: “So all my best is dressing old words new, / Spending again what is already spent: / For as the sun is daily new and old, / So is my love still telling what is told.”
But for literarily inclined members of my generation, the key text on sentimental education was Jeffrey Eugenides’s 2011 novel “The Marriage Plot.” Madeleine, the book’s 22-year-old heroine, meets her boyfriend, Leonard, in a semiotics seminar at Brown. Alert readers know this is not a good sign. The book is set in the 1980s; poststructuralism is all the rage. Naturally, the seminar’s syllabus is heavy on French theory — Derrida, Barthes — that “deconstructed the very notion of love.”
Social scientists have a term of art to capture a person’s overall happiness and sense of well-being. They call it “life satisfaction” and find it strongly correlates with time spent with those who care about you and about whom you care. A regular dinner with family and friends is a marvelous way to create that time. Which is not to say that life satisfaction will arise from your very first meal, or even your fifth. I think it accrues only over months and years, as you cook food and share it. Regularity matters. Standing dinner dates, at their best, are simply special occasions that are not at all extraordinary. They become that way over time.
Back in 1929, McKay told a journalist that it would take readers another 30 or 40 years to understand his fiction “in its true light.” His hubris should be taken with a grain of salt, but perhaps he underestimated what Cloutier has called the belated timeliness of his art. It seems fitting that, nearly a century later, McKay’s name takes its place as part of the cityscape, as a landmark nailed quietly above the hustle and bustle at the water’s edge.
If you’ve just read The Snow Was Dirty because you were encouraged to do so by the Reading Group, I should both apologise and congratulate you. The apology because, oh god, this book is bleak. The congratulations because it’s also an immortal masterpiece.
Through Lizzie’s thoughts and observations, Weather invites us to consider an unusually expansive perspective on our relationship to the rest of the planet: “The only reason we think humans are the height of evolution is that we have chosen to privilege certain things above other things,” Sylvia lectures. “For example, if we privileged the sense of smell, dogs would be deemed more evolved…If we privileged longevity, it would be bristlecone pines.” This type of birds-eye-view sweeps through the novel, jarringly woven into everyday anecdotes to stop you in your tracks again and again as the interconnectedness of our world is laid bare in your hands.
Daniel Mallory Ortberg’s Something That May Shock And Discredit You is three eloquent books in one: memoir, essay collection, and treasure trove of cultural analysis, all coming in under 250 pages. Ortberg is as nimble a storyteller as they come, so the shifts from painful personal revelations to pithy observations about Lord Byron turn on a dime while still mostly feeling part of the same whole.
If you’re a straight woman with some artistic sensibility, you may have dated a David Foster Wallace: a red flag who charmed his way into your heart by claiming you were the only one to truly understand him, but who turned out to be less sensitive than he at first seemed, to say the least. Chances are your David Foster Wallace read David Foster Wallace, an author whose writing left an indelible mark on the literary world. Over the years, Wallace has transformed into an avatar for a certain kind of lit-bro who scorns anyone who hasn’t read Infinite Jest, but doesn’t consider why he hasn’t read a female writer in his entire adult life.
If you’re Adrienne Miller, who, in 1997, became the first woman to serve as Esquire’s literary editor, a position she held for nearly a decade, you have dated the David Foster Wallace, and part of your story is contending with the late writer’s near mythical status, which has grown more complicated in the #MeToo era. Miller’s new memoir, In The Land Of Men, grapples with that experience, in the context of a larger industry that celebrated, coddled, and enabled all sorts of terrible men.
One risk in being a very good critic, however rare, is that one’s own judgments might become bigger performances than the art one sets out to describe. Criticism of all kinds is bounded by the assumption of a binary: There is the subject of analysis, there is the analyzer, and never the twain shall meet. Once that binary breaks down, other dangers may surface. A reviewer might get high on the power of playing gatekeeper, and start trumpeting ideology without seeing the ego involved. (William Logan is such a case, and perhaps the early Michael Robbins.) In better situations, though, the aggrandizement of the critic simply exposes criticism for what it is: creative writing, an experience that engages the head and the heart both, and that is based, like all the best writing, in passionate investment. What I really want to see when I read a good writer is that they love something—isn’t that always the point?
A finely tuned lost-and-found system, however, cannot exist on infrastructure alone. Fostering a culture that emphasizes returning lost property is also needed, and in Japan, it is a lesson that begins at a young age.
In a now-viral Twitter post, a woman named Keiko recounted how her young son found a 50-yen coin in a park in Japan’s Hokuriku region. He insisted on turning in the money—worth less than 50 U.S. cents—at a nearby koban. At first, Keiko (who requested that her family name not be used) worried what reaction the 6-year-old would get from the officers on duty, but the police response surprised her: “Several officers came out [of the koban], asked where and when the coin was picked up, and filled out the official [lost and found] document” and offered praise to her son.
