Édouard Louis opened the door to the apartment at the top of the Tour Perret, the only skyscraper in the northern French city of Amiens. He said hello warmly before resuming his position in front of a large window, which looked onto a boulevard that cut through town and then vanished into green fields. The apartment belonged to someone called Noppe, who must have been an amateur artist and collector with a nostalgic idea of globe-trotting. On one wall hung a painting that bore the owner’s name, which somewhat stereotypically depicted four African masks suspended in a cloud of hieroglyphs; across from it stood a display case containing regional glassware and a number of vintage die-cast cars. Louis was in the midst of a preliminary shoot for a documentary with the working title “Édouard Louis, or the Transformation,” and the filmmaker, François Caillat, had rented the apartment for its views. “Now you have Amiens at your feet,” Caillat said. “When you arrived, it wasn’t like that.”
A cameraman and a sound operator closed in on Louis as Caillat positioned him. They requested a sound test, and Louis, who attended a performing-arts high school in Amiens, sang a short tune, an old song by the ’70s French pop star Daniel Balavoine called “The Singer”: “I want to succeed in life, be loved, be beautiful, earn money/Above all be intelligent/But for all that, it’s a full-time job.”
At 28, Louis is tall, statuesque, with sharp, angular features. He is also one of France’s most widely read and internationally successful novelists. He seems, however, to have skirted the complicated psychological dynamics that youthful fame can inflict. His sentences are punctuated with a lighthearted, reassuring laugh. Occasionally, you could see the drama student’s checklist reel through his mind: He would straighten his spine, press his shoulders back and down as he looked into the camera. Caillat asked if he could swing open the giant window to film Louis leaning out over town. Louis concurred, though with a faint cry of protest: “I’m not at all the type of person to open a window,” he said.
Until this month, independent bookstores were experiencing something of a cultural, if not necessarily financial, renaissance. Where they’ve persevered, they are often beloved community institutions, not just selling goods but bringing people together around events and serving as a central gathering place. They can also be ad hoc sanctuaries in times of difficulty. “Historically, we’re the ones who’ve served as havens of comfort, reassurance, and information to many people in need during a crisis,” said Bradley Graham, co-owner of Politics and Prose in D.C. “We feel a closure to the public particularly acutely given that we’ve always prided ourselves on being there for communities in need during past crises.”
That many of these businesses have become such neighborhood fixtures helps explain the anguish and betrayal many people felt when two of the best-known bookstores in the country abruptly cut their workers as the pandemic began shutting down retail in mid-March. On March 16, McNally Jackson, an independent bookstore in New York City, announced it would lay off more than 80 employees. Then two days later, Powell’s Books, the giant independent bookstore in Portland, Oregon, laid off the “vast majority” of its staff.
“Memento mori,” from Latin, means “remember death.” From victorious Roman generals humbled by “memento mori” chants to Mexico’s Día de Los Muertos, people of many cultures have embraced this philosophy. To remember death is to acknowledge our brevity. To remember death is to value life. To remember death is to remain humble.
We have Halloween, but that centers around campy movies, candy corn, and rumors of meth-laced Milky Ways. Skulls and tombstones serve as fitting reminders, but we are desensitized to these images. Too many of us deny our own mortality until the smiling mortician stands above us. Ferlinghetti knows the world, despite its beauty, is an evanescent place. But most people avoid poetry and art. We can ignore death all we want, but we can’t escape it. As Alan Lightman asks, “Where are the one billion people who lived and breathed in the year 1800, only two short centuries ago?”
The Penguin Book of Mermaids brings together 60 such mermaid and mermaid-adjacent stories; the collection is notable for its wide scope, both in terms of region and time period. Linguistically, as well, the collection provides novelty: 20 of the tales appear for the first time in English (translated from Japanese, Estonian, Persian, and other languages). Editors Cristina Bacchilega and Marie Alohalani Brown bring their expertise in a variety of academic areas to the assembled texts as well as to the book’s highly perceptive introduction, which weaves together insights from the study of literature, folklore, narrative, postcolonial theory, and more, while nevertheless remaining accessible to lay (nonacademic) readers. In their consideration of mermaid stories’ continuing appeal to audiences, they muse on how [w]e humans do not deal well with betwixt and between — liminality makes us anxious. We prefer our world organized into well-ordered and sharply defined categories, and we prefer to be in charge of it. Nonetheless, we are strangely drawn to the other who is in part a mirror image of us and appears within reach, even if mentally ungraspable.
Dealing mainly with contemporary art and anglophone writing, the collection’s binding sensibility is indicated in its subtitle. The “emergency” in question is the one that distressed Crudo’s author-narrator, who “saw the liberal democracy in which she had grown up revealed as fragile beyond measure, a brief experiment in the bloody history of man”. In a foreword, Laing acknowledges that she values art principally for its political capacities of “resistance and repair”. Art can and should change the world, she insists; it reveals the interior lives of others, “makes plain inequalities” and suggests new ways of living.
Standing at the window
looking between icicles
I can barely see across the street.
In this season of infection, the stock market little more than a twitching corpse, in an atmosphere of alarm and despondency, I am reminded of the enlightenments of the strict curfew Uganda endured in 1966. It was, for all its miseries, an episode of life lessons, as well as monotonous moralizing (because most crises enliven bores and provoke sententiousness). I would not have missed it for anything.
That curfew evoked — like today — the world turned upside-down. This peculiarity that we are now experiencing, the nearest thing to a world war, is the key theme in many of Shakespeare’s plays and Jacobean dramas, of old ballads, apocalyptic paintings and morality tales. It is the essence of tragedy and an occasion for license or retribution. As Hamlet says to his father’s ghost, “Time is out of joint.”
Nothing quite like this had ever been recorded. Superintendent Brown prepared a scholarly article, “Grief in the Chimpanzee.” Even long after the death of the female, Brown reported, the male “invariably slept on a cross-beam at the top of the cage, returning to inherited habit, and showing, probably, that the apprehension of unseen dangers has been heightened by his sense of loneliness.”
Loneliness is grief, distended. People are primates, and even more sociable than chimpanzees. We hunger for intimacy. We wither without it. And yet, long before the present pandemic, with its forced isolation and social distancing, humans had begun building their own monkey houses. Before modern times, very few human beings lived alone. Slowly, beginning not much more than a century ago, that changed. In the United States, more than one in four people now lives alone; in some parts of the country, especially big cities, that percentage is much higher. You can live alone without being lonely, and you can be lonely without living alone, but the two are closely tied together, which makes lockdowns, sheltering in place, that much harder to bear. Loneliness, it seems unnecessary to say, is terrible for your health. In 2017 and 2018, the former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy declared an “epidemic of loneliness,” and the U.K. appointed a Minister of Loneliness. To diagnose this condition, doctors at U.C.L.A. devised a Loneliness Scale. Do you often, sometimes, rarely, or never feel these ways?
My dream in taking up Latin was to achieve an easy mastery of the language. I imagined myself picking up a Latin version of, say, Tacitus, whose Latin is notably difficult, and casually reading two or three paragraphs in the washroom. I can perhaps now do that, but the effort would be far from casual and is likely to have me in the House of Commons, as Dylan Thomas called the washroom, for more than three hours. I cannot yet say that I can really read Latin, but merely that I can, given time and with the help of my iPhone Latin app, figure it out.
Will I, in the unknown amount time left to me on the planet, ever master Latin? Perhaps strangely, I find I do not much care. I simply enjoy working—or is it playing?—with the language, testing my memory, puzzling out complex sentences, marveling at its orderly richness. The idea of a good time for many people my age is to do crossword puzzles, play bridge or Scrabble, hit golf balls. I prefer to wrestle with this long dead but still magnificent language. Like the man said, De gustibus non est disputandum.
The on-air patter was hardly what you would expect from a radio D.J. addressing his listeners during a pandemic last week. But Ken Freedman, the station manager and program director at Jersey City’s WFMU 91.1 and 91.9 FM — broadcasting to the greater New York City area, “Your station from the epicenter!” — sounded practically chipper.
Like the rest of the country’s noncommercial, community radio programmers, Freedman has been forced into hastily improvising a response to the growing spread of Covid-19. Staffed largely by volunteer D.J.s taking time away from paying jobs as teachers, bartenders and everything in between, these scrappy local stations have had little in the way of either precedent or outside resources to fall back on. Operating independently of both National Public Radio’s networked affiliates, as well as the rigidly formatted music stations owned by corporate chains like iHeartMedia, they’ve been left to figure out the changed media landscape for themselves. Some have adopted a “keep calm and carry on” philosophy. Others have taken a decidedly different tack.
Before the coronavirus made delivery a necessity, restaurants across the country — from mom-and-pops to major chains like McDonald’s — were slowly beginning to reinvent themselves as logistics operations, using software to track orders on different delivery platforms or experimenting with containers and menu items designed to travel.
Now, what began as a steady evolution is taking place at warp speed, as even chefs and owners who had long resisted delivery, like Mr. Steele, adapt to the pandemic.
Sure to be the boldest debut of the year, How Much of These Hills Is Gold by American writer C Pam Zhang grapples with the legend of the wild west and mines brilliant new gems from a well-worn setting. Its protagonists are neither cocky white cowboys nor Native Americans but two destitute children of Chinese descent, struggling to survive after the deaths of their impoverished parents. The novel begins as a quest as they try to find the means to bury their father, but extends into an excavation of their family history as well as an account of their development as growing adolescents.
There once was a time when places had no names. A time when no separation existed between our forebears and the trees and rivers and mountains that surrounded them. Those first humans to walk the earth felt the presence of things unseen, heard the whispers of spirits and feared nothing, for they knew life and death were intertwined and the dead were a part of them — their past, present and future.
The characters in Kawai Strong Washburn’s singular debut novel, “Sharks in the Time of Saviors,” live in a place with a name: Hawaii. But Washburn has no interest in the Hawaii of resorts and honeymoons, thank goodness. His characters live in a modern yet mystical version of the archipelago, one whose essence no conqueror can ever fully eradicate.
The hare limped trembling through the frozen grass…
These words of Keats – the animal moving
through the vowels,
the consonants that stand
as frosted blades, or emptied trees
The books we read as children stay with us for life, settling inside our skin in ways we barely realise, ready to provide, whenever we need it, instant access to our childhood selves, when life felt simpler, more enchanted, and rich in possibility. Yet, looking back now on the stories I loved so much, it's clear that many of them were also quietly providing me with templates for how to live.
Growing up as the child of a wealthy Czech-born industrialist in Caracas, Ariana Neumann wanted for nothing — except mystery. Her parents, luminaries of Venezuelan society, doted on her. She had the run of their house with its modern art collection and lush garden. But she dreamed of being a detective, and when she was 8 formed a spy club with cousins and friends devoted to investigating puzzling occurrences: an incongruously placed cheese rind, say, or a suspiciously misfiled LP. One day, their play led her to a box in her father’s study that contained an identity card. On it, a Hitler stamp, a photo of her father as a young man and a name and date of birth that didn’t match his.
In “When Time Stopped: A Memoir of My Father’s War and What Remains,” Neumann unravels the mystery of that identity card. The story she uncovers is worthy of fiction with hairpin plot twists, daredevil acts of love and unexpected moments of humor in dark times.
A few weeks ago, after I told one of my favorite students that I was reviewing a book about Bella Abzug, she scribbled something in her notebook. “What are you writing?” I asked. “Bella Abzug,” she said, smiling shyly. And then a pause. “You teach us the best things to Google.”
The student, who considers herself a feminist, meant it (half) as a joke. But I tell this story less to complain about Gen Z than to note how the history of the second wave of feminism has faded. The student’s reaction alone is enough to make me campaign for Battling Bella, the first full-length biography of a leading figure of second-wave feminism published by a major academic press, to be required reading for every freshman. Every politician. Every woman and, of course, every man.
What I am saying is that, 50 years after the second wave, the movement’s history is mostly kept alive by the feminist historians who blurbed this book. We should be talking every day about the rights women have because of these towering heroines with clay feet. We should be complaining that women still don’t have equal pay or reproductive rights, despite these heroines’ efforts. We should memorize moments like the heartbreaking 1971 prediction of the National Women’s Political Caucus that, in 2020, half of the members of Congress would be women. In fact, roughly one-quarter of the current members are.
You fools who ask what god is
should ask what life is instead.
Class, it seemed, was over. Students began to leave, first on their own, then on the university’s order. There remained only the matter of the exams. Almost immediately people began to whisper of the possibility that winter finals would be canceled. I hesitated. However trivial a final may seem in the context of world events, canceling one means far more than canceling a test. A final exam is more than just part of the key struggle to retain some kind of normality in the face of chaos. A final represents an opportunity to synthesize knowledge, to bring together readings and concepts from across the term. If one believes in the significance of one’s material, then this synthesis is a critical moment of a course.
