I remember the exact words with which I was first introduced to “The Waste Land” while still at school. “This isn’t a poem you read. It is a poem you will live with.” Everything in the years since has proved those words true. And not just with that work, but with all of T.S. Eliot—the Four Quartets above all. It seems to be the same for many people. He is the modern poet whose lines come to mind most often. The one we reach for when we wish to find sense in things. And certainly the first non-scriptural place we call when we consider the purpose or end of life.
His contemporaries, by contrast, all seem to have grown smaller. W.H. Auden has perhaps three-quarters of his reputation still. But most of the other figures who dominated English poetry in the last century look diminished in the rear-view mirror. Which makes it even more striking that Eliot seems to grow. To consider why that should be is to consider something not just about our time, or his, but something about the nature of time, and the purpose of culture.
We want to return to our lives and livelihoods, but not by sacrificing the natural world that supports us in body and in spirit. One older bird-watcher I know described the effect of seeing a bluebird in his urban backyard during the lockdown, for only the third time in sixteen years. “The aura of it was bigger than the essence, the cold hard fact, of it,” he said. “A bluebird on my backyard fence is just a bird sitting on a piece of metal. But what it does to me is so much more, the emotional and psychological uplift, the brightening. In three minutes, the bird was gone, but my day had utterly changed.”
I still remember that first night walk in King’s Forest near my Suffolk home, two years ago. The clouds were smoking-room-thick, so there had been no visible sunset. The cold, white sky did not even blush. Instead, the light thickened and clotted as darkness began to form, seeping out from between stands of pines. It puffed from the shadows of my footsteps on the track and welled up from the deep ruts made by 4x4s.
I’m not sure why I kept walking that night. Partly it was just the rhythm: the metronome swing of the legs, the freedom of having nowhere to be and no place to go. But also, I’d been rallied by my 10-year-old son who, in his campaign for an ever-later bedtime, argued that an average human spends 26 years of their time on Earth asleep. His words had wormed their way into my brain. When was the last time I had been out at night? Not camping or running or toddling home from the pub, but really out into the dark. Was my life being only half-lived?
One of the first sketches I did of London as a student was a picture of the gasometer in Chelsea, drawn on tinted paper with a black fountain pen, one evening in the summer of 1951. We had been told by our tutor to get out of the studio and draw the real world outside and I can remember cycling from the Royal College of Art in South Kensington, leaning my bike against a wall, and working for around an hour. I was fascinated by the bizarre and beautiful structure.
Last November, around seven decades after I did that drawing, I walked to King’s Cross and painted the gasometers there, this time using watercolours, but working similarly quickly, balancing my drawing board on the parapet of a footbridge. These old industrial structures are no longer functioning, either preserved as curiosities or converted into luxury flats, but they remain intriguing to look at and draw.
Unused swords rust
like your feather quill,
dipped in dry ink,
that scars the paper;
If you want to get married in the village of Lithopia, you’ll need to inform the satellites. First, a hovering drone will capture the happy couple embracing, identifying you by facial recognition. The transaction will be recorded, using cryptography, on a blockchain ledger, as a so-called “smart contract.”
Should you purchase a house, a buyer and seller will enact a ritual transfer by rolling around huge 3D-printed coins. The coins contain lithium, secretly mined by citizens to claim ownership of their natural resource. Lithopian society is a model of a polite surveillance state, governed by human gestures, blockchain and lithium.
Not quite a fantasy, and certainly not reality, the conceptual project “Lithopy” is a satire of both a global phenomenon (bitcoin and the distributed-ledger technologies that enable it) and a local one (the current lithium-rush in the Czech Republic to meet Europe’s car battery demand).
Spring is always a busy season for bird-watching, said Marshall Iliff, a project leader at the Cornell lab. “But this year is sort of off the charts,” he said.
At a time when humans are nervously tracking the spread of a virus as it seeps through communities and leaps across borders, new birders are finding relief in tracking the migratory patterns of great blue herons, mountain yellow-warblers or ruby-throated hummingbirds instead.
Before I read, or reread, the 40 stories in the new Everyman’s Library edition of Lorrie Moore’s short fiction, I would have said I was sure I knew which was one was best. Now my suspicion is confirmed. “People Like That Are the Only People Here: Canonical Babbling in Peed Onk” is a stunning, heart-wrenching story about a mother who finds a blood clot in her baby’s diaper, about the circle of hell known as the pediatric oncology ward, and about the process of writing about one’s own tragedies. When it was first published in the New Yorker in 1997, three people tried to fax me the whole thing in one day.
The narrative is relaxed and easy but never gossipy – readers wanting lurid details of the uncomfortable changeover of editorship at Vogue, when Shulman departed and Edward Enninful took over, will be disappointed. However, she does allow a slightly steely tone to creep in when she writes that although few profiles of her are without a mention of her weight, no comment is ever made about his.
Plastic tulips and silk roses
pretend they grow around
my parents’ gravestone.
In Lionel Shriver’s novel “The Mandibles,” it’s 2029, the United States has defaulted on its loans, and the country is plunging into an economic abyss. Suddenly, a cabbage costs thirty-eight dollars. Savings accumulated over a lifetime evaporate in an hour. Former hedge-fund managers compete for jobs as waiters. (Their new patrons are foreigners; America, like other failed states, has become a magnet for tourists who can afford luxuries that the natives can only dream of.) Everyone is grimy, because water shortages have rendered showers brief and infrequent. This is made particularly troublesome by another post-apocalyptic issue: there’s not enough toilet paper.
“I found that really gratifying,” Shriver said, as she considered her prescience, one recent afternoon in London. Since the lockdown went into effect, she has been sequestered with her husband, Jeff Williams, at their row house in Bermondsey. It is a modest, comfortable place, decorated with thrift-store finds and small ceramic sculptures—smooth, faceless figures—that Shriver made, along with memorabilia that Williams has gathered in his decades as a jazz drummer. But Shriver was not feeling cozy. “Truth is, I’ve never been this shaken,” she told me. She wasn’t worried about getting sick. “The virus doesn’t faze me,” she said. She was afraid that she would prove oracular about more than toilet paper, and that we are hurtling toward global financial cataclysm—what she described in “The Mandibles” as “an ongoing, borderless nightmare ended only by death.”
What Broom is writing, is preserving, what she is creating in the present, is important, for it’s steeped in the histories, in the stories, in the hurt of the family. She tries to convey that hurt by asking the reader to imagine her street being “dead quiet, and you lived on those dead quiet streets, and there is nothing left of anything you once owned.” The street may be dead quiet, and their father, who built and repaired so much of that house, may have passed, but still her brother watches over the land, and she watches over him, writing it all down. And without the both of them, this could all be lost. Broom writes of how “The facts of the world before me inform, give shape and context to my own life. The Yellow House was witness to our lives. When it fell down, something in me burst.” The Yellow House witnessed the Broom’s family life, so now Broom wants to witness the life of the Yellow House, and see what information and stories she can find in whatever remains, rebuilding the story of the family so they can all be together again.
The new and revised technology-related entries in the Stylebook also reflect some interesting shifts in what the Associated Press believes journalists can expect general audiences to know. In general, many of the recommendations tend to urge journalists in the direction of greater specificity about the technologies they are describing and away from more generic, dated terms.
Although reading a news article is not the same as reading a novel or a narrative nonfiction book, experts say it isn’t helpful for adults to dismiss the reading that many teens are doing.
In their book “Reading Unbound: Why Kids Need to Read What They Want — and Why We Should Let Them,” adolescent literacy experts Michael W. Smith and Jeffrey D. Wilhelm spotlight the fact that the kids they studied had a “surprisingly rich engagement with texts that we didn’t much value.” According to Smith, a secondary education professor at Temple University, “Many were avid readers of marginalized texts.”
If this all sounds like a lot, you have to understand that everything about my sense of style is maximalist: I love bright colors, feathers, fringe, animal print — typically not all together, but sometimes … all together. Let’s just say that I prefer to ignore Coco Chanel’s advice to take one accessory off before leaving the house.
But my proclivity for holding onto ornaments doesn’t exactly conform to an age where a Marie Kondo-endorsed sense of minimalism is in vogue. There’s also the practical matter that my apartment is a 400-square foot studio, and one woman’s cheerful collection of objects is another’s sanity-stretching clutter. Sometimes I am both of those women.
The protagonist of “Parakeet,” Marie-Helene Bertino’s new novel, is a 36-year-old woman, a week out from marrying a man she doesn’t love, whose dead grandmother has come back to taunt her in the form of a wisecracking bird. The bird grandmother gives our narrator a mission: to leave the Long Island hotel where she is camped out to “decompress,” and find her brother, a reclusive heroin addict and renowned playwright from whom she’s been estranged ever since he overdosed at his wedding years prior.
Then the bird defecates all over her wedding dress.
When I look up
my soul is water, it
trembles beneath your breath
Nobody called it that at the time, but the first realistic English novel was a genuine “beach read.” Daniel Defoe’s “Robinson Crusoe,” published in 1719, is a tale of exotic adventure literally set on a beach. Three hundred years later, a lot has changed, but we still crave stories with waves crashing on the shore.
My first “beach read” was a shameful, illicit affair. A middle school classmate with a wild older brother had gotten a hold of a copy of “Jaws.” In my lily-white innocence, the naked swimmer on the cover of Peter Benchley’s thriller was just as terrifying as the shark soaring up to eat her. Sitting cross-legged in my friend’s attic, I tore through those pages, ricocheting between Thanatos and Eros.
While thought experiments are as old as philosophy itself, the weight placed on them in recent philosophy is distinctive. Even when scenarios are highly unrealistic, judgments about them are thought to have wide-ranging implications for what should be done in the real world. The assumption is that, if you can show that a point of ethical principle holds in one artfully designed case, however bizarre, then this tells us something significant. Many non-philosophers baulk at this suggestion.
I was heading to the Northwest Angle – the northernmost point of the continental US – to research a book about the country’s northern border. The Angle is a blip on the boundary – an isolated pocket in Minnesota set 100 miles north of the line of the main border. It is the northland of the northland – surrounded by Lake of the Woods on three sides and Canada on the other. To get there by road, you have to drive through Manitoba.
It wasn’t supposed to be that way. The Angle was a mistake, made at the time of the Treaty of Paris, the accord that ended the American Revolution in 1783. The map that the delegates used, made by a London physician-botanist and amateur mapmaker named John Mitchell, marked the source of the Mississippi, a key landmark on the proposed northern boundary, as 150 miles north of where it actually is.
“In Praise of Paths” is at its best when Ekelund deals in specifics, such as the narratives of Amsrud and Gatewood, or the strange fact that when we’re lost in the wilderness we tend to walk in a circle for various reasons: One leg is generally longer than the other; one eye more dominant; heavy packs tend to throw off our balance. And the book is at its most emotional and poignant when Ekelund describes his own paths: the one he remembers from early childhood, the ones he and a friend take their children hiking on.
All day in shelter
on a granary floor, rain
By the time I finished my editorial work on this year’s edition of The Best American Travel Writing—about five weeks into my state’s mandatory stay-at-home order—I’d had plenty of time to think about the future of the form. During the first few weeks of lockdown, I was invited on to a podcast with several other travel writers to discuss “Coronavirus and Predictions on the Future of Travel Writing.” With gloom and doom, I speculated about magazines suspending publication, compared this to how travel had “irrevocably” changed after 9/11, and declared that this was “the extinction event” for a certain type of travel publishing. To be honest, I had no more idea of what might happen than anyone else, and I still don’t. But I held forth anyway, and I am aware that whatever I write now, in the spring of 2020, may seem naïve, hysterical, or wildly inaccurate by the fall, when the anthology is published, never mind a year or five from now.
Otherwise, I have whiled away the days in isolation thinking a lot about oddly divergent (and convergent) things: Iceland, Robert Byron’s classic travel book The Road to Oxiana, and the pond across from my home in New Jersey, where an alligator, according to local legend, may or may not live.
China is a country of bad memories. In the last century it endured civil war, invasion, famine, the Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen Square crackdown. Its people have been urged to look to the future.
That worked when China was growing and opening up. Now its growth is slowing and its openness is vanishing. Nevertheless, in “The Fat Years” and in real life, people still choose to forget.
Our times have grown almost exhaustingly big and eventful lately; not coincidentally, much of our fiction has either submerged itself in matters of our individual times and places (Rachel Cusk or Knausgaard) or fled from it into world-building fantasy adventures. Hayes, however, provides a welcome alternative — small, reflective novels about the struggles of not entirely fictional human beings. And at a time when our private lives seem to be growing smaller in the face of titanic historical forces, it is probably a good time to be remembering Alfred Hayes.
While most evidence suggests the universe is playing fair, there are also many cosmic wildcards that seem to clash with the cosmological principle. Just within the past few months, for instance, two teams of physicists published completely different observations of anomalies in the universe that hint at potential variations in fundamental laws and forces.
Even weirder, this new research bolsters past studies sketching out a “directionality” to these variations. In other words, they conjure up a possible model of the universe where physical laws shift in certain directions as if they are on a mysterious cosmic gradient. These findings don’t match other tests of isotropy, or the homogeneity of the universe, that suggest that the universe has no preferred direction.
Conflicting results don’t mean we have to throw out the cosmological principle, as it requires an enormous amount of evidence to oust established physics. But the new studies document phenomena, at both “local” and extremely distant scales, that are currently unexplained and that challenge our fundamental expectations about the behavior of the universe.