The notion of the Earth stopping its majestic rotation, and setting in motion dire aftereffects, dates back at least to the Bible, when “the sun stood still in the midst of heaven, and hasted not to go down about a whole day.” Since then, there has been a steady stream of similarly themed stories, novels and movies, from H.G. Wells’s 1898 “The Man Who Could Work Miracles” — and the 1937 film adaptation — to last year’s “The City in the Middle of the Night” by Charlie Jane Anders.
Andrew Hunter Murray’s debut novel, “The Last Day,” also instantiates such a cosmic alteration in daily life. But Murray has so thoroughly thought through the ramifications of his conceit and conjured up such a dramatic plot and stellar cast of characters that he might have set a new standard for such tales.
Why does one spring clean, declutter, or otherwise slough off the collected detritus of bygone years? To free up space for more, newer stuff, of course. But minimizing one thing also can help to maximize something else: less work means more free time; fewer possessions means less upkeep. For Henry David Thoreau, a Spartan-like existence offered a way to “suck out all the marrow of life,” whereas for some aristocrats in Marcel Proust’s time, “playing at simplicity” was a kind of high-society conceit, charming “people only on condition that they know that you are capable of not living simply, that is to say that you are very rich.”
The latter form is still going strong. In The Longing for Less, journalist and art critic Kyle Chayka reminds us of an iconic 1982 photograph of Steve Jobs posing at home in a room containing almost nothing but a luxury antique lamp from Tiffany. Chayka shows that minimalist living has since become a fully commercialized “brand identity” and lifestyle for educated, middle-class young professionals. Through best-selling books, popular social media channels, and Netflix series, self-help coaches like the Japanese cleaning guru Marie Kondo have “profited on their minimalism expertise,” he writes, by encouraging their followers to shed any possessions that do not “spark joy.”
At last, we have the work of transgender bathos we didn’t know we needed, but very much do.
No, I don’t mean pathos. I mean the term coined by Alexander Pope to signify “the art of sinking in poetry,” as does Daniel Mallory Ortberg. In the essay collection “Something That May Shock and Discredit You,” he uses the 18th-century term for “anticlimax” as an excellent, if surprising, vehicle for writing that he calls, in the acknowledgments, “memoir-adjacent.”
When we suffer, we often no longer feel connected to the things we know; in many ways “This Brilliant Darkness” is a document of the searching that follows grief. On one page, Sharlet might be writing about Skid Row. On another, he’s discussing a postcard he wrote to his mother (who died of breast cancer when he was still in his teens). Poignantly, Sharlet also writes about sharing snapshots with his subjects. The book ingeniously reminds us that all of our lives — our struggles, desires, grief — happen concurrently with everyone else’s, and this awareness helps dissolve the boundaries between us.
If “In the Land of Men” sometimes seems at odds with itself, it’s because Miller — who can be witty and knowledgeable about the clichés of fiction written by men — apparently regards Wallace as too special and too fragile to have been held to the rules that she applies to others. “Troubled male genius” is an old trope, but Miller elevates it to new heights.
To celebrate her recent books “Silly Lullaby” and “Dinosnores,” the beloved children’s author Sandra Boynton threw not a book party but a pajama party. At a New York store on a Chelsea morning, three of Ms. Boynton’s four adult children—fresh-faced, cheerful and vigorous—shimmied onstage in flannel jammies near large cardboard cutouts of Ms. Boynton’s charmingly bewildered cows and other animals. They led a roomful of rapt children and beaming parents in the titular lullaby, which is as silly as promised: “Go to sleep, my zoodle, my fibblety-fitsy foo. Go to sleep, sweet noodle. The owl is whispering ‘Moo.’” A long line of short readers waited for Ms. Boynton to sign their board books, often lovingly battered and bitten. “This is like meeting Bono,” one mother said happily.
Children and parents don’t always agree on enjoyable reading (and rereading), but for decades, they have agreed on Sandra Boynton. Since publishing her first book, “Hippos Go Berserk!”, in 1977, her titles have sold 70 million copies, according to Workman, one of her publishers, along with Simon & Schuster. “It’s a lot of books,” she says. “And I’ve only bought half of those.”
When he set out to write a novel, Brandon Taylor, a former doctoral student in biochemistry at the University of Wisconsin, approached it like a scientist.
“I have this very technical approach to almost everything,” he said during a video interview from Iowa, where he now lives. “If there is a problem, I first determine the parameters of the problem, and then I try to lay out a very systematic way of doing it.”
He started with a series of lists: Reasons he had failed to write a novel (too concerned with inventing everything, problems with setting and time frame). Things he considered himself good at (tone, dialogue). Scenes he wanted in the book (a tennis match, a dinner party). He gave himself rules, setting a goal to write 10,000 words a day. “It began in this very mercenary place,” he said, “but it moved to a place of genuine artistic interest.”
