The relationship between the normal and the abnormal is a fruitful theme for comic fiction, because it captures two mutually antagonizing blind spots. The abnormal has no idea that it’s abnormal, and the normal has no idea that it’s bizarre. More often than not, after all, the difference between the normal and the abnormal is a matter of point of view. We all seem “normal” to ourselves, because we are the fixed points in our own daily lives. The people who strike us as the most surreally eccentric will see themselves, more often than not, as completely ordinary—and more than that, they will tend (but how dare they!) to see us as the really strange ones.
The novelist Charles Portis, who died in February at the age of 86, was one of the great American chroniclers of the 20th-century bizarre, but what makes his books so funny and wise is that his “normals” are every bit as particular and odd as his “abnormals.” He understands that weirdness begins at home. More than that, he understands that weirdness isn’t really weirdness; the perception of weirdness is only a sign that the world is larger and more varied than any one person’s ability to understand it. Portis loves to take people who, for one reason or another, are highly committed to their own way of seeing things, then send them on journeys just over the horizon of what their expectations can accommodate. His novels are marvelous odysseys into the dark heart of WTF.
These new sounds and silences are so affecting because cities have long been defined by their din: by the density and variety of human voices and animal sounds; the clamor of wheels on cobblestones; the mechanical clangs, electrical hums, and radio babble; the branded ringtones and anti-loitering alarms. Most hearing people are adept at interpreting the cacophony. We know which of the sounds within our radius need attention and which can be ignored. At times of crisis or change, our senses are heightened, recalibrated. As we adjust to new spatial confines, to an altered sense of time, we also retune our hearing. Seismologists, for instance, have registered the Covid-19 shutdowns as a quietness that helps them perceive tectonic movements.
But contextual shifts are not always as sudden as a viral pandemic. We are constantly revising the way we listen to the city, and for at least a century our aural capacities have been growing in the direction of urban surveillance and public health. With technology, we track sounds over greater distances, at different timescales and intervals, discerning patterns and aberrations that are often encoded as symptoms, so that we (or our public officials) can diagnose problems and apply cures. Indeed, many of the modern technologies used to sound out the city are inspired by diagnostic tools from medicine and psychology. Through these soundings, we grasp the city’s internal mechanics, assess the materiality of its parts, analyze its rhythms. And those two domains, surveillance and health, are increasingly entwined with a third, machine intelligence.
One day, Michael Shattuck started to run. He liked it, so he ran longer, sometimes for as many as 65 hours each week. He never wanted to stop. What was he running from?
“This is running heaven out here,” says Michael Shattuck. It’s a late-summer morning in Wisconsin’s rural heartland. Emerald green dairy farms roll into wetland marshes, the landscape punctuated with small-town eccentricities, like the statue of a human-size mouse wearing a University of Wisconsin-Madison tank top perched on the roof of a limestone-quarry business. There are plenty of distractions, which is a good thing, because the 42-year-old Shattuck, who was born and raised in Ripon, 90 miles northwest of Milwaukee, plans to run a marathon here every day for the rest of his life.
“Are you trying to remember things or are you trying to be remembered?”
This question arrives early in Michael J. Seidlinger’s new novel Dreams of Being and is quickly revealed to be the book’s central inquiring obsession. Asked of the novel’s narrator by a mysterious, failed nonagenarian sushi chef named Jiro, the narrator is slow to respond, but finally answers:
“I want to be remembered.”
We could all use a trip to the Caribbean right about now, and Gaige’s treacherous passage gives us plenty to discuss along the way, including ethical dilemmas, complicated family dynamics and the nature of forgiveness. And the views are breathtaking.
I need sarson da saag,
nothing else will satisfy me,
and hot makki di roti
with butter melting over it.
This time I won’t say, little kangaroo because this kangaroo is swole as fuck.
In a field observation for our course, my niece and I hunted for something colorful so that we could try making color notations, recording hue and shade of color. We looked at familiar purple shoots of sea kale. Trying to replicate their color is the first time that I’ve noticed the white powdery bloom that dusts their surface, even though I watch them emerge every spring. Drawing sea kale made me see it more clearly.
Words we attach to the acts of drawing and photographing are different. We make a drawing but take a photograph. Taking a photograph is removal — from the scene and in taking something away with you. Looking into a viewfinder puts a camera between you and your surroundings. In contrast drawing or painting leaves room for people to see what you are capturing, and places you within the scene.
“I’m sending you money to buy rice,” my mom texted me in early March. She had gone to the West Coast to help my sister with her new baby and stayed when it became too risky to fly. As news of the coronavirus intensified, so did her fretting.
“I don’t need money,” I texted back. “Also, I have plenty of rice.”
“No, you have an American amount of rice,” she replied. “Go get the biggest bag you can find.”
“Conditional citizens are people who know what it is like for a country to embrace you with one arm, and push you away with the other,” writes Laila Lalami in her meditation on national belonging. I read Conditional Citizens as a first-generation immigrant, a Jewish refugee from the former Soviet Union who has been teased for being “a commie” and “a Russian spy” but also complimented on successful assimilation by those who knew nothing of the process. I read Conditional Citizens while holed up in my apartment, immunocompromised and afraid of catching or spreading the novel coronavirus. I read Conditional Citizens as a break from scrolling through social media feeds and learning about ordinary individuals who couldn’t get tested until it was too late, while celebrities got diagnosed and treated. I saw the president lean hard into racism and xenophobia, repeatedly saying “Chinese virus,” and thus tacitly encouraging harassment and violence against Asian Americans. As Matthew Lee observes, the switch from “model minority” to “yellow peril” can happen swiftly and painfully in the United States. This is why books like Conditional Citizens are important. They remind us that the dichotomy of citizen and non-citizen is too facile. Even legal citizenship does not guarantee cultural citizenship, equality under the law, or safety from state brutality.
The Bathroom expresses the absurdity of life: that disorder and randomness prevail. The narrator, staring out of his window at a downpour, watches one raindrop as it falls from the sky; he traces its path, calmly awaiting the moment it splatters against the pavement. The novel presses on the illusion that life gets you somewhere—and behind it we find the reality that life leads only to death, that existence eventually hits up against its opposite. We move like raindrops, hurtling toward the ground, and end in immobility. Whatever meaning exists is our own creation, and we can choose whether or not to worship it.
I know now that I can’t trust life to continue at a particular pace in the same way I can’t trust Amtrak to arrive at a destination on time. It’s futile to move to my couch and plead with the world to stop spinning around me, some facsimile of Dorothy in the tornado. I can’t be promised safety. Every moment, I am vulnerable to depression, a pandemic, my train whining to a pause. No writer, not Toussaint or myself, can truly assume authorial control—for even when we try, we are thwarted by a word’s unruliness, by a number out of order, by a life that rejects reason.
In all its years, the Survey of London has never before accorded an entire volume to a single road. Oxford Street stretches for more than a mile and exhibits, as editor Andrew Saint writes in his lively and erudite introduction, nothing so much as “persistent incoherence”. London’s most famous street, if not the most elegant, has been indulging shopping preferences and fashion fads for more than two centuries. Vogue magazine’s fictional Mrs Exeter might, in the 1950s, have favoured Bond Street, where she window shopped and dreamed expensively, but Oxford Street was already well established as the province of “that increasingly exuberant pair, Mr and Mrs Everyman”. The street and its environs, under the intense scrutiny of Saint and his colleagues, reveals itself as a kind of diorama, demonstrably thriving one moment, jaded and playing catch-up the next.
There’s a whole world in every tree, says Jonathan Drori. Travelling eastwards from his London home, he chooses 80 trees from the 60,000 or so species on the planet. He starts with the London Plane, “a tree of pomp and circumstance”, first planted in Berkeley Square, Mayfair, in 1789. A hybrid of the American sycamore and the Oriental plane, they have set an example to urban planners around the world.
It was the thought that —
if you could watch, if I could leak to the public the film of when I needed to reach you —
that would be one way.
Rhyme is one of the first ways we are introduced to language. There is evidence to suggest that it helps with language acquisition and other semantic development, and studies have also observed a link between rhyme and our aesthetic enjoyment of poetry. But among some literary circles, there is a snobbery about its use. Sceptics deride the use of rhyme as an artistic crutch, believing that it stands in way of achieving deeper, loftier literary aspirations. A common target of their ire is the rhyming dictionary—a handy manual full of avenues that poets of all abilities can run down. But while they may scoff, the long history of rhyming dictionaries shows their curious role in making poetry accessible to the masses.
Imagine two couples, each at home for dinner. The first couple spends the whole meal caressing each other’s hair, calling each other cheesy monikers and, after the meal is finished, holding hands across the table, staring affectionately into each other’s eyes. Before long, they are in bed together. The other couple eats quietly, barely talking and, when the meal is through, they load the dishwasher. Later, they sit in the same room, but apart, both reading.
Both couples are in love. They just express it differently. The philosopher Karen Jones at the University of Melbourne has an important insight into what is going on here. Love is what she calls an interpretation-sensitive trajectory. Trajectories are processes. One isn’t really in love for a fleeting moment, in the same way that one doesn’t have a profession or a hobby for a fleeting moment. The fact that an episode counts as love for a certain person – like another episode counts for a certain person being a writer or a knitter – depends on things that have happened before, or will happen after, that episode.
My friendship with Alex began as most still do: in person. We met as volunteers at the Housing Works Bookstore Cafe in SoHo, where we talked about novels while alphabetizing the shelves. Before long, we were in friend-love: walking my dog together in Central Park, working together in coffee shops and going on movie dates — until a little over a year ago, when Alex and her husband moved back to Australia. This had always been their plan, yet anticipating the loss didn’t dull the experience of it. Our friendship could have transitioned to a neutered, text-only version of itself at that point, as many do, or even ended altogether.
Instead, we turned to the telephone. People in my age cohort are notorious for using their phones for everything besides actually making calls. But I’ve only become more dependent on phone calls over the years, and never more so than when trying to conjure Alex’s presence from across the world. We usually talk at least once a week and for more than an hour, and often call each other in idle moments. The 14-hour time difference is actually an aid; we might talk while I’m walking my dog in my night and Alex is strolling with her baby in her morning. We call each other when we’re sad, when we’re panicking, when we’re agitated, when we’re bored. We call each other when we want to brainstorm (who do you think suggested the idea for this piece?). Friendship has become folded into daily ritual, and daily ritual has become folded into friendship.
What’s fascinating about the stories inside Ho Sok Fong’s latest short story collection, Lake Like A Mirror translated by Natascha Bruce, is that they hit the reader hard, and at the same time they frustrate the ability of the reader to parse her scenes. With all of the ambiguity and occult that punctuate her stories, there seems to be something special in Ho’s writing that evokes such forceful emotion.
The novel considers desire and sexuality through Mina’s eyes, while also unpacking complex family histories through Oscar’s relationship with his father. Buchanan’s prose is able to weave these narrative threads together in a way that feels organic when so many differing threads might come across as cacophonous if not handled deftly. While mental illness is a key theme in the novel, the story is propelled more by the way characters interact with one another and how their own emotional struggles affect how they treat others. Mental illness is just presented as one of many human struggles.
on this crust of field—in the day
that comes after us,
Hafiz, old nightingale, what fires there have been
in the groves, white dust, wretchedness,
how could you ever get your song together?
By the mid-eighteenth century, Shakespeare had become the iconic English genius—Britain’s answer to Homer, Dante, Cervantes. But this had not always been the general opinion and was not so at the outset of the eighteenth century. There had been a gradual elevation of Shakespeare from just one among several popular Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights to the one and only national treasure: “a kind of established religion in poetry,” as the playwright Arthur Murphy was already describing him in 1753, as well as a focus for a new, patriotic British nationalism that had begun to coalesce at that time. It was a process in which several members of the Club were intimately involved, both individually and as a team. Shakespeare might well have achieved his cultural apotheosis without these men, but the process would have been slower and less certain. Scholarship, criticism, performance, interpretation: the Club members had a profound effect on each of these aspects of Shakespeareanism.
At their genesis, the letters of the alphabet borrowed their shapes from the pictures we drew to represent the world around us: ox (A), fence (H), water (M). We were illustrators long before we were writers. As children, we learn to read illustrations before we learn to read words, making our way from picture books to alphabet books to chapter books. At some point, illustrations are dropped, and only text remains. My question has always been, why? The two are not the same. Text cannot replace image in our comprehension or appreciation, nor can image imitate the subtleties and rhythms of language.
In 1988, the children’s novelist and Russia expert James Riordan translated several of these for a collection called The Lion and the Puppy: And Other Stories for Childrenem>, published first by Henry Holt and Company. The cover has a nice picture of a lion and a puppy; the illustrations by Claus Sievert are lovely throughout. My children fell in love with that picture, and they wanted me to read them the book. My first thought was: Children’s stories by the author of the inspirational The Death of Ivan Ilyich? But pestilence has closed the schools and home reading was important. Tolstoy wrote them; they couldn’t be that bad. Now I sincerely wish I had never touched them.