For much of the last two months, Paris has been empty — its shops and cafes shuttered, its streets deserted, its millions of tourists suddenly evaporated.
Freed of people, the urban landscape has evoked an older Paris. In particular, it has called up the singular Paris of Eugène Atget, an early 20th-century father of modern photography in his unsentimental focus on detail.
Operating in most cases with small profit margins—this month’s customers pay next month’s rent—few restaurants can afford two weeks (much less months) of forced closure. Estimates are that 75 percent of independently owned restaurants may never re-open. Without them, bakeries, specialty farmers, and wine distributors are likely to be in serious trouble as well.
While most authorities in the United States today agreed on restaurants closures as a vital public-health measure, their counterparts during the deadly 1918 influenza epidemic saw things differently. A hundred years ago, it seemed obvious that crowds would form along parade routes, in public parks, at revival or club meetings—but not in restaurants.
Granted, my father was by nature not the most imaginative guy: He was a bookkeeper whose job was to keep numbers lining up tidily. But his embrace of routine was also his way of fighting back against a world that kept spinning out of control. By the time he was in his mid-30s, he had lived through the pandemic of 1918, the Great Depression and two world wars. After he married my mother in the late 1940s, much of his life was spent navigating her schizophrenia, which emerged early in their marriage. There were extended stretches when he had to fill the roles of both parents, and that might have been what sent him over the edge, or at least made him demand that a new hand be dealt. Instead he doubled down on what he knew, and it got our family through some dicey times, while also helping to forge his identity. He was steady Jerry, the man who didn’t bail, who held the fort when so much of everything else around him was collapsing. Routine, so often disparaged as the way of the drone, became for my father practically a badge of honor.
Pitched somewhere between Shirley Jackson’s creepy small-town horror and the seminar-room riddling of JM Coetzee, Catherine Lacey’s powerful new novel unfolds in a sinister US Bible belt community shaken by the arrival of a mute amnesiac vagrant whose age, sex and race aren’t clear. “I’m having trouble lately with remembering,” the narrator tells us on the first page – something of an understatement, it turns out.
I’m not particularly good at crying out loud. Socrates called this “taking things hard,” and it is hard, especially for a philosopher. But in the last year I had some practice, and despite my best attempt to rationalize and mask the grief, I failed. Philosophers aren’t supposed to “take things hard” — a matter of professional pride for them. They are supposed to occupy that preternaturally calm space called “mind,” to hold emotional excess at bay and face the problems of the world with Stoic resolve. In my first real encounter with “taking things hard,” I concluded that I was not, and have never been, a real philosopher. But after reading Simon Critchley’s recent Tragedy, the Greeks and Us, I think another interpretation is possible. After some difficulty, perhaps it is possible to become, in Nietzsche’s words, a “tragic philosopher” after all.
Upon hearing that his friend Walter Benjamin had committed suicide rather than face deportation into the hands of the Nazis, Bertolt Brecht composed a short elegiac poem, “On the Suicide of the Refugee W.B.” “Empires collapse,” he wrote. “Gang leaders / are strutting about like statesmen. The nations of man / No longer visible under all those armaments.”
Brecht could easily have been describing twenty-first-century El Salvador or Honduras, where gang members not only strut around like statesmen, but are indeed officials of a kind of state. Today, another fascism is rising from the ashes of a past that never fully died: a new stage of neoliberal power, presaged by the tragedy of Pinochet and consummated in the deranged and farcical specter of Trump or Bolsonaro—an era of capitalist violence and dispossession perhaps even more savage than the last.
So many of the feelings my pen pals shared with me mirrored my own. I wrote to them originally to process my fears and anxieties during this time. In the end, the respondents helped me remember the clarifying thing about this pandemic — that we're all part of one community of humans. For the duration of this crucible, and beyond, we should celebrate that which makes us most human: perspective, surprise and connection. Letters to strangers — and from strangers — can satisfy all three.
The newspaper deliverymen were on strike. The walkout had been called for midnight on June 30, a Saturday night. Apparently many of the disgruntled workers couldn’t wait. According to the New York Times, something like a thousand men who were due to work that afternoon failed to report for duty. Some had called in sick. Many more just didn’t show up. The Times sarcastically reported three hundred deliverymen “struck by the epidemic.”
The deliverymen were equally droll. As they mingled on the picket line, according to the Times, “There was much horseplay, men asking each other: ‘Well, how d’ye feel, buddy?’ with the answer being, ‘Oh, I guess I shouldn’t have had that mayonnaise for lunch.’”
All told, 14 major papers were left without their usual means of distribution. According to an estimate in the New York Times, some 13 million customers in the city and surrounding area were deprived of their daily newspaper.
The analysis in ‘The Metropolis and Mental Life’ centres on two interlocking social forms: money and the city. As they become dominant, they erode natural rhythms of production and traditional social bonds. This is liberating: cash doesn’t care about birthright, it is ‘concerned only with what is common to all: it asks for the exchange value’. Yet, there is a hidden cost: money reduces what is uniquely valuable to a number, a price. In the right ratio, fine hand-crafted goods are equal to mass-produced junk. This devalues commodities – nothing that can be bought is unique – while simultaneously accelerating the search for whatever is truly unique and incomparably valuable.
The city accelerates the calculable logic of money, encroaching even on our experience of time.
The reality of the moment is finally sinking in. Karen Nyberg and Megan McArthur, two NASA astronauts, have spent years waiting for this mission. Now the launch is just days away. The rocket is already upright at Cape Canaveral. Soon, it will roar into the sky and dispatch a new crew to the International Space Station.
Nyberg and McArthur, however, won’t be on board. This time, it’s their husbands’ turn to leave the planet. Nyberg and McArthur will be watching from the ground, cheering them on.
Six-year-old Franklin Wong captured the simple frustration of being a student in this city’s Unified School District in mid-March, after his classes were canceled. He wrote in big blocky letters: “I did not go anywhere,” and added an unhappy face in green and red crayon for his remote-learning assignment.
This may be the first time a first grader's homework is headed to a permanent museum collection instead of a parent’s refrigerator door, a novelty that underscores how far into uncharted waters curators are sailing.
“Sing Backwards” is at its best when examining the ruthless mechanics of a junkie musician’s daily life: where to hide syringes — which were hard to come by, and often shared, in the days before needle exchanges — on a tour bus during border searches; the terrifying prospect of going through withdrawals during a snowstorm or transatlantic flight; how the citrus needed to break down European heroin can be found by scavenging lemon slices from abandoned hotel room service trays; and the various black, noxious fluids excreted by junkies in withdrawal, described in enough detail to chill even the most devoted gastroenterologist.
No more transfusions.
No more shots.
This latest sleep
could be the one
that leads into dark wilderness.
Two years ago in Dublin, I read the English translation of Sayaka Murata’s 2016 novel Convenience Store Woman. The first paragraph described a Japanese supermarket’s cacophony – tinkling door chime, voices, scanner beeps. I’d been to Tokyo and loved those sounds; and there it was, that embrace.
I kept reading, and kept seeing myself in the narrator. All her life, Japanese convenience store worker Keiko Furukura has had to teach herself how to behave around others. She’s relieved when her head office trainer guides her: “It was the first time anyone had ever taught me how to accomplish a normal facial expression and manner of speech.” She pretends to share co-workers’ petty irritations, and is serenely oblivious to gossip. When patronised, she only really cares about the logic: yes, yes, that was rude, but was it well argued? I’m autistic, and this is all very me.
Feynman and Schrödinger were concerned about the extremely small scale, but what about the extremely large scale? A single human cell has more than twenty thousand genes. Therefore, assuming one protein per gene, the number of different non-modified proteins exceeds twenty thousand. Add to that the many more different proteins resulting from alternative splicing, single nucleotide polymorphisms, and posttranslational modification. No conceptual model is conceivable for the interactions among all of these genes and proteins, or for even a tiny portion of them, when one considers the complex biochemistry involved in regulation. What is the meaning of the intricate and massive pathway models generated by computer algorithms? Is this even a meaningful question to ask? And the human body contains on average an estimated thirty-seven trillion cells!
Yet science has had great success dealing with the unthinkable and inconceivable. Hannah Arendt puts the matter succinctly: “Man can do, and successfully do, what he cannot comprehend and cannot express in everyday human language.” We have mathematically sophisticated scientific theories and daily operate with advanced engineering systems that are physically incomprehensible and whose principles cannot be communicated in everyday language. In Kantian terms, we are not limited by human categories of understanding.
This isn’t an essay about rereading, it’s about rewatching, but I’m starting to think it’s all the same impulse. Being a person who reads now feels the same as being a person who watches and one who listens, especially since sometimes all of those things are happening at once, an overwhelm of words, sounds, images all experienced before, so long as there’s no space in between for boredom or silence. This is about my relationship to art becoming recursive, in ways that feel both active and helpless.
The standard way to run a book club is to have everybody finish the book before meeting to talk about it. You have one meeting per book. The discussion goes on for one or two hours before it runs out of gas, and then the group picks the next book, and you agree to meet in another month or six weeks.
You would never run a class this way, because it practically minimizes the value that each participant gets from being in the group. The problem is that there’s no time to cash in on anyone else’s insights. If someone says something in the meeting that reframes how you think about the book — they suggest that Holden is lying, or that Kinbote wrote Canto IV; they tell you to read Portrait first, so you can understand Stephen’s double bind; they claim that Offred’s tale is a series of transcripts, not journal entries — well, now it’s too late, because you’ve finished reading the book and you’re probably never going back to it.
Among many superb literary nuggets in the book, there’s a quote from the poet Patrick Kavanagh that highlights the particular relevance of Wild Child to these strange sequestered days: “To know fully one field or one land is a lifetime’s experience.” We have been turned in upon ourselves by the lockdown, forced to do what Barkham does so brilliantly in the book: subjecting a hedge, or a pond, or a garden, to intense scrutiny.
"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. He was fully half my life. I cannot hope for another such friend."
In eight lyrical chapters Taylor moves back and forth in time, presenting a series of vignettes and remembered conversations that offer an unvarnished view of a brilliant, driven man who was controversial almost from the start of his career, largely for his portrayal of his fellow Jews and women.
DH Evans opened a restaurant on the fifth floor of its rebuilt Oxford Street department store in 1937 that could serve 1,000 (mostly ladies) at once. By then J Lyons was running 10 outlets in the street to refresh the human torrent that has thronged the one mile and 620 yards of the world’s oldest continuously successful shopping street for more than 200 years.
Until just now, that is. The coronavirus has closed shops that the Blitz could not. By 1832, a bus every three minutes plied on this route from Paddington to the Bank. By 1840, 16 tons of horse manure a week were shovelled from the roadway. By 1913, the buses went past Marble Arch every 12 and a half seconds.
An orange on the first day, an apple the next
Down for the count with a parking-lot picnic
Out on the town in a parking-lot panic
I saw—saw!—the lake before falling asleep
It’s not a shock that the choreographer Bill T. Jones would be thinking about AIDS right about now.
“‘This is my second plague,’” he said he told his company recently. “I know it’s kind of a coarse thing to say. They’re different, but they have things in common.”
Yes, the circumstances of the coronavirus are different, but there’s a sense that the dance world, which suffered tremendous losses during the AIDS crisis, has been through this all before.
Well, this is all really bloody interesting, isn’t? Absolutely shitbiscuitly fascinating. Words, in fact, fail me when I attempt to describe how spafftwuntingly mesmerising every facet of life in the shuntspackled UK has become. I mean, who knew it was possible to run so many thought experiments simultaneously in the real world? Don’t get me wrong: I’m a huge fan of sci-fi and stories that begin “What if?” But did we have to run all of this, all at once? And did we have to make our experiments in thinking involve non-theoretical, living (at the moment) and (currently) breathing human beings? I may be a caffeine-addled hermit swaddled in army surplus lockdown athleisurewear and have a drunk marmoset’s haircut. I may be only partly sustained by brief Zoom views of unattainable domestic interiors and smiles other than my own. I may now speak mostly to my dead-eyed sourdough starter. (Yes, I know the eyes are just stuck on the jar, but sometimes... it judges me.) Still, even in my degraded and manifestly twitchy condition I can still count: one sheet of toilet paper, two sheets of toilet paper, far too much toilet paper... See? I can studfracking count. And by my reckoning we are currently running at least 10 experiments of the kind that give thinking a bad name.
The role of the automobile has been reinvented in the coronavirus era. Once just a way of getting from one place to another, the car has been turned into a mini-shelter on wheels, safe from contamination, a cocoon that allows its occupants to be inside and outside at the same time.
It took a global pandemic to give the automobile a new role. When people pack up their families and friends, they can still adhere to social-distancing rules. They remain under a roof, within closed doors, sealed off and separated from the rest of their fellow human beings.
Mobile safe distancing has generated a new way of life — a society on wheels.
I moved my four strawberry plants to the four corners of my house; they are as distant from one another and from the rest of my seedlings as possible. During my coffee breaks, I pace from plant to plant, hunting for aphids too small to see; I search the internet for pictures of infected leaves, trying to predict the unknowable. I go about my day, trying to focus on normal things like lunch and laundry. But if I’m honest with myself, the only thing that I am really doing is waiting.