And so first I made the examination optional, then open book; the date of the exam was postponed twice. It was hard not to feel that I was negotiating with the growing epidemic. And then, as student after student emailed, describing challenges returning home, I realized it was time to admit defeat.
As I wrote my letter to my students explaining the cancellation, I paused. It’s a large class, and during the week’s upheaval, I wondered where they had gone: the students who came laughing into class together, or sat quietly in back; who shared stories of their own struggles with mental illness; who turned in recorded songs for their assignments; who introduced me to books I had never read. So instead of ending class altogether, I gave them one last assignment: Go outside and take a photo of the natural world we had talked about so often, and share it with others in the class.
I joined Tesco seven years ago this week, after a disastrous 12 months working as a manager for a small business in which I was bullied by the owner. I deliberately looked for as simple a role as possible where all I had to do was clock in, do my shift, clock out and go home without worrying about what the next working day would bring.
Now I find myself on one of the frontlines in the fight against coronavirus. While health professionals care for fast-growing numbers of very sick people, my team and I serve the huge numbers who are worried that they will not be able to buy the food and other products they need to keep their family fed and in good health.
For close to 17 years, Robert Plaut bought a cup of prepared oatmeal from a local deli, his work cafeteria or Starbucks for breakfast. “I didn’t think too much about it until last week,” says Plaut, 41. But like a lot of people — forced to work from home to help slow the spread of covid-19, the coronavirus disease infecting thousands across the globe — the ViacomCBS employee went grocery shopping in his Queens neighborhood last week. Among the items in his cart? A cardboard canister of Quaker Oats. “I know oatmeal is boiled in water, and I read the package and figured it out. But then I realized … I needed to learn how to make lunch and dinner.”
At getting on for 94, Jan Morris is realistic that this will probably be her last book. For the past 70 years she has roamed far and wide: as a journalist she was at the triumphant ascent of Everest in 1953 and was there too for the trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1961. Most famously in the early 1970s she described what it was like to be in the advance guard of gender reassignment when she transitioned from James to Jan via surgery in Casablanca. Her historical writing has tended to the epic: her trilogy on the rise and fall of the British empire, Pax Britannica, is a monumental work that feels as if it had access to every heartbeat under the searing sun.
Morris has now turned to a new way of writing that allows her to stay put. She has started to keep a diary, and it is the second instalment, covering 130 days from the beginning of spring 2018, that makes up Thinking Again. Don’t imagine, though, that there is anything reduced about this new world. Morris has long admired the diary form for its capaciousness, and sticking within a small radius of the converted north Wales barn where she now lives allows her to roam far and wide in her imagination, unfettered by time or space.
Together with her fellow life-writer Kate Kennedy, Lee has co-edited a rich and eclectic collection of essays about the role houses play in people’s lives and our fascination with the homes of our creative heroes. As a biographer, Lee knows that “the writing of lives often involves writing houses”.
The description of a house can vividly reveal the experience of childhood or the story of a relationship: “How a house is lived in can tell you everything you need to know about people, whether it’s the choice of wallpaper, the mess in the kitchen, the silence or shouting over meals, doors left open or closed, a fire burning in the hearth”.
I attended my first “Weird Al” Yankovic concert last summer, more than 40 years after hearing him on the Dr. Demento radio show, the nationally syndicated showcase for comedy songs that made the accordion-playing musician famous. The concert was a joyous evening, blessedly free of profanity and politics. Sitting among the crowd, full of rapturous fans of all ages, I kept thinking how great it was that Weird Al was still at it. Not until I read Lily E. Hirsch’s new book, “Weird Al Seriously,” did I fully appreciate that such sentiments unwittingly underestimate Yankovic and his art.
that I often tend to in prayers,
amidst rubbing my feet together
to wake up in time, the yearlong sun
Last week, an old friend and former coworker called me: he was working on a story, he said, about how reporters will do their jobs if they can’t leave the house. Specifically, he was interested in how people who write profiles—something I do often—were going to manage. I didn’t have a great answer for him then. I certainly don’t now. But I’ve been thinking about the question ever since.
Even at their most successful, profiles are a strange and ephemeral form of art. You spend a bunch of time with someone. You describe what they look like, what it’s like to be around them, what it sounds like when they talk. I often like to reprint sections of our conversations verbatim, so a reader can watch their mind work in real time. This is not the kind of thing I would normally allow myself to write down, but I tend to think of the work as empathy in action: you try to get as close to the way another person sees the world as you possibly can, then relay it. And in doing so, maybe we all become a little less mysterious to each other.
Newfoundlanders have a curious, endearing, and no doubt maddening habit of giving directions by landmarks that no longer stand or have since changed into something else. Take a left where St. Pat’s school used to be, you might say, go past the old O’Brien house a good ways, and then turn right.
While this method of navigation may prove useless to anyone unfamiliar with the recent and sometimes distant past of the terrain, it’s worth considering what it says about the people who employ it. Situating oneself geographically in relation to things no longer extant can be a politically charged act of reclamation. The passage of time may have taken the last of the O’Brien clan some while ago, but it hasn’t taken the memory of their having existed, of their connection to that place. Such a historically sensitive lens is evidence of not only an awareness of lineage but also a commitment to maintaining continuity with the past, inviting it to inflect the present.
The writer Patricia Highsmith once said that she was rarely short of inspiration; she had ideas, she said, “like rats have orgasms.” I cannot make the same claim. I don’t think writers need ideas so much; what they really need is time.
Or, more accurately, the need is for those conditions of work, the meeting of place and habits, that allow the right words to emerge. I have on my desk here a book called Daily Rituals. It offers short accounts of how writers and artists work. The quotation from Highsmith is something I came across in that book. And the detail that Highsmith, probably in an effort to keep distractions to a minimum, ate the same food every day: American bacon, fried eggs, and cereal.
The challenges and anxieties of authors shepherding books into the world pale before the ravages of a global pandemic. Nothing puts a professional disappointment into perspective like worrying about the health and safety of your loved ones. Still, the writers I know — in between calling their older relatives and fetching groceries for immunocompromised neighbors — are reeling in reaction to canceled book tours and the grief of knowing that something you have worked so hard on may miss its chance to find an audience. There is uncertainty about the future of our industry, and all industries. Strangest to me is finding myself at home still, pacing the same old floor, now joined in this stationary, solitary routine by everyone I know.
Considering the turmoil of the present moment, there could be no better time to read best-selling, Hugo Award-winning writer N.K. Jemisin’s sprawling and provocative new novel, “The City We Became,” in which New York City and its denizens battle an alien force intent upon eradicating them.
O misery. Imperfect
universe of days stretched out
ahead, the string of pearls
The first thing I did after I put on the gloves was I closed my eyes and breathed in. A smell so familiar it might as well be my own body: the brittle must of books, the dust and ink and decades-old fingerprints on a hundred thousand volumes. You might know that smell too, might be able to call it to mind right now. The smell of your university library, of the shelves at your grandparents’ house, of every used bookshop you’ve ever browsed. The smell of the last bookstore I’ll visit, I know, for quite some time.
A few days ago I saw a message on Twitter from a bookstore I like in Washington, D.C., inviting patrons to book individual one-hour shopping appointments. “Ever dream of having Capitol Hill Books all to yourself?” the tweet read. “Now you can.” I had, in fact, often dreamed of having a used bookshop all to myself, though my dreams mostly involved me living above the store, which I owned, because I somehow had become a rich dilettante. But I would settle for this one-hour quarantine version. Like everyone I knew, I was already feeling stir-crazy, missing not only human interaction but the mere experience of being in a place that wasn’t my home or the three-block radius around it. I reserved a slot Friday morning at 10.
Miriam placed my books on the old wooden chair propping open the door after I’d taken a few steps back, and then I picked them up with my be-gloved hands.
“Should I toss my credit card in, or leave it on the chair here?” I asked.
“No,” Miriam told me—they are being very strict about social distancing (as they should be). “Just read out the numbers on your credit card—Troy will ring it up!” she called back.
Jessica Anthony’s slim and perverse political satire “Enter the Aardvark” begins with the creation of Earth. The first scene traces a “whirling mass of vapors” as it becomes sediment and ocean, where flagellates and plankton evolve to grow tails and mouths and fins. As they scoot toward the edge of the water, the author describes the emergence of the first land creature: “Here begins the Great Creep.” She then quantum-leaps to a power outage in Virginia circa 2020, and a closeted young Republican congressman on the verge of a career-endangering high-stakes romp.
Though evolution montages may be somewhat overused as a film trope, here the gambit reads as free, ambitious and thematically crucial. In the tradition of the best existential farces, “Enter the Aardvark” keeps returning to the beginning of all things to ask: So how did we get here?
One of the most compelling elements of memoir is the possibility of encountering a voice whose experience somehow resonates with your own, particularly when that voice has been traditionally underrepresented in literature. Writers of such stories have over the last several years also been questioning the very form of conventional memoir; rather than presenting a narrative built around recollections of significant moments relayed directly to the reader, many are pushing formal boundaries to develop a deeper expression of the self. Carmen Maria Machado, for instance, turns the memoir into an exploration of genre in In the Dream House, which focuses on themes of love, abuse, and healing; readers encounter noir, daydream, shipwreck, and even Choose Your Own Adventure passages that contribute to her overall presentation of narrative as dream house. The cumulative impact of these varied modes of looking reveals how we tell ourselves different stories to make sense of what we have gone through. Ted Chiang expresses a similar sentiment beautifully in his short story “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling,” writing, “People are made of stories. Our memories are not the impartial accumulation of every second we’ve lived; they’re the narrative that we assembled out of selected moments.”
The aunts here clink Malbec glasses
and parade their grief with musky, expensive scents
that whisper in elevators and hallways.
Solitude exaggerates everything—beauty, danger, terror, calm. Solitude is in effect, a search for intimacy, a search for ourselves. I think of Virginia Woolf and the legacy of Shakespeare’s Sister, a place of equality. My husband and I writing in our rooms, linked by one corridor. The knowledge that another person works at a desk with the door closed, trying to create this mad thing called a book, and another person not far away is doing exactly the same thing. It is in fact, a kind of unity, of being alone together, and the best representation I’ve found of this is when we go out on the beach with our dogs, which is something Grace and Lucia do too. These dogs occupy the margin between the domestic and the wild, they aren’t pets but they are fiercely territorial and mostly loyal. When we tear out on the beach with them there’s so much joy, they raise their heads to the sky and howl, and we howl with them too. How it is a sound that joins us to each other and returns us to the world.
Without accepting that we might fail, that we might end up regretting what we have done, we wouldn’t be able to achieve any of these things. There is something richer and more uplifting in recognising this, rather than living our lives in the secure but impotent realm where trying is all that matters.
I pictured the musicians, dressed in their black suits and dresses, playing to the emptiness of a grand theater, while the rest of us gathered around our laptops — like the families, hungry for reassurance, who listened to F.D.R.’s fireside chats during the Great Depression. Another viewer thought of a different historical analogue: the musicians on the Titanic who kept playing music for the ship’s passengers even as it sank. “Getting big ‘Gentlemen, it has been a privilege’ vibes,” he wrote in the chat box that accompanied the video. “Thanks for this.”
In fact, the performance wasn’t to an empty theater, or technically live at all — it was a livestream of a concert filmed the previous September. Alexander White, the symphony’s associate principal trumpet and chairman of the musicians’ labor organization, told me that the idea of continuing performances without audiences, which was under consideration just two days earlier, evaporated the day before the livestream. The symphony had been rehearsing Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 for its upcoming shows when the governor’s news conference announcing regulations on group gatherings began. “We realized the orchestra couldn’t actually safely be together,” White said. As a brass player, he was particularly aware of all the breath and moisture that regularly moves through a crowd of musicians. For the first time White could remember, everyone stopped playing mid-rehearsal, packed up and left.
It used to be that nobody ever called me. I’d get lonely notices on my phone, reading, “Last week you had one minute and twelve seconds of screen time.” Now, though, with the coronavirus pandemic, I’m Mr. Popular. The first person I usually hear from is my sister Lisa, who will start with an update from her local Costco, in Winston-Salem. “They announced a new delivery of toilet paper, but it was gone by the time Bob and I got there.”
In New York, my sister Amy came for dinner and showed me a Rolling Stone photo essay on shoppers hoarding at superstores. Because everything’s sold in such great quantities, the carts look miniature.
“Gun sales have gone up, as well,” Hugh said.
Amy put her phone away. “So people can protect their toilet paper.”