“The world will never know what has happened—what a light has gone out,” the belletrist Lytton Strachey, a member of London’s Bloomsbury literary set, wrote to a friend on January 19, 1930. Frank Ramsey, a lecturer in mathematics at Cambridge University, had died that day at the age of twenty-six, probably from a liver infection that he may have picked up during a swim in the River Cam. “There was something of Newton about him,” Strachey continued. “The ease and majesty of the thought—the gentleness of the temperament.”
Dons at Cambridge had known for a while that there was a sort of marvel in their midst: Ramsey made his mark soon after his arrival as an undergraduate at Newton’s old college, Trinity, in 1920. He was picked at the age of eighteen to produce the English translation of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s “Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus,” the most talked-about philosophy book of the time; two years later, he published a critique of it in the leading philosophy journal in English, Mind. G. E. Moore, the journal’s editor, who had been lecturing at Cambridge for a decade before Ramsey turned up, confessed that he was “distinctly nervous” when this first-year student was in the audience, because he was “very much cleverer than I was.” John Maynard Keynes was one of several Cambridge economists who deferred to the undergraduate Ramsey’s judgment and intellectual prowess.
The one place where I felt safe to walk by myself was a small clearing in the woods on the edge of town. There were long sightlines between the conifers, so I could watch for approaching animals. Still, walking the same 500-metre route between a train track and a small cluster of hotels soon gets old. To mix things up – and because a glamorous early aviator named Beryl Markham used to do it – I began going barefoot.
Hey, I’m so sorry I didn’t text you back this afternoon. I was finishing a 1,500-piece puzzle of a basset hound wearing a cowboy hat for the second time.
I apologize for not answering your FaceTime earlier! I was curious how long it would take me to pluck each and every single one of my leg hairs and then decided to find out. Five hours 36 minutes!
As in this quartet of ants ferrying a torn
moth across worm slime and slate,
We often say that a book has changed our lives. But it’s rare to say that a book made us more human. This is a big statement, I know, but This Brilliant Darkness feels as transformative and essential as anything I have read in years. Sharlet’s work is an incantation, a prayer for and summoning of the human powers of observation, empathy, and compassion.
Written over a span of time between two heart attacks — the first Sharlet’s father’s, the second Sharlet’s own — Darkness is an intimate travelogue of human suffering, confusion, and, in fleeting moments, transcendence. During the course of many insomnia-afflicted nights, Sharlet began going for walks, observing strangers, and taking photos, quick shots on his phone during his graveyard-shift wanderings. The result is a wholly hypnotic series of short essays, most of which are accompanied by Sharlet’s tender, bare photos. The easiest comparison is to Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, James Agee and Walker Evans’s photographic and literary chronicle of impoverished Great Depression farmers. Sharlet’s book, though rooted in the same powerful synergy between images and text, feels even more expansive in its attempt at community.
At first glance, this smart, creepy fairy story has a familiar premise: the one in which a character blames her misfortune or misdeeds on supernatural forces. Typically by the end of such stories the character is proved either right or delusional. Camilla Bruce, though, is up to something different.
Val Kilmer acknowledges early in “I’m Your Huckleberry,” his absorbing but uneven memoir, that speaking doesn’t come easily to him nowadays. After the movie star’s 2015 throat cancer diagnosis and surgery, he writes that he sounds like “Marlon Brando after a couple of bottles of tequila.” Kilmer adds: “It isn’t a frog in my throat. More like a buffalo.”
That doesn’t mean Kilmer, 60, is at a loss for words. When he asserts that picking up “I’m Your Huckleberry” is like slotting a couple of quarters into the “pinball machine of my mind,” he is not overselling the experience. What follows is a zigzagging ride through Kilmer’s distinctive life and career, penned by a spiritual storyteller with no qualms about indulging in his eccentricities. At one point, Kilmer claims to have foreseen the future in his dreams. Later, he says an angel appeared on his 24th birthday, pulled the actor’s heart from his chest and replaced it with a bigger one.
If you’ve ever wondered what doughnuts, muktuk, musubi, wild caribou, canned Spam, fresh sprouts and boxed cake mix all have in common, veteran journalist and longtime Anchorage Daily News contributor Julia O’Malley has your answer. All of them, she explains in her new book, “The Whale & the Cupcake,” are essential ingredients in what can only be called “Alaska cuisine.”
“What Alaskans eat,” O’Malley writes, “is an amalgam of wild-sourced foods, intricately tied to our landscape and identity, and foods that travel wildly long distances to get here from faraway homes we long for or places we can only imagine.”
What of a day when nothing
forwards itself, when waiting
Robert Webb’s first book, the memoir How Not to Be a Boy, established that as well as being funny on the telly he could write both sensitively and well. His first novel confirms it: it’s well paced, nicely written and highly entertaining. It’s also a very rum concoction indeed – as if someone had sandwiched a David Nicholls novel in the middle of a comedy thriller, using a Tardis.
Every technological innovation both changes its human users and uncovers something new about our nature. In this ingenious novel, Argentinian author Samanta Schweblin conducts an unnerving thought experiment: if an individual could be virtually inserted into the life of a random stranger, anywhere in the world, what effects would that have on them both? And what hidden truths would be revealed?
So much has been written about Abraham Lincoln that it’s rare when a historian discovers an episode in his life that, if fully developed and interpreted, yields important new insights. Ted Widmer has done just that in his superb new book, “Lincoln on the Verge: Thirteen Days to Washington.” It’s ostensibly about the train trip the president-elect took from Springfield, Ill., to the nation’s capital; it’s in fact about how Lincoln and his fellow Americans came to know and trust one another, an experience that profoundly shaped his presidency.
I watch the eager baby run down the driveway
open mouth the only mark that the bird is a baby
My mother is unlearning the way to walk;
feels her hand with her other hand,
then drags her cheeks flat in the mirror
to smooth her frightened face.
Always I have been a cottonwood in May,
when the swollen pod
bursts and everywhere the air goes white,
all lawns returning
The next day, a Monday, Ashley started assembling 30 boxes of survival-food kits for the staff. She packed Ziploc bags of nuts, rice, pasta, cans of curry paste and cartons of eggs, while music played from her cellphone tucked into a plastic quart container — an old line-cook trick for amplifying sound. I texted a clip of her mini-operation to José Andrés, who called immediately with encouragement: We will win this together! We feed the world one plate at a time!
Ashley had placed a last large order from our wholesaler: jarred peanut butter, canned tuna, coconut milk and other unlikely items that had never appeared on our order history. And our account rep, Marie Elena Corrao — we met when I was her first account 20 years ago; she came to our wedding in 2016 — put the order through without even clearing her throat, sending the truck to a now-shuttered business. She knew as well as we did that it would be a long while before the bill was paid. Leo, from the family-owned butchery we’ve used for 20 years, Pino’s Prime Meat Market, called not to diplomatically inquire about our plans but to immediately offer tangibles: “What meats do you ladies need for the home?” He offered this even though he knew that there were 30 days’ worth of his invoices in a pile on my desk, totaling thousands of dollars. And all day a string of neighborhood regulars passed by on the sidewalk outside and made heart hands at us through the locked French doors.
It turned out that abruptly closing a restaurant is a weeklong, full-time job. I was bombarded with an astonishing volume of texts. The phone rang throughout the day, overwhelmingly well-wishers and regretful cancellations, but there was a woman who apparently hadn’t followed the coronavirus news. She cut me off in the middle of my greeting with, “Yeah, you guys open for brunch?” Then she hung up before I could even finish saying, “Take care out there.”
It’s Whateverday, the 99th of Monthcember—who knows at this point—and there’s heavy traffic on East Drive in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. Joggers in the hundreds. Young, old, fast, slow. When the sun’s out during lockdown it’s busier than a charity race out here. You can tell the quarantine newbies. They jog like I do. A pained shuffle. Their exercise clothes appear to be whatever they could find in the back of the closet. T-shirts stained with dried paint, sneakers dirty with car grease or a kid’s crayon scribble. They are outpaced by gazelles wearing aerodynamic lycra, zero-drop running shoes and monitoring tech strapped to their arms. Now the Olympics have been postponed, presumably they are training to join an elite military unit following the breakdown of society. Doubtless irritated by so many amateurs crowding the East Drive to peak fitness.
East Drive runs north-south, part of a circular roadway that lassoes the entire park perimeter. I’ve been waiting for a couple of minutes to cross it west from the Lincoln Road entrance side, onto the path where I like to begin my daily walk into the heart of the park. But the joggers keep on coming. The fun-runners, the serious athletes, the serious-athlete-parents running at high speed pushing strollers in which their offspring are pulling two or three Gs. Just when I think I spy a gap in the parade, it’s filled by a cyclist out for a leisurely ride. Hot on their tail are the scooterists and rollerbladers and children veering this way and that on their training wheels. Here come the gear-heads pedaling custom-built recumbent trikes and—GETOUTTATHEWAYFUCKOUTTATHEWAY!—the professionals competing in their own personal Tour de France. Slowing for crossing pedestrians can shave as much as 1/125th of a second from their circuit time, which undoubtedly justifies their fury. I give up trying to dart over the road and instead merge into the pedestrian lane to follow the caravan of health enthusiasts north.
The town, in Lancaster County, has been home to a sound company and a staging company for decades. But since opening the Studio in 2014 and establishing Rock Lititz, its owners have adapted to the new reality in the music industry: Record sales are a fraction of what they once were, and while streaming has helped the bottom line, the big money is in touring. For a major band planning a major tour, the companies that constitute Rock Lititz aim to be a one-stop shop: They build the stage, they design the lighting, they do the sound, and after a couple days or a week or a month of rehearsals, they send you off to tour the world.
BTS is sending ahead thirty shipping containers of equipment, which will become Ferenchak’s temporary new neighbors. The production will be one of the biggest that Rock Lititz has hosted—as massive as Taylor Swift’s Reputation tour in 2018, which became the top-grossing concert tour in U. S. history.
The 29-year-old author of this impressive Dutch debut, Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, grew up on a dairy farm in North Brabant. Cows, in this telling, are sensitive creatures; sick cows are the sweetest kind. “You could stroke them gently without them suddenly kicking back at you.” The meagre comfort in “The Discomfort of Evening” comes from these beasts; the humans in this searing novel, shortlisted for the International Booker prize, are too numb with pain to be able to console anyone.
Who would have guessed that a satire about an oily Republican congressman, 19th-century taxidermy and a creature so ugly it resembles “a pig screwed by a donkey” would be the perfect tonic for testing times? This is what Jessica Anthony’s insouciant and ingenious novel delivers in fewer than 192 achingly funny pages.
In the last story of Souvankham Thammavongsa’s debut collection, “How to Pronounce Knife,” a 14-year-old girl helps her hard-working mother pick worms at a hog farm. Having mastered an improvised method, the woman’s worm counts are consistently highest among her fellow workers. Then, a white boy — the girl’s classmate — copies the woman’s process and quickly becomes the manager simply because he speaks good English and agrees to initially work for free. “I knew what James got was something she wished for herself,” the girl thinks, pondering her mother’s situation. “She loved this job and she had been at it for much longer than James, but no one had noticed her work at all. And James? He was happy to have a job that paid so well. He didn’t wonder if he deserved the job or not. He was fourteen and he was boss.” Soon, he brings about changes that reduce the mother’s worm-picking efficiency and endanger her livelihood. Upending the narrative of immigrants sweeping in to take jobs away from Americans, Thammavongsa highlights how it’s often immigrants who get exploited, their contributions ignored.
Over the course of the collection’s 14 stories, Thammavongsa’s tales of Lao immigrants in the Western world continually subvert many such prejudices. Her careful dissection of everyday moments of racism, classism and sexism exposes how power and privilege drive success, how work shapes the immigrant identity, and how erasure and invisibility lead to isolation.
The focus of Augustine Sedgewick’s book is not coffee’s effect on drinkers but its role in the story of global capitalism, as a commodity that links producers in poor countries with consumers in rich ones. Coffee does more than merely reflect this divide, he argues—it has played a central role in shaping it. It is, he notes, “the commodity we use more than any other to think about how the world economy works and what to do about it”.
It is so early almost nothing has happened.
Agriculture is an unplanted seed.
Music and the felt hat are thousands of years away.
The sail and the astrolabe, not even specks on the horizon.
The window and scissors: inconceivable.
Seasons will not be still,
Filled with the migrations of birds
Making their black script on the open sky,
Those hasty notes of centuries-old goodbye.