For little happening is partly the point. The game and its rules, both spoken and unspoken, are a thin screen. Behind it is the higher-stakes game of feelings, unspoken because it is so hard to name them, or to face them, to make accommodations for or even understand them. Peace Talks turns out to be a moving and direct study of frailty, love and time, and luck and grief, of what is left when all the noise – of machination, violence and competing stories – is stripped away.
Esteemed Class of 2020,
your commencement speaker this year
should be a destroyed celebrity
or the Fool from King Lear.
Yeats was a great admirer of Paul Valéry’s poem ‘Le Cimetière marin’ (‘The Graveyard by the Sea’), but only up to a point – the point where he thought that the poem’s main injunction was not about lingering among the tombs and talking to the dead, but about getting on with life, or trying to. ‘After certain poignant stanzas,’ Yeats wrote, ‘and just when I am deeply moved, he chills me.’ Valéry turned out to be a mere ‘metropolitan, who has … learned as a part of good manners to deny what has no remedy’, and who ‘in a passage of great eloquence rejoices that human life must pass’. ‘I was about to put his poem among my sacred books,’ Yeats continued, ‘but I cannot now, for I do not believe him.’ It’s not that Yeats doesn’t recognise that all things must pass, it’s the rejoicing he objects to. ‘Man is in love and loves what vanishes,’ Yeats himself wrote. ‘What more is there to say?’ One answer is: pretty much everything.
If he had paused over the poem’s epigraph, taken from Pindar – ‘Do not, O my soul, aspire to immortal life, but exhaust what is possible’ – Yeats might have given up earlier. But then is the poem illustrating the epigraph or complicating it? It ends with a declared commitment to ‘l’ère successive’ (‘passing time’). But then the famous exhortation ‘il faut tenter de vivre!’ (‘we must try to live!’), sounds a little unsure of itself – tenter is after all related to ‘tentative’. Perhaps we should see the poem’s earlier, vigorous ‘no’ to the idea of stasis, ‘cette forme pensive’ (‘this pensive form’) as part of a continuing argument rather than an achieved end. Such a picture would match everything else we know about Valéry’s work. How could he be saying ‘no’ to thought? He thinks about nothing else.
Among his many claims to distinction, Thomas Jefferson can be regarded as America’s first connoisseur. The term and the concept emerged among the philosophes of eighteenth-century Paris, where Jefferson lived between 1784 and 1789. As minister to France he gorged on French culture. In five years, he bought more than sixty oil paintings, and many more objets d’art. He attended countless operas, plays, recitals, and masquerade balls. He researched the latest discoveries in botany, zoology and horticulture, and read inveterately—poetry, history, philosophy. In every inch of Paris he found something to stir his senses and cultivate his expertise. “Were I to proceed to tell you how much I enjoy their architecture, sculpture, painting, music,” he wrote a friend back in America, “I should want words.”
Ultimately, he poured all these influences into Monticello, the plantation he inherited from his father, which Jefferson redesigned into a palace of his own refined tastes. More than in its domed ceilings, its gardens, or its galleries, it was in Monticello’s dining room that Jefferson the connoisseur reigned. Here, he shared with his guests recipes, produce, and ideas that continue to have a sizable effect on how and what Americans eat.
“If you’re a Picasso fan and you walk into a room full of early Cubism, and there’s a painting there that you’ve never seen before, it’s like that,” said Lisa Bielawa, a composer and a vocalist in the Philip Glass Ensemble. “It’s right at the center of the authentic early period, right in the middle of it.”
For 18 minutes, nothing interrupts the purr of insects bar the sound of kookaburras calling, and a solitary passing car. This is Field Recordings, a creation of the London-based radio producer Eleanor McDowall, “a podcast where audio-makers stand silently in fields”. Boasting submissions from all over the world, the first episode debuted in March and captures the sounds of an Australian town at dusk. Highlights from the more than 70 episodes since include a recording from the inside of a hollow tree in Russia, which becomes an orchestra of creaks and whistles as it sways in the wind. It is, in McDowall’s words, “a real banger”.
I wake to dark sky
and heavy rain
equal in an hour
to 30 inches of snow.
When the first half of Hamlet ends,
the schoolkids rise, pull on their jackets,
and gather their trash as their teacher
says wait, the play’s not over, there’s more.
I have been teaching African American literature to college students for almost three decades. This year my students in Introduction to African American Literature started the semester in a lecture hall on the campus of Columbia University and ended it scattered to the four corners of the Earth. Some had to quarantine for two weeks after returning to their countries. Others remain in rooms and apartments in New York, an epicenter of the pandemic. Some have lost family members; others have themselves been sickened by the virus. Some turned out to be more comfortable talking on Zoom than in a physical classroom; others find it alienating and prefer instead to reach out through email or on WhatsApp. Yet and still they keep reading, they keep thinking. They have shown up, continuously, week after week. Teaching them in this pandemic has shed new light on the power of learning, community, and this extraordinary literature.
The crisis stopped us in our tracks, but it also provided an opportunity.
On the face of it, cruelty and morality are opposites. Just as morality stands as a check or constraint on our cruel impulses, so these impulses propel us away from morality. On closer examination, however, the relationship between them is more complex and much messier. One way of appreciating this is to consider our retributive propensities and dispositions, which certainly encourage causing pain and suffering to those we find objectionable or threatening. It would, nevertheless, be a mistake to consider the relationship between morality and cruelty entirely in terms of our largescale social and legal institutions and practices, such as prisons, and the forms of punishment associated with them. For one thing, these institutions and practices might or might not be cruel in terms of the definition provided. Beyond this, we shouldn’t overlook or ignore the way in which morality is frequently misused at a much more personal or everyday level, one that need not involve our legal institutions and practices at all. The particular form of cruelty that I am concerned with is a mode of moralism.
Baking bread was a regular family affair in Linda Ely’s childhood home, leaving her with a lifelong bread-baking habit and some powerful memories. “I think of my family every single time I bake,” she says.
Ely has been able to pay some of that gift forward to the thousands of people she has advised over the Baker’s Hotline run by the company she works for — and is to a tiny degree a part-owner of — King Arthur Flour. Most of the people who call with bread-baking questions already know a thing or two about the craft themselves, but want to check on some of the finer points for a particular project: Should you alter the hydration ratio if you’re using a mixture of white, whole wheat, and almond flour? How long can you keep the unbaked dough in the refrigerator if you want an extended rise? So tricky and specific are some of the bread-baking questions that even though Ely is one of the bread specialists working the hotline, she sometimes puts callers on hold and yells over the cubicle walls to colleagues for second opinions.
But in early March, Ely noticed a change in the questions. Partly it was an increase in the sheer number of calls, a jump that seemed more sudden and pronounced than the normal mild pre-Easter build-up. But even stranger was how many of the callers seemed, well, clueless. How do you tell if bread is done? Do I really need yeast? And strangest of all: What can I use instead of flour?
In his quiet, studied way, Svensson is thrilled that readers have embraced his efforts to blend popular science with literary memoir. But more than anything, he believes they are responding to the eels’ own unknowable nature.
“We need enigmas,” he said. “We need questions that aren’t answered yet. Eels argue with our confidence that the world is explained.”
Say Chicken Little was right, that the sky
is falling. What I want to know is,
will the moon fall too? Will it bounce softly
Lexicographers are persistent creatures. Never content, they scour each newly published edition of a hitherto unprinted text for antedatings, or a sighting of a word in the wild that predates the current first citation in the dictionary. Last year, their diligence provided a new entry in the Middle English Dictionary for the word ‘gibberish’ that, though once thought to be an invention of the mid-16th century, actually makes its first appearance around 1450. A religious guide to vices and virtues warns its readers that to mutter prayers inattentively or without proper piety is to utter ‘giberisshe too Godde’ (talk gibberish to God). The writer assumes that gibberish is equivalent to foolishness and insincerity. But what should we think about this strange part of human language-making?
Though its arrival in English has been redated, the etymological origins of ‘gibberish’ remain a little mysterious. Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language (1755) popularised a folk-etymology connecting ‘gibberish’ with ‘chymical cant’, technical terms of alchemy and science as used by ‘Geber’, the Westernised name of Jābir ibn Ḥayyān, not so much one author but an identity to which much medieval Arabic scholarship was attributed. The truth is much more ordinary: ‘gibberish’ probably comes from ‘gibber’, one of a clutch of verbs such as ‘gobble’, ‘gabber’, ‘jabber’ and ‘gab’ that onomatopoeically imitate the sound of unintelligible babbling. However, the first instance of ‘gibber’ – in William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet where the ‘sheeted dead’, corpses risen from their graves, are imagined to ‘squeak and gibber’ ominously in the streets of Rome – comes much later than ‘gibberish’.
Time has been strange lately. The spatial bounds of my world are narrow—grocery store, neighborhood walk, cluttered desk—but time keeps passing, albeit with new distortions. Days feel at once brief and interminable; a week ends without my realizing. On a Friday that might as well have been a Monday, I revisited some poems by Czeslaw Milosz. His work explores the disorientation of time, the pain of dislocation, and the porous border between community and solitude. He writes with awe and bemusement about both small moments and large expanses of time. He evokes eternity in everyday encounters between people, and as a result, his poems feel at once lonely and communal, metaphysical and down-to-earth.
The question asked whether the Conway knot — a snarl discovered more than half a century ago by the legendary mathematician John Horton Conway — is a slice of a higher-dimensional knot. “Sliceness” is one of the first natural questions knot theorists ask about knots in higher-dimensional spaces, and mathematicians had been able to answer it for all of the thousands of knots with 12 or fewer crossings — except one. The Conway knot, which has 11 crossings, had thumbed its nose at mathematicians for decades.
Before the week was out, Piccirillo had an answer: The Conway knot is not “slice.” A few days later, she met with Cameron Gordon, a professor at UT Austin, and casually mentioned her solution.
“I said, ‘What?? That’s going to the Annals right now!’” Gordon said, referring to Annals of Mathematics, one of the discipline’s top journals.
“He started yelling, ‘Why aren’t you more excited?’” said Piccirillo, now a postdoctoral fellow at Brandeis University. “He sort of freaked out.”
Thirty years ago, “just for a laugh”, actor Peter Gordon wrote a poem for his wife Alison, and left it under her pillow. She liked it, and so he carried on, every day for 25 years. To this day, Gordon continues to add to the thousands of poems he had written for Alison, even after her death four years ago.
Certain landlocked cities have lighthouses. On such rivers as the Rhine, the Seine, and the Saint Lawrence, lighthouses gave warning of dangerous areas. In London, the Trinity Buoy Wharf light is still in existence. This hexagonal, pale-brown brick structure is located in an area known as Container City. I remember my father telling me about these buildings when I was a child. To my ears, accustomed to the Spanish language, the word container, which I never completely understood, sounded warlike; I imagined gigantic metal constructions, improbably conical or spherical in shape. It never occurred to me that they would be like shoeboxes.
There is a certain grim irony in Patrick Barkham’s book coming out during lockdown. His quiet but compelling arguments about the importance of kids getting out more and connecting to nature might appear slightly surreal at a time when children the world over have been so long stuck indoors. Barkham tells us how much the area over which children roam has shrunk over three generations; little can he have imagined when he wrote Wild Child how much more constrained their lives were about to become.
But precisely because of these extreme conditions, Wild Child is a book that deserves to flourish.
Thoughtful Americans are realizing that the pervasive IT-revolution devices upon which we are increasingly dependent are affecting our society and culture in significant but as yet uncertain ways. We are noticing more in part because, as Maryanne Wolf has pointed out, this technology is changing what, how, and why we read, and in turn what, how, and why we write and even think. Harold Innis noted in 1948, as television was on the cusp of revolutionizing American life, that "sudden extensions of communication are reflected in cultural disturbances," and it's clear we are stumbling through another such episode. Such disturbances today are manifold, and, as before, their most critical aspects may reside in alterations to both the scope and nature of literacy. As with any tangle between technology and culture, empirical evidence is elusive, but two things, at least, are clear.
For one, the new digital technology is democratizing written language and variously expanding the range of people who use and learn from it. It may also be diffusing culture; music and film of all kinds are cheaply and easily available to almost everyone. In some respects, new digital technologies are decreasing social isolation, even if in other respects they may be increasing it. Taken together, these technologies may also be creating novel neural pathways, especially in developing young brains, that promise greater if different kinds of cognitive capacities, albeit capacities we cannot predict or even imagine with confidence.
But it is also clear that something else has been lost. Nicholas Carr's 2010 book, The Shallows, begins with the author's irritation at his own truncated attention span for reading. Something neurophysiological is happening to us, he argued, and we don't know what it is. That must be the case, because if there is any law of neurophysiology, it is that the brain wires itself continuously in accordance with its every experience. A decade later, Carr's discomfort is shared by growing legions of frustrated, formerly serious readers.
In July 2016, poet Ross Gay “decided that it might feel nice, even useful, to write a daily essay about something delightful.” He gave himself “a handful of rules: write a delight every day for a year; begin and end on my birthday, August 1; draft them quickly; and write them by hand.” This practice of seeking delight became for him a way of cultivating delight; as Gay discovered, “the more you study delight, the more delight there is to study.” I believe it is also an ethical practice: to delight in things is to care about things, and only by caring can we cultivate what is good.