“For most of history, Anonymous was a woman,” wrote Virginia Woolf. Today, Anonymous is probably an outraged employee in a public service: a member of the legal profession blowing the whistle on the system, or a medic who has seen one too many patients expiring on a trolley. This month the tally of the unknown author swells again, with the publication of Can You Hear Me?, a paramedic’s memoir published under the pseudonym Jake Jones.
For readers, the anonymous author holds a simple and compelling promise. Here is someone who – by concealing their identity – can reveal the complete and shocking truth. Many anonymous authors say this is precisely why they’ve chosen to remain hidden. The Secret Barrister, whose anonymous exposé of the criminal justice system was published in 2018, explains from behind the barrier of email: “Anonymity means I can criticise institutions, organisations and players in the justice system without feeling that I have to modify my commentary with a nervous eye on my real-life practice.”
In Weather, we construct a whole from the pieces Offill gives us, and find that we hold in our hands a truly remarkable novel, perhaps the most powerful portrait of Trump’s America yet.
Tola Rotimi Abraham’s Black Sunday will destroy you. It won’t be an explosion or any other ultraviolent thing. Instead, the novel will inflict a thousand tiny cuts on you, and your soul will slowly pour from them. Well, at least I think that’s what Abraham wants to do. I’m sure that’s the reason this gem of a novel is packed with so much poetry, pain, abandonment, abuse, heartbreak, and poverty.
Trees grow throughout children’s books. From “Peter Pan” to “A Monster Calls,” “The Lord of the Rings” to “Harry Potter,” trees are refuges, prisons and symbols of nature’s potency. They can be a friendly home, like the Hundred Acre Wood in “Winnie-the-Pooh,” or give a sense of menace, like the snowy forest in “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.” They can also be symbolic, like the cement-filled dying tree in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” The writers I loved when I was a child were similarly inspired by magical landscapes and nature: Ursula K. Le Guin, J.R.R. Tolkien, L. Frank Baum, Diana Wynne Jones, Lloyd Alexander, Robert Louis Stevenson, T.H. White — and so many others.
Today, children have much less unsupervised access to the countryside. I worry that they may never know the magic of the wilderness, the power of trees and the thrilling excitement of exploring nature without an adult hovering behind them. And so I write books for children who will never know what the freedom of my childhood was like.
“I became interested in why I wasn’t more interested,” Offill says, considering the question of why she chose to focus a novel around a subject many people find too vast and frightening to contemplate. In other words, she was curious how it was possible to be intellectually aware of an unfolding disaster without feeling emotionally connected or moved to action. The novel follows Lizzie as she moves from “a state of twilight knowing” to a more conscious awareness of the crisis. At its core, the story asks: what happens after we start to pay attention?
In reality, the rigor of math simply isn’t possible when it comes to the everyday questions that we grapple with. When we talk about hard problems like what effective schooling should look like, or how much governance should be imposed on communities, we don’t simply “prove” what the answer is. We can no longer assume a controlled environment and well-defined scope. Progress on real problems is inherently nonlinear and undecidable. People throw their ideas and reasons haphazardly into the ring, we end up with ten different schools of thought, and yet it seems like the answer is still more complex and nuanced than anything we can come up with.
Philosophy is a way to address these questions more systematically — it takes our fuzzy concepts and intuitions and makes them rigorous. It isn’t meant to provide answers, but the primitives, frameworks, and abstractions that we can use to structure the world.
So, when Mikhail Khudi, a reindeer herder, is hungry, he likes to take a bit of raw, frozen fish or reindeer meat from his sled-top pantry and dunk it in mustard before it disappears, chewy then creamy, in his mouth.
Travel thousands of miles across Arctic Siberia — from the oil-and-gas heartland on the Yamal Peninsula just east of the Ural Mountains, to the nickel smelters of the lonely city of Norilsk, to the Gulag-haunted banks of the Kolyma River as you approach Alaska — and you will encounter Mr. Khudi’s snack: stroganina.
Rachel, a librarian in Brooklyn, hasn't had the best luck with men. "I'd dated inadvisably before," she admits, "the long-distance architect, the married whiskey distiller, the homeless freegan." But when she sees a beautiful young man lingering at her bus stop, she's hopeful he might be the one to reverse her string of bad luck. Thomas, it turns out, is her perfect match — or he would be, if only he weren't dead.
That's the setup for The Regrets, the dazzling debut novel from Georgia author Amy Bonnaffons. Wildly inventive and daring, her novel is a reflection on the limits of love that's both hilarious and heartbreaking.
Once I saw a newsreel of Queen Elizabeth II making a speech when I was still living in Beijing in the 1990s. I was puzzled by the way she spoke English, even though I could not understand half of what she said. I noticed that her lips barely moved when she spoke. She seemed to have the quality of a ventriloquist, but there was no little painted doll sitting on her shoulder flapping its lips. Her whole manner was strange and impenetrable. I never got to the bottom of my puzzlement. A few years later, however, after managing to get a scholarship, I came to Britain, and started to live in London. Then began a journey of discovering English and Englishness.