Early blurbs have dubbed The City We Became a "love letter to New York" and it is, but that almost doesn't do what Jemisin accomplishes here justice. It is a love letter, a celebration and an expression of hope and belief that a city and its people can and will stand up to darkness, will stand up to fear, and will, when called to, stand up for each other.
Mandel's writing shines throughout the book, just as it did in Station Eleven. She's not a showy writer, but an unerringly graceful one, and she treats her characters with compassion but not pity. The Glass Hotel is a masterpiece, just as good — if not better — than its predecessor. It's a stunning look at how people react to disasters, both small and large, and the temptation that some have to give up when faced with tragedy. As she writes, "The problem with dropping out of the world is that the world moves on without you."
When I began to research the history of crosswords for my recent book on the subject, I was sort of shocked to discover that they weren’t invented until 1913. The puzzle seemed so deeply ingrained in our lives that I figured it must have been around for centuries—I envisioned the empress Livia in the famous garden room in her villa, serenely filling in her cruciverborum each morning. But in reality, the crossword is a recent invention, born out of desperation. Editor Arthur Wynne at the New York World needed something to fill space in the Christmas edition of his paper’s FUN supplement, so he took advantage of new technology that could print blank grids cheaply and created a diamond-shaped set of boxes, with clues to fill in the blanks, smack in the center of FUN. Nearly overnight, the “Word-Cross Puzzle” went from a space-filling ploy to the most popular feature of the page.
Still, the crossword didn’t arise from nowhere. Ever since we’ve had language, we’ve played games with words. Crosswords are the Punnett square of two long-standing strands of word puzzles: word squares, which demand visual logic to understand the puzzle but aren’t necessarily using deliberate deception; and riddles, which use wordplay to misdirect the solver but don’t necessarily have any kind of graphic component to work through.
When I finally visited New York for the first time, I did the most unoriginal possible thing and fell in love with it. In the years since, the United States has become more hostile than hospitable to visitors, its borders the sites of vicious, almost gleeful cruelty. In the face of current events, “The City We Became” takes a broad-shouldered stand on the side of sanctuary, family and love. It’s a joyful shout, a reclamation and a call to arms.
The 300 pages of “The Glass Hotel” work harder than most 600-page novels. When she turns to the art world, to a federal prison, to an international cargo ship, each realm rises out of the dark waters of her imagination with just as much substance as that hotel on the shore of Vancouver Island. The disappointment of leaving one story is immediately quelled by our fascination in the next.
Sometimes as an antidote
To fear of death,
I eat the stars.
Still, I continue to believe that any critic who wants to write something lasting—who believes that criticism can be a species of literature—must write partly out of aggression. Or perhaps a better word is animus, in the sense of a fixed intention, a partiality. Literary journalism describes and explains literature and ideas as they are—the way Edmund Wilson, a master journalist, explained modernism in Axel’s Castle and Marxism in To the Finland Station. Criticism tries to move literature and ideas in the direction of what should be.
Few critics in history have been more successful in that endeavor than T. S. Eliot, whose poetry and criticism worked in tandem to redefine the way the twentieth century thought about literature. He was the rare writer whose best essays were as significant and influential as his best poems. In the years following World War I, he produced a clutch of masterpieces in both genres: poems like “Gerontion” (1919) and The Waste Land (1922) alternated with essays like “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (1919) and “The Metaphysical Poets” (1921). In his 1932 Norton Lectures at Harvard, Eliot took as his subject “The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism,” and the writers he focused on were almost all poet-critics, from John Dryden in the seventeenth century to Matthew Arnold in the nineteenth. That he himself was the latest, and perhaps greatest, member of this lineage was left implied, but by then it didn’t need to be stated outright.
How many of us today are able to free ourselves from the page and head out the door when we rise from our desks? Even abiding by the dictates of nature, breathing deeply out in the open air as we set our legs into motion, it’s likely we need to accomplish the undertaking as quickly and efficiently as possible. But in so doing, perhaps we still miss the essence of the activity itself. We forego the art of walking.
‘Walking with a purpose’ is usually regarded as a positive thing, taken as a sign that people are focused, with eyes on an end-goal or prize. But the art of walking is not about purpose or aim. As Immanuel Kant maintained, the creation and apprehension of beauty is embodied in ‘a purposiveness without a definite purpose’. The art of walking is all about this purposeless purpose.
Hopefully it hasn’t happened to you while reading this book, but you are probably familiar with the phenomenon of suddenly catching yourself daydreaming while reading. Your eyes travel back and forth across the text, but the information is not being processed. Instead, you are thinking about the vacation you have planned or the argument that you thankfully managed to resolve yesterday. Before you know it, you have reached the bottom of the page, but you have no idea what you have just read. Daydreaming doesn’t usually start at the beginning of a chapter but more likely halfway through (maybe even when you started this paragraph), when you begin to get tired. But don’t worry, you are not alone.
Confident in its brutality, yet contained rather than gratuitous, it introduces readers to both a memorably off-key narrator and a notable new talent.
In recent years, this vision has been challenged by new research and writing. No longer just a binary confrontation, the cold war is being reframed as something much more global and complex; a set of interrelated battles that touched hundreds of millions of lives on every continent.
Lorenz Lüthi’s ambitious Cold Wars is the latest major work to suggest that our understanding and collective memories of the conflict should be reassessed. With 700-odd pages of dense, dry text, it is a heavyweight contribution. Many works by serious modern historians have successfully bridged the gap between the lecture theatre and the airport bookshop without sacrificing intellectual rigour. Lüthi’s book is not among them. This is a shame, because his powerful insights deserve a bigger audience.
Rockland. Glen Cove. Strawberry Hill.
It’s all still there, and Leo Connellan too,
When the novelist Maggie O’Farrell was 16, she was invited to a fancy-dress party and knew at once who to be. She put on a black shirt, with a ruffled paper collar, an inky cloak made out of a skirt, her Doc Martens and cheeky shorts over black leggings. To complete her ensemble, she borrowed a skull from her school’s biology lab. She had become obsessed with Hamlet: “He had got under my skin. I felt he was part of my DNA.” And while there is no mystery about Hamlet’s glamorous turbulence appealing to an adolescent, O’Farrell’s feeling was to be rekindled, as an adult, by her discovery of the play’s connection with Shakespeare’s son, Hamnet. There was, she was sure, a novel in it. Over the years, she repeatedly tried to write that novel and almost gave up. Yet it was a story that refused to abandon her.
Granted, some poems are thorny, difficult tangles requiring significant work from the reader to comprehend. But some, like the ones in Jane Hirshfield’s new book, Ledger, are small gifts: morsels of meaning that slide right past your poetry defenses and lodge in your head.
Poets help you pay attention. They can look at something ordinary (a tree) and give you words to see it better, see it differently, appreciate it in a new way. Hirshfield has spent a long and award-filled career in poetry shining a light to show you, me, any reader something new about ourselves and the world we live in. Her poems are “tuned toward issues of consequence,” Ledger’s marketing copy proclaims, and I can find no better way to say it. She writes about what matters in the world.
The current landscape of speculative fiction is teeming with astounding innovations and lavish spectacles — from the lesbian necromancers of Tamsyn Muir's Locked Tomb books to the world-shaking power dynamics of N. K. Jemisin's Broken Earth trilogy. In the midst of all that genre-expanding sprawl, however, there's still room for short, humble, understated works.
Eddie Robson's new novel, Hearts of Oak, is exactly such a story. Brief in page-count and quiet in voice, the book is a gleaming gem of offbeat weirdness and oddball humor, a work that blends fantasy and science fiction more cleverly than almost anything in recent memory. But underneath that quirky whimsicality beats a deeply thoughtful, even melancholy pulse.
Neda Disney's debut novel-in-stories, Planting Wolves, unfolds like a crossword puzzle drawn over a map of the Los Angeles freeway system. Winding, playful, and bloody, it keeps you slightly uncomfortable for the majority of the ride, unsure of what to expect or how things overlap. For an observant explorer, the connections between the six main characters, all of which get their own dedicated chapters, are easy enough to pinpoint, though just difficult enough so that the act of discovery itself feels like you’re a part of a tantalizing time warp. It is a delicious treat to see connections, to spot shared vibrations, even as we watch characters completely miss each other in the night.
“I had never seen a dying woman dance before,” Janie Brown writes in Radical Acts of Love – a book about her conversations and interactions with terminal cancer patients as an oncology nurse and counsellor. At a retreat – organised and led by Brown – where people with terminal cancer prepare themselves “to die with peace and acceptance”, this woman dances: “her large belly full of cancer and her laboured breathing didn’t seem to impede the ease and grace with which she swayed,” Brown writes. This story is one of 20 featured in the book, each of which centres on a different person’s unique experience of dying. Some of these people struggle with a fear of death, some are worried not for themselves but for the loved ones they will leave behind; others are consumed by regret, or rage, at what life has thrown at them, or the choices they have made. “Preparing for death is a radical act of love for ourselves, and for those close to us who live on after we’re gone,” Brown writes.
You are the angry valentine
and the envelope I cut
my tongue across while sealing
its flap shut. You are
the bumpy rash spreading
across my shoulder at four a.m.
and the tab of Claritin
Kinfolk is famously about intentionality, about a kind of wholesome slow living that exults in deliberately curated moments, carefully selected objects, and, as its twee tagline once read, “small gatherings.” Like all lifestyle magazines, it traffics in aspiration, and if, in the past eight years or so, you have found yourself craving a precisely sliced piece of avocado toast, or a laundry line from which to cunningly hang your linen bedsheets in the sun-dappled afternoon, you probably have Kinfolk to thank for it. But the seductions featured on its pages have always been aimed as much at the soul as the body. Through intention, Kinfolk’s austerely beautiful pages whisper, lies not just a pretty room or a lovely outfit, but a truer expression of the self, something more meaningful, more, as the marketers now put it, authentic.
That there might be inherent tension in an authenticity that depends on buying the right leather apron or arranging a bunch of wildflowers just so is a notion that does not seem to trouble Williams. But perhaps that is because of the other tensions, the ones that would tear apart the small band of intimates who helped him found the magazine; the ones that would erupt within his own measured soul. It was certainly nothing compared to the trauma that lay ahead, and would strip away the well-curated façade to, ultimately, reveal who he really was. Because although it would not be accurate to say that the Nathan Williams who started Kinfolk was living a lie, neither was he living in truth.
Glenn O’Brien was the leading boulevardier of my particular subgenerational pocket, the one that thrived in lower Manhattan from the last days of the hippie era until sometime around the end of the 1990s. He was an exemplary if atypical citizen of its culture, and something of a figurehead as it evolved from local, fringe, and “underground” to international high fashion. He lived and worked on the leading edge of style at all times, and was invariably at the right club at the right hour on the right night, but his résumé suggests someone from an earlier era. As if he had flourished during the Regency or the fin de siècle, he was a dandy and a wit, an aphorist and a tastemaker. Although his point of entry was Andy Warhol’s Factory (he was born in Cleveland, attended Georgetown, and was a graduate student in film at Columbia before getting there), he worked primarily with words, as magazine editor, book editor, columnist, and publicist. He exuded cool, sangfroid, and—unusually for the time and place—quiet competence.
But those jobs, for all the money, prestige, and mobility they gave him, were not his primary claims to fame. In that era careerism was regarded with suspicion, and in that much more physical time he made his mark by his sheer presence on the scene: his role as both a throwback (some part of him always inhabited the world of The Sweet Smell of Success) and as the very image of hipness. His cultural footprint was broad and significant, if not always noticeable to the average cultural consumer. He was putatively most visible as the underwear model on the Warhol-designed inner sleeve of the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers (1971)—although the jury is still out on whether his picture was the one actually used.
What unites those disparate functions is the way theater, like other public art forms, makes us aware of a boundary that it simultaneously allows us, at least for a moment, to cross. Art is a way of knowing, of seeing and feeling, the borders that separate work from leisure, the sacred from the secular, the ordinary from the exalted, passivity from action, life from death. It makes us witnesses and participants in the crossing of those frontiers, and in doing so makes visible and permeable the boundaries between our individual and communal selves. We are alone in the dark of the theater or the light of the museum, and also together.
We follow characters affected by economic extremes, addiction, grief, and existentialism, with a central question tailing each: how can we become who we think we are when our lives have led us unexpectedly astray? In pursuing an answer, Mandel shows how an individual decision can alter the artifice of linear reality and enact infinite possibilities, even if these possibilities are imagined.
You don’t have to appreciate his science or his suffering to appreciate Roberts, though. When he describes life below, you are truly swept away. Even if you are a landlubber — even if you’ve never dipped your toe in an ocean — Roberts’s rich language will call to you. You will feel a yearning to follow him, to leave the burning sun, to step into the coolness of the water, to feel the tugging of the currents.