Delirious near the end, he said, “We’re going to the Savoy!”—surely the jauntiest dying words on record. But it was Riverside Memorial Chapel, the Jewish funeral parlor at Amsterdam and 76th, that we were bound for. I was obliged to reidentify the body once we arrived there from New York–Presbyterian Hospital. An undertaker pointed the way to the viewing room and said, “You may stay for as long as you like. But do not touch him.” Duly draped, Philip looked serene on his plinth—like a Roman emperor, one of the good ones. I pulled up a chair and managed to say, “Here we are.” Here we are at the promised end. A phrase from The Human Stain came to me: “the dignity of an elderly gentleman free from desire who behaves correctly.” I wanted to tell him that he was doing fine, that he was a champ at being dead, bringing to it all the professionalism he’d brought to previous tasks.
To talk daily with someone of such gifts had been a salvation. There was no dramatic arc to our life together. It was not like a marriage, still less like a love affair. It was as plotless as friendship ought to be. We spent thousands of hours in each other’s company. I’m not who I would have been without him. “We’ve laughed so hard,” he said to me some years ago. “Maybe write a book about our friendship.”
Richter is contemporary art’s great poet of uncertainty; his work sets the will to believe and the obligation to doubt in perfect oscillation. Now eighty-eight, he is frequently described as one of the world’s “most influential” living artists, but his impact is less concrete than the phrase suggests. There is no school of Richter. His output is too quixotic, too personal, to be transferrable as a style in the manner of de Kooning or Rauschenberg. Though his influence has indeed been profound, it has played out in eyes rather than hands, shifting the ways in which we look, and what we expect looking to do for us.
For those of us old enough to remember an era when we didn’t account for our existence on social media, when we could attend a dinner party without being tagged like a shot deer on someone’s Instagram story, when privacy was respected and deeper meanings had room to quietly take root and bloom, it is no surprise to see artists flinching from the din of publicity. How can we really look and listen when we are so busy being seen and heard?
It is axiomatic that certain pieces of technology are so incorporated into our lives that we can’t imagine life, or ourselves, without them. Less acknowledged is that necessary period, just after such a product’s release, in which it turns from novelty to given. This a two-way absorption – product into life, life into product – which, as part of its work, erases itself from memory: it’s hard to remember when smartphones were half-ubiquitous or sometimes essential. (It’s possible that I’m interested in this transitional phase because I belong to the small generation whose childhood, that is, the time in which our personal givens are formed, straddled life pre- and post-internet. I can recall days during which it was easily possible not to encounter a screen and I’m also able see the strangeness of that idea.)
Samanta Schweblin’s new novel Little Eyes is set across this kind of period of technological assimilation. It depicts the rapid rise of devices called Kentukis: zoomorphic cuddly toys with webcams in their eyes, owned by ‘keepers’ and remotely controlled, and watched through, by ‘dwellers’. Kentukis have wheels that permit their dwellers to explore the homes and lives of the keepers to whom they are anonymously and randomly assigned. They can make computerised animal sounds but cannot speak. At the start of the novel – which, appropriately disorientatingly, lacks temporal markers – Kentukis have recently been launched. They are being recommended by evangelistic shop clerks and forward-thinking psychotherapists to tentative or mystified customers. But by the end they are part of the fabric of everyday life: walking the streets of Tel Aviv with their keepers; independently exploring small Norwegian towns with the aid of remote charging points; installed on taxi dashboards, chirping to alert the driver to monitored zones.
With his Campbell’s Soup can paintings, exhibited in Los Angeles in 1962, Warhol was not pioneering anything new. He was merely upping the ante. More than Johns or Lichtenstein, Warhol concealed his own expressive capacity, burying it so deep that any evidence of the sensibility of the artist all but disappeared. You can look at a soup can and wonder at how familiarity, intimacy, warmth, even feelings of love might attach to an inert object, just as you can look at a painting of Marilyn, Liz or Elvis and wonder at how cold, inert, even alien the human form had become. One can say all kinds of things about the work but its power lies, finally, in its horrible silence. And what lies behind that?
I washed a load of clothes
and hung them out to dry.
Then I went up to town
and busied myself all day.
The song of Cicadetta montana
is a static hiss, with irregular
lulls, and has not been heard in Great Britain
“What would life be without coffee?” King Louis XV of France is said to have asked. “But, then, what is life even with coffee?” he added. Truer, or more apt, words for the present moment were never spoken, now usable as a kind of daily catechism. At a time when coffee remains one of the few things that the anxious sleeper can look forward to in the morning (What is life without it?), giving as it does at least an illusion of recharge and a fresh start, the charge has invariably slipped away by the time the latest grim briefing comes (What is life even with it?). Imagining life without coffee right now is, for many of us, almost impossible, even though the culture of the café that arose in America over the past couple of decades has, for some indefinite period, been shut down.
The growth of coffee as a culture, not just as a drink, can be measured in a unit that might be called the Larry, for the peerless comedy writer Larry David. In “Seinfeld,” which he co-created in 1989, coffee came as a normal beverage in a coffee shop—bad, indistinct stuff that might as well have been tea. (Paul Reiser had a nice bit about the codependency of coffee and tea, with tea as coffee’s pathetic friend.) Then, on “Friends,” the characters gathered in a coffee-specific location, Central Perk, but the very invocation of a percolator, the worst way to brew, suggested that they were there more for the company than for the coffee. Six or so Larrys later, by 2020, the plotline of an entire season of David’s own “Curb Your Enthusiasm” turned on a competition between Mocha Joe’s and Latte Larry’s—the “spite store” that Larry opens just to avenge an insult over scones, with many details about a specific kind of Mexican coffee bean he means to steal. The audience was expected to accept as an obvious premise the idea that coffee was a culture of devotion and discrimination, not just a passable caffeinated drink.
Why do we even listen to new music anymore? Most people have all the songs they could ever need by the time they turn 30. Spotify, Apple Music, and YouTube can whisk us back to the gates and gables of our youth when life was simpler. Why leap off a cliff hoping you’ll be rescued by your new favorite album on the way down when you can lay supine on the terra firma of your “Summer Rewind” playlist? Not just in times of great stress, but for all times, I genuinely ask: Why spend time on something you might not like?
It was a question that Coco Chanel, Marcel Duchamp, and the rest of the Parisian audience might have asked at the 1913 premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, an orchestral ballet inspired by the Russian composer’s dream about a young girl dancing herself to death. On a muggy night at the end of May, inside a newly constructed theater along the Seine, those who chose to bear witness to something new experienced a piece of music that would presage a new world of art.
1847 was the nadir of the crisis. Countless people died of starvation and disease, others fled in droves. The mayor of Liverpool could no longer contest the reality of the crisis; so many destitute refugees came to his city that it was described by the registrar general as “the cemetery of Ireland.”
Into the bleakness stepped Alexis Soyer, the most famous chef in London, a man who had made a fortune from catering to the outsize appetites of sybarites and playboys, and about as unlikely a savior of the famished as it’s possible to imagine. A peacocking, Rabelaisian embodiment of modern London, Soyer was as adept at self-promotion as he was at creating the extravagant high-society banquets for which he was famed. Nevertheless, in Dublin on April 5, 1847, he unveiled his plan to end the suffering of the Irish people: a specially designed soup kitchen, combining the traditional craft of French cooking with the efficiency of modern science.
Los Angeles is in many ways a different place from the on it was in the 1960s. A once majority white region is now largely Latino and Asian. The city has become immensely rich, and at the same time, and often on the same streets, shockingly poor. Economic resources – and access to decent housing and education – are still distributed, to a shameful extent, according to race. Police still kill black and brown residents with appalling regularity. For new generations growing up in a city whose very history is rarely acknowledged to exist, Set the Night on Fire is a vital primer in resistance, a gift to the future from the past.
Because the world as we knew it was ending, we both got another ice cream cone.
We each finished our first, briefly considered leaving, as is normal going-out-for-ice-cream protocol, then got in line for another.
Why read biographies at all? There’s the draw of a distinctive character followed over the course of time, tested as characters are in novels. But when it comes to biography, the point is that it’s not fiction. What happened is documented; the back matter, whether the reader consults it or not, must be there. The challenge is to find a telling narrative lurking in every life amidst all its visible activity: making appointments, business communications and getting on from tea to dinner. Let’s look to the frontier of the genre, to those who abjure inclusiveness in favor of a living narrative and cut their way to the kernel.
A schism is emerging in the scientific enterprise. On the one side is the human mind, the source of every story, theory and explanation that our species holds dear. On the other stand the machines, whose algorithms possess astonishing predictive power but whose inner workings remain radically opaque to human observers. As we humans strive to understand the fundamental nature of the world, our machines churn out measurable, practical predictions that seem to extend beyond the limits of thought. While understanding might satisfy our curiosity, with its narratives about cause and effect, prediction satisfies our desires, mapping these mechanisms on to reality. We now face a choice about which kind of knowledge matters more – as well as the question of whether one stands in the way of scientific progress.
Today the word “refugee” is practically synonymous with those who have fled the Syrian war and its trail of destitution. But in a different time, in the aftermath of a different war — the one in Vietnam — the term evoked the more than three million people who fled Southeast Asia for a chance at a better life.
Souvankham Thammavongsa, a writer who has published four books of poetry, was born in a refugee camp, to Laotian parents, and raised in Toronto. In “How to Pronounce Knife,” her impressive debut story collection, her family’s arduous, yearslong journey west forms the unspoken back story of the immigrant Laotians who congregate in its pages. Like her own parents, Thammavongsa’s protagonists have lost their place in the world; now, in various unnamed North American cities, they are forced to invent their lives anew.
That Christmas I ran through fire in London
carrying my old father across my shoulders.
My mother too, she followed. You alive alas,
I could not bring.
As long as I struggle to float above the ground
and fail, there is reason for this poetry.
I find that I have started recently
to keep spare keys to the front door
in several pockets, such is my fear
It’s 1771, you’re in Milan, and your 14-year-old genius son has just premièred his new opera. How do you reward him? What would be a fun family excursion in an era before multiplexes or theme parks? Leopold Mozart knew just the ticket. ‘I saw four rascals hanged here on the Piazza del Duomo,’ wrote young Wolfgang back to his sister Maria Anna (‘Nannerl’), excitedly. ‘They hang them just as they do in Lyons.’ He was already something of a connoisseur of public executions. The Mozarts had spent four weeks in Lyons in 1766 and as the music historian Stanley Sadie points out, Leopold had clearly taken his son (ten) and daughter (15) along to a hanging ‘for a jolly treat one free afternoon’.
Mozart’s letters deliver many such jolts — reminders that, however directly we might feel that Mozart’s music speaks to us, he’s not a man of our time. But for every shock of difference, there’s a start of recognition. Composers’ letters can make frustrating reading. Beethoven’s are brusque, practical affairs; Brahms hides behind a humour as impenetrable as his beard. But with Mozart, you get the whole personality — candid, perceptive and irresistibly alive.
Two takeaways from these experiences have marked my understanding of the provincial reader’s life: the sense of belatedness, of everything coming late, and the desire for pleasure in language. We waited for writers not just to bring other worlds to our small lives but also to give beauty to lives similar to ours. Finding people like ourselves in the pages of books might give our lives some dignity, perhaps even grace.
In 1929, after eight years living abroad in Paris, the photographer Berenice Abbott returned home to New York. While she was away, the city had transformed from 19th-century city to 20th-century metropolis. The city had gotten tall. Everywhere you looked, there were cranes shooting up to the heavens, hauling brick and steel as high as the eye could see, building the skyscrapers that would come to define the skyline. Exhilarated by the changes and eager to document the city she knew, Abbott would spend the next ten years photographing it as part of her Changing New York project, funded, beginning in 1935, by the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration.
“How shall the two-dimensional print in black and white,” she asked, “suggest the flux of activity of the metropolis, the interaction of human beings and solid architectural constructions, all impinging upon each other in time?” Her photos capture an old New York that she saw vanishing before her eyes, but they use the medium of photography to express something about the ways in which people experience daily life, ever-shifting, in the cities they inhabit. “The form of a city changes, alas! faster than the human heart,” as Baudelaire writes in Les Fleurs du mal; but the camera may do its part to freeze some small corner of the heart of the city, and the way one woman, one day, looked hard at the light, the shadow, and framed the interplay of human heart and metropolis.
What on earth is going on? Why has Scooby-Doo—described by the New York Times film critic A. O. Scott in 2002 as “one of the cheapest, least original products of modern American juvenile culture”—outlasted not only such Hanna-Barbera brethren as The Flintstones and Yogi Bear, but also pretty much everything else on television?
The Best Poems of Jane Kenyon measures what was, not what might have been. Like others who knew Kenyon, I marveled at the blossoming of her work. When she died, we mourned her and commiserated about the poems she would not write. Against the odds, we hoped that what she had written would endure. And so it has.
Like the carpenter whose tools were so dull
he couldn’t for the life of him devise a miter joint
Like the mattress left out on the curb all night
I glued it together against symmetry
from broken earthenware.
Withholding its sexual unsuccess
and omitting the mammy titty,
I wanted something useless to my enemy.