“The Scream” is fading. And tiny samples of paint from the 1910 version of Edvard Munch’s famous image of angst have been under the X-ray, the laser beam and even a high-powered electron microscope, as scientists have used cutting-edge technology to try to figure out why portions of the canvas that were a brilliant orangeish-yellow are now an ivory white.
Since 2012, scientists based in New York and experts at the Munch Museum in Oslo have been working on this canvas — which was stolen in 2004 and recovered two years later — to tell a story of color. But the research also provides insight into Munch and how he worked, laying out a map for conservators to prevent further change, and helping viewers and art historians understand how one of the world’s most widely recognized paintings might have originally looked.
Languages take generations to develop from crude verbal associations into patterns of communication and then into Nicaraguan Sign Language. For The Sims, it took about six months. The process, while shorter, was no less tedious.
“Weather” is a novel reckoning with the simultaneity of daily life and global crisis, what it means for a woman to be all of these things: a mother packing her son’s backpack and putting away the dog’s “slobber frog,” a sister helping her recovering-addict brother take care of his infant daughter, and a citizen of a possibly doomed planet that might be a very different place for the son whose backpack she is packing, when he packs his own son’s backpack decades from now, or certainly when that someday-son does the same for his own children.
We humans are biologically built to seek friends, and we can see suggestions of our evolutionary past in the social behavior of some animals.
In “Friendship: The Evolution, Biology, and Extraordinary Power of Life’s Fundamental Bond,” journalist Lydia Denworth explores the science behind friendship. In an accessible and enlightening style, she takes us with her on her journeys to primatology research sites in Puerto Rico and Kenya, and to cutting-edge biology and neuroscience laboratories in the United States. She discovers that female baboons in Kenya who establish stable social bonds with friends and kin have more babies and live longer. Numerous species of animals, ranging from elephants to zebra fish, show evidence of friendships as measured by the degree of the long-term cooperation between pairs of individuals.
“We spend our lives trying to discern where we end and the rest of the world begins.” Maria Popova is best known for her insightful and eclectic website Brain Pickings, an exploration of what she reads and “a record of my own becoming as a person”. Her first book is also a highly original survey of life, love and creativity; an intellectual odyssey that challenges easy categorisation. It interweaves the “invisible connections” between pioneering scientists, artists and writers – many of them gay women – to create a richly patterned tapestry of ideas and biographies. Her approach subverts the idea that lives “unfold in sensical narratives”. Popova’s unique act of “figuring” in this book is to create resonances and synchronicities between the lives of visionary figures. Her aim is to answer questions that “raze to the bone of life”, including the most profound of all: “How, in this blink of existence bookended by nothingness, do we attain completeness of being?”
The story inevitably builds like a drum roll to the scene with which it started, and a further conclusion that has happy endings, sad endings and not-endings-at-all – just like adult life. It’s a mature piece of work by an accomplished writer who knows how to make serious issues relatable – and get a few grownup laughs, too.
Last year, Krzysztof Stanek got a letter from one of his neighbors. The neighbor wanted to build a shed two feet taller than local regulations allowed, and the city required him to notify nearby residents. Neighbors, the notice said, could object to the construction. No one did, and the shed went up.
Stanek, an astronomer at Ohio State University, told me this story not because he thinks other people will care about the specific construction codes of Columbus, Ohio. He brought it up because it reminds him of the network of satellites SpaceX is building in the space around Earth.
Toilet training is an exercise in behavior modification: you try to convince an otherwise happy and contented child that they have to take responsibility for their own actions — namely toileting. It is a classic situation where the interests of one party (the parents) differ from those of the other (the child). If you want to align those interests, someone is going to have to pay up. The only question is, how much? What reward do you need to offer to get the behavior you want?
What are the limitations of reason? Can a computer know love? What might a bat feel? What if we could share a brain? Are there plural worlds? These experiments introduce each phase of Ward’s tale of love and loss, narrated from the perspectives of Rachel and Eliza, Rachel’s mother (confusingly called Elizabeth), baby Arthur, Arthur’s dad and his husband Greg, not forgetting the ant itself. They disrupt – and are intended to disrupt – the flow of the narrative. Think, they advise you, stand on the other foot, turn the glass upside down.
Leo Tolstoy was an inveterate quitter. All his life, he gave up the things that mattered to him, or tried to. He bolted from university without a degree, left the army, renounced the privileges of aristocracy. He rejected the Orthodox church and abjured fiction as a vanity. He forswore the libertinism of his youth, and—eventually—fled his tortured marriage, in the fatal escape that ended at the railway station in Astapovo.
The stories are tragic. Each chapter in the work is its own little black Sunday. But, although Abraham’s novel can be described as an exercise in confronting pain, her narrative is also an exercise in emboldening the “female spirit.”