Gay himself might disagree with this claim. Essay 98 of The Book of Delights, which includes 102 of the essays he wrote from August 1, 2016, through August 1, 2017, begins with the statement: “That good and delightful have no requisite correlation ought to be evident.” As an example, Gay points to the work of Jamaica Kincaid, which he says is “good”—meaning fine, beloved, and important—but rarely delightful, except ironically. When I use the word good to describe the results of seeking delight, however, I mean something more like “virtuous” or “beneficial”; in other words, I am talking about an ethical value rather than an aesthetic one.
Silent reading parties have taken place for several years in a local hotel, but when gathering together became impossible, like so much of our public existence, the party went virtual. As a result there has been, besides an ever growing number of participants, an intensification — an experience, Christopher Frizzelle, an editor at The Stranger, tells me, that is “both more intimate and more public than the live event, which is such a confusing contradiction.”
I’ve noticed this paradox too. I’ve plunged into a world of online bookishness over the past few weeks, surprised by my own need for communion through reading. Craving dinner in a crowded restaurant, a random encounter in a subway car, the feeling of being swept up in laughter while watching a movie in a theater, I understand. But reading is so solitary. I hadn’t anticipated that I would miss doing it with other people.
To describe the passage of time has always been one of the favorite challenges of the writer or philosopher. “Where is it, this present?” William James wondered. “It has melted in our grasp, fled ere we could touch it, gone in the instant of becoming.” In Nabokov’s “Ada; Or Ardor,” the heroine declares: “We can never know Time. Our senses are simply not meant to perceive it.” The mysteries of time are bound up in the great unknowns of the body and universe, from consciousness to black holes. But we’ve always reached for it, attempted to fix time, in language or theory, to possess it, reclaim it from the white rabbit. In a moment of uncertainty, what else can we do but grasp at the time we have and can perceive, how beautifully ordinary is this desire, how reassuring even our failure, as it slips away.
Even with the many devices we possess, an essential loneliness remains. When the devices promise a look into someone else’s life, we can’t see it all, and maybe we wouldn’t want to. “Little Eyes” may function as a sci-fi story, but its central concern is the purpose of humanity. Do we live, in the words of E.M. Forster, to “only connect?” Or will we choose to shut the eyes of a plastic pet so we don’t have to see the truth?
Abandon all soap, ye who enter here; you won’t stay clean in “Endland.” A squalidly funny collection of short stories set in the ruined fairground of Brexit Britain, these “postcards from hell” present parochial filth as mock epic.
For the past 1,000 days, I’ve been writing at least one poem a day. I started on 17 August 2017 as a terrorist attack was unfolding in Barcelona. I was alone in a pub (standard for poets) and found myself writing a few lines on my phone. I posted it on Instagram, where I explained that I was experimenting with writing fast poems. That experiment is now wildly out of control.
It may not be the healthiest pursuit. It requires daily engagement with the details of terrorist attacks, natural disasters, school shootings, celebrity deaths, sporting events and the slow plotlines of Brexit, Trump and climate change – and now there’s a pandemic to write about. Even so, there are days when it feels as if either the news or my mind has slowed to a standstill. It has helped that “Tuesday” rhymes with “quiet news day”.
To say Philip Roth stopped writing is inaccurate. He stopped making art. But his old way of coping with any embattlement, to sit down to the keyboard, continued in the years of his retirement. The underside of his greatness swarmed with grievances time had not assuaged. He couldn’t stop litigating the past and produced over a thousand pages of—well, what to call it?—self-justification in those years, all of which I read.
He’d been giving me typescripts and manuscripts since we met, a habit that accelerated. Sometimes these would be birthday gifts, sometimes gifts for no occasion. Sometimes he’d make jokes about the market value of such items when he inscribed them: “For your old age!” Sometimes he’d rather solemnly address me as if I were his archivist.
“There shouldn’t be a volcano where Mount St. Helens is,” says Seth Moran, scientist-in-charge at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Cascades Volcano Observatory in Vancouver, Washington.
Solving this puzzle is about more than satisfying geologic curiosity. The firestorm 40 years ago was a reminder of the dangers the Cascade volcanoes pose to millions of people—and a hard shove propelling volcanology into the future. In the decades since, scientists have used the extensive observations of that blast to better understand eruptions around the world, and bolster our readiness for those yet to come.
Serial killer narratives as a genre tend to focus on the perpetrators; capitalizing on the public’s shivery fascination with the mind of a killer, sensationalizing the murderer while his typically female victims become, at best, parenthetical; romanticized cautionary tales of lives cut short rather than unique and complex individuals in their own rights. This novel upends that structure, taking the criminal out of the spotlight and shifting the focus to the women who are directly or indirectly affected by his actions. The psychological makeup of the killer is eschewed here in favor of the vibrancy of these women’s lives; their ambitions and hopes, their grief and regrets, the way they see themselves, not how they are seen through the filter of a predator.
It was more than a year ago, when things were merely bad, that the British critic Olivia Laing wrote the foreword to “Funny Weather,” her new collection of nonfiction pieces. The question she asks there — “Can art do anything, especially during periods of crisis?” — has taken on greater urgency.
This book is not meant to lay out a comprehensive answer to that question. It’s a gathering of Laing’s reviews, artist profiles and essays, originally published in various newspapers, magazines, exhibition catalogues and other venues. But from these it’s fair to say she believes that art can do quite a bit — among other things, she writes, “it shapes our ethical landscapes; it opens us up to the interior lives of others” — and she champions the very attempt on the part of artists to make a dent in the collective consciousness.
She burst into my room dancing, humming,
a force of nature, her dark skin gleaming,
You might respond that bookstores don’t matter. If you want a book, you can order it online. You can download it to your Kindle. What difference does it make if physical stores are in trouble? Aren’t they an endangered species anyway?
Maybe so — but they’re the kind of endangered species we should be eager to preserve. Brick-and-mortar bookstores matter because browsing is important. Browsing is important not only because it is a pleasure, but also because it underscores the forgotten role of the physical book.
A few years ago, a pretty young woman approached me in the lunchroom of the building where I began work on my novel, The Weekend.
“You’re writing about ageing, aren’t you?” she asked. I was, I said, smiling.
She considered my 50 year-old face for a few long seconds before shuddering, “I’m terrified of ageing.”
I burst out laughing.
But she’s not alone. Looking down the tunnel to old age, it seems we’re all afraid. But of what, exactly? How should we think about growing old?
For the last few weeks, I’ve eaten a big breakfast every morning. Rashers of bacon! Buttery French omelets! Massive breakfast burritos! The heart wants what the heart wants. And sometimes what it wants is a kimchi grilled cheese at 10 a.m.
Freed from the work schedule, a more feral logic has taken hold in my apartment: Sleep when sleepy, eat when hungry, and make it salty and fatty if at all possible. My anxiety is not lessened, exactly, but it’s been transformed from daily workplace neurosis to existential background thrum. Spending an hour to make a tray of crispy potatoes for a big fry-up plate would have been inconceivable in the past, even on the weekend. In my current state, it seems like not enough time to spend making breakfast, really.
Within a knot of streets about a mile square lived some of the 20th century’s most influential minds: the artists Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, Piet Mondrian, Paul Nash and Ben Nicholson; the art critic Herbert Read and the curator Jim Ede; Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus. In Circles and Squares, the art historian Caroline Maclean brings this charged decade, in which a slice of London bohemia debated endlessly how best to live and love, and shook British art from its stupor in the process, to glowing life. Bar a handful of moments in which the narrative loses focus, she recreates beautifully the strange mix of buoyancy and instability that characterised the decade.
One day you look up
and all that’s left of leaves
is a twisted trunk, thick at the base,
When coffee first arrived in Europe,
It was referred to as “Arabian wine.”
In turn-of-the-century San Francisco,
The Bank of America began as the Bank of Italy.
When John Horton Conway, the Princeton “mathemagician” who died in April at age 82, first found fame in the late 1960s and early ’70s, he joined the academic equivalent of the jet set. Then at the University of Cambridge, he would fly to Montreal or New York, deliver a lecture on his Conway group — an entity in the realm of mathematical symmetry that inhabits 24 dimensions — and return home all within the space of a day.
Occasionally, he made a detour to visit Martin Gardner, the mathematical games columnist for Scientific American, at his house in Hastings-on-Hudson, just north of New York. Mr. Gardner taught him magic tricks: Try tying a knot while holding onto both ends of the string, without ever letting go. Dr. Conway, in turn, regaled Mr. Gardner with puzzles and games — Sprouts, for instance, a pencil-and-paper game he had invented with Michael Paterson, a grad student, and which quickly charmed the entire math department, administrative staff included.
By the time production returns to something approximating normal, the pandemic, or the worst of it, will have passed or at least paused. How will it be treated, or will it be treated, when many will just want to look forward? Will we write it out of history, as if nothing had ever happened or might happen again, to return to the old order — the usual business of cops and robbers, comical family dysfunction and medical conditions doctors can fix in an hour? Or will it take the virus more seriously in retrospect than many seem willing to do now as it ricochets around us?
A decade ago, my father, Terry Lee, found a wooden sign behind our cottage’s boathouse. He guessed it had once hung above the door, naming this Ontario lakeside property: Brynmorwydd. Dad, who grew up in Cardiff and emigrated to Canada in the 1970s, knew right away it was Welsh. But the cottage, which originally belonged to my stepmother’s family, was actually an exercise in Canadianness for my dad, who isn’t exactly handy with canoes or campfires. I don’t suppose he ever anticipated that it would draw him back to Wales, but some weeks later he spotted the name of the cottage’s first owner stamped on one of its beams: John G Bolt.
Stephen Johnson ends this thrilling study of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No 8, and much else besides, with a quotation attributed to Beethoven, of which Oscar Wilde would have approved: “Sometimes the opposite is also true.” The legends attaching to Mahler’s life, especially in the final years, are treasured by lovers of Mahler the Titan, and woe betide anyone daring to question them. But Johnson, one of the finest contemporary musicologists, is also a demythologiser of the gentler sort, and all the more persuasive for it.
I went out to the balcony
for the stars;
in the depth of the winter
neons of a belated new year
In the literary world, blurbs are a fraught business. These days they’re an industry standard, and writers and publishers need them to promote their books, but they are, above all else, a favor economy, and lots of people sort of wish they didn’t exist. But no matter your take on the blurb, we all have to admit that the word for them is perfect: a little ugly, a little like a puddle, but juicy, taking up space, defiant and happy to be here. So where did the word come from?
Enjoying magic means welcoming bafflement, committing to feeling dumb. I feel dumb a lot these days. I don’t know when schools will reopen, what work will look like next month, whether my family has had the virus, what I should think or want or do. But after midnight, on my laptop, Guimarães flipped over one named card and then another and another and another and another until each window showed one or more spectators, collectively losing their minds on mute.
I don’t know how he did it. And for the first time in a long time, not knowing felt pretty good.
Houses can be welcoming or forbidding; they might express their owners or oppress them. Sometimes they imprison or haunt or even inhabit their inhabitants. Catherine House does a little of all these things.
Elisabeth Thomas’s debut novel, also called “Catherine House,” is about an exclusive private university, but you might say it’s also about an experiment in social distancing: Here it’s done among one group of students and faculty over a period of three years. The outside world is kept at arm’s length, although, as it turns out, the sickness is inside the house.
God only knows when it began, but I can tell you this: it is never going to end. I don’t mean the pandemic, the origins of which are more or less clear, temporally if not yet biologically, and I don’t mean our great national hunkering-down, which hadn’t even started back on the Groundhog Day it now so resembles. I mean a minor, unexpected, and vexing byproduct of them both: the feel-good chain e-mail, some version of which you have almost certainly received since you’ve been stuck at home. Friends! I know these are trying times, so, in the interest of bringing a little joy into all of our lives, I’m inviting you to join in sharing a beloved poem/recipe/Bible verse/inspiring quote/home workout/elephant joke/photo of yourself in your favorite Renaissance Faire outfit/drawing of a cat in a litter box. This is meant to be FUN!, so please don’t spend too much time on it. It shouldn’t take more than fifty hours of wondering how to graciously decline this request followed by another thirty hours of ignoring it followed by six hours of obsessively refining your recipe for microwave chocolate-chip cheesecake in a mug. When you’re done, simply add your name to the seventh empty slot below, copy and paste this note into a new e-mail, move my name to the third slot above your own, hit “reply all” to send your response to the non-blind-carbon-copied strangers on this note, then forward it to twenty friends you never want to speak to again.
In this superbly articulate cri de coeur, Safina gives us a new way of looking at the natural world that is radically different from our usual anthropocentric perspective. “Becoming Wild” demands that we wake up and realize that we are intrinsically linked to our other-than-human neighbors. We are not alone in loving our families. Having an aesthetic sensibility, both visual and musical, is both shared and can be perceived by many other species while war-prone humans are not the only ones who would generally prefer to live peaceably with one another.
She has a fascination with the eerie, empty city, which is “quiet and beautiful, almost majestic,” as long as you aren’t sick. Watching the sanitation workers stoically going about their tasks fills her with emotion.
At the same time, she writes, “You begin to see things you never imagined humans were capable of.” With hospitals full, the sick wander the streets looking for help. Some of those trapped in Wuhan from elsewhere end up living in tunnels.