The river is heavy with phosphorus and scum.
It causes liver damage if ingested.
I don’t know exactly whose runoff it is, but so long
as they’re taking press photos with prize-winning
children and donating sizeable
sums to the ballet, I take no issue. River’s yours.
I had that feeling on Tuesday while reading a description of the new “shelter in place” rules that have already gone into effect in San Francisco and are being considered for other cities around the country. My first thought was, Oh, that’s not so bad. You still are allowed to leave your house for exercise and to buy essentials. But wait. The ability to walk down the street without having to justify my presence or state my business to an officer of the law is a significant thing to give up. (The San Francisco police assure the public they will take a “compassionate, commonsense approach” to enforcement.)
If you had told me just 10 days earlier—when despite growing concern about the virus I had thought nothing of taking Amtrak to attend a friend’s wedding—that this many things and people would disappear from my daily life in less than two weeks, it would have been hard to believe. The feeling of disappearance feels somewhat familiar, thanks to a book I read shortly before this crisis that I now can’t stop thinking about: the Japanese writer Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police.
Nanu addressed me, his first grandchild, as “young lady.” And around Nanu, I behaved like a lady too. The day my mother was in the hospital giving birth to my brother, my grandparents, who lived in New Delhi, took me out to dinner at the five-star Taj hotel. I was three, and Nanu told me I sat quietly in my high chair, poised as I nibbled on my food.
Growing up, I felt as though Nanu and I were alike in many ways. Even though much of our relationship was built on silence, we shared a mutual sense of calm and composure.
But of course, I wasn’t calm and composed at all, not internally. And it was only after he died that I found out just how similar Nanu and I truly were.
It is 11 August 1999 and I am gazing up at the Sun, my eyes protected by a flimsy cardboard solar filter. I am completely unprepared for what is to come. In a few moments, my life will turn upside down as I experience my first total solar eclipse.
In The Mountains Sing, Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai has created a luminous, complex family narrative that spans nearly a century of Vietnamese history, from the French colonial period through the communist Viet Minh's rise to power, the separation between North and South Vietnam, the Vietnam War, all the way to the present day. Told alternately by Diệu Lan, born in 1920, and her granddaughter Hương, born in 1960, the novel resembles a choral performance with multiple voices.
A History of Solitude calls for a “quiet history of British society”, or “a history of doing nothing at all”. It is a remarkably versatile study, ranging from the poetry of John Clare to the “networked solitude” of the internet and the cult of mindfulness. There is a fascinating section on solitary walking, which the 19th-century middle classes indulged in for spiritual recreation (Wordsworth is reckoned to have walked some 180,000 miles during his lifetime), and the labouring classes undertook in order to find work. Constant perambulation was what united peasant and patrician.
In an effort to get people to look
into each other’s eyes more,
and also to appease the mutes,
the government has decided
to allot each person exactly one hundred
and sixty-seven words, per day.
It didn’t happen all at once. I didn’t wake up one morning to find myself unable to write creatively. For months, I could eke out a story or group of poems, but all attempts at another novel arrived stillborn, exhausting themselves after a few thousand words. My father suggested I had a form of postpartum depression, that seeing my first novel in print, and therefore out of my hands, was too much of a shock, temporarily. I didn’t have the heart to tell him this had been going on for years.
I finished a decent draft of my novel in 2015, made revisions based on a publisher’s interest in 2017, and sold it to him later that year. The editorial process spanned 18 months, but I had plenty of downtime between rounds of edits to work on something new. A colleague inquired about just this at one point, mentioning, “I hear you’re supposed to have a draft of the next thing by the time the previous book comes out.” I smiled, nodded, and assured him I was on my way.
Crossword editors are strange arbiters of cultural relevance. Read tweets by Awkwafina or Olivia Wilde on learning that they’ve been immortalized in the black-and-white grid—it’s the bookish version of handprints on a slab outside Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. But any pub-trivia attendee—exposed to categories on craft beer or things that smell like sourdough or whatever the emcee is into—will tell you that personnel is policy. That crossword mainstays such as The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Wall Street Journal are largely written, edited, fact-checked, and test-solved by older white men dictates what makes it into the 15x15 grid and what’s kept out.
As with your kitchen floor, finding the right placement for the first tile is essential to making the overall tiling effort work. The three mathematicians behind the proof color-coded the edges of the complete graph, based on the distance between vertices, in order to find that placement.
Then they tried to place the tree inside the complete graph so that it covered one edge of each color. By showing that this “rainbow” placement is always possible, they proved that the perfect tiling that Ringel predicted always works out.
This was not the first time that this rainbow technique has come in handy.
Two years ago, my sister and I were in Los Angeles to help our cousin sort through her father’s things. Uncle Ameen was a keeper of objects, and when his own parents’ house had to be cleared out for sale, he saw that everything of significance was kept. In the attic of his Pasadena bungalow, we opened a box and found two pieces of embroidery done by our grandmother, unlike any others of hers we’d seen.
One was especially striking: the size of a table runner, embroidered on cream-colored silk, it depicted a garden, set off by a wide floral border of vines, leaves, and elegant lilies with pale violet petals. Most distinctive was the small figure seated at the center, a girl in a pink dress with a basket on her lap, surrounded by a flurry of birds. Her gown was done in running-stitches that gave off an elegant sheen, but the embroidery-work ended at the collar, and appeared to have been purposefully left undone so that a face from a photograph could be affixed there—an image of our grandmother, snipped from a hand-colored sepia photograph.
The effect was odd in the best sense, a kind of self-portrait in mixed media. Had that been the intent? We had no way of knowing, but it seemed certain that our grandmother had been the one to choose the photograph and place it there. Together, the photograph and the needlework clearly told a story, one beyond any details we knew.
N.K. Jemisin’s “The City We Became” is a novel concerned with the pleasures and violences of urban life, so it makes sense that reading it feels a little like riding the subway for the first time. You barely have a moment to steady yourself — grab a seat, or at least a pole — before the world is lurching forward, dragging you into inky darkness, pulling you around corners at breathless speed.
In some ways, Deacon King Kong brings to mind the crime novels of Chester Himes, the slim, Harlem-based works featuring the detectives Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson, with their absurd, biting humor and their sympathetic portraits of ordinary folks on both sides of the law. But McBride brings his own voice to the proceedings, one of the most distinctive and welcome in contemporary literature.
In her debut story collection You Will Never Be Forgotten, Mary South skillfully crafts narratives of emotional isolation. Both ominously bleak and shrewdly humorous, South constructs near-future worlds filled with sad and lonely characters. The ten stories in the collection wade ankle deep into science fiction. They introduce us to worlds of a near future close enough to our present that we can easily see ourselves reflected in them. There are dead-child resurrections and Ishiguro-like organ farms. But throughout the collection, technological elements remain less of a threatening force and more of a vehicle for the exploration of human solitude.
This first-light mountain, its east peak and west peak.
That summer, as we got ready, it all felt like a game. Every morning for an hour, I practiced starting fires with a bow drill. I sprayed a stinky liquid called Tuf-Foot on the soles of my feet. I built deadfall traps from logs and made snares with yarn, catching my husband in doorways throughout the house. I quizzed him: Which birds can you eat? Which reptiles? When I walked in the woods, I saw each plant in a new light: the stalks that could structure a thatch roof, the fibrous stems that could twist into rope. I drank milkshakes to gain weight and studied how to tap rubber.
I got vaccinations for typhoid fever and Japanese encephalitis. “I’m going to be on Naked and Afraid,” I told my doctor.
“What is wrong with you?” he said. Then he called in his nurses to tell them the news.
“Could you do it in the forest here?” one of the nurses asked. “The bugs would kill you.”
“Or the meth dealers,” said the other nurse.
My mom said she wasn’t worried. My dad forwarded me articles about how it’s dangerous to eat slugs.
I even made a plan for moments during the challenge that I didn’t want filmed: I would sing songs with expensive licensing fees so that Discovery couldn’t use the footage. The Beatles were famously pricey, right? If I got diarrhea, I’d sing “Hey Jude” at the top of my lungs.
The white-tablecloth restaurants and the dive bars are closed. The ample buffets that feed America’s tech work force and Las Vegas gamblers have been shut down, along with millions of school cafeterias. On Monday, McDonald’s joined other fast-food companies and closed its restaurants except for delivery and drive-through.
Almost overnight, Americans have had to rethink one of the most elemental parts of their daily lives: food.
In 2015, Parisians were called courageous. Within 48 hours of the November 13 terrorist attacks, locals returned to their neighborhood cafés and bars, resisting any infringement upon their way of life. It was a beautiful example of solidarity and cultural conviction that helped to lift us out of grief. Today, the stringent measures being enforced to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 are sorely testing that same insouciance — as well as the restaurants and bars that are such an intrinsic and vital part of Parisian life.
In my favorite memoir chapter, Raphel visits a writing retreat to construct her own crossword. After much technical discussion of grids and themes and fill, she writes: “I became a mechanical god. I shifted gears; I tuned each letter individually. … I was a chemist, titrating my micro-universe; a lepidopterist, shifting a butterfly’s wing onto a pin.” She was also, in this and only this, a failure. Her puzzle was rejected, as so many are, by The Times. But her affectionate exegesis of this pastime, this passion, this “temporary madness,” succeeds. Like a good crossword, her book challenges us to back away from our assumptions, allows us to think differently and apply ourselves again.
We knew she’d loved
been loved by how she
the anguish of regret
staining her voice
“I think I don’t care about whether I do the puzzles or not,” Notley declared when I spoke to her, but the more we kept talking about them, the less I believed her. Our phone connection crackled. It was snowing in Brooklyn (on my end) and in Paris (hers); I pictured Notley looking out from a balcon as city lights began to twinkle. “I have a completely overactive mind,” she told me. “If I want to relax, I have to be working with words. I either read or do crossword puzzles.”
Notley started doing crosswords when her father died. “I associate them with grief,” she told me. While cleaning her father’s house, she found a collection of diacrostics, a particularly fiendish variety in which you have to fill in a quotation at the center and the name of the author and book title around the side. “I sat and did all of them,” she said. “I didn’t want to think. There was something very vivid about doing them.”
I have always insisted that writer’s block isn’t real; that you don’t have to be inspired to write; that sitting down and putting words on the page, even when they’re terrible, is the only way through a writing slump. My favorite teacher told me that in sixth grade, and I took it as gospel for 21 years.
But then it was a few days before Halloween, and all of a sudden, I couldn’t write. It wasn’t a question of motivation or time management or even not having ideas. One day, I opened my computer and burst into tears. For the next two months, I couldn’t write so much as a pitch email without becoming anxious to the point of nausea.
Today, we know the Earth is shaped like a sphere. But most of us give little thought to the shape of the universe. Just as the sphere offered an alternative to a flat Earth, other three-dimensional shapes offer alternatives to “ordinary” infinite space.
We can ask two separate but interrelated questions about the shape of the universe. One is about its geometry: the fine-grained local measurements of things like angles and areas. The other is about its topology: how these local pieces are stitched together into an overarching shape.
In his memoir, “Lucky Bruce,” Bruce Jay Friedman gave three reasons why there are relatively few Jewish junkies: 1) “Jews need eight hours of sleep.” 2) “They must have fresh orange juice in the morning.” 3) “They have to read the entire New York Times.”
In his obsessive, melancholy and hungry-making new book, “The Dairy Restaurant,” the writer and illustrator Ben Katchor suggests that orange juice is hardly the primal elixir of the Jewish diaspora. About New York City at the end of the 19th century, he writes: “For the poorest Jews of the Lower East Side, healthful affordable milk was a taste of paradise.”
Katchor’s new book is a study of, and love song to, the American dairy restaurant and the development of the expressive “milekhdike,” or dairy, personality (consider Zero Mostel sighing over a platter of blintzes). Dairy restaurants began to flourish in New York City and elsewhere in the late 1800s; a century later, nearly all were defunct.
“What does it mean to be connected to faraway people and places through everyday things?” Sedgewick asks in his early pages. Coffeeland offers a fascinating meditation on that question, by rendering once-obscure lines of connection starkly visible.
Going now to dark, going now to write in the dark
love-cabinet. The red fish like a stuffed glove on the desk,
The tale of the Moravian Book Shop isn’t straight-forward. Founded in 1745, in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, it’s said to be the oldest continuously-running bookstore in America, yet it’s largely under the radar. It’s not a grande dame to whom homage must be paid; it’s never been the epicenter for new literary movements; nor was it a champion for free speech under British rule. Instead, the Moravian Book Shop, established by the Moravian Church and today managed by Barnes and Noble, exists in a nexus of past and present, public and private, communal and corporate. In this way, it defies definition — a nebulosity that speaks volumes about bookstores themselves.
