Mingei encompasses all manner of everyday things, from clothing and furniture to utensils and stationery. These objects, Yanagi wrote, are “deeply embedded in the life of ordinary people”. They stand in contrast to aristocratic fine arts and eschew needless decoration. Works of mingei are crafted with quotidian use and owners in mind; they are typically the handmade creations of anonymous artisans possessing “unconscious grace”. In the parlance of the pandemic, mingei might be called the essential workers of the material world: “Since these utilitarian objects have a commonplace task to perform, they are dressed, so to speak, in modest wear and lead quiet lives,” Yanagi wrote. “They work thoughtlessly and unselfishly, carrying out effortlessly and inconspicuously whatever duty comes their way.”
The City We Became estranges us from the everyday operations of power so that we can, with new clarity, see how it works and how it can be unraveled and remade; like her Hugo acceptance speech, the novel declares that the stakes of social power, the significance of asserting that the world belongs to the marginalized, is nothing less than epic.
Like Donne's devotional on the intimacy of death that connects all human beings, Must I Go affirms the complex bonds of divergent characters who learn to navigate through loss. The novel also serves as a literary equivalent of Schrödinger's cat: In recapturing lost time through Roland's diary, Lilia can exist in an infinite loop between ending and beginning.
In her glorious and exuberant celebration of these biological flying machines, “The Language of Butterflies,” Wendy Williams takes us on a humorous and beautifully crafted journey that explores both the nature of these curious and highly intelligent insects and the eccentric individuals who coveted them. En route we discover, among other things, the remarkable interconnectivity of living things, the deceptions that insects deploy to trick predators and the complexities that present a significant challenge to our attempts to conserve the rapidly disappearing natural world.
Rain nails everything into place.
We can’t shift the house to look
south, can’t roll our glacial boulders
Listen. These dragon-tooth
icicles ferried by a season
between seasons, their icy fangs
In the quietly simmering drama of Karolina Waclawiak’s new novel “Life Events,” Evelyn has lost her job, her marriage is flatlining, and she frequently frets about death, especially the eventual passing of her parents. Only when this Silver Lake drifter trains to become a death doula — to have the uncomfortable conversations that help the terminally ill come to terms with the life they lived — does she begin to shift from dreading the future to living in the present.
Evelyn is in a near constant state of “pre-grieving,” or what others call “anticipatory grief,” Waclawiak said during a phone interview last spring. “But we have no control over grief. That’s not how it works at all.”
Swifts are magical in the manner of all things that exist just a little beyond understanding. Once they were called the “Devil’s bird,” perhaps because those screaming flocks of black crosses around churches seemed pulled from darkness, not light. But to me, they are creatures of the upper air, and of their nature unintelligible, which makes them more akin to angels. Unlike all other birds I knew as a child, they never descended to the ground.
It’s about time we all listened to Gaiman. If you’re waiting for new book in a long-running series, from Martin or Rothfuss, “wait”, he says. “Read the original book again. Read something else. Get on with your life. Hope that the author is writing the book you want to read, and not dying, or something equally as dramatic.”
From Gibson to Blade Runner to Akira, set in the future (2019), which is now already the past, the year of Singapore’s “bicentennial,” that odd celebration of 200 years since the British landed on the island, marking our birth as definitively colonial, to highlight “where we are now” (a present unmoored from the past and therefore amnesiac and myopic), it dawns on me that the future has already come to pass. Singapore has always been there for those who remember it, but if a country sets no store by memory, then its very identity is at stake. I find myself sitting in my apartment, quarantined in western Massachusetts, disoriented and lost. Homesick and sick of home.
Among the myriad passionate readers of Austen, who seem to produce dozens of new books about her every year, Cohen occupies a special place. She read only Austen for several years straight. “Some scenes of Emma’s education,” she reports, “I have probably read a hundred times.” She found a role model in Virginia Woolf, who not only read Austen but lived through her intellectually, writing of her in “letters, diaries, essays, in her own first novel. Some nights she immersed herself in Austen, other times she read her in fragments, ‘two words at a time.’”
The book is grounded in inquiry far more often than in certainty, however, and the collection is one that probes, exploring everything from the relationship between privilege and suffering to the nature of isolation and what it means to be confined with the people we love.