There's seed in the feeder
They won't eat any other
Snub it, spit it, kick it all over
A hit is a hit, but like anything that seeps into the collective memory, the “Oops! ... I Did It Again” shock and awe defined that moment. The single and album—the latter of which was released 20 years ago on Saturday—were the last successful world-conquering acts of the exhausted American century (even if the songwriting and production were already outsourced), the final classic album of the teen-pop era, a goodbye to the gilded years of the record industry. The iPod would enter the world shortly thereafter, followed by social media and forever wars. Britney would go on to produce better songs (“I’m a Slave 4 U,” “Toxic”) and remain essential to the pop culture industrial complex until this day (though her public struggles with mental health have often overshadowed the music). But this was the peak of blood-rush hysteria, the last time the illusion could be sustained. Americans are gratefully duped into believing what they want to believe, and this was the last gasp of willful delusion. Nothing would ever be that innocent again.
It’s still spring, but it’s starting to get hotter each day. Fairly soon it will be full-blast summer—at least here in Louisiana, where I live. But humans like to change the environment around them. When it’s cold, we want to heat things up. When it’s hot, we want to cool things down. Humans are difficult creatures.
What’s kind of weird, if you think about it, is that going one way is much harder than going the other way. Making stuff warm isn’t a problem. Just about anything you do will cause something to increase in temperature, even if you don’t want it to. But making stuff cold is trickier.
“Only when the tide goes out,” Warren Buffett observed, “do you discover who’s been swimming naked.” For our society, the Covid-19 pandemic represents an ebb tide of historic proportions, one that is laying bare vulnerabilities and inequities that in normal times have gone undiscovered. Nowhere is this more evident than in the American food system. A series of shocks has exposed weak links in our food chain that threaten to leave grocery shelves as patchy and unpredictable as those in the former Soviet bloc. The very system that made possible the bounty of the American supermarket—its vaunted efficiency and ability to “pile it high and sell it cheap”—suddenly seems questionable, if not misguided. But the problems the novel coronavirus has revealed are not limited to the way we produce and distribute food. They also show up on our plates, since the diet on offer at the end of the industrial food chain is linked to precisely the types of chronic disease that render us more vulnerable to Covid-19.
The juxtaposition of images in the news of farmers destroying crops and dumping milk with empty supermarket shelves or hungry Americans lining up for hours at food banks tells a story of economic efficiency gone mad. Today the US actually has two separate food chains, each supplying roughly half of the market. The retail food chain links one set of farmers to grocery stores, and a second chain links a different set of farmers to institutional purchasers of food, such as restaurants, schools, and corporate offices. With the shutting down of much of the economy, as Americans stay home, this second food chain has essentially collapsed. But because of the way the industry has developed over the past several decades, it’s virtually impossible to reroute food normally sold in bulk to institutions to the retail outlets now clamoring for it. There’s still plenty of food coming from American farms, but no easy way to get it where it’s needed.
It develops the premise of Jemisin’s 2016 story “The City Born Great” (which is included as the novel’s prologue). This is that all the world’s great cities, when they reach a certain size, are magically “born” into anthropomorphic form, individuals who live in, and guard, their metropolis. Such figures are at once the “soul” of the city and regular human people, somewhat bewildered to discover their calling. It’s an idea as old as Athena, although Jemisin’s treatment is rather less loftily divine than Greek myth. Her focus is the scuzzy immediacy of street-level city living. New York manifests as five separate figures: Manhattan becomes Manny, a likable young chancer, and other individuals emerge to embody Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens and Staten Island. It’s lucky they do, since the city is under supernatural attack and in need of defenders.
Ladies and gents in rows of grim portraits
On a high wall of your town house,
I would not wish to pick a fight with Carey, one of the most consistently readable and knowledgeable literary critics writing today – and usually much more concerned with the merits of a book – but his review did join a sub-genre of criticism which is next to useless from many perspectives. It is of little use to an author or a publisher, because it is unlikely to sell many copies; ‘illuminating’ may be praise, but it is also a good deal less fervent than a writer or his editor would hope for. It short-changes a complex subject by offering the most potted of summaries of what is in it, and it leaves the reader feeling faintly disappointed, rather than intrigued. All in all, one has to chalk this up as a missed opportunity.
But why does it matter, you ask? Surely it’s just one review amongst many, and at least offers exposure. But I would argue that the Carey-on-Musgrave pieces are far more common than the Cooke-on-Shulman, and that the trend in book reviewing has gradually become for a critic to show off his or her erudition for most of the piece, before remembering to say something about the volume in front of them in a couple of hurried lines at the end.
This is the George Saunders America, one that is equal parts dangerous, cruel and silly. Sound familiar? “American culture couldn’t be reached by just simple realism,” Saunders has explained of his work, “It had to be a little nutty.”
To be at sea, mid-story; storm-threatened or becalmed; to be adrift, disoriented, at the mercy of incomprehensibly avenging forces that somehow (and you know this, you know this) contain the secret of who you are … We’ve got a poem for that. Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” first published in 1798, is—you might say—the archetypal archetypal journey. You might say further: It’s the dream-poem of right now.
If there’s a silver lining to living in virtual lockdown, it’s this: Plenty of time to attack those lists of “things we should do around the house.” Which is how we came recently to complete a book purge, ultimately donating 27 boxes to a used bookstore, getting rid of six overflow bookshelves in the garage and moving one other back into the house. Now, for the first time in two decades, we can park in our two-car garage.
It was a bittersweet experience. With the bitter outweighing the sweet.
As soon as my wife and I started sheltering in place, I got concerned emails and queries on social media: “Jerry, how are you eating and drinking coffee during this?” I haven’t seen anyone else asked this. These queries were specific to me and my wife, Roberta Smith, also an art critic. We’ve made no secret of her battling cancer since 2014. Today she’s doing well on immunotherapy drugs, though she is in several high-risk categories for COVID-19 and our sheltering in place has a lot of moving parts. But people asked us about food and coffee for reasons other than these. Namely, that anyone who has ever heard about how we eat and drink thinks we are insane.
I have folded them away like sweaters.
Kept my distance from the moon, visited the sick.
Together we circled
the rings, a boy, he was still learning
& we moved slowly,
picking up rhythm as we traveled,
we would see it all, digging our blades
There is a pleasant Sushi Man
His name is Danny Fnu
From where does Fnu originate?
I have not a clue
In the age of GPS, we forget how easy it can be to get disorientated, and we are often fooled into thinking we know the world around us. Common cognitive errors, such as the assumption that ridges, coastlines, and other geographical features run parallel to each other, are easily corrected by a compass or mapping app. But technology, just like our brains, can also lead us astray when we are unsure how to use it or are unaware of its fallibilities. When the aviator Francis Chichester was teaching navigation to RAF pilots during the Second World War, two of his students went missing during an exercise. Chichester searched for them for days in his light aircraft in the Welsh hills, without success. Three months later, he heard that they were prisoners of war: They had misread their compass and flown 180 degrees in the wrong direction, traveling southeast instead of northwest, and had crossed the English Channel thinking it was the Bristol Channel. "They were grateful when an airfield put up a cone of searchlights for them," Chichester recounted in his autobiography, "and it was not until they had finished their landing run on the airstrip and a German soldier poked a tommy-gun into the cockpit that they realised that they were not on an English airfield." This was the wartime equivalent of following a satnav into a river.
It is hard to predict how someone who is lost will behave, though it’s safe to assume—as search and rescue leaders always do—that they won’t do much to help themselves. Few people manage to do what is often the most sensible thing and stay put. Most feel compelled to keep moving, and so throw themselves into the unknown in the hope that an escape route will appear. Accounts by people who have been lost show that this urge to move is extremely hard to resist, even among skilled navigators. Ralph Bagnold, a pioneer of desert exploration in North Africa during the 1930s and 1940s and founder of the British Army’s Long Range Desert Group, recalled being seized by "an extraordinarily powerful impulse" to carry on driving, in any direction, after losing his way in the Western Desert in Egypt. He considered it a kind of madness. "This psychological effect … has been the cause of nearly every desert disaster of recent years," he wrote. "If one can stay still even for half an hour and have a meal or smoke a pipe, reason returns to work out the problem of location." When you’re lost, fight (or rather, freeze) is better than flight, at least until you’ve made a plan. Does knowing this help you drop anchor? Up to a point. Hugo Spiers, who studies how animals and humans navigate space, inadvertently became his own test subject during an expedition to the Amazon basin in Peru.
I point out that perhaps this, now, is that confession. That he's cataloged his deeds and misdeeds over more than 12 hours of interviews; when the results are published—and people reach the end of this article—that account will finally be out in the open. Hutchins' fans and critics alike will see his life laid bare and, like Stadtmueller in his courtroom, they will come to a verdict. Maybe they too will judge him worthy of redemption. And maybe it will give him some closure.
He seems to consider this. “I had hoped it would, but I don't really think so anymore,” he says, looking down at the sidewalk. He's come to believe, he explains, that the only way to earn redemption would be to go back and stop all those people from helping him—making sacrifices for him—under false pretenses. “The time when I could have prevented people from doing all that for me has passed.”
A few elements conspired to make Taco Friday a Swedish institution. In 1990, the country was emerging from a financial crisis, and Swedes were eager to spend again and try new things. Around the same time, government deregulation of television allowed advertising for the first time. Prior to that, Swedes had only seen on-screen ads in cinemas.
The Swedish chips company OLW popularized the slogan “Now it’s cozy Friday time” in its commercials. These days, most Swedes can still hum the catchy jingle by heart. This is widely believed to be the origin of the term Fredagsmys, and in 2007, it was even adopted into the Swedish dictionary.
I wasn’t allowed to eat in front of the TV growing up. Mine was one of those mythical families that gathered together around a table most nights and like, talked, over dinner. There were only a handful of occasions when eating and watching were allowed to happen simultaneously, and these most often involved somebody (usually me) being sick. But on those special days, my mother would bring out my bowl of Jell-O or stack of Saltines on one of a quartet of old metal TV trays we kept in the broom closet. And it was magic.
Now, these were not just any TV trays — these were Strawberry Shortcake TV trays, with a pair of metal legs that folded out to elevate the tray a few comfortable inches over your lap. Keep in mind that to a kid in the 1980s, Strawberry Shortcake had the hype equivalent of Frozen, Trolls, Timothée Chalamet, and Animal Crossing combined. But my love for the TV tray had less to do with its spot-on branding, and more with what it symbolized: an invitation for mindlessness.
Despite the depressingly bleak deficit in how we humans connect, the manifold ways we harm each other, knowingly and unknowingly, from birth, it continues. “[I]n the end it is almost impossible,” Zhang writes, “to say no to more life.”
We now live in a time of which Brodsky was an advance scout—a time in which many writers operate beyond their original borders and outside their mother tongues, often, like Brodsky, bearing witness to violence and disruption, often answering, through art, to those experiences, in language refracted, by necessity, through other language. In Brodsky’s time there was a cluster of poets, some from the margins of empire, some, like Brodsky, severed from their roots—Walcott, Heaney, Paz, Milosz, to name a few—who brought with them commanding traditions as well as the imprint of history’s dislocations. We would do well now to attend to their song, standing as they did in our doorway between a broken past and the language’s future.
Makes me mad.
But this brand of angst isn’t new, for parents of small children. (It was about a year ago, long before Covid, when my husband and I started to jokingly refer to people without children as billionaires of time.) Rather, the feeling is an intensification of existing tendencies, born from the rigors of the moment. Because that, it turns out, is one thing that lockdown does: it intensifies and exaggerates the realities of private lives. Whatever the brute facts of your domestic setup were before the pandemic hit, their power to determine your day-to-day reality has grown. If you lived alone, you are now physically alone all the time. If you were a caretaker, you’re caretaking constantly. If you had a partner, I hope you’re compatible, because you are now that person’s only flesh-and-blood social outlet. Whatever made your home life pleasing or challenging before is magnified, since most of the ways you created space between yourself and that life are unavailable now, or available in only an ersatz or diminished form.
Lockdown has made me aware of something I barely noticed before: the many opportunities that my old life provided for escape. More specifically, the almost gracious way that society was set up to allow me, and many others, to slip from one role into another and another as the day rolled by. This flow strikes me as distinctively modern. And it is gone now, temporarily. The heterogenous, compartmentalized life of before is replaced with a life where your Main Thing is now your Only Thing. At moments it’s fascinating to live this way, but there’s also a sting. It’s the sting of being unable to take turns carrying each other’s burdens. That’s an irony of mass quarantine. We’ve entered into lockdown together. And yet, this act of collectivism has temporarily thrown us back on ourselves, deeper than ever into our own redoubts. To help each other survive, we’ve made it impossible to give or receive so many other, more familiar kinds of help.
It’s a truism that those who don’t learn from the past are condemned to repeat it. But it’s much rarer to see an explanation of exactly how history might help us build a better future. This doesn’t stop historians such as Yuval Noah Harari advising world leaders at Davos, or scientists such as Jared Diamond writing bestsellers about the collapse of traditional societies, of course. But the mechanisms that might enable knowledge of the past to change actions in the present are rarely clear, and historians who take big history to a wider readership, distilling the many voices of humanity’s past into a single human story, often become targets, as the recent New Yorker profile of Harari – which accused him, among other things, of ‘assured generalisation’ – demonstrated. Does the problem lie in the act of storytelling itself? If big data could enable us to turn big history into mathematics rather than narratives, would that make it easier to operationalise our past? Some scientists certainly think so.
