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.