What if we remembered Jack Kirby not for Captain America or Galactus, but for the romance comics that he and Joe Simon produced during the late 1940s and early 1950s in their wildly successful titles Young Romance and Young Love? Kirby’s work in the genre, which he and Simon invented, are marked by Wellesian compositions and subtle character studies. They’re the equal of Kirby’s best superhero stories. Twenty thousand romance comics were printed in this period. One billion copies were sold.
Imagine an issue of What If…, Marvel’s late 1970s series imagining alternative timelines for their characters, in which the romance genre’s fans never disappear. In the 1960s, Kirby moves to Marvel and he and Stan Lee create a universe not of superheroes and mutants, but of heartthrobs who dress like Steve McQueen and strong women who look like Jean Seberg. In the mid-1980s, Frank Miller and Alan Moore produce gritty, revisionist graphic novels that revive the genre for a more cynical era. Moore’s Watchwomen tells the story of a dystopian America in which Richard Nixon vanquished the Vietnamese thanks to a romantic intrigue involving a Minnesota housewife and Võ Nguyên Giáp. Romance, the culture understands, is best suited to the comics medium, and supermarkets don’t sell romance paperbacks.
But I wouldn’t begrudge any reader refuge in familiar pleasures, least of all now. We all need solace wherever we can find it. One friend of mine has gone back to “Love in the Time of Cholera.” Others, led by the writer Yiyun Li in an online reading group, have decided now is the time to finally tackle “War and Peace.” Some might think finding the right book should be the least of our worries during a pandemic, but how else are we to while away our restless nights? As sirens blare outside my Brooklyn window and the headlines grow more apocalyptic by the day, I might start working my way through King’s backlist. He’s good company in the dark.
The idea of the collection – which sounds barmy at first – is of the midlife crisis as a permanent state of mind, akin to being marooned on some godawful planet where your other half is likely, at least some of the time, to be an alien. This, I thought, after taking a brief look at the poems, has to be self-indulgent baloney. But as soon as I settled down to read these poems properly, I felt different: I love the collection’s minutely wrought originality and the way that even dismaying subjects – loneliness, insecurity, botched relationships – have hilarious side-effects. The book made me laugh aloud. It is bracing to see Paterson – a dab hand at form (40 Sonnets won the 2015 Costa poetry prize) – returning with eloquence and vim to rhythms of speech.
Kent Garrett Sr., 97, still remembers how proud and happy he was when his son was admitted to Harvard in 1959. "I invited everybody over for dinner," he recalls with a laugh.
Garrett was a subway motorman who worked a second job waxing floors. His son, also named Kent Garrett, was among an unprecedented group of 18 black students accepted into the class of 1963.
After growing up I grew an ear
for that note of sadness hidden in laughter.
We assume all sorrow is redacted there.
We trust the mouth as a medium
In the attic of this hundred year-old house
the gable window stares dry-eyed into the sun.
Years ago, careless and in a hurry to finish at the top
of a tall ladder, I painted it shut from the outside.
Robert Stone was one of those novelists who try to wrap their arms around America itself. His career spanned almost 50 years, but he never really stopped writing about the ’60s and their fallout—American power and virtue collapsing in an eruption of violence and drugs and moral chaos, under the 10,000-mile, decades-long shadow of Vietnam. In 1971, Stone contrived to get a London alternative weekly to send him to Saigon so that he could research a novel about the war that was consuming American life. “I realized if I wanted to be a ‘definer’ of the American condition, I would have to go to Vietnam,” he later said.
Stone’s America is a dark place, but its failures are commensurate with the scale of its aspirations. His protagonists—they can be roughly divided into seekers and ironists, each representing aspects of their creator—are haunted by a vision of life more abundant, a sense of possibility that’s betrayed by their own weakness and the destabilizing undercurrents of history. His prose, with its potent mix of hard-boiled irony, romantic excess, and violent dissolution, can render the mood of a whole period instantly indelible. “If the world is going to contain elephants pursued by flying men,” thinks John Converse, the small-time American journalist in Dog Soldiers (1974) who’s preparing to smuggle heroin from Saigon back to the States, “people are just naturally going to want to get high.”
“Letters are above all useful as a means of expressing the ideal self; and no other method of communication is quite so good for this purpose,” wrote the novelist and critic Elizabeth Hardwick in a 1953 essay about literary correspondence. “In conversation, those uneasy eyes upon you, those lips ready with an emendation before you have begun to speak, are a powerful deterrent to unreality, even to hope.” Only in our letters are we able to frame our cleverest selves, to pose both the questions and answers, to make ourselves known as we wish to be known. Those of us experiencing a serious uptick in our email correspondence right now — it seems all it took for us to re-embrace the epistolary form was a global pandemic — are freshly acquainted with the clever breeziness, the missives framed as “just checking in,” from people we once knew far better than we do now.
For me, the well of individual experience has run dry, the mountain been mined, the carcass picked clean. The only one to tell me the truth—about the twin agonies of bodily sickness and mental obsession, and the need to get worse before I got better—was Nathan Zuckerman. Not only does the limitation of the physical being cause depression, but the tension within the mind can make the body sicker.
By all common measures of musical value, “Wellington’s Victory” is schlock. But in his detailed instructions on the number and positioning of instrumentalists, Beethoven reveals how carefully he crafted this sonic assault on listener. “One has to imagine these performances not like an evening at the Berlin Philharmonie, but rather like a modern-day rock concert,” the musicologist Frédéric Döhl has argued.
Beethoven’s preoccupation with making the concert experience really, really loud may mark the beginning of a musical arms race for ever louder and ever more stimulating symphonic performance.
Whether they are true to life or imbued with the magical qualities of a revered fantasy saga, video game worlds often teem with wonderfully bizarre flora and fauna. It’s no wonder, then, that documentarians are embarking on virtual expeditions to capture the awe and mystery of these digital realms, and the curios and cynosures that inhabit them.
For example, did you know that an arcane colossus resides deep in the abyssal, oceanic recesses of Titan in Destiny 2? Or perhaps that the largest species of moth in Destiny's world inhabits the chasms constituting the Moon’s underground? In terms of more realistic documenting, Red Dead Redemption 2’s ecosystems exist in a perfect state of flux, with bear cubs learning to track their first stags, and wolf packs singling out bison who have strayed from the herd.
The elegy is a poetic form with so ancient a tradition, so many dauntingly famous examples, and so large an accumulation of expectations that Victoria Chang’s reluctance to resort to it is understandable, despite its seeming fitness for her circumstances. Her father suffered a debilitating stroke in 2009, and her mother, after a long engagement with pulmonary fibrosis, died in 2015, involving Chang in a cascade of endings: of language, logic, optimism, ambition, and secrets, to name a few of the losses recorded in this volume. She chose to record them, though, not in the august and ceremonial form of the elegy, but in the homelier confines of the obituary—the obit, in the abbreviation journalists use—short prose poems the width of a newspaper column, headed with a name and a date.
Chang’s obits, though, come as if from a parallel universe of obituaries, with different rules about what obits can say and how they can say it. Newspaper obits tend to linearity and coherence, for instance, hoping to convince us that our lives make a nice, consistent package; Chang’s are as quicksilver as memory in their leaps and landings.
Do you think you remember a movie in which a knight gallops toward a castle just as its drawbridge is going up, and his white horse jumps the moat in one glorious airborne leap? I could picture it too, but when I went looking for this image on the Internet, all I could find was a couple of cars sailing over rivers via lift bridges and the Pink Panther detective flailing around in the murky water, having missed.
Nonetheless, we’re that rider. Chasing us is the dreaded coronavirus. We’re in midair, hoping we make it to the other side, where life will have returned to what we think of as normal. So what should we do while we’re up there, between now and then?
Think of all the things you hope will still be there in that castle of the future when we get across. Then do what you can, now, to ensure the future existence of those things.
The urge to mythologize Blond Ambition, and Madonna’s career more broadly, is understandable. That’s how it goes, right? Our idols age, their albums sell fewer copies. Their personal lives might fall apart, but their nasty divorces and mid-life crises do less to inform their public personas than the memories of their younger selves. Should they wish to remain commercially relevant, they embark on live stadium tours, but the shows rarely resemble Blond Ambition. Male idols strum guitars and don leather jackets; female idols wear sequined cocktail dresses and lean against grand pianos.
In the 2010s, however, Madonna resisted the nostalgia narrative, even as her music became increasingly self-referential. The conventional trajectory of legacy acts, she claimed, was sexist and ageist. “To age is a sin,” she said in a 2016 speech at the Billboard Women in Music Awards. “You will be criticized, you will be vilified, and you will definitely not be played on the radio.”
“Amor De Mãe” (“Mother’s Love”) is a telenovela about three mothers from different social classes whose lives become entwined in Rio de Janeiro. Its run began in November on Rede Globo, Brazil’s largest free television channel, in an evening slot that can attract a quarter of the population. Then, on March 16th, Globo shut its studios to combat the spread of covid-19, sending home some 9,000 workers and, for the first time ever, replacing ongoing soap operas with reruns. Neither military dictatorship nor the Rio Olympics halted production of Brazil’s famous novelas, which are broadcast six days a week for single seasons of around 150 episodes apiece.
Manuela Dias, the writer of “Amor de Mãe”, and José Luiz Villamarim, its director, scrambled to re-edit existing footage to suspend the story on a cliffhanger. One of the mothers, Thelma, commits a murder to prevent another, Lurdes, finding out that Thelma’s adopted child and Lurdes’s long-lost son are one and the same. That was the easy part. Now Globo, a huge media empire that broadcasts news, sports and entertainment, must answer the question facing television executives from Hollywood to Bollywood: how to bridge the gap between the pre- and post-pandemic worlds—and what to produce on the other side.
I would have found the main central market, Varvakios, on my own — one of the best ways to know a city is through its markets. But I never would have sat in an all-but-empty diner within the market, Oinomageireio Epirus, to taste among other traditional dishes, patsas, a soup that came with a warning from Ms. Kolikopoulou that it wasn’t for everyone: The tripe-and-hoof soup was the essence of barnyard and animal guts, an acquired taste. It was unlike anything I’ve tasted, and it made the portrait of Anthony Bourdain, then dead just two months, proudly displayed on the wall of the restaurant, especially poignant. This was his kind of food — deep, nourishing, innardy, loaded with gelatin. Food that tastes of your own mortality.
Escape. It’s what many of us are searching for in our reading right now. Perhaps it makes sense, then, that a novel whose entire story line is about an attempt to escape would be especially appealing.
“Three Hours in Paris” isn’t just any old formulaic “Get out!” tale. It’s mystery master Cara Black’s first standalone novel, a spy story set during World War II in Occupied Paris. The premise is that an American female sharpshooter is parachuted into France to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Of course, she fails. Using wits alone, she must evade the Gestapo and make it back across the English Channel. Chances of success? Slim to none. Chances that you’ll be able to put Black’s thriller down once you’ve picked it up? Also slim to none.
You touch my lips more than my old wife,
but how could I love you? With a red-handle knife
from the shed my Honey painted teal,
She grazes in a meadow, sulfur blossoms spilling
from her jaw.
At this moment she seems so calm, she could be holy,
if what that means is something like being
Of course, the global catastrophe unfolding is nothing but real. Stock-market convulsions have destroyed, in a matter of days, nest eggs built over decades. More than 16 million people in the United States applied for unemployment over just three weeks. The case count and death toll grow with each refresh of the page.
And yet some part of me still doesn’t want to accept that these calamities are really happening. Not really. What does it mean to say that this doesn’t feel real? The feeling seems to derive from the assumption that life before the pandemic, “normal” life, was real. That we have departed from it into strange territory.
But what if it’s exactly the other way around?
Neutrinos are nature’s escape artists. Did they help us slip out of the Big Bang? Perhaps. Recent experiments in Japan have discovered a telltale anomaly in the behavior of neutrinos, and the results suggest that, amid the throes of creation and annihilation in the first moments of the universe, these particles could have tipped the balance between matter and its evil-twin opposite, antimatter.
As a result, a universe that started out with a clean balance sheet — equal amounts of matter and antimatter — wound up with an excess of matter: stars, black holes, oceans and us.
Finally, they reached a decision. They would stay open for delivery and curbside pickup. The next day, they’d make that decision again. Deciding their fate daily would become their new normal. On the day this story is published, Café Rakka remains operational. Tomorrow, it may well be closed. All across the country, restaurants are shutting down. Some may never reopen. And what’s at stake, for our economy and our culture and for the lives of those who own and staff them, is far greater than just a matter of a few businesses closing their doors.
“No one has ever done this before and written a guidebook saying, ‘Look, here’s how you do it,’” Riyad says.
“It’s absolutely impossible to know what to do.”
When I first punched in to work at Papa J’s Ristorante at 16 years old, how could I have known I’d still be working in the service industry 32 years later? Though college was on the horizon, I was aimless. But what stuck with me from my time as a dishwasher was the cold soaked jeans, the fistfuls of shredded provolone, and the smell of roasted garlic simmering in a chunky tomato marinara. Those late 1980s high school nights, at a hip Italian-joint in a company town outside of Pittsburgh, taught me to appreciate a bite of mousse cake that cost more a piece than what I made in an hour. Soon, I’d be promoted to busboy, and with it, I would come to learn about people.