In the vast departure hall of Shanghai’s decade-old Hongqiao Railway Station, an epic writ in 80,000 tons of steel, everything looks new and tired at once, tinged with gray — even the October sunshine that filters down from skylights so high it can’t quite reach the floor. This is architecture meant to set the soul asoar, but I am conscious only of how far I am below, in the horde at the gates. Down the stairs, the bullet train waits, sleek-nosed and sealed in on itself, like a missile. A stoic janitor steers a Zamboni-like machine down the platform, buffing it to a gleam. When the train sets off, it feels like nothing: the slight give of a door unlatched. If I don’t look out the window, I can imagine myself absolutely still.
The Chinese government started laying intercity high-speed track in 2005, and today, its network is the longest and most heavily relied upon of any nation’s. Six hours are enough to devour the over 900 miles from Shanghai to Xi’an, the landlocked capital of Shaanxi Province in China’s central northwest, standing on the bones of the imperial city of Chang’an. In the seventh and eighth centuries A.D., this was the center of not only China but the globe — the eastern origin of the trade routes we call the Silk Road and the nexus of a cross-cultural traffic in ideas, technology, art and food that altered the course of history as decisively as the Columbian Exchange eight centuries later. A million people lived within Chang’an’s pounded-earth walls, including travelers and traders from Central, Southeast, South and Northeast Asia and followers of Buddhism, Taoism, Zoroastrianism, Nestorian Christianity and Manichaeism. All the while, Shanghai was a mere fishing village, the jittery megapolis of the future not yet a ripple on the face of time.
Acutely described settings, pitch-perfect dialogue, inner lives vividly evoked, complex protagonists brought toward difficult recognitions: There’s a kind of narrative, often dismissed as the “well-crafted, writing-class story,” that deals in muted epiphanies and trains its gaze inward, to pangs and misgivings. Some readers may no longer admire this kind of story. But I still love it. What is craft, after all, but a good thing well made?
In dark times, people crave comfort. In scuzzy and dystopic times, people reach beyond themselves, and create something that might comfort generations.
At least that’s the portrait David Kamp paints in “Sunny Days,” a lively and bewitching recounting of a particularly ripe period in television and cultural history, from the creation of “Sesame Street” to “Free to Be … You and Me.” From 1969 through the late 1970s, our notion of how to communicate with young children was upended, forever. In fact, childhood itself was radicalized in what Kamp calls “the children’s-liberation movement” — an outgrowth of civil rights foment and progressive ideals that dared to take children’s interior lives seriously. Mostly via puppets.
As if in unwitting aid of the malady they address, books about insomnia tend to be very dull indeed. Many are stuffed with statistics and unhelpful suggestions, like one of those oversize polyester-plumped sham pillows you see on the fancier beds — and just as likely to be flung in frustration to the floor. Samantha Harvey’s memoir of sleeplessness is more like a small and well-worn eiderdown quilt: It might not cover everything, but it both cools and warms, lofts and lulls, settling gradually on its inhabitant with an ethereal solidity.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.
Seven miles overhead, a white ship bobbed in Polynesian waters. It had been built by the U.S. Navy to hunt Soviet military submarines, and recently repurposed to transport and launch Vescovo’s private one. There were a couple of dozen crew members on board, all of whom were hired by Vescovo. He was midway through an attempt to become the first person to reach the deepest point in each ocean, an expedition he called the Five Deeps. He had made a fortune in private equity, but he could not buy success in this—a richer man had tried and failed. When the idea first crossed his mind, there was no vehicle to rent, not even from a government. No scientist or military had the capacity to go within two miles of the depths he sought to visit. Geologists weren’t even sure where he should dive.
According to Wasson, the world is divided into mycophiles and mycophobes. Reverence might take a variety of forms—think of Eastern Europe or Russia, where foraging is a pastime. There’s a famous scene in “Anna Karenina,” in which a budding romance withers during a mushroom hunt. Wasson was particularly interested in societies that venerated the fungus for spiritual reasons. In Mexico, wild mushrooms were thought to possess “a supernatural aura.”
There are any number of reasons that one might be mycophobic. Some people are put off by mushrooms’ taste or texture—supple, with a fleshy resistance—and the fact that they somehow resemble both plant and animal. Others are creeped out by the way they pop up overnight, hypersensitive to atmospheric changes. As fungi, they feed on organic matter, and can be seen as vehicles of decay. In Wasson’s view, Americans, and Anglo-Saxons as a whole, were mycophobic, and “ignorant of the fungal world.”
In Vagabonds, Hao Jingfang gives us two alternative modernities, neither of which are entirely China or fully the West: Mars reflects Western stereotypes of China just as Earth reflects Chinese stereotypes of Western economic and cultural systems. It’s a canny estrangement, and one that can only come from an author fully aware of the milieu in which she’s writing.
what if there was something softer?
“no one is smarter than themselves”
I don’t feel like getting super quotable
it’s not a vibe if it’s uncompensated
How many sat underwater,
entangled by myth’s past tense,
before Neptune first raised his
beard in the direction of Ethiopia,
We’ll beat this crisis through robust testing, social distancing, and, for some, heavy doses of William Dean Howells. But what we’ve learned is that any reading will work. Our rapid shift from laser-focused self-improvement to read-all-the-things omnivorousness is a welcome reminder of something that’s long been true of modern civilization: All reading is quarantine reading.
That is, we use reading not just as a means to educate ourselves, or to “explore other worlds” and suchlike, but to literally keep our distance from others. And though curling up in a corner with a book seems like an obvious, natural act, reading alone and in silence is a relatively recent phenomenon.
Alzheimer’s gets called “the long goodbye” but it’s not even as decent as that. It’s a stolen goodbye, a missed goodbye, a sham goodbye, as the person you love dissolves in unseen pieces until they’re completely gone. It’s impossible to pinpoint, even to the year, when your last conversation with them may have been. The ability to say goodbye to someone on her deathbed suddenly seems like getting a pony for your birthday, compared with this quiet drift into the mist.
But the pony does come. Nearly immediately — certainly within hours of her passing — my mother emerged from that mist. Rather than the person who had so subtly and completely slipped away, the mom who sprung back to life in my mind was engaging, witty, capable, subtly hilarious and limitlessly kind. The happy memories of her that flooded back made me smile without a twinge of guilt, inadequacy, anger and all the other things I had felt for so many years. Yes, I was sad, but it was a pure, uncomplicated sadness of loss. Right by my side, soothing me as I tried to sleep, reminding me in the hardest moments that yes, this is the time to laugh, was the mother who had always lived in my heart.
Mom first dipped her toes into spiritual waters in the early ’80s, after I was born. While working on her master’s of education, she signed up for a Transcendental Meditation class. She would leave the house with fruit and flowers (offerings for some deity) and come home with a secret mantra. Mom said she became interested in meditation because her fight-or-flight signals were constantly spiking. “I was always on the defensive. I needed to slow down,” she told me. But she was soon turned off by TM’s hierarchical structure, so she moved on to Zen meditation—and then found it too restrictive. “They made me sit cross-legged on the floor!” she complained. Mom eventually settled on Vipassanā, which is all about seeing things as they really are: “I took to it like an anxious duck to clear water.”
She was also into Iyengar yoga when I was little. Mom was always folding herself into various poses around the house—doing a more comfortable version of downward dog, for example, where she’d bend forward and rest her outstretched hands on the kitchen table. Or she’d drop down on the living room carpet and kick her legs up into a shoulder stand. There are baby pictures of me climbing up on her, mid-pose, as if she were a human jungle gym.
Mom’s proclivity for meditation and yoga was considered odd back then. We lived in the mostly Jewish, upper-middle-class Cedarvale neighbourhood, where head-to-toe Lululemon and an over-the-shoulder yoga mat were still decades away from becoming de rigueur. Mom was a teacher. We lived in a nice house with a pool. We certainly passed as normal. But I always had a feeling that Mom wasn’t like other moms.
Samanta Schweblin is not a science fiction writer. Which is probably one of the reasons why Little Eyes, her new novel (translated from Spanish by Megan McDowell) reads like such great science fiction.
Like Katie Williams's 2018 novel Tell The Machine Goodnight before it, Little Eyes supposes a world that is our world, five minutes from now. It is a place with all our recognizable horrors, all our familiar comforts and sweetnesses, as familiar (as if anything could be familiar these days) as yesterday's shoes. It then introduces one small thing — one little change, one product, one tweaked application of a totally familiar technology — and tracks the ripples of chaos that it creates.
You remember how it felt
in the presence of your mother.
As you take your rings off to knead the bread, you remember –
She dug through files at his desk, on his computer, and stacked in boxes in the basement. She even found two slim sets of typed pages on a bookshelf in her office. “They were right here and I never knew,” she says. “But it was comforting, too, that they were right here and he trusted me with his work. Maybe he was giving them to me. Maybe he wanted me to find them.”
As Marshall read through his files, some going back to the Harvard class where they met, she realized Harney hadn’t just been writing; he’d been taking what she calls “seed pearls” and crafting them into deeply moving poems, sometimes gestating them for years. These were striking, lyrical works, mostly set in Boston and Naples, Italy, where Harney had traveled every year during the previous decade to write. “Each time I was stunned,” she says. “I’d read the poem and think about all that I didn’t know about Scott.”
Nostalgia has an air of total irreconcilability. There is the feeling the word describes, of course: a fundamentally impossible yearning, a longing to go back even as we are driven ceaselessly forward, pushed further away from our desire even as we sit contemplating it. But it’s the actual feeling, too, that ceaselessly resists any attempt to give it shape or sense. If we say we feel nostalgic, in general or about something in particular, it rarely needs an explanation, and there likely isn’t a good one anyway: Why should it be the smell of our grandmother’s cookies or the feel of a particular sweater or the sight of a certain tree in a certain playground, and not something else, that sends us searching backward? Why is it welling up now, on an otherwise unremarkable Tuesday? Why haven’t I felt this way for a long time? Why does it matter? And that assumes it even occurs to us to interrogate this sudden rush: one of nostalgia’s more persistent qualities is its ability to elide reason, to be felt deeply without prompting any further inquiry.
It’s this strange aura of elusive profundity that makes nostalgia seem less like some sort of modern condition and more like a universal feeling that took us some time to put our finger on. If feelings in general are internal experiences that demand expression whether or not we have the means for it, our inability to actually do anything with nostalgia might be what kept it ineffable for so long. Most kinds of longing can be settled in one way or another, if not necessarily to the satisfaction of the yearner. Nostalgia can only be lived in or abandoned: it is yearning distilled to its essence, yearning not really for its own sake but because there is nothing else to be done. Maybe it resisted definition for so long because naming it doesn’t help resolve anything anyway.
We know from legends and fairytales that dragons can be tricked. Ness shows that although monsters exist in every world, there are many more who wish to overcome them; and that even in the smoking ruins of civilisation, there is room for hope.
I've lived in Paris for 16 years and I've never read Buford. So I first feared Dirt might be yet another expat tale of moving to France en famille, with all its tedious clichés.
I should have known better. Buford is a longtime fiction editor at The New Yorker magazine and author of Heat, a best-selling depiction of the city's restaurant scene. He is knowledgeable, quick and funny — and Dirt is a work of cultural, historical and gastronomical depth that reads like an action memoir.
Conceived well before the coronavirus hijacked our lives, “Sick Souls, Healthy Minds” offers us a lifeline at this moment. Many of us, forced into a state of suspended animation, now have time to think. As we tell each other what to watch, what to cook, what to read and what exercises to do, John Kaag invites us to ask, together with America’s greatest philosopher, William James, what makes life worth living.
When we can leave our cocoons, browsers are likely to find Kaag’s book in the self-help section of their local bookstore. Yet readers lured by its subtitle, “How William James Can Save Your Life,” will soon find themselves wrestling with philosophy, psychology and religious studies, though not in scholars’ bone-dry prose. Instead Kaag, a philosophy professor at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell and a twice-divorced, self-described social misfit, lets readers into his own attempts to stave off depression when he felt the walls of his life closing in.
“Weird” is Khazan’s attempt to find herself — in the psychological and sociological literature she regularly covers for the Atlantic, and in the narratives of other people who feel they don’t fit. On her wide-ranging tour of the former realm, she examines research on norms, conformity, ostracism, prejudice, loneliness and “impostor syndrome” — a voluminous catalogue of the ways humans create groups that include some and exclude others.
Thou ill-form’d offspring of my feeble brain,
Who after birth didst by my side remain,
Till snatched from thence by friends, less wise than true,
Who thee abroad, expos’d to publick view,
If literary fiction is frequently character-driven, the setting significantly contributes to how those characters are developed. Certainly, distinct characters can exist anywhere in time and space, but the setting offers context and insight as to how they act and make decisions. The spatial elements of the prose are neither throwaway details nor inconsequential to the action. Imagining narratives in these terms is useful in constructing a larger understanding of how characters operate in both mimetic and speculative fictional worlds.
There is a widely held belief, among English-language writers, that sex is impossible to write about well – or at least much harder to write about well than anything else. I once heard a wonderful writer, addressing students at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, say that her ideal of a sex scene would be the sentence: “They sat down on the sofa …” followed by white space. This is a prejudice I can’t understand. One of the glories of being a writer in English is that two of our earliest geniuses, Chaucer and Shakespeare, wrote of the sexual body so exuberantly, claiming it for literature and bringing its vocabulary – including all those wonderful four-letter words – into the texture of our literary language. This is a gift not all languages have received; a translator once complained to me that in her language there was only the diction of the doctor’s office or of pornography, neither of which felt native to poetry.