It has often been my experience that rereading a book that was important to me at earlier times in my life is something like lying on the analyst’s couch. The narrative I have had by heart for years is suddenly being called into alarming question. It seems that I’ve misremembered quite a lot about this or that character or this or that plot turn—they met here in New York, I was so sure it was Rome; the time was 1870, I thought it was 1900; and the mother did what to the protagonist? Yet the world still drops away while I’m reading and I can’t help marveling, If I got this wrong, and this and this wrong, how come the book still has me in its grip?
Although he prefers the caffeinated life, Pollan is not sure where he stands on whether coffee and tea have been good for humans in general. And even if he were clear, he probably wouldn’t tell us, he says.
“Caffeine makes us work harder. Is that good for us or not? What is good for a species?” Pollan says. “The kind of person caffeine made us, someone more likely to be striving and ambitious and highly productive, does that necessarily make us happier?”
“The benefits are clear on the civilization ledger,” he adds. “On the species ledger, it really depends if you see civilization as a plus or minus for the species. It does a lot for us, but it also has an enormous cost.”
Early in “The Awakening” — Kate Chopin’s great feminist novel of identity and self-consciousness, which still throbs with relevance more than 120 years after its publication — the heroine’s husband picks a fight. He has spent the evening at a casino and now it’s approaching midnight, but the card game has left Léonce “in high spirits, and very talkative.” He wakes his wife to gossip but she answers him sleepily, “with little half utterances.” Spurned, and still intent on rousing her, Léonce manufactures a fever for their sleeping son. When Edna dares doubt this, Léonce calls her a bad mother. She springs out of bed to check, while Léonce — no longer worried, if he ever actually was — enjoys his cigar. Soon, Mr. Pontellier is fast asleep, but “Mrs. Pontellier was by that time thoroughly awake.”
Awake to what? After the fight, Edna moves out to the balcony and weeps profusely: “An indescribable oppression, which seemed to generate in some unfamiliar part of her consciousness, filled her whole being with a vague anguish.”
Adana Moreau — a young, orphaned, Dominican woman who emigrates to New Orleans in the 1910s — experiences this realization early in Michael Zapata's debut, The Lost Book of Adana Moreau. It's an epiphany that will echo throughout the novel in multiple dimensions. Smart and heart-piercing, Lost Book is a story of displacement, erasure, identity, mythology, and the ability of literature to simultaneously express and transcend our lives — not to mention reality.
Cloud bound but proud
the dim February sun
survives above the snow.
Offill made her name with her second book, “Dept. of Speculation,” a viciously funny philosophical novel of ideas smuggled into a story of new motherhood and marital infidelity. In her new novel, “Weather,” Offill applies her instruments — the fragment, the odd fact, her deep banks of knowledge on mysticism and natural history — to a broader canvas. The stakes are the survival not of a marriage but of the planet itself. “The question I was thinking about in this book,” she told me, “was, Can you still just tend your own garden once you know about the fire outside its walls?”
We were standing in her home office. She pulled books from a shelf as if appending footnotes to our conversation, piling them high on the small bed between us. Look at this, and this: a novel by the German writer Christa Wolf; a “Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Survival Manual”; a moss-green hardback, “Cold Meat and How to Disguise It: A History of Advice on How to Survive Hard Times.”
Her desk faced a hill covered with exposed roots and brambles. If the symbolism isn’t obvious enough for a writer of her precision and exacting slowness, consider also the small painting on the sill, of a man walking a snail on a leash. On the desk lay neatly stacked academic studies about the psychology of denial and accounts of polar exploration. A small sign hung on the door bearing a Kafka quote: “In the fight between you and the world, back the world.”
A boat, like a piece of writing, is first of all conceived as a structure. Whether it is a cargo ship, an ocean liner, a ferry, or a pleasure boat, each has a primary function, a part to play. Its purpose defines its size, its shape, and its overall dimensions. When I write, I proceed in the same manner. The form—short story, novel—must be fitting for the story I want to tell. Its architecture underpins the words. It is with this specific aim that I divide it up and seek a balance. Each part, each chapter, has its own function. Just as the engine powers the boat, as the bow cleaves through the waves, and the keel ensures the stability, even the shortest paragraph fulfils a certain purpose. In my case, the engineer endows the writer with a desire for efficiency.
Each new crisis follows a familiar playbook, as scientists, epidemiologists, health-care workers, and politicians race to characterize and contain the new threat. Each epidemic is also different, and each is a mirror that reflects the society it affects. In the new coronavirus, we see a world that is more connected than ever by international travel, but that has also succumbed to growing isolationism and xenophobia. We see a time when scientific research and the demand for news, the spread of misinformation and the spread of a virus, all happen at a relentless, blistering pace. The new crisis is very much the kind of epidemic we should expect, given the state of the world in 2020. “It’s almost as if the content is the same but the amplitude is different,” Bhadelia said. “There’s just a gre ater frenzy, and is that a function of the disease, or a function of the changed world? It’s unclear.”