Something about the rhythm of how we breathe while we’re in the water changes us. Deep breathing research is in its infancy, but we know that this pace of breath is soothing—there’s a feedback loop between our breathing patterns and the nerve centers that fire our anxiety responses. When we’re stressed, we tend to take short, rapid breaths; if we breathe deeply and slowly, that counteracts the stress and dampens our alarm system. In this way, our arousal and breathing centers are reciprocally linked. Swimming is particular in its activation of deep breathing. It’s the nature of the exercise: you take a big breath, hold it, and then release it slowly.
Midway through Dima Wannous’s novel, the narrator recalls a neighbour who fell sick during a dire shortage of doctors and medicine. The woman’s daughter had to take time off work to hunt for a hospital bed. “So, silently, I begged my own mother not to fall ill,” she says, to “not contract a virus or other disease.”
As well as having a chilling resonance today, the anecdote offers a glimpse of daily life for millions of Syrians since the 2011 revolution. Almost five years after the uprising began, many doctors have left a country mired in civil war, where the price of medicines has sky-rocketed. Yet in Wannous’s ambitious, multilayered second novel – which was shortlisted for the 2018 International prize for Arabic fiction – the threat of disease is just one of many reasons to live in fear.
Set in an alternate Tudor England, Megan Campisi’s wonderful debut novel “Sin Eater” is a riveting depiction of hard-won female empowerment that weaves together meticulous research, unsolved murder — and an unforgettable young heroine.
If only my bag had been large enough,
I would have brought the lonely men in parked cars
by the river. I would have brought the woman
dabbing kohl tears with the heel
Now it is night again, child on my chest.
I croon & my song drifts you towards rest.
Singer lived an unusual childhood, to say the least, surrounded by fine food, fine wine, and adults who loved plenty of both, as she recalls in “Always Home: A Daughter’s Recipes & Stories.” Her cradle was an oversized salad bowl in the kitchen of Chez Panisse, her mother’s landmark farm-to-table restaurant, and Singer herself found a measure of fame at an early age when she was featured as the central character in the children’s book “Fanny at Chez Panisse.”
There were summers in Provence, birthday parties in the Marin County enclave of Bolinas and cellar tastings with her oenophile father. No surprise that she developed a sophisticated palate and what she describes as olfactory superpowers.
Major news organizations (including The New York Times) have created their own good-news properties over the years. Now, more than ever, readers are seeing a need for them.
“It’s just been an avalanche of people writing and saying how much they need these stories or they read a story and tears are just streaming down their face,” said Allison Klein, who runs the Inspired Life blog at The Washington Post. “People are constantly saying thank you for showing something that made them not feel terrible.”
“We were a skipped generation, a hiccup in history,” says Hamid Mozaffarian, the narrator of Dalia Sofer’s novel “Man of My Time.” He is on the phone with his brother, who left Iran for New York with their parents during the 1979 revolution, while Hamid, a once idealistic revolutionary, stayed behind. Life has not turned out well for either brother, in a world that is, as another character puts it, “inclining towards darkness.”
Sofer, who was raised in an Iranian Jewish family that left for the United States when she was 11, explored the years shortly after the revolution in her first novel, “The Septembers of Shiraz” (2007). She takes a much longer view in her follow-up, a layered portrayal of a man who through several decades has carried with him the conflicting pieces — beauty and brutality, revolt and repression — of his country’s history.
on Forty-second Street and Third Avenue
where my grandfather in his brown suit and fedora
his vest with the silver pocket watch
used to take me for lunch—
It could be a long time before we enjoy the arts as a form of social bonding once again. For now, there are no intermissions because there are no concerts, no eavesdropping in the galleries because the museums are all closed, no flirtations across the table because the clubs and cabarets are shuttered. The substitutes for the collective experience of art — the streaming concerts, virtual gallery tours and Zoom improv sessions — are a stopgap, but does anyone want them to become an actual replacement for experiencing art in the company of others?
Yet if we are cut off from experiencing art with others, we are perfectly placed to consider an old and out of fashion idea: the power of private contemplation and solitary engagement. The silence in the room as you read a poem or look at a print, or prepare to listen to a piece of music, isn’t absence. It is the presence of your undivided attention.
Most of humanity lives in the forests and cities of prose, but a poet spends her days amid frigid gray rocks with only the occasional company of other poets. The journey from this remote territory is long, and the change in customs is extreme, which is perhaps why so many books of “selected prose” by poets are loaded with mystical bombast — the kind of posturing you’d expect from people not really comfortable in a new terrain. It’s also the reason that when we pick up a poet’s prose, we expect it to tell us about that mysterious idiom, poetry. “How marvelous that you speak this extraordinary language,” we say. “Could you sum it up for us in plain English?”
If anyone could manage this task, it should be Kay Ryan, whose “Synthesizing Gravity: Selected Prose” has just been published. Ryan is one of America’s most decorated poets — she’s received the Pulitzer, among other glittery knickknacks — but she came to prominence late; her first book to be widely reviewed, “Elephant Rocks,” was published in 1996, when she was over 50. She doesn’t have an M.F.A. or Ph.D. (the driver’s licenses of the poetry world), and she’s never taught creative writing. All poets consider themselves outsiders, but even the island of misfit toys has its fringier characters, and for much of her career Ryan was one of them. “I have always understood myself to be a person who does not go to writers’ conferences,” she writes. This is a sentiment most human beings can surely endorse, but it’s not the norm in the land of sestinas.
Most of us have a swimming story, even if only a short one about why we don’t do it. These tales tend to feature a cavalier coach whose go-to technique was a heartless shove, or a slightly older or bigger child with a yen for dunking the new kid in the pool. The former is the kind of person one hopes is vanishing from our culture; the latter will be there at the end of time, chortling. The nonswimmer holds on to the names of these villains forever — along with the secret belief that the real culprit was his or her own fear. Swimming, perhaps the most commonplace and relaxing way of putting yourself in total peril, is a real mind game.
Bonnie Tsui’s “Why We Swim,” an enthusiastic and thoughtful work mixing history, journalism and elements of memoir, is ostensibly focused on those who do swim, rather than those who don’t. Tsui sets out to answer her title’s question with a compassionate understanding of how that mind game stops some and a curiosity about how and why it seduces others. She herself is a lifelong swimmer who has competed (first as a child on Long Island, with the Freeport Sea Devils, and more recently with a masters group in the Bay Area) and who also surfs, a sport where the base requirement is being fine with receiving full body punches from waves.
Mark O'Connell's new book about the end of the world is not called Notes from the Apocalypse, but rather Notes From an Apocalypse — a gesture of articular modesty that points to a larger truth: Despite the climate crisis, despite a global pandemic, it has always been "the end of the world for someone, somewhere."
Fifty years since their dissolution in April 1970 the Beatles live on. The band’s music, their significance and their individual personalities exert a hold on the cultural consciousness that seems to tighten as their heyday recedes. But is there anything new to say? Craig Brown’s One Two Three Four, the latest to enter the crowded library of Beatles books, is not a biography so much as a group portrait in vignettes, a rearrangement of stories and legends whose trick is to make them gleam anew.
As a geographer who studies the civil rights movement and public memory told Mask, “We have attached the name of one of the most famous civil rights leaders of our time to the streets that speak to the very need to continue the civil rights movement.” White’s mission expands the idea of what civil rights work might entail nowadays — more fund-raisers than fire hoses. And in telling the stories of boulevards named for world-famous overachievers, Mask is best down on the street, chatting up local heroes like him.
The fall so splendid, the end sweet,
The struggle forgotten, what bliss
To stretch the glistening body out
Against the moss, after the dance!
If Alexander Calder were alive to visit the kids’ department of Pottery Barn or West Elm today, he would probably feel deeply torn, which tells you a lot about America’s best-known sculptor. He might well say that the shelves of knockoff mobiles “nauseate” him, as he did when DIY mobile-making guides started proliferating among craft hobbyists in the 1950s. Gimmicky popularizing of his work pained him. Then again, he would likely take real pleasure in discovering that his greatest sculptural innovation has found new life as an enchanting crib toy.
Calder, born in a suburb of Philadelphia in 1898, came of age at a time when prominent artists and thinkers had begun to consider play a serious pastime. “Everything good in life—love, nature, the arts, and family jests—is play,” Vladimir Nabokov declared in 1925. By the last decade of Calder’s life—he died in 1976—the view had acquired prescriptive authority. “It is in playing and only in playing,” the British psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott argued, “that the individual child or adult is able to be creative and to use the whole personality, and it is only in being creative that the individual discovers the self.”
Last month, John Watzke was going about a normal day at his drive-in theater in Ocala, Florida, when a customer called him to share concerns about COVID-19. Watzke, who has run the outdoor business since 2011, knew he had to think fast. “I got a window from my storage building, cut a hole in the concession’s sidedoor, and put the window in,” he says. “By the time everybody got here, they could safely pick up orders.” In less than a week, he gave the 72-year-old venue a total makeover: he acquired new food packaging, cordoned off parking spots to create buffer zones, and implemented strict sanitation guidelines for employees. The two-screen venue, which was relatively quiet this past winter, is now keeping busy even on weeknights, welcoming as many as 200 cars at once.
Though Florida is currently under a stay-at-home order, the Ocala Drive-In Theater is one of several drive-ins enjoying an unexpected renaissance, and says it received permission to remain open from the governor and local police. As the coronavirus pandemic has altered millions of lives across the U.S., these old-timey facilities offer a temporary escape from reality. Because visitors enjoy films from their cars, they can still practice social distancing.
It used to hit me particularly in rental cars. “Ameripanic,” I called it: an overwhelming (for a Brit) apprehension of scale, a kind of horizontal vertigo at the vastness and possibility of this great country. I learned to drive on a smaller scale, noodling along the winding country roads of southern England. I was held in by the high hedges, nursed around corners by the dreaming verges, soothed by an occasional vision of a plowed field. But in the roaring U.S., I was out there. At large. Alone. Slewing between lanes on the New Jersey Turnpike, in vague command of (I think) a large Pontiac—pure Ameripanic. Called to be Neal Cassady, feeling like J. Alfred Prufrock.
It is a big claim but the opening chapter repays the cover price: a breathless, exhaustively reported and utterly unputdownable account of the drama, from the first confusing alarm on the screen of an inexperienced security guard to the moment a shaken Emmanuel Macron stepped up to address the nation, five hours later.
In between, we hear from many of the men and women whose actions that night helped save Notre Dame and its priceless contents from absolute destruction, including the cathedral’s general manager, Laurent Prades, and Marie-Hélène Didier, the National Heritage curator in charge of France’s religious art.
Listen to me, the poets laureate
move only among plants
with rare names: boxwood, privet and acanthus.
Sunday and everything, even my hangover, seems ceremonious—
bled-pale light through blinds; the room’s faint
incense of lavender, cannabis, sex.
We stay in bed till after noon, waking and sleeping and waking,
eating eggs and avocado, spilling
"I had seen those films before as a child ..." she says, "but I had not known, had not noticed, until it was pointed out to me as an adult, that in the background on the horizon, kind of shrouded in mist, was the outline of a ship."
When she showed that home movie to a friend who was also a Navy captain, he immediately identified the ship as the USS Arizona, the vessel that was bombed during the Pearl Harbor attack.
"I began to be haunted ... by the juxtaposition of the toddler playing on the beach, laughing, and, in the background, 1,200 young men who very soon will almost all be dead," Lowry says.
It’s hard to blame the gargoyles. For a hundred and seventy-five years, they protected Notre-Dame de Paris from war, weather, and tourists—and, arguably, they managed to do the same under considerable duress one year ago, when, on April 15th, a blaze nearly destroyed one of the world’s most famous cathedrals. The fire started early in the evening, sparking in the dry rafters of the roof. Priests and firefighters raced to save the relics, liturgical artifacts, and art inside. They were largely successful, but within two hours the fire had spread throughout the roof, and the seven-hundred-and-fifty-ton spire had fallen, along with most of the latticed timbers of the vaulted ceiling.
Legend has it that gargoyles are supposed to prevent this sort of thing. Notre-Dame has some of the most famous grotesques in all of Europe, but the creatures, and that legend, originated in nearby Rouen. In the middle of the seventh century, the story goes, a water-spewing dragon was terrorizing that city, flooding its fields and eating its virgins—but when a priest (and soon-to-be saint) named Romanus approached it with a crucifix, the creature surrendered. Romanus burned the dragon at the stake, and, although the dragon’s body turned to ash, its head, apparently made of some kind of demonic or dragonic Kevlar, would not catch fire. So Romanus erected what was left of the beast outside his church, where, eventually, rain started to pour through it. Mounted dragon heads then became a thing, and soon churches all around Europe had waterspouts carved to look like dragons. In French, the word for gargoyle—gargouille—has origins in the words for throat and gurgle.