The novel is most successful where it allows itself to stray from historical fact and plot — to invent and to play with language, to give itself imaginative time and space. Nesbit is brilliant in those moments, and captures a paradox of historical writing — that it’s in the invention and improvisation that the past feels most pressing and most real.
Greenery is an education in looking at, and loving, nature. As Dee moves through the world, and the fact of his illness gradually stalks up on him, birds make the strange familiar, the foreign homely. Seeing birds emerge at dusk in a valley in Chad, “the space that lived globally a minute ago became intimate”; Dee’s guide there, Pier Paolo, was “a domesticator of the harshest places”; in his company “the desert was made homely”. Later, buntings warm themselves on the “black barrows” of neolithic tumuli, “making homely the accommodation for the long dead”.
He wrote the things decades back
He did them underwater
He pulled them out like sonic fish,
Dada hake, Bauhaus trout, Schwitters skate,
The kind of story that Judith Teitelman was inspired to write, throughout those 18 years, is the kind of story that readers crave in the face of a resurgence of fascist and isolationist policies. Readers connect through story and, when that seems impossible, retreat into story: in this sense, narratives are survival tools for storytellers and audiences. Narratives which create a space for courage and resistance are vital and essential. And Esther’s insistence on being her whole and true self — “I must be who I am and only that” — is invigorating. A few more thorough edits over those 18 years would have clarified her story, but it’s still a story worth telling.
She spent months wrestling with those emotions, until she realized that they had pinned her in place. Time was marching on and she wasn’t moving at all. Her choice was clear: She could surrender to the darkness, or she could dance.
That’s what she was doing on a Monday morning a month and a half ago when I stopped by a Manhattan community center for blind people that’s run by Visions, a nonprofit social services agency. Marion, 73, was leading her weekly line-dancing class.
She was teaching about a dozen students the steps to the electric slide and similar favorites. But, really, she was teaching them defiance. She was teaching them delight. She was teaching them not to shut down when life gives you cause to, not to underestimate yourself, not to retreat. She’d briefly done all of that, and it was a waste.
Scrabble is a huge part of my life and my identity. I love the challenge of every rack, the beauty of the words, the rush of competition—one on one, across the board from another human being. But I won’t be playing outside of my living room for a while. I’m cleaning my tiles again. Others are making the same choice; players have begun organizing online tournaments.
During the week, I watched with empathy as the director of that tournament in Ohio wrestled in real time with what to do. “Yes, in theory, I could cancel,” he wrote on Facebook. “However, I promised several people … that I would run the tourney, and so I shall do so.” Another player replied, “Just keep them all spread out. Godspeed.”
we were waiting in the spring
for our bodies to return
waiting in the fall
and waiting in the winter
Today, I am thirty-seven weeks pregnant with our second child. I promised to turn in a draft of this piece before the end of the week. I just dropped off our first child, a two-and-a-half-year-old boy, at his daycare, which he attends part-time on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays. I’m drinking coffee that I purchased at the gas station, $2.59 for a bucket-sized cup; the flavor was labeled “Turbo.” Now I feel like there is a blinding sunrise happening inside my mind. Coffee has turned the baby inside me into a fetal ninja, but it has not yet helped me to find the words I need, or my rhythm on the page.
At the moment I am our family’s “breadwinner,” to use a compound noun that evokes the Brothers Grimm, and also a lottery held during a famine. Writing has always been a matter of survival for me; becoming a mother has not changed that. But a book in utero feels dangerous to me in a new way now: it’s a hungry ghost on the desktop, a succubus draining security and attention from my real babies. An unfinished book — yawning, open, blank — is still the mouth I want to feed. Soon we’ll also be responsible for feeding two children.
At the North Pole, 24 time zones collide at a single point, rendering them meaningless. It’s simultaneously all of Earth’s time zones and none of them. There are no boundaries of any kind in this abyss, in part because there is no land and no people. The sun rises and sets just once per year, so “time of day” is irrelevant as well.
Yet there rests the Polarstern, deliberately locked in ice for a year to measure all aspects of that ice, the ocean beneath it and the sky above. The ship is filled with 100 people from 20 countries, drifting at the mercy of the ice floe, farther from civilization than the International Space Station. I’ve been supporting communications for the mission remotely from landlocked Colorado, where time is stable. My world is a bewildering contrast to the alien one the ship’s scientists are living and working in—where time functions and feels different than anywhere else on the planet.
The giraffe is nearly down. Two men have stretched a thick black rope in front of the animal, to trip her up. The giraffe hits the rope, and the plan seems to be working until she gains a second wind and breaks into a fresh run. Her body sways backward and forward like a rocking horse being pulled along on a dolly. Six more people grab onto the ends of the rope, and the group runs behind her, holding tight, pitting their meager strength against her weight. It would be no contest, were her veins not coursing with tranquilizer. She loses her footing and careens forward, her legs splaying out behind her. But her seven-foot-long neck still stretches resolutely skyward. A woman leaps from behind her back, collides with her neck midair, and rugby-tackles it to the ground. People run over, carrying a hood and a drill. The giraffe—an emblem of verticality—is now fully horizontal.
The team of people who have drugged, tripped, and tackled the giraffe is a mix of scientists, veterinarians, and rangers who study giraffes in the few parts of the world where the animals still live. Giraffes are so beloved and familiar that it’s tempting to think their numbers are solid and their future secure. Neither is true. Giraffe populations have decreased by 30 percent over the past three decades. Only 111,000 individuals remain. There are at least four African elephants for every giraffe. To safeguard a future for giraffes, researchers need basic information about how far they roam. GPS trackers can offer answers, but to get a tracker on a giraffe, one must first take it down.
In the 1980s, Elizabeth Tallent’s intricate, intense short stories about relationships appeared in the New Yorker at the pace of three or four a year. She published three acclaimed collections and a novel. Then, for two decades, silence. What happened? In “Scratched,” Tallent reveals how perfectionism sabotaged her writing and her life.
“Scratched” is a brave and complex memoir — though a sometimes heavy-going read — about a subject that deserves closer scrutiny. Perfectionism is an odd affliction, part spur, part handicap. Tallent explains: “In a boon rare among afflictions, to name yourself its sufferer is to flatter your own character as uncompromising, bound to impossibly high standards: ‘I’m such a perfectionist’ failed to sound sick.” On the contrary, “A supposedly surefire means of pleasing a job interviewer is to answer What is your biggest flaw? with I’m a perfectionist.”
A friend who teaches at a university in Hong Kong recently reminded me of what any author writing a story knows: in fiction, unlike in real life, the ending determines which actions her characters will take. Change the ending, and all else in the story must shift as well. But this is a real-life instance in which the protagonists are living in a narrative where the ending — 2047 — is already known.
Wasserstrom’s strength lies in how he puts a human face on the protesters and makes heartbreakingly clear their dilemma. One is left feeling compassion for a generation that feels doomed, that is waking up to its identity only to have it recede before their very eyes at the moment of their awakening.
In the mid-20th century, the Austrian Nobel laureate Karl von Frisch provided enormous insights on honeybee communication and foraging time. He discovered that bees have internal clocks that tell them not only where the nectar is to be found but also precisely when that food will be ready. “I know of no other living creature,” he wrote in his book on bee language, “that learns so easily as the bee when, according to its ‘internal clock,’ to come to the table.”
Indeed, honeybees start their daily routines of harvesting nectar by the clock or, rather, by sun time. While studying bee routines at his lab at the University of Munich before World War II, Frisch trained bees to come regularly to lunch at strategic times when feeding stations were set up with sugar water. The bees quickly adjusted their natural schedules to Frisch’s artificial schedule. In just two days their old schedule was abandoned. Even informational nectar-finding flights were stopped.
“Civilisation is in crisis,” warned the EAT-Lancet international commission of food scientists last year. “We can no longer feed our population a healthy diet while balancing planetary resources. For the first time in 200,000 years of human history, we are severely out of synchronisation with the planet and nature.” We face climate crisis, ecological destruction, record obesity rates and rising hunger: food is threatening our future.
Carolyn Steel recognises these challenges, but she also sees food as “by far the most powerful medium available to us for thinking and acting together to change the world for the better”. By reconfiguring our relationship with food, she argues, we can find new and better ways of living that will arrest the damage we are doing to ourselves and the Earth.
Is the natural trajectory of families toward entropy? What happens to gnawing family mysteries that travel down generations? Maisy Card raises a constellation of such questions in her debut novel, “These Ghosts Are Family.” To her credit, she doesn’t pretend she can answer them. Nor does she tidy the lives of her characters. Card, who works as a public librarian, delivers a novel overflowing with unadulterated humanity.
Synnott’s book is also an attempt to understand what drives people such as Honnold to risk their lives on the world’s most dangerous mountains. One climber describes it as a primal experience: “Everything is more intense.” Although he denies being an adrenaline junkie, Honnold clearly lives for climbing, the only thing that has ever “lit his fire”. Climbers such as Honnold are only happy when they are hanging from a fingertip jammed in a fissure of rock a thousand feet off the ground. They want, as Henry David Thoreau put it, to “live deep and suck out all the marrow of life”.
During my weekly visits to Kramerbooks in Washington, D.C., I can’t avoid the anxiety-inducing new-arrivals section. It is filled with books laden with urgency about climate catastrophe and the looming collapse of liberal democracy. Now with a looming pandemic, newsworthy crises are the realm of responsible readers. But instead of partaking there, I find myself drawn to different shelves, filled with another flourishing, but quieter, genre of new releases.
I’m referring to a growing library of self-help guides for the self-care generation. Clothed in minimalist cover jackets, bathed in soft hues, these books promise calm and reprieve: “Silence: In the Age of Noise,” “The Longing for Less” and “How to do Nothing.” Titles that once might have disappeared in lifestyle bins are now prominently displayed among the week’s bestsellers. The literature of silence is having its moment, and for this reader, it feels especially resonant.
My re-reads usually happen in the winter, but I’ve noticed that I also gravitate to the novel during moments of personal anxiety and uncertainty. So you may not be surprised to hear that I’ve been reading it again recently. This time, I was struck anew by the book’s masterful prologue, which manages to beguile the reader, fire up the plot, and preview Tartt’s artistic concerns all at once. No small feat for the first page and a half of a debut novel.
Medical journals are best known for publishing the results of clinical trials and the latest breakthroughs from scientific labs. But many of them also devote a page or two to poetry.
The authors? Doctors.
Some people dream of seeing a game in every stadium in the major leagues. Others are content to stream all 16 seasons of “Grey’s Anatomy.” For his part, Toby Ferris wanted to stand before every painting by the Dutch Renaissance artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder. It would mean traveling across Europe and the United States, visiting nearly two-dozen museums, but as he describes it in “Short Life in a Strange World,” his oddly charming, deeply intelligent chronicle of the experience, he felt he had little choice in the matter. “A mania for Bruegel had recently gripped me,” he explains, “and I had been thinking about little else.”
It’s a mystery novel, but not one presented in any manner to which we’re accustomed; a horror novel, but only metaphorically; and a political novel with deep penetration of a remarkably foul milieu. “I was in a very pessimistic place when I wrote it,” Melchor told Publishers Weekly earlier this year. You close the book every so often, feeling that you have learned too much. Though there are glitters of humour and empathy, Hurricane Season is an uncompromisingly savage piece of work: difficult to escape from, built to shock. Yet it’s also elating. I was left buoyed up by Melchor’s anger, elated because she had shown me things I needed to be faced with.
Who can resist triumph over adversity? It is the stuff of many Ted Talks and muscular films and popular books. If the adversity includes wildness and the elements, even better. A shark, a self-amputated arm, a bear or two. I do not mock. I enjoyed Claire Nelson’s book and it is valuable. This is no misery memoir, but a thoughtful exploration of what happens when a human being is removed from all that keeps her safe, with no hope of rescue – and how she survives that shock.
When my editor asked me about cover ideas for my forthcoming memoir, Fairest, I told her that I was open to anything—except an image of my face. My book is in large part about my negotiations with appearance as a whitepassing trans woman, so I was aware that this caveat would be a design challenge. The request was instinctive. Trans women are regularly subjected to enormous scrutiny and objectification when it comes to our looks; people constantly speculate about and comment on not only our attractiveness but the nature of our transitions. I didn’t want to encourage potential readers to engage in this type of evaluation. But having acted on intuition, I found myself wondering how exactly trans women have been depicted on memoir covers over time. I began browsing online libraries, bookstores, and blogs to find trans memoirs published by American trade presses, some of which I’d already read. I ended up surveying nearly two dozen transfeminine memoirs written between 1964 and the present, an exercise that confirmed what I’d suspected: for decades, trans women’s bodies have been deployed as spectacle on the covers of these authors’ own books, which are meant to be vehicles for our thoughts and ideas.