The scientists dragged a net through the remaining water in four areas of the reserve. With the help of a small aluminum boat and a pool scooper, they caught two males and five females. The animals were placed into cotton pillowcases, then given health checks — while suspended upside down by their tails — and driven to the zoo in Sydney, where they will probably remain for months, until enough rain has fallen to replenish Tidbinbilla’s supplies.
One of the biggest issues facing the zoo was that other reserves were asking them to rescue their platypuses, too, but Taronga didn’t yet have the space. “I don’t think drought and bushfires are going away,” Dr. Meagher said. “We have to prepare for these types of climatic disasters moving forward more and more.” She was spending her days asking, “How do we have the resources to be able to say, ‘All right, let’s go rescue 50 platypus’?”
Food can’t solve every problem. But delivering a homemade dish or edible gift to someone’s door is a concrete response to the sometimes hard-to-answer question of “What can I do to help?”
Gaffney, a seasoned horse trainer in northern New Mexico, gets a call out of the blue one day from a nearby ranch that is run as an alternative to incarceration. The ranch has a small herd of horses cared for by a livestock crew, with the aim of instilling work skills, but the horses have been harshly treated. One has been severely wounded in an accident, and they have been running wild and attacking people. Gaffney has never heard the kinds of stories she’s told over the phone. What she finds on the ranch is a group of damaged people and a group of damaged horses. The book documents a year and a half of finding deep connection and even communion with both.
Strange Hotel oscillates between a kind of obsessional neurosis – a fixation on repetition and control – and neurasthenia, a deadening, fatigued inability to act. Those twinned emotional states transmit themselves to the reader, who worries away at what meaning is being suggested, while also wondering if the attempt is designed and destined not to bear fruit.
We may have better science than the Renaissance, but we still have no medicine or magic capable of divining our leaders’ souls. And yet now, as then, the fate of the realm depends upon such knowledge.
That un-nameable desire to travel a different path led Eisenberg to Pocahontas County and, ultimately, to write this evocative story of two other restless young women — sisters of the road — who passed through decades earlier and, sadly, never left.
Burns was actually the oldest of the film's four stars, and her acclaim was all the more unexpected because she possessed, in her own words and others' lacerating estimation, "a funny face." Five-foot-1 and freckled, she was not Hollywood's idea of a starlet. Dick Kleiner, a syndicated columnist, wrote, "Twenty years ago, they wouldn't have let her inside a studio gate." Kleiner noted that she had a face "like an intelligent marshmallow," while The New York Times' Vincent Canby said her body was "shaped like a fat mushroom." But even those who used such cruel and sexist language couldn't help but admire her acting. Ebert's future partner Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune urged people to remember "the homeliest" of Last Summer's stars come Oscar time, and the photo accompanying his article read, "Cathy Burns: Not prettiest … but the most talented."
It might seem peculiar to find Russell talking about war and murder in connection with a lecture on – of all things –philosophical methodology. But one can see these concerns emerging directly in at least one passage in the lecture itself. Russell had drawn a contrast between his own scientific methodology and the methodology of those who incorporate a strong ethical element in their philosophy, likening the latter to The Grand Augur, a character from a story he attributed to the Chinese philosopher Chuang Tzu. The Grand Augur makes an obviously self-serving argument for butchering some pigs: these animals should be grateful to be slaughtered because it is always an ‘honour’ to ‘die on a war-shield’. Russell’s suggestion is that ethical philosophy offers little more than self-serving argument to justify nationalistic violence. What is more, Russell had held up Bosanquet himself as an example of the kind of moralising metaphysics he meant to repudiate. In private, Russell referred to the essay as ‘Philosophers and Pigs’.
Once confined to the margins, the ecological critique of economic growth has gained widespread attention. At a United Nations climate-change summit in September, the teen-age Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg declared, “We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!” The degrowth movement has its own academic journals and conferences. Some of its adherents favor dismantling the entirety of global capitalism, not just the fossil-fuel industry. Others envisage “post-growth capitalism,” in which production for profit would continue, but the economy would be reorganized along very different lines. In the influential book “Prosperity Without Growth: Foundations for the Economy of Tomorrow,” Tim Jackson, a professor of sustainable development at the University of Surrey, in England, calls on Western countries to shift their economies from mass-market production to local services—such as nursing, teaching, and handicrafts—that could be less resource-intensive. Jackson doesn’t underestimate the scale of the changes, in social values as well as in production patterns, that such a transformation would entail, but he sounds an optimistic note: “People can flourish without endlessly accumulating more stuff. Another world is possible.”
It’s an elusive and risky thing to attempt in a literary work: to be funny — especially if you’re writing about sad things like trauma and loss. It’s the rare book that can achieve an appropriate balance between heaviness and levity, and it’s my favorite kind of novel. In his debut, “Everywhere You Don’t Belong,” Gabriel Bump pulls this off not just generously but seemingly without effort. This is a comically dark coming-of-age story about growing up on the South Side of Chicago, but it’s also social commentary at its finest, woven seamlessly into the work, never self-righteous or preachy.