Notre-Dame has its fair share of gargoyles, but, as lexicographers would have you know, its most famous beastly adornments don’t qualify: those demonic-looking lions, dogs, elephants, and birds that line the roof don’t channel water and are therefore technically called chimeras. In a new book that surveys the nine hundred years between when the cathedral was built and when it nearly burned down, the novelist Ken Follett explains how those creatures came to be part of it, and argues that their addition, in the nineteenth century, marked the beginning of the cathedral’s architectural and cultural renaissance. It is a timely reminder that change is a part of the life of such places and that renovation can do more than just return us to the status quo. “Notre-Dame: A Short History of the Meaning of Cathedrals” (Viking) was written in a single week, immediately after last year’s fire, and, because Follett’s proceeds from the book are being donated to the restoration fund, it is meant not only to commemorate the building’s past but to help insure its future.
But there is no rush in reading, nor in walking. In fact, it is better not to rush. When my body finally settled and my mind quieted, I felt attuned to the lowest of frequencies, from within and without. I burrowed deeper into the reading, into myself, and for a moment, I felt like a loch, “withdrawn and tranquil.”
But for my old New Yorkers, I've devised a ritual that allows me to avoid thinking about them. I put copies at least a year old into a bag which I seal. I take a few days to forget about them, then throw the bag in the recycling bin.
Many people I know just let their New Yorkers accumulate endlessly. I'd happily do that too, if I hadn't many other subscriptions and didn't feel so guilty sacrificing them for old New Yorkers. I do not subscribe to Artforum, the subject and title of César Aira's newest novella — translated by Katherine Silver — but if I did, its supposed magical properties would solve a lot of my problems.
Step 1 from Kingsley Amis: Drink wine ‘in quantity.’
On March 21, two days after Gov. Gavin Newsom announced a statewide shelter-in-place order, 12 Californians, myself included, logged on to Skype to talk about what we were reading. “It sure does feel like we’re all living in a dystopian novel,” said our affable host, book blogger Kari Erickson. “Personally, I would’ve preferred a rom-com.” After introducing ourselves, we hit the mute button on our screens and read on our own for half an hour, together.
Welcome to Silent Book Club in the time of coronavirus.
It’s also been a boon for his brand. In the past several years, late night has become a high-profile space for political commentary, which has never been Fallon’s strong suit. As hosts like Stephen Colbert and Seth Meyers rose, the headlines about Fallon wondered how NBC could possibly reverse his steady plummet in the ratings. He never quite found his footing again after ruffling Donald Trump’s hair during the 2016 campaign. But the past few weeks have suggested a sea change in what audiences want from late-night hosts, and no one else has fulfilled it more quickly or effectively than Fallon. His role as the fun-loving nice guy of late night, determined to look for good things in the world, is now a balm. For the first time in Fallon’s run, it feels like the show has a mission, guided by his palpable desire to be of service to people, which, for him, means foregrounding as many charitable organizations as he can. And, of course, continuing to make the show itself. “People need some type of distraction or any sign of normalcy,” he tells me.
“The closest feeling I’ve had to something like this was 9/11,” he continues. “I was on Saturday Night Live at the time, and everyone was scared and freaking out in New York City. I didn’t know who to really turn to.” He watched the late-night hosts, especially David Letterman, who told his audience that it was a time to be courageous. As the coronavirus pandemic hit New York, Juvonen reminded Fallon of the Letterman shows and particularly the second part of his quote: “I believe, because I’ve done a little of this myself, pretending to be courageous is just as good as the real thing.” “I love that,” Fallon says. “And I thought, I’ve got to do something. So I got in my car and I went out to PC Richards and I bought a bunch of tripods and a printer.”
On the day everything went to shit, SportsCenter anchor Elle Duncan drove to ESPN’s offices in Bristol, CT, thinking she’d be on air for a half hour, noon to 12:30, no co-anchor required. All she had to do was bridge First Take and the ACC Tournament. Easy.
Lights, cameras, THIS... IS… SPORTSCENTER, 10 minutes go by, all good. A producer, through Elle’s earpiece: ACC Tournament is shut down. All right, go to the college hoops guy, Rece Davis. We’re back. Producer, again: Big 12 Tournament, that’s done too. Break that. We’re going to Jeff Passan, looks like MLB is suspending operations. Back again. NHL is doing the same thing. Fuck. Thirty minutes turns into four hours, leagues dropping one by one. SportsCenter is losing the first half of its name in real time.
When Duncan got off the air, she took a breath, finally, and asked herself: What am I going to do?
You follow this writer where she wishes to take you. She is a poet of steel shavings, of semidetached feeling, of unexpected links and impieties and unpropitious implications. She’s writing criticism of daily life — criticism of the state of her own soul.
Child-me pored over on these books and their wonderful ligne claire images. Captain Haddock was, I think, the first fictional character I genuinely loved. To this day I maintain that there is real genius in his characterisation, the way his grumpiness and slapstick reinforce rather than erode his splendid courage and comradeship, and the way his character grows, from the cowardly booze-hound we first meet in The Crab With the Golden Claws into something approaching noble.
So, is there intelligent life beyond Earth? This Sagan of books will not answer that question. But what these three books will do is make you think much more deeply about what such questions mean. If you look into a telescope backward, it becomes a microscope. Looking from both ends can be the source of fascinating insights.
Self-slaking exile into the land of weeping spruces.
I still know in the right landscape
how to stay.
The show went on for two hot hours. The concrete theater was a convection oven powered by body heat, and Weird Al stomped and strutted and danced through the crowd, occasionally kicking his leg straight up, like actually vertical, 180 degrees. Sometimes he disappeared for 30 seconds and then came bursting back onstage in a costume: Kurt Cobain, Amish rapper, Devo. During “White & Nerdy,” he did doughnuts all over the stage on a Segway. Before long, the masses of Weird Al’s famous curls were stuck to his face, and if you looked closely you could see sweat pouring off his elbows. The parody songs, live, were tight and hard and urgent, supplemented occasionally by video clips, projected onto a giant screen, of Weird Al cameos on “30 Rock” and “The Simpsons” and the old “Naked Gun” movies. It felt less like a traditional concert than a Broadway musical crossed with a comedy film festival crossed with a tent revival.
The crowd was rolling through tantric nerdgasms, sustained explosions of belonging and joy. It felt religious. Near the end of the show, during the chorus of “Amish Paradise,” as the entire stadium started swinging its arms in rhythm, I unexpectedly found myself near tears. Weird Al was dressed in a ridiculous black suit, with a top hat and a long fake beard, and he was rapping about churning butter and raising barns, and everyone was singing along. I could feel deep pools of solitary childhood emotion — loneliness, affection, vulnerability, joy — beginning to stir inside me, beginning to trickle out and flow into this huge common reservoir. All the private love I had ever had for this music, for not only Weird Al’s parodies but for the originals — now it was here, outside, vibrating through the whole crowd. Weird Al had pulled off a strange emotional trick: He had brought the isolated energy of all our tiny rooms into this one big public space. When he left the stage, we stomped for more, and he came back out and played “Yoda,” his classic revision of the Kinks’ “Lola,” and then he left again, and I decided that this was the single best performance of any kind that I had ever seen in my life. Weird Al Yankovic was a full-on rock star, a legitimate performance monster. He was not just a parasite of cultural power but — somehow, improbably — a source of it himself.
There was a thing that happened to me every time I hit the road for a new adventure, and this time was no different. It was as if a spider’s silk had attached itself to me at one end, and the last familiar place on the other. I would start to drive away from that last place, and that little spinarette in my gut would tug more and more as I got farther away. “Go back!” urged this voice in my head. And then, somewhere along the way, the silk strand would break. Seamlessly, suddenly, I’d be singing out loud in the car. The tension would release and I’d float freely to the other end. My thoughts reaching forward instead of back.
Now they reached ahead to the Alaskan Interior and my little cabin and the dog-friends I would make. They ran along the Al-Can, to the heart of Denali National Park, up to the deep snow where I would surely flail and suffer a little bit. But nothing that wouldn’t add more character, that wouldn’t make me better. I felt my head full of possibilities, and my heart ready to accept them.
I remember the first thing Vienna said to me, after she ran up the driveway to our cabin, was “The water is full of poison.”
When I said “What?” she stepped back, and scraped her eyes over me, instead of answering, a clear appraisal.
“You got a little taller,” she said. She was much taller, the year since we’d seen each other having stretched her out into a cornstalk leanness. Her blonde hair was newly short, gathered up in a stubby paintbrush at the back of her skull. The difference between twelve and thirteen rested on her with a sunlit gravity. Vienna had a sleek runner’s body that I would never have. “What about the water?”
Cromwell is no longer just the living future fighting free of the dead past, but part of that past himself. In the epigraph from François Villon’s “Ballade of the Hanged Men,” we are invited to sympathize with the dead and not to “harden our hearts against [them].” Mantel’s project of reviving the past with sympathy for an unusual and often ruthless protagonist is encapsulated in those words. Even after thousands of pages over the course of a decade, readers will be sorry to leave Cromwell and his contemporaries behind.
After Soong Mei-Ling
Say, you are pretty
Early street names were practical. In medieval England, names developed gradually, drawn from a nearby tree or river, the farm at the end of the road, the inn on the corner. Streets might be named for what happened there—Gropecunt Lane, for example—but also what you could find—the butcher, the blacksmith, the produce market. Other streets were helpfully named for where they led to—take the London Road to London, for example. Street names became official only after long use and the rise of street signs. Unsurprisingly, dull names like Church Street, Mill Lane, and Station Road are still among the most common street names in England.
And yet this haphazard approach also bequeathed us Britain’s most ear-pleasing names. Reading the streets of English towns and cities is a delightful exercise in time travel. In London, names like Honey Lane, Bread Street and Poultry conjure the food markets that once lived there. Fish Street Hill, where a thriving fish market once stood, was once called New Fish Market to avoid confusion with Old Fish Street, the site of another market. Pudding Lane, where the great Fire of London began in 1666, probably referred not to a sweet dessert, but to animal guts, or “offal pudding.”
From my window, I can see a white mulberry, a tree I’m fascinated by—one of the reasons I decided to live where I live. The mulberry is a generous plant—all spring and all summer it offers dozens of avian families its sweet and healthful fruits. Right now, the mulberry hasn’t got back its leaves, and so I see a stretch of quiet street, rarely traversed by people on their way to the park. The weather in Wrocław is almost summery: a blinding sun, blue sky, clean air. Today, as I was walking my dog, I saw two magpies chasing an owl from their nest. At a remove of just a couple of feet, the owl and I gazed into each other’s eyes. Animals, too, seem to be waiting expectantly, wondering what’s going to happen next.
No contemporary writer I know of conveys desire better than Garth Greenwell. His second book of fiction, Cleanness, is an audacious wonder, whose nine stories of intensely textured personal interactions form an unusually hard to define novelistic whole. The book is an argument against convention, both structurally and on the character level—the melding of forms makes Cleanness feel both unique and familiar as it explores the boundaries of longing and the turbulence of love.
Trollope is sometimes considered a niche author for greying Anglophiles. He wrote about quintessentially British institutions such as the Houses of Parliament and the Church of England. He lived in the high Victorian era when women and servants knew their places and men wore gigantic beards. Don’t be put off: his appeal transcends his time and class. The lead singer of the Pet Shop Boys, Neil Tennant, wrote the song “Can You Forgive Her?” after reading Trollope’s novel of the same name.
O’Connell’s timing was either a bit premature or just right. In the last three months a global pandemic has already killed tens of thousands, disrupted fragile supply chains and laid bare which governments will quickly mobilize to save lives and which governments won’t. What was once considered a doomsday scenario is beginning to look like an actual situation.
But “Notes From an Apocalypse” isn’t meant to be a response to any particular event; it’s an exploration of a sensibility. O’Connell says his book was motivated by his own “tendency toward the eschatological.” He knows that this inclination is very old; upheaval and uncertainty have always given rise to cataclysmic thoughts. Increased access to information hasn’t abated the suspicion that something is going awry — if anything, we’re more informed than ever about the many forces that could do us in. “What if now it’s especially the end of the world,” O’Connell writes, “by which I mean even more the end of the world?”
Always the same clutch
of bread feathers, wing,
water before crime
I’ve actually reread Diana Wynne Jones’s Charmed Life twice in recent months: once, to check it was about the right level to read aloud to my kids, who are nine and six. It was, so then I read it to them. Both times it was equally delightful, and I’m lining it up for a third go now, because I can’t think of anything that would cheer me up more.