In The Decline of the Novel, Joseph Bottum puts words to something every reader of fiction has long sensed in his bones: The novel is dying, if not dead; fiction is no longer a useful means of grappling with reality.
“For almost three hundred years,” he begins, “the novel was a major art form, perhaps the major art form, of the modern world—the device by which we tried to explain ourselves to ourselves.” The novel represented a maturation of storytelling—the adulthood of fiction, taking the reader into the interior of the human person. Now, the form is on its deathbed. Lingering readers are seeking in it something other—diversion, entertainment—than what the readers of Jane Austen or the Brontes, Dickens or Kafka, were seeking back in the day.
There’s a possibility that Shakespeare developed immunity to the plague because of his exposure when he was an infant, but that speculation began only centuries later and only because the plague was a constant nuisance to Shakespeare. “Plague was the single most powerful force shaping his life and those of his contemporaries,” wrote Jonathan Bate, one of his many biographers. The plague was naturally a taboo subject for much of Shakespeare’s writing career. Even when it was the only thing on anybody’s mind, nobody could bring himself to speak about it. Londoners went to the city’s playhouses so they could temporarily escape their dread of the plague. A play about the plague had the appeal of watching a movie about a plane crash while 35,000 feet in the air.
But the plague was also Shakespeare’s secret weapon. He didn’t ignore it. He took advantage of it.
While loss, yearning, fear of death and an overwhelming sense of waste are part of the human condition, they can sometimes be faced more easily with the help of poetry. As Burnside writes, poetry “nourishes us, it contributes to our grieving and our healing processes, it gives focus to our loves and to our fears, allowing us to sing them, at the back of our minds, in a deliberate and disciplined transformation of noise into music, of grief into acceptance, of anger at pointless destruction into a determination to save at least something of what remains.”
But before setting out on the culinary adventure to end them all, I thought it only proper that I investigate the real last meals of the condemned — that I put some bitter meat on the bare bones of the game.
One thing soon became clear. While more than 50 nations have the death penalty and continue to use it, only the United States appears to have acquired a highly developed literature on its culinary aspect, both popular and scholarly: There are countless accounts of orders for fried chicken and burgers, for tubs of ice cream and chocolate-chip cookies; for the food of a great childhood day out, ordered by men — and it is mostly men — about to be executed by the state.
By the end, it’s clear that no matter how educated Xavier’s mother is, no matter how promising his future is, no matter how many years the residents of Oak Knoll have lived together in harmony, it is still possible for a privileged white newcomer to cast Xavier as a dangerous black man. This is where the similarities between “A Rose for Miss Emily” and “A Good Neighborhood” end. While Faulkner’s story veers off into the traditional grotesquerie of Southern Gothic literature, Fowler’s culminates with injustices that are painfully easy to imagine because they continue to be a part of our contemporary lived experience.
I have seen a face with a thousand countenances, and a face that was but a single countenance as if held in a mould.
Emily Dickinson is known as a poet of interiority. With her signature pauses and unconventional syntax, she deftly navigates the biggest questions within the smallest moments. Reckoning with extreme psychic suffering, her poetic speakers repeatedly confront the boundary between unknowable interior experience and intelligible linguistic testimony. Dickinson guides readers into that boundary-space and contemplates how it might crack open, how we might bear witness to each other’s pain.
But why bother with this trouble of bearing witness? How can it even be possible to “witness” that which is inherently invisible? In working with these questions, one of Dickinson’s most striking recurring images is that of crucifixion. None of her poems are categorically devotional in the traditional sense of the term, but instead, the Christian salvation narrative serves her poetic project in unconventional ways, both framing and illuminating her explorations of interiority and suffering.
Most Stephen King fans know his work exists in two worlds. First, there’s the page, where images of psychotic, otherworldly clowns, reanimated pet corpses, the ghosts of murdered young girls and haunted cars are injected into our imagination. Then there’s the screen, where we actually see them.
These worlds are not always kindly to each other. While many consider Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 adaptation of the writer’s beloved “The Shining” to be one of the greatest horror films ever made, King himself famously despises it, calling it “a big, beautiful Cadillac with no engine inside it.” To say it’s possible to adapt his work in a manner that satisfies everyone would be an exercise in absurdity. But what is it exactly that makes him so difficult to translate, and why do so many people try?
Craig, however, did seem like a new person as he prepared to step away from the franchise. He was keen to celebrate his work as Bond and even keener to look forward to whatever is coming next. “I’m really…I’m okay,” he told me. “I don’t think I would have been if I’d done the last film and that had been it. But this, I’m like…” He dusted his hands. “Let’s go. Let’s get on with it. I’m fine.”
It was a different story with the rest of the Bond family. Craig’s films in the role have already grossed more than $3 billion. He also changed the part in dramatic terms. In Craig’s hands, Bond aged, fell in love, and wept for the first time. He lost the smirk and gained a hinterland. During the same period, Britain—which Bond, in some way, always represents—has experienced extraordinary turmoil and self-doubt, #MeToo has happened, and it’s very unclear who the good guys are anymore. It’s just possible that Craig smashed Bond in more ways than one. The films can never go back to what they were. When I asked Broccoli how she was going to cope without Craig, it was her turn to flounder. “Honestly, I don’t know,” she replied. “I can’t…I don’t want to think about it.”
“Lolita” for the #MeToo era. That’s how “My Dark Vanessa,” by Kate Elizabeth Russell, has been described.
It’s a clever sound bite, but when you peel back the veneer from what at first appears to be a titillating account of forbidden romance between Vanessa Wye, a whip-smart 15-year-old boarding school student, and Jacob Strane, her Harvard-educated English Lit teacher and paramour, you’ll soon find yourself caught in that shadowy realm between good and evil, right and wrong, pedophile and hapless fool who falls prey to a younger woman.
And that’s exactly where Russell wants you to dwell.
Here’s a novelty: a book about love as utter abandonment of the self, love as capitulation, love as not only obsession but possession, which manages not to be overwrought. It’s a deft trick. French debut novelist Pauline Delabroy-Allard uses simple language, repetition and short sections to build up a picture of an intense love affair between two women, severed suddenly by illness.
“Separation Anxiety” is a long-awaited comeback for this clever writer who hasn’t published a novel since “Piece of Work” in 2006. A series of personal tragedies, including the deaths of her parents and her own cancer diagnosis, swept Zigman into what she calls “so many dormant years.” But now, she’s transmuted those struggles into a new book — a “second chance” — about a once-successful author whose world is collapsing under the weight of disappointment and fear.
In this lyrical yet finely argued book, Johnson sets out to show that being alone — so different from loneliness, its direct opposite, in fact — is absolutely essential to the creative life. Taking a dozen or so historical examples, from Emily Dickinson in Amherst to Bill Cunningham in New York via Paul Cézanne in Provence, Johnson reveals how artists have always removed themselves from the noise and clutter of enforced sociability in order to live closer to the sources of their inspiration. Dickinson turned down an offer of marriage late in life, while Cunningham, the society photographer, insisted on living on as little money as possible so that his employers, which included The New York Times, “can’t tell you what to do.” Cézanne, though technically married, saw his wife and child only on Sundays, which left the rest of the week free for obsessively painting Mont Sainte-Victoire in all weathers and lights.
An idle lingerer on the wayside’s road,
He gathers up his work and yawns away;
A little longer, ere the tiresome load
Shall be reduced to ashes or to clay.
The reality (or lack thereof) of numbers is the kind of problem some philosophers consider overwhelmingly important, but it’s of no consequence to just about everyone else. It does not make a wink of difference to your life whether the figures in your bank account or the digits on your clock are, in a philosophical sense, really real, so long as they work as expected. The mathematician Paolo Zellini’s book, now translated by Simon Carnell and Erica Segre from the 2016 Italian original, does not exactly elevate the number-reality problem to a matter of concern to non-philosophers, and certainly does not explain the problem in a way that will make it tractable to them. But Zellini does offer a creative shift in perspective that challenges certain philosophers and philosophy-minded mathematicians to see the problem differently.
Where one might expect numbers to get their reality from the things they enumerate — canonically, two apples come before the number two — Zellini argues that this gets the story backward. Rather, the most philosophically significant examples of enumeration from ancient to modern times used numbers to give reality to the things they enumerated. He reaches this conclusion by setting to one side the bulk of historical enumeration and focusing on philosophical texts about divine and natural existence. Sure enough, in these texts numbers appear to be the source of reality, often by way of a divine agency or inspiration: hence the titular ‘mathematics of the Gods’.
We are inundated with information every hour of every day, and so it’s entirely possible to go through your life without realizing which subjects, pieces of art, or stories call out to you. If you’re a writer or artist, missing this information will deprive your work. If you’re not a writer or artist, missing this information will make your life less interesting. Part of why we’re here must be to figure out which parts of this world makes the DNA, molecules and peculiar history inside us light up, right?
But people also say they want their lives to be meaningful. And judging from the way they talk about meaning, this seems to be distinct from happiness. Indeed, meaning and happiness can be in conflict—so the psychological evidence tells us. In surveys conducted by the social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister, people correlate the activities that fill their lives with these two goals. And it turns out that activities that increase meaning can reduce happiness—and vice versa. The most striking example is the activity of raising children, which reliably diminishes measured happiness, both from moment to moment and on the whole. Then why do people do it? This has been called the “parenthood paradox.” And its resolution is simple: people have children because doing so gives meaning to their lives.
When Rama and Miller got together in the early 90s to write the book, it took weeks to figure out what exactly would go into it. With all their combined cooking experience, the pair had to leave their assumptions about what constituted basic kitchen knowledge at the door. “I’ve been in the food business all my life, and sometimes you get caught up in your own little world,” Rama said. This meant that the coauthors would forget that someone coming to this book might not know the difference between an egg white and an egg yolk. “They put editors on our book who didn’t know how to cook. It was frustrating a lot of times because we’d have to tone the recipes down,” Rama explained. “We had to be really careful with our language or else our editors would come back and say, ‘What does it mean to slice an onion? I don’t know how to do that!’”
In Cuban author Marcial Gala’s 2012 novel The Black Cathedral (newly translated by Anna Kushner), a large cast of characters, including several ghosts, narrates a story about a “neighborhood of forgotten black people and desperate white people,” where merely surviving can feel like a feat. The narrative, jumping from voice to voice to give us a kaleidoscopic vision of events, also leaps forward and back in time: we learn in the early pages that a main character will end up in a US prison, that another will suffer from diabetes.
Trained as an architect, the author seems less interested in chronology and its secrets than in creating the illusion that we’re experiencing his story from every angle, as we would were we walking through a building. The strategy of embedding the future in the present has the effect of deepening the pathos, heightening our awareness of the vulnerability of characters who, in keeping with the principles of tragedy, appear to be moving inexorably toward their fates (a technique Gala perfects in his most recent novel, Call Me Cassandra , where the narrator foresees everything that’s going to happen to himself and the other characters each step along the way).
Powerful, funny and highly manipulative, the moment seeks to turn any sense of the book’s shortcomings into a failure of the reader – a risky alchemy that proves key to Bina’s chewy moral heart, as well as being a mark of its admirable, wholly non-emollient chutzpah.
A simmering paranoia bubbles under the surface of Stone’s fiction, a paranoia he had a sense of humor about. He once proposed an Alcoholics Anonymous-type group: “The idea was, if you’re feeling paranoid, contact Paranoids Anonymous and they’ll send you another paranoid.”
Reading “Child of Light,” a revealing new biography of Stone by the novelist Madison Smartt Bell, Stone’s distrust begins to make sense. He was not inherently a wild man, but he attracted wildness. It came to him, as if he were coaxing it out of the soil. He fed off the destructive energy.
For a tree too big to wrap your arms around, the California coast redwood, Sequoia sempervirens, is surprisingly elusive. Their bases might be elephantine, but the upper reaches, they’re lofty, inscrutable. It’s this zone that I’m preparing to enter, a fog-shrouded crown on the northern California coast. A guide cinches me into a harness, and before I know it, I’m 140 feet up, then 150, 160. I stare at the tree’s dark, gnarled bark to quell the vertigo rising in my temples.
By the time I’m about 20 stories off the ground, the dot-sized people staring up at me are gone, replaced by intertwined branches and needles that close around me like a net. Clumps of sage-colored moss dangle and an inexplicable calm descends. Somewhere, my mind is scrambling like a squirrel, aware that I’m dangling 200 feet off the ground, but the tree’s unrelenting solidity—it’s been here since before the Magna Carta, after all—is having an effect. There’s a stillness up here that passes understanding.