Who cares if Wiener is a sellout? She didn’t abandon her critical writing. It’s hard to draw a straight line between her answering GitHub customer support emails in bed and any substantial harm, at least a straight line that wouldn’t take most of us out at the knees, too. But without the frisson of shame, Uncanny Valley would be a completely different book, and not nearly as good. This story isn’t about the history of the region or labor in the tech industry; it’s a self-conscious account of how it feels to climb up near the top of the barrel, where you occasionally lose sight of what it’s like for the crabs down below.
But by setting their novella in the future and taking so many of our contemporary problems to logical, frightening extremes, Gailey has produced a tale that's achingly relevant — and inspirational. It's a stirring story of resistance, but more importantly, it's an illustration of how personal transformation can be political transformation. Above all, it's a lively, exquisitely crafted, and unrelentingly fun gallop through Gailey's verdant imagination, even if it's caked in a layer of Arizona dust.
Ultimately, the book is about accepting multiplicity and the prismatic nature of truth and justice.
Long Bright River is being marketed as a thriller, but, as with the best crime novels, its scope defies the constraints of genre; it is family drama, history and social commentary wrapped up in the compelling format of a police procedural. There’s a serial killer targeting young sex workers in Kensington; there’s police corruption and a good but unorthodox cop defying orders to pursue justice. But although the tropes are familiar to the point of cliche, the result feels startlingly fresh.
She’s in the rose garden again, staring
at her right arm, its pale soft underside
that never gets the sun, never gets tanned.
It’s not surprising that James, an inveterate lobby-haunter if ever there was one, should have thought of the hotel first of all as a place for public performance. But the hotel has its zones of privacy also, its interchangeable rooms playing host nightly to a varying cast of inhabitants. If the public spaces of lobby and bar encourage promiscuous mingling and passing acquaintance, for a solo traveller like the narrator of Eimear McBride’s Strange Hotel, the hotel room’s carefully constructed illusion of comfort and familiarity can trigger reflections, memories, moments of heightened imagination. Like the penitent in the confessional – or the reader of a novel – the hotel guest inhabits a solitude shared with others at one remove.
Ultimately, Zapata’s novel is about taking steps to create the world you wish to inhabit, whether through art or through the vital small deed of giving a wandering orphan a place to sleep.
The sense of place in the novel is palpable, the treatment of its characters empathetic and complex. Violence and grief saturate the forest of these words. The mosaic of Vera’s world is dark, but so is capitalism, which facilitates poverty and oppression. “Vera Violet” is a compelling read from a potent new voice.
There are probably more good novels about baseball than any other sport. More bad ones, too. Emily Nemens’s “The Cactus League” definitely belongs in that first lineup, though it’s unusual in at least two respects. The book is less a novel, really, than a series of very cleverly interlinked short stories. (There are nine, naturally, all set in Phoenix during the spring training — or Cactus League — season of 2011.) And very little ball actually gets played in them. Nemens’s real subject here is less the game of baseball itself, though she’s quite good at describing it, than its infrastructure, all the lives that professional baseball embraces. Her large cast includes a coach, some players, an owner, a physical therapist, an agent and his assistant, not to mention an organist, some people who run the concession stands, and the wives and the groupies — the middle-aged divorcées loitering by the parking lot in hopes of picking up a ballplayer for a night or two.
Nemens has a keen eye for detail, from the semi-feral unfinished tract homes in a suburban subdivision to the glittering routine of the players’ wives: “luncheons and spa days, cocktails and color consultations, mornings at the furrier’s and afternoons with the jeweler.” She’s brilliant with lists and with compression. Whole worlds are sketched in miniature, as in the chapter focused on Alex, a poor first-grader growing up in the shadow of luxury, which is to say, in America.
At first he seemed a child,
dirt on his lip and the sun
lighting up his hair behind him.
And there, having spurned the vices of Vegas, we indulged our own, clustered around our team’s answer sheet as a quizmaster barked questions at us. The weekend, Geek Bowl XIII, had been put together as a blowout for quiz fiends who attended bar trivia nights across the US and still yearned for more. Friday was a warm-up quiz: calisthenics before the big game. On Saturday, 240 teams spent the evening packed into a Hard Rock auditorium, sweating their brains over 65 questions. You could buy beer and snacks while you quizzed, but no one seemed particularly keen on alcohol. You drink to forget; you quiz to remember. The only Elvis impersonators I saw that weekend were part of a special round in the quiz, in which Vegas street-theatre performers staged cryptic re-enactments of famous movie scenes. (We had to identify the movies.) Another round had questions to which the answers all included types of cheese: Alison Brie, Goat, Grand Coulee Dam. In a third, we had to construct portmanteau phrases from images of snacks and celebrities. NutElla Fitzgerald. OvalTina Turner. Desmond TuTuna Helper. No quiz I’ve ever attended has provoked this much pained groaning at the answers.