Physicists who think carefully about time point to troubles posed by quantum mechanics, the laws describing the probabilistic behavior of particles. At the quantum scale, irreversible changes occur that distinguish the past from the future: A particle maintains simultaneous quantum states until you measure it, at which point the particle adopts one of the states. Mysteriously, individual measurement outcomes are random and unpredictable, even as particle behavior collectively follows statistical patterns. This apparent inconsistency between the nature of time in quantum mechanics and the way it functions in relativity has created uncertainty and confusion.
Over the past year, the Swiss physicist Nicolas Gisin has published four papers that attempt to dispel the fog surrounding time in physics. As Gisin sees it, the problem all along has been mathematical. Gisin argues that time in general and the time we call the present are easily expressed in a century-old mathematical language called intuitionist mathematics, which rejects the existence of numbers with infinitely many digits. When intuitionist math is used to describe the evolution of physical systems, it makes clear, according to Gisin, that “time really passes and new information is created.” Moreover, with this formalism, the strict determinism implied by Einstein’s equations gives way to a quantum-like unpredictability. If numbers are finite and limited in their precision, then nature itself is inherently imprecise, and thus unpredictable.
Postpartum anxiety is the subject of Sarah Menkedick’s searing new book, “Ordinary Insanity: Fear and the Silent Crisis of Motherhood in America,” her second on motherhood. Fear is what she calls “the last major taboo of American motherhood.”
Anxiety is epidemic — over 40 million Americans struggle with the condition, a number that is surely only growing at the moment — but it’s especially pervasive in pregnancy and the immediate postpartum period. Ninety-five percent of new mothers experience O.C.D.-like intrusive thoughts, according to one study Menkedick cites, while another estimates that 17 percent of mothers live with clinical levels of anxiety. The banality of anxiety in motherhood is what makes it so dangerous, especially in a world so filled with fear. Who will bat an eye at a mother who washes her child’s hands raw during a pandemic?
It was Thanksgiving eve, 1972. Mimi, the matriarch of the Galvin family, had labored over a flawless meal for her husband and the 11 of her 12 children who had converged for the holiday. If a stranger had glanced inside their home, he or she would have noted a seemingly idyllic scene, punctuated by the gingerbread house Mimi had made and placed on display ahead of what she’d hoped would be a beautiful night. But it was not to be. For starters, her eldest son, Donald, picked up the dining room table and threw it at his brother Jim, sending the pressed linen, plates and silver everywhere.
“There may have been no better, more precise manifestation of her deepest fears than this . . . that everything good she had done, all the work, all the attention to detail and love, yes, love, for her family was in pieces.” So relates Robert Kolker, journalist and author of “Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family,” his nonfiction rendering of how 12 siblings — half of them schizophrenic — and their parents navigated illness, unspeakable violence and the crushed promise of the American Dream.
Dawn, after the hoped-for downpour.
Droplets beaded in the sage.
Finally, this may be obvious, but in the end, the true answer to the question I am asking here is that the fate of the novel is tied to our own: that is, it all depends on what happens to us, and we have no idea what is going to happen to us. If this pandemic lasts a few months and then dissolves, or if we quickly find a way to treat almost everyone who is infected, or if we are able to produce a vaccine, and (importantly) if we are able to learn from this and protect ourselves as much as possible from future pandemics, society, and therefore, literature may be able to smooth over the rough patch.
Many writers will just ignore those few months in 2020 when we were all trapped in our houses and thousands of people died. After all, people still hesitate to insert cell phones into their fiction—in large part, I’ve always believed, because the classics they grew up reading and venerating as the pinnacle of Literature don’t have them. They don’t have this, either. If, on the other hand, we wind up facing years of sickness, fear, and economic destabilization, I think we’ll all have to grapple with it one way or another. Maybe we will anyway. Only time will tell.
Perhaps the most haunting passage in it comes with those words. This demented little creature, desperate to press his unappetising brunch on the grouchy protagonist, is in a car, on a train, and that train is now hurtling through a distinctly cloacal tunnel. The egg-and-ham refuser teeters backwards on the bonnet of the car, retreating from the proffered plate. And those words: the cadence of them, the sinister whisper: here in the dark. It could be the strapline for a serial-killer movie starring Morgan Freeman, and here it is in the middle of a zany children’s book.
Learning the history of this institution has made me realize that libraries actually want to change all the time. People who work for libraries are not interested in insisting on a system that isn’t reaching anyone; they think of libraries as living documents. Libraries change as the public demonstrates what is not working for them and expresses desires for access to new literacies. This is the ultimate goal of the library: to keep evaluating and redirecting in pursuit of knowledge.
In the century between becoming a public library and a fine-free institution, the Free Library of Philadelphia has continuously examined and developed its programs and offerings. In the last five years alone, the Free Library has begun offering its cardholders musical instruments and gym equipment to check out. They have built a teaching kitchen and offer daily classes that span from celebrations of Congolese cuisine to sandwich making for teenagers to nutrition classes for high-risk adults to breakdowns of food access points around the city. The Free Library has also figured out how to combine literacies such as teaching language classes alongside cooking classes to jump-start practical applications of a second language. The library desperately wants to know what you need, want, are curious about and they are better at delivering those things when you use their resources and tell them what else you’d like access to.
Focusing almost exclusively on female characters and spaces, “Breasts and Eggs” often made me think of Tsushima’s “Territory of Light.” Although tonally distinct, both novels describe single working-class motherhood and small urban apartments in unflinching detail. Writing 30 years apart, both authors reveal the ways in which those circumstances in turn shape the inner lives of their characters.
“Breasts and Eggs” underlines this connection by placing the female form at its center. Kawakami writes with unsettling precision about the body — its discomforts, its appetites, its smells and secretions. And she is especially good at capturing its longings, those in this novel being at once obsessive and inchoate, and in one way or another about transformation.
Anne Tyler's latest novel is heartwarming balm for jangled nerves. Once again, she burrows so convincingly into the quotidian details of her main character's life, home, and head that you have to wonder if she's some sort of Alexa-gone-rogue.
You walk by holding a bunch of flowers
never knowing that you’ve just performed a miracle.
Are those flowers for your girl?
On Dartmoor, in southwest England, search and rescue volunteers are regularly called out to look for people who have lost their way in the boundless wilderness. A significant proportion are Alzheimer’s patients who have wandered away from one of the many care homes on the fringes of the moor. The volunteers have noticed that Alzheimer’s patients move in a particular way across the open spaces: usually in a straight line. So resolutely do they stick to their chosen direction that they will often attempt to plunge headlong through whatever lies in their way. More than once, rescue teams on Dartmoor have retrieved elderly men from the middle of gorse thickets: they simply kept on going until they could go no further.
Alzheimer’s is commonly understood to be a disease of memory, and its effect on memory is certainly catastrophic. But more fundamentally it is a disease of orientation, a slow severing of ties with our surroundings. It particularly affects the brain’s spatial areas, such as the hippocampus and entorhinal cortex, and spatial lapses are among the very first symptoms – misplacing keys more often than usual, getting confused on a regular route or finding it impossible to learn a new one. As the illness advances, patients inhabit an ever-diminishing ‘life space’, until their confusion makes it difficult for them to go beyond their own room. Alzheimer’s sufferers who go missing on Dartmoor are lost even before they leave their homes. Their spatial awareness has collapsed to a single dimension, and they are left, literally, with nowhere to turn.
So in order to get some writing done on what I had only recently started calling “my new book,” I needed a train and some snow. The snow would ground me, a train ride would move me forward.
It turned out that a train from Denver would take about 34 hours, dropping me off barely a mile from my house. I’d write the whole time; I could sleep when I got home. I told Ben about the train idea and as it happened, he was traveling to Denver for work in February. The plan was that we’d fly together, spend a few days frolicking in the snow, and while he stayed on to work I’d take the train back home.
In its own way, too, contemporary minimalism has little to do with “the society, the institutions and grand theories.” Despite its anti-consumerist bent, the trend focuses more on personal improvement than on any kind of structural critique. Practitioners tell you how you can be happier with fewer possessions but rarely ask why it is that Americans own so much stuff.
Though it might be an odd confession for a music critic to make, in these past few weeks I have not often felt in the mood to listen to records, streams or the radio. I felt a strong pull, instead, to bear witness to the changing ambient sounds of the city. On walks I find it hard to concentrate on music or podcasts, but I still find plenty to listen to: The chatter of birds who have suddenly become more loquacious than their human counterparts. The fogged-mirror breaths of a now-rare overhead airplane — where is it going? Who is on it and why has their travel been deemed essential? A woman on the other side of the sidewalk singing to herself, the cheery tune muffled by a paper face mask.
This is the kind of pastoral quiet I have sometimes desired from the city in my more irritable moments, but it doesn’t feel peaceful now. Just unbearably eerie. I miss the comfort of the noise.
The power of McSweeney’s work cannot be separated from its association with forms of oracle and soothsaying, and so it is uncanny that it should arrive in the middle of a global pandemic. Her style is created by loosing outbreaks of sound, and then containing them on the page. “Toxic Sonnets: A Crown for John Keats” is a cascade of fourteen fourteen-line poems, set in motion when McSweeney reads about “the tubercle” that killed Keats on a screen whose glow “wrap[s] the motel room in light.” A “crown” of sonnets—an old form, now again in vogue—is a kind of regulated excess: the last line of each poem spills over and often becomes the first line of the next. It’s the perfect form to suggest a spiralling, obsessive Internet rabbit hole, and its final section is a scary tour de force of open tabs.
O’Connell has a gift for channelling the “sense of looming crisis” that characterises our times, but is able to step outside it, to bring it into focus. This project began for him toward the end of 2016, that disabling year, when his therapist suggested to him that “it might be helpful not to spend quite so much time following the news”. His response to that suggestion was a kind of personal aversion therapy: he would not shut himself off from the portents of end times that buzz-alerted his phone, but follow them to the ends of the Earth.
A voice from the dark is calling me.
In the close house I nurse a fire.
I’m great at feeding people, but I’ve never mastered portion control. I joke that it’s inherited, that I always make too much because written in my genome is the fear that there won’t be enough to go around. That’s never happened; I’ve always had the luxury of a full shopping cart.
Or rather, I did until mid-March, when I encountered empty supermarket shelves, just days after the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a pandemic. The sight of those picked-over produce displays flooded me with visions of my grandmother, who always made too much food, and who counted wealth in jars of pickled vegetables and preserved fruit, an ever-renewing stockpile that meant everything might go to hell, but at least we could eat.
I have often bristled at Arthur Rimbaud’s injunction at the end of A Season in Hell: “Il faut être absolument moderne.” I have never wanted to be absolutely modern; I find infinitely more comfort in my futile yearning for the past. Recently, however, I came across a short film by Lucien Smith that unexpectedly assuaged my nostalgia. A Clean Sweep (2013) is a sort of lullaby for New Yorkers: the soft texture of the film footage renders otherwise mundane city scenes (a bustling street at rush hour, a plump deli cat pawing a door) into tender tableaux vivants. Blinking brake lights of cars stuck in traffic blur into soft, red nebulas, as though seen through a rain-splattered window. But this soothing effect is conveyed most acutely by the spoken-word address of its narrator: the maverick writer Glenn O’Brien, who passed away in 2017. He meanders through his thoughts about the concurrence of the past and the present, gently nudging us to see that time is perhaps far less rigid than we suppose. “It feels like history here,” he says at one point. “Where? Where what? It feels like history, here.”
Rebecca Dinerstein Knight's strange and delightful second novel, Hex, opens with its protagonist in crisis. Nell Barber is an ex-doctoral student at Columbia; her lab, which studied toxins, has been disbanded after a student accidentally poisons herself, and now Nell is floating through New York, grief-stricken and in need of work. She's also profoundly lovesick for her dissertation advisor, a magnetic young botanist named Dr. Joan Kallas. Without Joan's "absolutely necessary nearness," Nell is undone. She describes herself as "deleted." She spends her time cooking up ways to continue her research without a lab; writing long letters to Joan in composition notebooks; and seeking beauty wherever she can find it.
Probably not coincidentally, “Nemesis” was Roth’s last book, written with a heightened awareness of mortality, and infused with a certain kind of forgiveness. “Sometimes you’re lucky and sometimes you’re not,” Roth writes in the voice of his narrator, one of the playground boys who survived polio to live into adulthood. “Any biography is chance, and, beginning at conception, chance — the tyranny of contingency — is everything. Chance is what I believed Mr. Cantor meant when he was decrying what he called God.”
What would Dr. King think of the future?
Would he find his dream becoming a reality or just a VR experience?
This time period — the Gold Rush and its aftermath — and Chinese-Americans’ role in it is ripe for re-examination. Until recently, the roughly 15,000 Chinese-American laborers who worked on the first Transcontinental Railroad, built in the 1860s, were all but erased from the historical record and later barred from obtaining citizenship by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.
A well-known photograph from the inauguration of the Transcontinental Railroad inspired a moment in Zhang’s book. Lucy, one of the main characters, “hears the cheer that goes through the city the day the last railroad tile is hammered. A golden spike holds track to earth,” Zhang writes. “A picture is drawn for the history books, a picture that shows none of the people who look like her, who built it.”