I watch him bob across the intersection,
Squat legs bowed in black sweatpants.
I intellectualize the sky
that feels like it’s opening up
but that is just my mind
following a ratty heron
Yet despite the ubiquity of this language, and the still-present possibility of nuclear warfare, the story of the Manhattan Project is one that is rarely, if ever, widely shared. How to tell that story — an unwieldy tale that continues to unfold to this very day — is a question of perspective and vision. In “The Apocalypse Factory,” Steve Olson offers readers another angle on this evolving global saga.
In south-central Washington State, outside a small rural town called Hanford, a top-secret outpost was created that reshaped not only that sparsely populated region, but ultimately the world. Olson writes that it was growing up in nearby Othello, Wash., in the 1950s and ’60s, that led him to contend with Hanford’s history and write this book. It’s a lucky bit of happenstance, since he doubts he would have otherwise turned his attention to this little-known chapter of the Manhattan Project.
Empire Of Wild is a small book. But it is not a slight book. It is close, tight, stark, beautiful — rich where richness is warranted, but spare where want and sorrow have sharpened every word. And through multiple narrators (including free-floating, disjointed chapters from Victor which haunt every major angle of the plot), disconnected timelines, the strange geographies of memory and storytelling, Dimaline has crafted something both current and timeless, mythic but personal. It is the story of Joan and her love. Joan and her loss. Joan and her family. Joan and her monster.
There’s just no way to finish this powerful novel and not feel more deeply than ever the ghastly consequences of intolerance. But in these intense pages of tightly coiled desire and dread, Emezi has once again encouraged us to embrace a fuller spectrum of human experience.
In a series of autobiographical sketches from childhood to the present day, Tomine casts a cynical and unforgiving eye on his fragile ego, the dubious rewards of his successful career and the absurdity of the comic-book industry.
Newstok takes an original approach: his purpose is not so much to enhance our understanding of Shakespeare’s works as to develop our own mental processes with Elizabethan schooling as our guide. Looking at how Shakespeare’s mind was trained will make us better thinkers, Newstok argues.
Light splashed this morning
on the shell-pink anemones
swaying on their tall stems;
Uncertainty is invaluable in fiction. It is often what makes reading a novel so pleasurable: the instability of the world that we enter; the sense that something is going to happen, though we do not know what; the promise that what we imagine might, in fact, unfold. The mechanics of this uncertainty have often required certain objects: the broken-down car, the doorbell, the unopened package. The landline telephone is perhaps the greatest of these objects. In the twilight of its life, we might, like Nabokov, remember it as an open line of possibility, just waiting to ring.
I thought about all this in my rental car, at the cruising speed of mourning through Eastern Washington, where the reception is so bad I’d have lost Dad even if I’d had him on the line. I thought of my wife waiting at home for me; of the upcoming, soon-to-be-canceled trip to Florida for my grandfather’s 95th birthday; of the hundreds of Jews, strangers to me and me to them, who had welcomed me into their presence, into their community, so that I could have a place to lay my sorrow down, forge a peace with my past and mourn a man who none of them ever knew.
Above all, Van den Berg is a writer of wonderous understatement. Her stories end with readers feeling they have Wile E Coyote’d their way off a cliff and are only now realizing there is no ground left beneath them. Van den Berg’s introspective narration assures she is falling with us and is just as scared to find out where we are going to land—if we are going to survive.
But where those books were also propelled by motion, to change, “The Butterfly Lampshade” by contrast stakes its ground early, and remains there. It resists becoming something other than what its opening pages suggest it’s going to be. Yet its particular quality of stillness hums with so much mystery and intensity that the book never feels static. It is a measure of the book’s success that as I reached the conclusion, I felt considerably more altered by the experience than I often am by novels that travel much further from their beginnings.
Meditations on what the pandemic has done for creativity or political commentary on how the US could look to postwar Britain under Clement Attlee feel less essential than more rhetorically adventurous items; there’s a strangely moving list of personal influences (family, Muhammad Ali, “contingency”) that= constitutes a kind of kaleidoscopic selfie and an essay that riffs on coronavirus as a metaphor for racism, comparing – in passing – Dominic Cummings’s eyes to those of Derek Chauvin as he knelt on George Floyd.