“Borders always make a here and there, a them and us, they are built as a means of separations,” Eberhard says. Borders “define an inner space in which one finds comfort and safety and for some, a sense of belonging.”
He cited the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, who described borders as the making of a national self-portrait. They come at a price, however.
Eberhard’s photographs portray the mostly healed scars of aggression. Dividing lines are seams — stitches in the earth — that knit us together and outline the parts of the whole.
Natasha Moskovitz mourns her old existence of only eight weeks ago. “I have a different perspective of life because of this. I feel so out of shape,” says the Haddonfield, N.J. resident. “Maybe this is what retirement feels like.”
Natasha, it should be noted, is 16.
Two years before he killed himself in 1979 at age 26, writer Breece D’J Pancake started drafting a story about a snake-handler. The preacher in the story didn’t have a snake to use, but he did have strychnine, the other sacred element of the service. He promptly collapsed, poisoned. “I reckon we better get him a doctor,” the narrator says. The preacher’s wife is grossly offended, insisting that he needs Jesus instead of medical attention. “She looks at me like I’ve fallen from grace,” he writes.
Amy Jo Burns’ debut novel, “Shiner,” takes that setting and its tensions — faith versus reality, peril and those who self-righteously toy with it — and gives it a smart, stylish update. Burns’ story is informed by the idea that myth hasn’t served Appalachia well; it leads to notions like “clean coal” and hot-air arguments from J.D. Vance that what the region lacks isn’t resources but stick-to-it-iveness. Yet Burns comes not to chastise the region, just to scrub away such mythmaking, in which women almost always come out on the losing end.
She loved silver, she loved gold,
my mother. She spoke about the influence
of metals, the congruence of atoms,
the art classes where she learned
If you ask a scientist a question about the philosophy of science, there’s a good chance the answer will feature just one or two philosophers. The name of the Austrian-born British philosopher Karl Popper (1902-94) will likely arise in the context of his principle of falsifiability, the ‘demarcation criterion’ that many scientists still use to distinguish science from non-science. A theory is considered scientific only if it makes predictions that can – in principle – be proved wrong. So astrology is not a science because its predictions are typically so vague that they can’t be falsified: they are irrefutable. This is the basis for Popper’s take on the scientific method. Scientists make a series of creative conjectures which they then attempt to refute. They make progress by refining their hypotheses in light of these refutations, and the process begins again.
Meanwhile, the name of the American philosopher Thomas Kuhn (1922-96) will likely be mentioned in the context of his theory of scientific revolutions. In the normal science of every day, puzzles are solved and discoveries are made within a network of accepted foundational theories, or what Kuhn called a paradigm, which is accepted to be irrefutable. Logically, if scientists stopped what they were doing every five minutes, and sought to falsify the basis on which they make their predictions and devise and perform tests, then they wouldn’t get much done. Contrast this with revolutionary science, in which all bets are off and paradigms shift, in a process that Kuhn likened to religious conversion or political revolution. Kuhn argued that such revolutionary scientific change involves not just a change in laws, entities and their mathematical descriptions, but also in the standards by which scientists judge the adequacy of theoretical explanations.
Before the coronavirus crisis, the drive-through had been fast losing status, often deployed as a symbol of obesity and the worst of car-dependent urban design. In many cities, it had been subject to outright bans. The drive-in, meanwhile, is nearly extinct, with just a few still operating in Southern California.
But during the pandemic, drive-throughs have become a weird sort of societal glue. And the drive-in has been reconsidered. Cities that have shut down bars, dine-in restaurants and indoor movie theaters have allowed drive-throughs and some drive-ins to continue to operate.
Their architectural standoffish-ness, in which vendor and client interact largely via speaker and remain in their own environments during an entire transaction, is designed to prioritize efficiency and minimize human exchange. They are the socially distant design we’ve been living with all along.
In the center of the gritty South, Witherow’s making gritty chocolate, literally. Chocolate nibs, salt crystals, and coarse-ground pepper are used to achieve a rough texture beloved by many Music City tongues.
While making his signature bars—67% Dark; 75% Dark; Salt & Pepper; Sea Salted; Double Chocolate Nibs; Coffee; and one-off special-edition roasts—Witherow winnows, grinds, conches, holds, tempers, molds, trims, hand-finishes (last sprinklings of salt, nibs, or pepper), and hand-wraps about five hundred bars a day.
“I’m one of the few, if not the only, ‘beans-to-bar’ artisan chocolate makers in the South,” states Witherow. And who else is making chocolate-covered dried corn? And talking to the folks who stone-grind grits to figure out new ways to stone-grind in his factory?
In his inaugural food column, Beowulf Thorne included recipes for gingerbread pudding, Thai chicken curry, and vanilla poached pears, plus a photo of a naked blond man spread-eagled in a pan of paella. Eat your cereal with whipping cream, he advised readers, and ladle extra gravy onto your dinner plate. “Not only does being undernourished reduce your chances of getting lucky at that next orgy, it can make you much more susceptible to illness, and we’ll have none of that,” Wulf wrote.
“Get Fat, Don’t Die,” the first cooking column for people with AIDS, ran in every issue of Diseased Pariah News, the AIDS humor zine that Wulf started and edited from 1990 to 1999. Under the byline “Biffy Mae,” he passed along reader recipes, mocked nutritional supplements marketed to people with AIDS, and leaned into Bisquick, his tastes alternately cosmopolitan and straight-from-the-box comforting.
Through intricate interweavings of plot delivered in lean yet powerful, often poetic prose, “Only the River” ponders what the Germans call “the unanswerable questions . . . about the difference between courage and cowardice, weakness and strength” — the moving riddles of human confrontation with atrocity and possible redemption. It offers, with open hands, a complicated feast: irreconcilable impasses of character and event; what we can and cannot control. Epic and cinematic, wrought and soulful, it is a deeply serious novel, yet full of tenderness. In one lovely sequence, Pepa and Oskar dance on the Brooklyn Bridge, as Pepa sings. In fact, the novel makes its own soft, steady music, and its traces will haunt a reader’s heart and mind.
There was a moment
when shooting egrets for feathers became wrong.
In Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, the floors and walls are unsettlingly misaligned, leaving inhabitants never quite sure how much to trust even stable-seeming surfaces. But it’s not just the physical instability of homes that haunt Jackson’s work. In Jackson’s fiction, the real horror often lies in the manic loneliness of women so desperate for—even entrapped by the idea of—stable domesticity that they abandon their dying mothers, poison their fathers, and die by suicide rather than leave the places they’ve claimed as home.
On the occasion of publishing a brief collection of some of my older short stories—at the onset of the third decade of a century marked, so far, by our complete submission to market-driven technological distraction and surveillance—I am awash in a kind of nostalgia. Not for a better America. Not for my younger, healthier body and sharper memory, and not for the sweet innocence of my now eighteen-year-old daughter as an infant or toddler or opinionated eight-year-old.
What I miss is writing stories in which a life lived online does not figure—mostly.
More than once recently, I have lain awake counting the sirens going up the otherwise empty streets of Manhattan, wondering if their number might serve as a metric for how bad the coming day would be. But I know that none of my days could approach what Adm. Richard E. Byrd, the American arctic explorer, endured in 1934, when he spent five months alone in a one-room shack in Antarctica, wintering over the long night.
January 2020 was the 200th anniversary of the first sighting of Antarctica, by Russian sailors. Byrd’s account of his 1934 ordeal, “Alone,” published in 1938, has been sitting by my bedside; call it the ultimate experiment in social distancing. At the time, Byrd was already famous for having been the first person to fly over the North Pole (although some researchers have disputed that claim) and, later, over the South Pole. He had received three ticker tape parades on Broadway.
Breakfast is the least analyzed meal. With quarantine, it’s taken on new meaning. We’re no longer grabbing a coffee and a corn muffin from the minimart, hustling to work as if Vince Lombardi were chewing us out. Some of us are taking more care with it.
There’s a small literature of the meal. I’ve owned breakfast cookbooks I’ve never opened. (Breakfast cookbooks are always slightly ridiculous.) But there is also, if you’re alert to it, a lot to be gleaned from novels, biographies and memoirs about starting your culinary day.
In “Little Eyes,” Schweblin proves herself a master at conjuring portraits in miniature, each storyline illuminating some new aspect of the human ability to extract meaning and debasement from technology. Like pets, Schweblin’s robots become vessels for psychological projection — monsters filled with adoration, anxiety, disgust, malice and devotion. The effect of gazing into or out from their little eyes creates the unsettling effect of a mise en abyme, an infinite, unsettling loop that once activated, can be broken only by complete destruction.
Her latest book, “Old Lovegood Girls,” is a richly layered novel based on a lifetime of reflection on friendship and storytelling. In a culture obsessed with youth, it’s a welcome reminder that age and wisdom can confer certain advantages, too.
Like most of Godwin’s work, this is a novel about the lives of women, but Godwin writes women’s fiction that deconstructs the condescending presumptions of that label. Her new book is a brilliant example of the way she can don even the most ladylike concerns while working through issues of independence, power and artistic integrity.
Only language can free us of language, in other words. Fresh vocabularies are required, oddly angled adjectives and surprising sentence arrangements to startle us out of complacency. Ditch your inner chaperone, he implores. Breach the cordon sanitaire in your mind. Filth, he writes, is one possible passport, but so is openness to the unexpected encounter. “Toward what goal do I aspire, ever, but collision?” he writes, and he goes on to document flirtations with beautiful strangers, the purchase of a new pair of glasses, delving into the work of Hervé Guilbert, swimming alongside Nicole Kidman at a local pool, watching a cloud of white butterflies. “Being spellbindable is my fate,” he writes.
Gardens are also good places
to sulk. You pass beds of
spiky voodoo lilies
and trip over the roots
Inside the factory, the air is steamy from warm baths of alkaline water in which bushels of kozo — the stems of mulberry trees — are soaked. Workers remove dirt from the kozo and pound it into strands of pulpy fiber, which they lay in a tub containing water and neri, a thick viscous liquid that is derived from the tororo-aoi plant, also known as sunset hibiscus. Reacting with the neri, the kozo fibers gain a sticky, gummy quality, which allows them to be broken down even further and pulled apart into long white ropes, which are removed from the tub and spread out evenly over a screen. The ropes are massaged together and flattened to the width of a couple of spiderweb-like fibers. As the liquid dries away, these fibers are left woven together, clinging to each other in a delicate sheet of paper.
Tengujo can help reinforce and repair damages from many sources. Ms. Choi calls it “the bread and butter in paper conservation” and “probably the most gentle way of reinforcing anything.” Sometimes tengujo is used for spot-treatment, other times to completely line a manuscript. Its long fibers provide structure and support while remaining almost completely unnoticeable.
In just seven years, since “Fixer Upper” began airing on HGTV, the couple has renovated more than a hundred houses and expanded the Magnolia brand into restaurants, craft markets, books, villas, real estate agencies, furniture, a magazine, a Target brand and — coming up shortly — their own cable channel, the Magnolia Network.
Their continuing negotiation between Texas tradition and modern taste makes for good television, and has also proved to be a wildly popular approach to home design, beloved by millions of followers on Pinterest and Instagram. In their hands, there is no house too small, too dark or too old to be transformed with topiaries (formerly known as houseplants), giant clocks, ironwork and white shiplap into her signature bright style, best described as Boho-Glam-Industrial Farmhouse.
It may be surprising, though it shouldn’t be, to learn that North Korea has novelists and literary critics, fiction prizes and best sellers. Some books have been republished in South Korea, but English translations remain scarce and geared largely toward dissident memoirs. “The Accusation,” an absorbing story collection by a man writing under the name Bandi (or “Firefly”), was published in English in 2017, but it never had a life inside North Korea: The stories were critical of the regime and had to be smuggled out of the country to be read.
What is North Korean literature, as read by North Koreans? One of the few English translations of a novel from Pyongyang — “Friend,” by Paek Nam-nyong, originally published in 1988 — offers a beguiling introduction to the everyday, with none of the rockets and military parades that the words “North Korea” often bring to mind. As recent coverage of the health and whereabouts of the nation’s leader, Kim Jong-un, reminds us, fiction may offer more durable truths than speculative news.
Not every book is for everyone, and not every book on depression is for every depressive. But the question that might be asked of any mental health book, regarding its raison d’être, is: Can this help someone?
“The Hilarious World of Depression,” by John Moe, the veteran NPR host and creator of the podcast after which this book is named, could be a particularly useful tool for those who grew up in homes where seeking therapy was seen as weakness, those who don’t have the language for mental illness, and particularly for men age 50 and older. If you’re looking for a Father’s Day book for a depressed dad who is aware of his condition but averse to seeking treatment, this is the one.
They’ve left. They’ve all left.
The pigeon feeders have left.
The old men on the benches have left.
The white-gloved ladies with the Great Danes have left.
Tonight in the park I was reminded of
the first waltz I attended, dancers turning
across the floor in orchestration, lights
In 1969, the Children’s Television Workshop made a twenty-six-minute pitch reel to line up stations to air a radically new program that appeared to have, as yet, no title. Instead, a team of fleece- and fur- and muddle-headed puppets were seen brainstorming in a boardroom.