I take it with me because it helps me track the uncharted territory of the present moment. In this act of gathering—scrawls about things noticed on the way to a store, the playbill for my son’s brief acting career, glue-sticked to the page—I’m forced to slow down and tend to the parts that evoke a whole. Sometimes they plant the seed for an idea that I might write about later on. But mostly, I relish in the quiet engagement of pen on paper, my hand working with my brain to create something concrete and real, something that can’t be deleted in an instant after it is read.
“I would suggest people could draw at this time,” he said from the house in Normandy where he has been sequestered since France practically closed down last month. “Question everything and do not think about photography.”
Instead, he recommends everyone drawing with open eyes. “I would suggest they really look hard at something and think about what they are really seeing.” The materials don’t matter: a pencil or an iPad app such as Brushes, which is what he used to create his latest picture of the Normandy landscape, exclusive to the Guardian.
During a shutdown, the things that mark our days—commuting to work, sending our kids to school, having a drink with friends—vanish and time takes on a flat, seamless quality. Without some self-imposed structure, it’s easy to feel a little untethered. A friend recently posted on Facebook: “For those who have lost track, today is Blursday the fortyteenth of Maprilay.”
As someone who works as an editor and writer from my attic office, on my own schedule, I’m accustomed to this kind of set-up—but also the isolation that come with it. When I’m not on deadline and my days aren’t that busy, time can drag and ennui can set in. Any writer or editor knows that one of the challenges of working from home and spending nearly all of one’s waking and sleeping moments there, is punctuating one’s time, differentiating moments so that they don’t all bleed together.
Like globalist, cosmopolitan has become a freighted term, not least for its anti-Semitic undertones. On the right, it is an epithet for bleeding-heart liberals who support looser immigration policies, foreign aid, and multilateral efforts to confront climate change. On the left (and the nativist right), it is used to describe the Davos crowd and footloose capitalists. But as the philosopher Martha C. Nussbaum reminds us in The Cosmopolitan Tradition, cosmopolitanism has a rich history as a mode of political and ethical thought, one that “urges us to recognize the equal, and unconditional, worth of all human beings.”
In Fiebre Tropical, Delgado Lopera renders a complex, nuanced portrayal of the migration story of a family of three generations of Colombian women. Without looking away at the real and at times oppressive hierarchies that exist between immigrants and in Latinx families and communities, Delgado Lopera gives us an intimate look at the main character’s struggle to come to terms with her gender identity amid the displacement of immigration, and the rigidly drawn gender roles of a born-again Christian household.
There is no easy way to reach Twisp, a blink of a town in north-central Washington’s Methow Valley. You could fly into Spokane and cut northwest for 175 miles. Or you could take a turboprop from Seattle over the mountains to the world’s apple capital, Wenatchee, and then get in a car and follow the Columbia River north for two hours. Or you could drive, as I’m doing, from Seattle through the electric moss of the North Cascades, slowing to a crawl through the ice-menaced range.
It’s November 2019, and I’m on my way to meet Lynx Vilden, a 54-year-old British expat who, for most of her adult life, has lived wholly off the grid. The slick roads don’t help my apprehension about what lies ahead: a three-day, one-on-one experience of “living wild.” The details are hazy. I’ve been advised to prepare for bracing climes and arduous excursions. “Wear sturdy shoes,” Lynx told me. “Bring meat.”
I’m four months pregnant and prone to sudden bouts of drowsiness, so after a roadside nap turns a one-hour delay into two, I send a text message to Lynx telling her I’ll be late. Only later do I realize how presumptive this is: she doesn’t have cell service or WiFi.
In the 1890s, empire building was in the air in New York, and magazine editors succumbed to the craze. As President Theodore Roosevelt sent troops to Cuba and the Philippines, the magazine men—they were nearly all men—had quieter plans to extend their influence. They used their brands to sell model homes, universities, and other offerings of middle-class life. It was, after all, the Progressive Era, when technological innovations and post-Victorian values were supposed to hasten the arrival of a more enlightened, egalitarian social order. Before the concept of branding even existed, these new magazine ventures represented an exercise in branding. But woven into this phenomenon lay a stealth traditionalism, a new way of packaging the often conservative, sometimes quixotic visions of a few titans of the press.
To sceptics, poker conjures up images of casinos, late nights and smoky back rooms—all places inappropriate for kids. That outmoded caricature need not trouble people playing in quarantined homes, at reasonable hours and without cigars. And, yes, poker is a form of gambling, but it is primarily a game of skill and nerve.
I take a step back
and it’s like dancing.
But what would it mean
to “return to my roots”?
What if the finest, funniest, craziest, sanest, most cheerfully depressing Korean-American novel was also one of the first? To a modern reader, the most dated thing about Younghill Kang’s East Goes West, published by Scribner’s in 1937, is its tired title. (Either that or its subtitle, “The Making of an Oriental Yankee.”) Practically everything else about this brash modernist comic novel still feels electric.
East Goes West has a ghostly history: at times vaguely canonical, yet without discernible influence, it has been out of print for decades at a stretch, and surfaces every quarter-century or so as a sort of literary Brigadoon. (Last year’s Penguin Classics edition is its third major republication.) Kang’s debut, The Grass Roof (1931), captures the twilight of the Korean kingdom in the first two decades of the twentieth century, as Japan colonizes the peninsula. Its narrator, Chungpa Han, is a precocious child whose thirst for education takes him from his secluded home village to Seoul, three hundred miles away; into the heart of Japan; and finally to America, where East Goes West picks up on the pilgrim’s progress.
‘Picture this,” someone says. “A juicy green apple. Can you see it?”
Of course I can’t see it. My head is filled with all things apple; the central concept connects with myriad associated topics: orchards, trees, red apples, rotting apples, cider, blossom, an endless web that spreads along more and more tenuous connections. But of course I can’t see it. I usually say yes, though, because I assume it’s a figure of speech.
But 98% of people actually do see the thing they’re imagining, like a picture in their head. The other 2%, like me, are aphantasic. There’s a line I like in John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars: “I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once.” I found out I was aphantasic slowly, then all at once. Decades ago, my wife began visualisation for meditation. I couldn’t do it. Not only could I not see an imaginary orange, I couldn’t see a circle or the colour orange. But I understood visualisation to be a special skill that you worked on. Rather like juggling. And I was sure that with practice I could accomplish either one of those.
Germanness and Jewishness have each been impossible for centuries of European history. In a time when political legitimacy meant a nation-state, the Germans were long too big to be contained within a single one, and the Jews long too despised and dispersed to have their own. In the mid-20th century, the murderous atrocities of National Socialism would lock Germanness and Jewishness in seemingly mortal opposition. But before the rise of Nazism and its historic crimes, no inherent conflict stood between Germanness and Jewishness. Ostensibly, bloodline or heritage determined both of these, but in actuality each was an amalgam of confession, language and class, any of which could change over the course of a life.
For centuries in central Europe, being labelled both German and Jewish was commonplace. Often, what individuals meant when identifying themselves as one could reshape how they were understood to relate to the other. Declaring yourself to be German as well as Jewish acquired different valences when your audience primarily understood itself (and you) as one or the other. Identification is part individual volition and part a process of being identified – by states, religious groups and other institutions and communities. An individual’s biography is but one important variable in the equation. Let’s take one example you will certainly recognise.
In experiments, people perceive an approaching spider to be moving much faster than it really is, and faster than a ping-pong ball or other neutral object moving at the same speed. It is reasonable to deduce, then, that humans generally have an unconscious bias against spiders. Nothing too depressing about society follows from this. But the idea that we are prey to unconscious bias in more important areas – to do with decision-making, and how we treat our fellow bipeds – has in recent decades become a hot topic. It is at the root of what is called “behavioural science” and “nudge politics”, which reports suggested were driving the British government’s laissez-faire early coronavirus strategy. But how strong is the evidence that it exists?
It was the field of behavioural economics, as described in Daniel Kahneman’s bestseller Thinking, Fast and Slow, that demonstrated that humans do not make mathematically perfect decisions about probability; they instead rely on rough rules of thumb, and often go wrong. Some of these habits are uncontroversial, such as confirmation bias (you tend to notice only the evidence that confirms what you already believe). But the inference by the field that such biases mean – as Pragya Agarwal uncritically repeats here – that “humans are not naturally rational” is extremely dubious, especially since it depends heavily on which definition of rationality you use.
At this year’s convention
we gather to pay homage
to our fathers, responsible
men who worked hard:
In April, 1974, a Taiwanese woman named Chen Ping landed in El Aaiún, the capital of Spanish Sahara. On the way to the house that her fiancé, José María Quero y Ruíz, was renting, she saw herds of goats and camels; stove smoke rose from canvas tents and iron bungalows. She felt like she was “walking into a fantasy, a whole new world,” as she later wrote. The rental, in the city’s Cemetery District, was at the end of a row of concrete houses, across the street from a landfill. Inside, she surveyed their one-bedroom in just a few steps: the floor was uneven, there was a gaping hole in the gray-cement wall, and a bare bulb hung from the ceiling. She told her fiancé that it was great.
Quero, a Spanish nautical engineer, had landed a job in a nearby mine, and the couple settled in. Chen thought of the land as “a hometown from another life.” While Quero picked up extra shifts at the mine, Chen wandered around town, figuring out the paperwork for their marriage, buying and carting home tanks of water, and spending the cooler afternoons with neighboring Sahrawi women. She decorated their new home on a budget: she made furniture out of wooden shipping crates used for coffins, and fashioned a tire into a cushioned seat. They didn’t have a TV or a radio. Sometimes, she hitched a ride on a merchant truck to drive deep into the desert; there, she set up tents near nomads, and listened to the wailing wind while watching flocks of antelopes run into the sunset.
Soon, she started writing about her life in the desert for United Daily News, a newspaper in Taiwan, under the pen name Sanmao, and, within a year, her essays became a collection titled “Stories of the Sahara.” The book was reprinted three times in its first six weeks, and more than thirty reprints followed. It was read throughout the Chinese diaspora, and translated into Korean, Japanese, and Spanish. To date, it has sold fifteen million copies. Earlier this year, the book appeared in an English translation in the U.S. for the first time.
How preposterous is it that Vita Sackville-West, the best-selling bisexual baroness who wrote over thirty-five books that made an ingenious mockery of twenties societal norms, should be remembered today merely as a smoocher of Virginia Woolf? The reductive canonization of her affair with Woolf has elbowed out a more luxurious, strange story: Vita loved several women with exceptional ardor; simultaneously adored her also-bisexual husband, Harold; ultimately came to prefer the company of flora over fauna of any gender; and committed herself to a life of prolific creation (written and planted) that redefined passion itself.
A few weeks ago, maybe, I could have written something very different, something about the role that food has played in my life, or about what it was like growing up in proximity to culinary eminence, or even just about my uniquely delicious childhood—and, if you’re curious about those aspects of my upbringing, many such stories can be found in my new memoir, Always Home, which came out yesterday.
But at the moment, well into the third week of quarantine—or is it the fourth? Time passes so differently now—my perspective has shifted somewhat. When I was writing the chapter dedicated to my mother’s restaurant Chez Panisse, it was with a certain blithe confidence, a taking-for-granted that it would be operational throughout the balance of my life, and perhaps well beyond. It’s that kind of place: an heirloom, really, not a business—a restaurant that knits together generations and community around a common cause.
The sun rises on a 14-year-old girl named Gloria Ramírez. She’s been beaten and raped. Dale Strickland, her roughneck assailant, is sleeping off the night’s brutality in his truck. Gloria figures she’s got a few minutes to creep away across the Texas desert barefoot before he wakes up and kills her.
The tightening terror of this first chapter is impossible to break away from, but “Valentine” is a novel that serpentines around our expectations. This is not yet another thriller exploiting the plight of a young woman. Although Gloria remains the center of the plot, Wetmore quickly shifts our attention to a circle of women who respond to her assault.
The author Eric Nusbaum has been imagining a world with no Dodger Stadium since he was a junior at Culver City High School in 2002. That was when an older man named Frank Wilkinson showed up to give a guest lecture to Nusbaum’s history class and said, “Dodger Stadium should not exist.”
“I remember at the time being blown away,” says Nusbaum. He is taking a video call in a closet, his “little sanctuary of book promotion,” as he waits out the COVID-19 pandemic at home with his wife and children in Tacoma, Wash. “I was the kind of kid who read the sports page every day. Maybe because I was such a big Dodger fan, I had willfully ignored it.” What he means is the dark history of the land where the stadium sits, the subject of his new book, “Stealing Home: Los Angeles, the Dodgers, and the Lives Caught in Between.”
Summer bears down on the city
like granny's old quilt
Her potted plant swoons on the ledge out of breath.
attuned to a second skin of sweat,
she stretches neck and torso,
searching for a cool note rising
from the street below.