I should have seen this coming. It’s just the way David Milarch described it. Milarch’s singular goal in life is to bring these primeval forests back from the brink, and he knows just how to win people to his cause. The best baptism is the experience. I see it in the faces of others after they return from a crown visit: blooming cheeks, starry eyes, deep sighs. They’ve gotten big tree religion.
There had not been such a winter for years. Every night — bone-cracking cold. Every morning the world flung itself over and the view had changed, appearing a shade lighter, but the country was of a deadly and a deceitful sameness. The same day returned once again — the same waste of snow and rock very lonely and austere.
It snowed every day now, sometimes only brief flurries that powdered the snow crust, sometimes for real. On the coldest days the snowdrifts were deep and the pine needles in the glades were ossified with ice. On the days when the sun shone, it was only an instant. A bright speck. Then it was gone.
One could not imagine that matters could get worse, but they did. In a matter of weeks, in a blizzard, how it snowed so hard. Raged for forty-eight hours. Animals that occupied the land felt the wind of the blizzard increase, and overhead the sky grew dark with snow. The cold increased until it was thirty below zero.
I can’t really speak French, but I cook in French. For years, I studied conjugations and the passé simple, practiced pronouncing yaourt and grenouille, but try as I might I just couldn’t seem to master it beyond the essentials like “deux pains au chocolat, s’il vous plaît.”
In the kitchen, however, I am fluent. The fistfuls of garlic and thyme, the pebbly feel of gray sel marin de Guérande between my fingers, and the lushness of an emulsifying sauce are now so ingrained, I can cook in French without thinking. The ethereal creaminess of a soufflé, the anchovy funk of a pissalardière and the caramelized depth of boeuf Bourguignon are as deeply part of me as the bagels and lox we ate in Brooklyn every Sunday.
One night about six months ago, as I was tidying up for the babysitter at the same time as battling to put the kids to bed, all while trying to answer a multitude of suddenly-urgent questions they’d had all day to ask, and put lipstick on, I caught sight of my frantic-looking face in the mirror. What, I wondered, was I doing all this for? Was it worth it simply to spend the evening with a couple we didn’t really like, drink insipid wine and make shallow small-talk about other people we don’t really know or want to spend time with?
I’ve always been a more-the-merrier type person and someone who prided herself on being a good friend. I have friends from all areas of my life – school, university, work – but as I got older and the demands of raising three young children and work have grown, I’ve realised that something had to give. And that something has ended up being my friendships. Not all of them, but I’ve certainly had something of a reassessment.
Jane Jacobs’s canonical 1961 treatise on city planning, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, begins with a thesis of community safety that would raise eyebrows today, in the common era of the NSA. Self-policing the streets, she argues, depends on three elements: the “clear demarcation” of public and private space; street-facing storefronts that act as “eyes upon” public throughways; and the continuous population of sidewalks. Cities, she proposes, ought to make “an asset” out of strangers.
As New York’s patron saint of neighborhood preservation, Jacobs undoubtedly had gentle intentions. She prevented a four-lane highway from razing Washington Square Park, another from dividing Lower Manhattan. Her analysis of the ways in which the design of public spaces can foster or frustrate community bonds continues to shape (and, some would argue, impede) New York housing policy and stock. But in an age of digital surveillance, this motion for keeping “eyes on the street” at all times takes on a decidedly ambivalent ring—in 2020, New Yorkers are already on camera everywhere south of Ninety-Sixth Street. These days, it feels just as urgent to ask after those sites where we might evade the stranger’s gaze. Enter the humble apartment rooftop, the canopy of city life that supports a social order all its own.
How do we center, in this postcolonial experience, not the perspective of the western European colonizer but the perspective of the indigenous, black, and people of color who were colonized? Even the very language of this concept — postcolonial — betrays a perspective still situated around the white colonizer.
So we begin with this question: How do you create meaning when the language itself undercuts the meaning you are trying to create?
James McBride's Deacon King Kong is a feverish love letter to New York City, people, and writing. The prose is relentless and McBride's storytelling skills shine as he drags readers at breakneck speed trough a plethora of lives, times, events, and conversations. The novel is 370 pages, but McBride has packed enough in there for a dozen novellas, and reading them all mashed together is a pleasure.
“Saint X,” Alexis Schaitkin’s atmospheric new novel, is ostensibly about a young American girl who goes missing while on a family vacation in the Caribbean. But it is more than that. The book also unpacks timely social and cultural issues — about grief, truth, white privilege and our murder-as-entertainment culture.
It is perhaps unsurprising that Shakespeare, the most canonical of dead white males, should feature in America’s culture wars. But why so prominently, both now and in earlier phases of the US’s struggles with race, class and identity during the 19th and 20th centuries? Why should Americans care so much about an Englishman who never visited its shores? In this sprightly and enthralling book, James Shapiro argues persuasively that 19th-century American textbooks, such as McGuffey’s Reader (1836), which had sold more than 120m copies by the first world war, and Scott’s Lessons in Elocution, played a major role in the process of domestication, for they excerpted many of the most celebrated speeches from Shakespeare’s plays. Reassuringly, it also helped that the language of Shakespeare resembled the familiar cadences of the King James Version of the Bible, published in 1611.
And just like that, I was whole again,
seam like a drawing of an eyelid closed,
gauze resting atop it like a bed
When the National desk gets together to discuss stories, it can be a grim half-hour. We dissect natural disasters. We reconstruct mass shootings. We delve into political scandals and all manner of domestic tumult. Recently, though, we added a new feature to our morning meetings aimed at inspiring us and boosting our creativity before we embark on another long day of editing the news.
We read a poem.
BOOK IT! wasn’t a monolith; it allowed for flexibility. Outside of the basic rules, each participating teacher set their own requirements. At my school, you needed to write down three books you’d read in order to qualify—and given the amount of students who tried to exploit the system, the teacher had to really believe you’d read them. I was the kind of rapacious little weirdo who regularly devoured upwards of a dozen books a week, so meeting the program goals wasn’t exactly a challenge. Bringing up multiple slips every few days became a ritual for me, and an undoubtedly exasperating one for the teachers who had to deal with my smug little face. My mother didn’t have to pay to feed me in between errands or after soccer games for years. We had a pretty good thing going, until one year, my teacher placed a limit on the number of slips we could get signed, specifically to halt the spread of my pizza empire.
Once that draconian rule came crashing down upon my head, my mother decided other arrangements had to be made. We needed to call in reinforcements: Nanny.
IN 1971, Terence McKenna’s younger brother Dennis heard a buzzing sound in his head. He was high on mushrooms in the Colombian rain forest, and he was confused. He thought that the sound (“on the absolute edge of audible perception,” as he later described it), might be some form of communication — a message from the natural world. He decided to try to send a message back and began to hum a single, prolonged tone. When he found the right frequency, the two sounds — the one in his head and the one coming from his vocal cords — seemed to join together into a single noise, “suddenly much intensified in energy.” He became convinced that he had found a direct channel of communication between the mind and the natural world. “The intermediary is the body,” he wrote. Whether he knew it or not, McKenna was embodying a concept that would become an enduring feature of American life: the concept of “feedback.”
Today, the term is mundane, the stuff of boardroom meetings and questionnaires. But it wasn’t always so. In his new book, The Culture of Feedback: Ecological Thinking in ’70s America, Daniel Belgrad tells the story of this odd and influential idea’s development and spread. “Feedback” was first popularized during World War II, when it was used by military engineers to refer to the dynamics of a self-regulating mechanical system that “fed” some of the results of its outputs “back” into itself as inputs. In the following decades, this vision began to seep into all sorts of other arenas of American culture. By the 1970s, this included a constellation of practices and beliefs that are now widely categorized — other than by an aging faction of hippies and a few Silicon Valley execs — as nonsense: thinking very hard about the interior lives of house plants; going to the Colombian rain forest to eat psychedelic mushrooms; and standing around with a group in a swimming pool in Northern California, hyperventilating to the point of unconsciousness in order to understand what it is like to be a dolphin.
Nguyen’s ambitious debut is a mash-up of reflection, growth, and rumination on death. In a world that seems increasingly chaotic and divided, Nguyen offers a refuge with his humble, distinct take on race relations in America, and smart analysis of the ways technology shape our personal and public lives.
Over the last year, little by little, I have grown suspicious of the erotics of art. It’s not just that I object to the opposition, famously asserted by Susan Sontag, between interpretation and sensuality. It’s that any overeager commitment to producing or consuming art as an erotic experience often results in some very inexpert writing about both aesthetics and sex—rhapsodic, humorless, self-aggrandizing prose that gets off on the most basic category errors. When asked by an interviewer what the most interesting thing was that she had learned from a book recently, the actress and writer Phoebe Waller-Bridge replied, “That orgasms can be brought on by art, and vice versa.” I found this idea distressing. Practical considerations aside, what kind of sick person wants her orgasms to come from art? A person more concerned with receiving pleasure than giving it is one answer; a person who prefers her pleasure depersonalized, disembodied, and safely contained by representation is another. Art, after all, doesn’t demand reciprocity or reality.
At the News, misery had become so commonplace that, as one current staffer told me, “The arrival of Alden was barely a blip on the radar. There’s nobody left to lay off, and no parts to strip from what’s left of the paper. All that’s left is turning out the lights.” Another News journalist echoed that sentiment: “Just a decade ago we were major players in the national media. Money was no object and we could go the distance on anything. Now we have a skeleton crew that races around to prop up a once great newspaper.”
Reading about these developments, it was hard to believe this was the same publication that inaugurated the U.S. tabloid press a century earlier and went on to become the most widely circulated newspaper in America, an 11-time Pulitzer Prize winner that inspired Superman’s Daily Planet, gave the world journalism legends like Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill, and battled in the trenches with Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post. It was just as hard to believe that this was the same place where I’d worked from 2006 to 2011, a period of time that, looking back, seems like the beginning of the end of America’s last great newspaper war.
Roads furnish our imaginations with images of freedom. Journeys like Kerouac’s have come to stand for a sense of unimpeded progress and self-discovery, an open horizon connoting limitless possibility. Roads conjure what it feels like to be modern. They open up the world for us, but, as Emerson realized, they also dictate the direction we take. Roads accompany us for so much of our lives—how much time do any of us spend more than a hundred meters from a road, or out of earshot of their whispering voices?—and yet we have somehow trained ourselves not to really notice them at all.
Jane Austen said, “Man has the advantage of choice; woman only the power of refusal,” but Casey is determined to hold out for a plot on her own terms. The result is an absolute delight, the kind of happiness that sometimes slingshots out of despair with such force you can’t help but cheer, amazed.
Lily King's new novel, her fifth, won't transport you to an exotic locale the way her last one did, but oh my, it's a good read. After Euphoria (2014), a richly researched and imagined tragic love triangle inspired by anthropologist Margaret Mead's life, King returns to her comfort zone: a distressed young woman finding her way in late 20th century New England.
Stevens’s writing proves that both time and technology are best understood in retrospect, sequences made logical long after each moment has passed. The novel has a romantic slowness, unfurling gracefully, little by little, to show how quickly the present gives way to the future, or concedes to the past.
The novelist Edmund White has observed that a remarkable number of American writers, from Hawthorne to Pynchon, have endured the shock and strain of class descent, and that an entire undercurrent in American fiction is driven by the fear of such a loss in status.
Lee Durkee’s disarmingly honest and darkly comic sophomore novel, “The Last Taxi Driver,” is the most recent of these narratives of displacement. The book follows a single, miserable day in the life of Lou Bishoff, a worn-down, middle-aged cabdriver who narrates our story as he chauffeurs the residents of a fictional Mississippi town. Lou’s fortunes have declined precipitously since his promising start “a few decades ago, back when I was a budding young writer with a swanky Brooklyn girlfriend, back before I went cold on the page and never finished that second novel I’d already been paid for.” And now things are about to get worse: Uber is coming into town to disrupt what little he has left. Durkee knows whence he speaks: It’s been nearly 20 years since his own acclaimed debut. In between, to make ends meet, he drove a cab.
Though “Barn 8” is a political novel punctuated with excellent, terrifying reporting from inside the belly of the American agricultural beast, it is not a diatribe; rather, it’s a call into the universe, a probing that asks: What if we the disconnected, we the too connected, we the individual data sets decided to do something, even if it felt like an impossible activist fantasy?
The Power Notebooks is a series of brief-but-potent meditations on women, autonomy, independence, and power, and more specifically on "women strong in public, weak in private" — including herself. In these reflective, journal-like entries, Roiphe opens up, revealing the gentler person behind the polemical writer — and the accomplished literary scholar behind both. She seeks insights into her unstable affairs, breakups, and challenges as a single mother in the lives and work of such outwardly successful writers as Sylvia Plath, Simone de Beauvoir, Mary McCarthy, and Rebecca West, who nevertheless abdicated power in their personal lives.