Which is saying something, because I’m entering my fourth decade of addiction. In my quizzing, there is to be found a story of my life. It is the single constant to which I’ve clung as I bounced between schools, universities, jobs and cities. In India, where I grew up, my obsession began with inter-school quizzes: teams of two or three, sitting behind desks, fielding questions in turn. When I was eight, I took part in my first, in Delhi. We missed out on winning on a tie-breaker, and for a week afterwards, I replayed that moment in my mind so vividly that I found it hard to fall asleep at night. In 1999, when I went to an American university to study journalism, I discovered Quiz Bowl tournaments, for which we practised once a week, dividing up into teams and holding mock-contests in empty classrooms late into the night. I returned to India and, while working as a reporter, sank into the circuit of “open” quizzes, so-called because anyone is free to form a team and take part. Three years ago, after my wife and I moved for a brief stint to Ireland, I joined the Dublin Quiz League, conducted in pubs but otherwise a serious affair with difficult questions.
Some residents, like Mr. Lane, have clung proudly to this image of Victoria. The city was established as a British trading post in 1843, before it became the seat of British Columbia’s government and a popular destination for retirees and honeymooners.
But increasingly shaped by a wave of new immigrants, a growing high-tech sector and a mayor who refused to pledge the traditional oath of allegiance to the queen, the picturesque city no longer aspires to be a “little piece of Old England.”
In many ways, said John Adams, 70, a local historian and city guide, the makeover of Victoria is not unlike the rebranding its newest and most famous residents are attempting.
Five years ago I flew over the Connecticut hospital mortuary where thousands of feet below my husband’s dead body lay. The map on the screen flashed up New Haven as we headed east over the Atlantic… leaving him behind. During the six-hour flight back to London I sat bolt upright, tearless and unable to eat, drink or even visit the loo. I felt nothing, utterly empty, numb and as close to inanimate as I imagine a person can feel.
Andrew, at just 52, had died at 8am that morning, killed by a vicious land grabber of a cancer that had taken 14 months to overwhelm every organ in his body. This was my trauma beginning, to be followed, inevitably, by grief. We knew from the start it was bad, but I didn’t somehow think he would actually die. We never discussed it. Now, this seems astounding to me. I am still perplexed by the strength of his denial. And by my complicity.
Until I looked around. Something extraordinary is unfolding for American female distance runners, and it’s making all of us better. Well into our 30s and 40s, we are performing at explosively high levels, levels that used to be unimaginable. The fastest among us have shattered barriers: In 2017, Shalane Flanagan, at 36, became the first American woman to win the New York City Marathon in four decades. The following year, Des Linden, at 34, won the Boston Marathon, the first American woman to do so since 1985.
That success had a quiet and powerful ripple effect, from Olympians and professional runners down to hundreds of amateurs like me.
“Run Me to Earth” is a gorgeous book about the bonds of friendship and the ruptures of war. Even more significantly, in telling the stories of a trio of Laotian teens, it inverts and reorients the American war story.
Not a red rose or a satin heart.
I give you an onion.
It is a moon wrapped in brown paper.
It promises light
like the careful undressing of love.
The one thing everyone knows – or thinks they know – about Ludwig van Beethoven is that he composed some of music’s greatest masterpieces while completely deaf. Compelling as this sounds, the story has a flaw: it may not be true. According to a leading Beethoven expert, the composer still had hearing in his left ear until shortly before his death in 1827.
“This is going to send everybody scurrying to revise biographical concepts about Beethoven,” Theodore Albrecht, professor of musicology at Kent State University, Ohio, told the Observer. Albrecht, who has uncovered crucial evidence in contemporary accounts, believes that although Beethoven suffered severe deterioration in his hearing, he did not lose it “to the very profound depths” that musicologists have assumed.
The clarifying anger that infuses her book also points to the larger politics that we will need if we are to make the Internet a more humane gathering place. Breaking up the Silicon Valley monopolies, unionizing their workplaces, and imposing effective new government regulations need to happen to begin fixing the Internet (and the world). Yet while she only briefly engages with the prospect of tech unionization, the entirety of the book is spent grappling with the limits of her coworkers’ and her own political imagination in the face of the tools they’ve created. She shows us all this because she knows something has to change. Uncanny Valley may tell the story, from one woman’s perspective, of how the tech industry has come close to ruining the world. But Wiener’s book is also proof that it hasn’t succeeded yet.
Cleanness is a book that defies easy classification. Various reviewers have called it a novel, while others deem it a short story collection, and others regard it as a novel told in stories. Yet as the book so eloquently conveys, labels and designations are both illusory and useless. What transpires in Cleanness is a moving, introspective rumination on rootlessness and longing within a strange land. The narrator turns to sex as a way to eradicate these feelings and make a meaningful connection.
“Becoming a Man” is a book that could easily span several books, but its ambition is to be all-encompassing, to lay all of its contradictions in one space and see what complicated truths arise.