“What are those guys doing?” a dubious green frog asks, peering into the room with Ping-Pong eyes.
“Well, you see, we haven’t settled on a title for the show yet, so the guys are working on it,” a floppy-eared dog with a wide mouth says.
The guys come up with some whoppers. Like “The Two and Two Are Five Show.”
“Two plus two don’t make five, you meatball!”
“They don’t? Then how about ‘The Two and Two Ain’t Five Show’?”
Then they try out a title that keeps getting longer and longer.
“Howzabout we call it ‘The Little Kiddie Show’?”
“But we oughta say something about the show telling it like it is! Maybe ‘The Nitty Gritty Little Kiddie Show’?”
The frog, named Kermit, shakes his head at his dog friend, Rowlf. “Are you really gonna depend on that bunch to come up with a title?”
“You never can tell, Kermit,” Rowlf says, with a hopefulness known only to dogs. “They just might think of the right one.”
Science-fiction writers don’t know anything more about the future than anyone else. Human history is too unpredictable; from this moment, we could descend into a mass-extinction event or rise into an age of general prosperity. Still, if you read science fiction, you may be a little less surprised by whatever does happen. Often, science fiction traces the ramifications of a single postulated change; readers co-create, judging the writers’ plausibility and ingenuity, interrogating their theories of history. Doing this repeatedly is a kind of training. It can help you feel more oriented in the history we’re making now. This radical spread of possibilities, good to bad, which creates such a profound disorientation; this tentative awareness of the emerging next stage—these are also new feelings in our time.
Recently, theorists have been busy imagining new cosmic ingredients that, when added to the standard model, would rev up the universe’s expected expansion rate, making it match observations.
“Discovering anomalies is the fundamental way that science makes progress,” said Avi Loeb, a cosmologist at Harvard University and one of dozens of researchers who have proposed solutions to the Hubble tension.
These are some of the top ideas for what could be speeding up cosmic expansion.
Like many Franco-Algerians, the novelist Kaouther Adimi has spent much of her life moving between Algiers, where she was born, and Paris, where she now lives. Thanks to France's 132-year colonization of Algeria, the two countries are thoroughly intertwined — a relationship Adimi explores with nuance and determination in her third novel, Our Riches, newly translated by the excellent Chris Andrews. Moving adeptly from colonized Algiers to the present day, and from a beloved bookstore's birth to its near-death, Adimi at once offers a love letter to literary culture, Algerian independence and the city of Algiers.
That whole side of town
has never been the same since
the motel done closed,
seems like a desert
or a clothes dryer’s insides
on high tumble, yep,
Once you’ve finished “Telephone,” the latest book by Percival Everett, you may be talking about it with another reader and finding that you disagree on what happened.
That is intentional.
“There are three different versions of this novel, they’re all published identically, and you can’t know which one you’re getting,” Everett said during a video interview from his home in Los Angeles. With an apologetic chuckle, he added: “It’s going to piss a lot of people off, I’m afraid.”
If you’re wondering why rereads are what you most want, the answer is simple: Your brain, much like the rest of you, is tired. As many experts, including coach and author Alexis Rockley, have recently explained, our cognitive energy is a finite resource, steadily being used up by every piece of “new abnormal” we have to manage. The stress of information overload and lack of control was already overwhelming, even before adding the emotional stress of walking six feet around everyone, remembering masks and gloves and devouring yet another package of Oreos (maybe that last one is just me). When even getting the groceries involves a 15-step containment process and constant proximity vigilance, there is no autopilot. Everything is new, so everything is exhausting.
Ah, hello. How lovely to see you. Welcome to the inside of my head. Forgive the dreadful mess. When you’ve got a few miles on the clock as I have, you do tend to acquire a bit of clutter. Ignore the problematic Sally James tableau over there; a little something left over from my grubby adolescence. And that bulge, draped in a dusty sheet, is where I keep all my sublimated fears. I try not to look under it too often and you shouldn’t either. Instead, come through to this lovely space. It’s where I keep all my favourite restaurant memories. Yes, I know. It’s as confused and tangled as everything else in here, isn’t it?
In these times, when our world has shrunk to its essentials, and many of the pleasures we take for granted have been wrenched from us, the inside of our heads can be a vital resource. I like to wallow in memories as if they were an orange blossom-scented bubble bath. I can wallow for Britain. I take myself stage by stage through the greatest experiences; the ones that didn’t just tick all the obvious boxes but which, at the time, let me live in the moment. Now I can live inside them again.
Someday, if she finds herself in isolation and I am not there, she will have her own songs and some courage based in these walks and this circuitous make-believe (as good as any philosophy), a rhythm of talking and walking etched in her memory to repeat on her own, an inner life rich with voices and creatures and the remembered pressure of our hands. I hope so. Her grip suddenly drops mine as she begins to run toward home. We are learning together how to be alone.
Few readers will come to Emily St John Mandel’s fifth novel, The Glass Hotel, unaware of her fourth, 2014’s Station Eleven, which imagined a world ravaged by a hyper-lethal form of swine flu. That book was always going to cast a shadow over its successor – such is the curse of a career-defining blockbuster. But as we face Covid-19, the strange, masochistic allure of havoc-lit has catapulted Mandel’s post-pandemic tale of itinerant Shakespearean actors back into bestseller territory. How better to while away a stint in lockdown than by bending our waking terrors into the most comforting and redemptive of shapes – the narrative arc.
“All Adults Here” is deliciously funny and infectiously warm – a clever blend of levity and poignant insights. Straub’s flair for irony and wit shine, and she puts a fresh (and progressive) spin on the age-old multigenerational family saga.
I lose a lot of things
Keys, pencils, books, rings.
But there is one thing —
Specifically a pair —
As a poet, my instinct is to turn to words. They are harder to find in an era where I can’t hug my grandmother after her first round of cancer treatment or hold my best friend’s hand while the president toys with immigration laws whose renegotiation or extension could send her family ten time zones away after twelve years in this country.
So instead of filling my spiral notebook with first drafts of poems, I am spending quarantine handwriting letters to the people I can’t touch.
I am learning more about poetry than I have in entire workshops.
Your results may vary, but I have always found the place for the genuine in poetry to be unlocked not by just reading it but by memorizing it. And it’s a good exercise, in the midst of chaos, to give yourself over to a sound and a rhythm that is not your own. It takes time — you probably have plenty — and effort. But you feel poems differently when you get them by heart and say them out loud. You have to chew them, and their rhythms overpower yours. It frees you up, to submit to them: It’s self-abnegation by incantation, your very own ventriloquist’s act.
Many moons ago, before the pandemic—before we even had moons—our home in the universe was a ring of glowing material, with the young sun in the center, like a donut sprinkled with cosmic dust and gas. Round and round the disk went, whisking particles around, until the material began to stick together in clumps. After millions of years, the clumps curved into the planets and the moons as we know them today, a rich assortment of worlds.
This is our story, but it has happened—is happening—countless times across the cosmos, around other stars. Astronomers have long known about such swirling structures, known as protoplanetary disks, which are the leftovers from the fiery birth of new suns. Telescopes have even managed to observe them in stunning detail (well, as stunningly detailed as you can get many light-years from Earth).
If you attended a banquet at the house of an Italian lord, you’d be handed one of these, filled to the brim with red wine. You’d be expected to lift it by wrapping three fingers around the base, and raise it to your lips without spilling a drop. The whole process should look effortless.
Sound tough? The difficulty was the point. Courtiers were expected to embody the ideal of “sprezzatura,” a hard-to-translate word that combines the senses of elegance, sophistication, and nonchalance. In other words, you were supposed to be good at everything, without ever seeming to put any effort into it. What could be a better demonstration of sprezzatura than casually raising one of these sloshing, top-heavy goblets and taking a sip?
If you follow—or, really, go anywhere near—comics or animation for young people now, you’ve almost surely encountered Noelle Stevenson. First noticed for online fan art about the Avengers, she turned her scrappy dragons-and-castles story “Nimona” into a successful Web comic in 2012, then (with help from a trade press) into one of the bookstore hits of 2015. By that point, she was drawing cover art for big-name novelists and comics writers, such as Ryan North and Rainbow Rowell, and writing for Marvel and DC Comics, and also for the lighthearted feminist summer-camp comic “Lumberjanes.” That success led to an animation writing job and, despite her youth, to her position as the showrunner for “She-Ra and the Princesses of Power,” a delightful, action-packed, queer-friendly, candy-colored Netflix reboot of the nineteen-eighties cartoon.
“Nimona,” “Lumberjanes,” and “She-Ra” share a sensibility: all-ages, girl-powered, whimsical but with a streak of angst, grounded in fantasy and in campfire tales, with multiple characters designed to help troubled young readers through their personal darkness. “The Fire Never Goes Out,” Stevenson’s new book, reflects that sensibility, but it’s an altogether different sort of work: the volume gathers short autobiographical comics that Stevenson drew (and often posted on the Web) between 2010 and 2019. It’s a memoir of sorts, with slices of life from the end of Stevenson’s teens to near the present day. It’s also a coming-out story, a love story, a tale of disorientingly rapid professional triumph, and a story about mental health and illness, showing the young artist figuring out what she must do—first to make art and then to get well.
Translated by veteran Argentinian translator Frances Riddle, Ampuero’s Cockfight explores alternatives to the male-centered family unit across various social strata, depicting strong and weak women, children coming of age and being violated, and maids who critically observe the families who employ them. Her sparse prose focuses on character, narrowing the distance between the body and its experience of violence. Combining structures reminiscent of fairy tales and horror films, genres that often fall back on portraying subservient women characters, Ampuero upends these conventions by decentering the male gaze and reversing tropes.
In his trial before the citizens of Athens, Socrates famously compared himself to a gadfly — a pest, sent by god, perhaps, to “awaken and persuade and reproach” his fellow Athenians so that they did not “spend the rest of [their] lives asleep.” If he was a gadfly, then piety, justice and intellectual orthodoxy were his nectar. Into these moral and ethical issues he would bite, until he sucked dry their illogic and laid bare the uncertainty at their base.
More than 21 centuries later, Socrates — or, at least, the Socratic method of laying bare — would come alive again, this time in the form of a brooding Dane, the self-described Socrates of Christendom, Soren Kierkegaard. Clare Carlisle, in her sparkling, penetrative new biography, “Philosopher of the Heart: The Restless Life of Soren Kierkegaard,” explains how Kierkegaard ran against the philosophical grain of his time.
Ekelund writes, “I walk long distances, but I always wish I could keep going. I would love to leave everything behind me and just walk, day after day, for thousands of miles, on paths I’ve never taken before.”
This lovely book taps into something primeval in us all.
It’s too early to say whether the office is done for. As with any sudden loss, many of us find our judgment blurred by conflicting emotions. Relief at freedom from the daily commute and pleasure at turning one’s back on what Philip Larkin called “the toad work” are tinged with regret and nostalgia, as we prepare for another shapeless day of WFH in jogging bottoms.
But we shouldn’t let sentimentality cloud us. Offices have always been profoundly flawed spaces. Those of the East India Company, among the world’s first, were built more for bombast than bureaucracy. They were sermons in stone, and the solidity of every marble step, the elegance of every Palladian pillar, were intended to speak volumes about the profitability and smooth functioning within. This was nonsense, of course. Created to ensure efficiency, offices immediately institutionalised idleness. A genteel arms race arose as managers tried to make their minions work, and the minions tried their damnedest to avoid it. East India House, in which Lamb worked, could give call centres a run for their money in the art of micro-managing. At the start of the 19th century, the company introduced an attendance book for employees to sign when they arrived, when they left and every 15 minutes in between. Not that it proved much use. “It annoys Dodwell amazingly,” wrote Lamb. “He sometimes has to sign six or seven times while he is reading the newspaper.”
When Shelley Klein moved back in with her father Beri after her mother died, she brought some old furniture with her. He didn’t want it in the house: a Victorian chair would compromise the modernist vernacular, he said. He objected to her pots of herbs, too: putting them on the kitchen windowsill would ruin the rectangular symmetry. They’d had these arguments since childhood, when he stopped her having a Christmas tree. To Beri, the house was a work of art, a gallery for living in, and nothing must detract from its aesthetic.
Designed by the architect Peter Womersley, who became a close family friend, High Sunderland sits in a pine forest on the Scottish borders. A single-storey series of interconnecting boxes, its defining feature is a generous use of glass, which seems to draw the surrounding landscape inside. Klein was born there in 1963, a few years after it was built. She feels “hefted” to the place and used to dread leaving it as a child. Despite travelling widely and spending years in Cornwall, she kept returning, even before her father’s last years. Her book is a homage to the house – and to him.
This is a novel about belonging. The pressure to leave the valley, to find something – anything – somewhere else, is held in tension with the urge to return to its struggling hair salons and gloomy rains, its hillside ruins that resemble “the beginnings of a misspelled word”, where you face the inevitable penalties for your disloyalty. The hollow in the land is a zone of wrong decisions and deaths by misadventure. It’s only 10 miles long but it stretches to fit your life, binding the generations together even as it pulls them apart. You must take these characters as you find them. Without pulling punches or closing his eyes to anything, Clarke makes it possible to do that, in a novel full of insight, empathy and wry laughter.
They, like all creatures, being made
For the shovel and worm,
Ransacked their perishable minds and found
Pattern and form