This book asks us to read the world carefully, knowing that not everything will be translated for us, knowing that it is made up of pluralities. “Let’s say it’s all text,” Diaz writes, “the animal, the dune, / the wind in the cottonwood, and the body.” Diaz’s collection is no doubt one of the most important poetry releases in years, one to applaud for its considerable demonstration of skill, its resistance to dominant perspectives and its light wrought of desire.
This is not a younger man’s book, not a book of striving. It is a novel of late middle age, a novel of preserving what one has seized — of fighting off young, hungry men who remind you of yourself, who will use your own methods against you. Above all, it is a novel of living with the dead. Mantel names the deceased in her dramatis personae at the beginning of her books; how that list has grown.
Sometime on Tuesday, November 8, 1960, a 66-year-old widower and self-described “moderate Republican” went to his polling place in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, to vote for his state’s junior senator for president. Never the most forthcoming of men, Norman Rockwell hadn’t told his family he was backing John F. Kennedy. He’d painted portraits of both candidates for the Saturday Evening Post, and he just didn’t like Richard Nixon’s face.
It was only a short walk down Main Street from the two-story Colonial house supposedly once occupied by Aaron Burr, whose derelict red barn Rockwell had converted into his fastidiously tidy studio. He’d called Stockbridge home since relocating from rural Vermont six years earlier, mainly for proximity to its renowned Austen Riggs psychiatric center. His second wife, Mary, who struggled with alcoholism and depression, had been a chronic patient there.
In those newly cosmopolitan times — the Mad Men era, for shorthand’s sake — the Anytown, USA, that Rockwell had depicted on hundreds of Post covers was becoming a curio at best and an object of derision at worst. Nixon still espoused a mealy-mouthed fealty to those pseudo-Rockwellian virtues. By choosing Kennedy instead, Rockwell might as well have been casting a ballot to hasten his own obsolescence. But nobody could disagree that he’d had a good run.
Heimaey is the largest of the Westman Islands, an archipelago south of Iceland mostly inhabited by puffins. On Stórhöfði peninsula, at the southernmost point of Heimaey is an outcrop that juts into the Atlantic Ocean. The local weather station here claims to be one of the windiest places in Europe.
It was here, in the early hours of March 12 1984, that 23-year-old Guðlaugur Friðþórsson stumbled towards salvation. His bare feet were bleeding from deep cuts caused by the volcanic rock hidden beneath the snow, his clothes soaked in seawater and frozen to his body. He should have already died several times over, but something deep inside Friðþórsson propelled him forwards.
Chefs and restaurateurs on both coasts take a dim view of the future, not because of the numbers but because of their own experience, going to work and talking to their peers: Too many restaurants open and then close too fast, after months, not years. And closures are an equal-opportunity phenomenon, nationwide. If you live someplace that grows or raises the food these city chefs sell, you might want to make sure your local Applebee’s is still open before you pile the family in the car and head over—the chain just announced a new growth strategy, but it centers on catering and delivery, not restaurants.
That sound you hear is doors closing, no matter where you live or where you go out to eat.
Part of my love for Lady Macbeth comes from this ability to perform gender to her advantage. I can imagine Lady Macbeth grabbing her husband by the arm and telling him to pull it together at several points. She frequently questions his manliness, outright asking, “Are you a man?” when he acts mad after seeing Banquo’s ghost at a banquet. When Macbeth returns with the daggers, she must return them to the crime scene, bloodying her own hands, and she tells him, “My hands are of your color, but I shame / To wear a heart so white.” Ultimately, she’s the one who secures their power, telling him to wash his hands, put on his nightgown, and pretend it never happened, though Macbeth can’t overcome guilt so quickly. Then he descends into madness—more hallucinations and murders; the illness Lady Macbeth once hoped would attend him has now consumed him. “Be innocent of the knowledge, dearest chuck,” he tells Lady Macbeth before Banquo’s murder. She once had to keep Macbeth together just long enough to murder, but now she has lost control of him.
Really great poetry is difficult to read. I don’t just mean it’s challenging, though it usually is. I mean it’s hard to make progress, because the density of meaning in the language stops you; it makes you read in loops. Alice Fulton has called poetry “recursive”: “It sends you back up the page as much as it sends you forward.” Because of this effect, it once took me all afternoon to finish reading John Ashbery’s long poem “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” — I kept wanting to stop and start over again. Alice Notley’s best work feels this way: intensely recursive, almost too good to read. In its semantic density, great poetry gives you the sense you’ve skipped over and missed some available shade of meaning. You certainly have.
At the heart of “Barn 8” is love, specifically the longing that comes from missing someone you love, and how that love can, if catalyzed, move the lover to do great things. Great things like hatch a plot to steal a million chickens.
I will swing my lasso of headlights
across your front porch,
let it drop like a rope of knotted
light at your feet.
In 2018, Israel lost its two greatest novelists, Amos Oz and Aharon Appelfeld. Both were older than the country itself and had witnessed its entire dramatic history, but the ways they dealt with that history could not have been more different. Oz, born in Jerusalem in 1939, threw himself into the development of the young Jewish state: he wrote about the kibbutz where he lived and the psychology of the first Israeli Sabra generation, and assumed an active role in politics as a founder of the Peace Now movement. If you wanted to understand Israeli society in its first half century, Oz’s novels would be the natural place to start.
Reading Appelfeld, by contrast, tells you basically nothing about the country in which he lived—at least, not directly. Though he wrote in Hebrew, taught at an Israeli university, and received Israel’s highest literary honors, his imagination remained fixed in the land of his early childhood, which was Eastern Europe. Appelfeld wrote more than forty books—including “To the Edge of Sorrow,” which appeared in Hebrew in 2012 and is now out in a posthumous English translation by Stuart Schoffman (Schocken)—and almost all of them are set in the former Austro-Hungarian Empire. They are often about people like his parents: assimilated, German-speaking, middle-class Jews who live in provincial cities, vacation at country resorts or in spa towns, and worship literature and music instead of the God of their ancestors.
What does it mean to travel? Does writing about it from where I stand make a difference? The question of moving has never ceased to be relevant, and it is, to borrow from Baudelaire, the one “I discuss incessantly with my soul.” “Questions of Travel” is the title of Michelle de Kretser’s novel about travel, home, and belonging, Caren Kaplan’s scholarly book on the modern and postmodern discourses of travel and displacement, and the famous poem by Elizabeth Bishop that both writers allude to. “Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?” asked Bishop. Questions of travel are many and have become more complicated, especially when we think about the global conditions that shape travel today.
Interrogating the socio-economic and environmental impacts of travel can be challenging because the romanticized images of travel have been sustained in narratives, via literature and the media. Thus here is the first question to begin with: Why do travel stories fascinate us, and why do people keep telling them? We want to know every path, every yellow brick road trodden by our favorite characters, on the pages or screen. What will Dorothy discover when the on-screen image shifts from black and white to technicolor? In The Wizard of Oz, excitement is always somewhere else, somewhere unknown, over the rainbow. Stories of travel speak to us because we, too, desire to venture into the unfamiliar. Perhaps in our journey, our troubles will melt like lemon drops, and we are eager to find out what awaits us. What kind of world is there to see? What souvenirs to bring home? Will we ever return home?
I was part of the fast and furious. I'd dip into the street to avoid a planted tree, then step back up onto the sidewalk to take the lead ahead of the texting-while-walking human Roombas and those just plodding along. It wasn't just about getting around. It was a race. If Google Maps, under the watchful eye of its GPS satellite up above the stratosphere, estimated that my pulsating blue circle would reach my destination in 11 minutes, I'd text my friend to say, "See you in seven!"
It became part of my bedtime ritual to peek at my iPhone’s Health app to see how much ground I’d covered that day. I’d gaze at the app’s orange bar graph—like Narcissus staring at his reflection—that displayed the total mileage for my day, week, month, and year. I was averaging 4 miles a day. On busier days that included a run and a trip to one of my kids' schools, I’d find the lines on the graph nudging beyond 8 miles. And while I hadn’t yet traded in my analog Swatch for an Apple Watch, my morning runs were accompanied by the halting robotic voice in the Map My Run app, which I kept on my phone to measure my speed and distance. Occasionally I forgot that the app was in workout mode, and the voice would startle me, jolting me out of whatever runner’s daydream I was having.
And then it all came crashing to a halt.
“Writers & Lovers,” while describing the intense effort of putting words in order, feels effortless, or at least like an unconscious natural process. King’s sentences are like layers of silt and pebbles condensed into sedimentary rock — distinct from one another but fitted into an indestructible whole. And she pulls off a considerable trick: she convinces us that the miracle of attention, that coveted capability we all imagine slipped from our grasps as the new millennium dawned, must still lie somewhere inside writers, even if their fingers are swiping as often as typing.
With this trilogy, Mantel has redefined what the historical novel is capable of; she has given it muscle and sinew, enlarged its scope, and created a prose style that is lyrical and colloquial, at once faithful to its time and entirely recognisable to us. Taken together, her Cromwell novels are, for my money, the greatest English novels of this century. Someone give the Booker Prize judges the rest of the year off.
It’s 1950, nearly two years after the HMT Empire Windrush deposited Lawrie Matthews in the motherland, and still he’s stunned by the many ways in which it diverges from the country of his schoolbooks. Austerity’s grip on Britain remains vice-like, and its capital’s streets are paved not with gold but with rubble. “Everywhere you walked in London you could see tragedy through absence,” Lawrie notes.
Louise Hare’s debut novel pairs a poignant tale of young love and shameful prejudice with a twisting mystery, all embedded in a historical moment with keen contemporary resonance. Tantalising ingredients to be sure, yet it’s her steady, calm prose and the animating authenticity of her material that make it so hard to resist.
If you’re going to give your memoir the sublime subtitle “A story of chip shops and pop songs”, you had better serve up a tasty hit. Gloriously, the music journalist Pete Paphides’s tale of his formative tussle between his Greek and Brummie identities, shot through with his life-determining discovery of music – his “third parent” – is lip-lickingly, dance-around-the-living-room good.
The American speculative fiction author William Gibson has said that sci-fi writers are “almost always wrong”, but over the course of a dozen acclaimed novels, Gibson himself has proven he has a gift for describing the present in terms of where it’s headed. His fame as a writer was established by his insight that much of our future would be played out in representative space, the not-there place to which people go when they stare at a computer screen – a realm he called, in the 1982 short story “Burning Chrome”, “cyberspace”. In the age of the smartphone this may seem obvious, but that story and Gibson’s first novel, Neuromancer, were written on a Hermes 2000 typewriter from the 1930s. The first website was almost a decade away, and no one he knew had a personal computer.
In another short story (“Johnny Mnemonic”, 1981) he described, 17 years before Google was founded, an “information economy” in which “it’s impossible to move, to live, to operate at any level without leaving traces, bits, seemingly meaningless fragments of personal information… that can be retrieved, amplified”. In 1996, 14 years before Instagram launched, he described in his novel Idoru a future in which “it’s easier to desire and pursue the attention of tens of millions of total strangers than it is to accept the love and loyalty of the people closest to us”.
Considering this record, it might be worrying to learn that Gibson’s latest novel, Agency, is largely a credible account of a coming apocalypse. His characters call it “the Jackpot”. “It’s multi-causal, and it’s of extremely long duration,” he explains. Over many decades, climate change, pollution, drug-resistant diseases and other factors – “I’ve never really had the heart to make up a full list, else I’ll depress myself” – deplete the human race by 80 per cent.
Memoir is a slippery, intimate craft. To trust the memoirist, a reader must believe in the author’s ability to remember with some degree of clarity. But when writing her new book Brother & Sister, the Oscar-winning actor Diane Keaton rejected the fidelity of her own memory altogether—in part because the story she wanted to tell isn’t solely her own. Keaton’s second memoir examines her strained relationship with her only brother, Randy. Once close, the two grew apart as a young Keaton found success in Hollywood, and as Randy later struggled with mental illness, alcoholism, and social isolation. Because her brother now has dementia, Keaton needed to look elsewhere to reconstruct the past.
“Deacon King Kong” is many things: a mystery novel, a crime novel, an urban farce, a portrait of a project community. There’s even some western in here. The novel is, in other words, a lot. Fortunately, it is also deeply felt, beautifully written and profoundly humane; McBride’s ability to inhabit his characters’ foibled, all-too-human interiority helps transform a fine book into a great one.
King’s novel is a defense of writing, sure; her character finds her voice in the end and brings her novel to completion, and finally sells it. But King aims for something higher than that. The novel is a meditation on trying itself: to stay alive, to love, to care. That point feels so fresh, so powerfully diametrically opposed to the readily available cynicism we’ve been feasting on.