If I were to meet the ghost
of my childhood running
with slipping shoulder-straps
Oh my, oh my, I lose myself
I study atlases and cirrus paths
in search of traces of it, of you
In the winter of 2004, Sarah Stewart Johnson, then a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was on a field trip in the desert east of California’s Sierra Nevada. While learning to map geological terrains, she fell prey to an adolescent thrill. Boulders were perched on ledges; when nobody was watching, she would strain and push one over the edge just to watch it roll hundreds of feet, crash and break apart.
“It was just the power of it,” she said recently in an interview. “It would just echo up through that emptiness. The dust would come up and the boulder would clang into the rocks as it barreled down.”
It’s a strange thing, to find yourself in a place you call home and feel so apart from it. I’ve lived in New York for more than a decade, but I’ve been going to the Northwoods since I was a kid. My parents have a cabin there, in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, in a wilderness preserve on a chain of three lakes. I’d been fishing those lakes since I was small, my father and I in a row-boat at dusk, baiting hooks with nightcrawlers. I’d been hiking those trails, jumping off docks into those waters since before I can remember. Still, I was nervous. I would be a woman alone in the woods. I would be unarmed. (I’m pretty firmly anti-gun, but in a place where most men have a gun strapped to their hip, I was keenly aware of my lack of one.) Even though I knew those woods by heart, I was an outsider.
I know that much of my lament for reading in public spaces is tied to the recent narrow routes of our lives—narrow for good reason—but I have always associated places with books. I love to read at the train station, on the train, at a park, or even in my car, waiting to pick up my wife and daughters. The mind and heart are paused by that action of waiting, and reading fills that space well.
In his latest book, The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist, Adrian Tomine turns himself into the everyman of writerly mortification, cataloguing all of the above indignities and many more besides in such brilliant and toe-curling detail that, post-pandemic, you can imagine publicists quietly placing it in the hotel bedrooms of touring authors, the better that they might find succour among its pages late at night.
But once I started bingeing old episodes of “The Tonight Show,” I found something oddly calming about his topical jokes about Watergate, Iran-contra and other grave events that no longer seem urgent. Comedy plus time equals a certain indifference. But it wasn’t only that: Carson hosted with an unusually light touch and an equanimity that stands out in today’s hyperventilating culture.
Chambers deftly conjures how much these small pleasures mean to people living pinched lives of making do and mending (the novel is dotted with Jean’s Household Hints, taken from real magazines of the 50s and all concerned with saving money). But she also writes with compassion of the bigger passions and unspoken sorrows that lie buried under the respectable surface, and how these can threaten to derail a life, especially in a society that expects women to behave a certain way.
Let’s start with the horse: sometimes,
especially when working, I’m the horse,
as well as the ploughman whipping the horse
If you merely flee at top speed from these reptiles, you will exit the Mesozoic era as a coprolite. Instead, to successfully escape a more athletic pursuer, you have to run smart. You have to use tactics. And above all, you must be unpredictable.
This year’s family holiday was supposed to be sailing, around Corsica. Then … you know what happened. So we’re spending the weekend chugging down the Thames. Guess what though: it’s bloody lovely. Corsica may still happen, but it’ll do well to beat this.
Reading The Yellow House will not exactly resurrect 4121 Wilson Avenue. Nor will it repair what has been done to New Orleans and its inhabitants. It will, however, help you see a great many things more clearly. Since, as the author writes, “it’s hard to know what you cannot see”, this book will also help you know a great many things much better. More marvellous than that, these pages might inspire you to sit with your mother, your grandmothers – to ride out to the cemetery and check your dead friend’s plot – to gather with your siblings for an evening on the stone slab where once your childhood home stood.
The trail gone cold, your voice
asleep in your throat, I thought
Williams poured himself a glass of water in the bungalow kitchenette, settled into a chair in front of his desk, and addressed the topic of the “Star Wars” cycle. He is a tall man, still physically vigorous, his face framed by a trim, vaguely clerical white beard. “Thinking about it, and trying to speak about it, connects us with the idea of trying to understand time,” he said. “How do you understand forty years? I mean, if someone said to you, ‘Alex, here’s a project. Start on it, spend forty years on it, see where you get’? Mercifully, I had no idea it was going to be forty years. I was not a youngster when I started, and I feel, in retrospect, enormously fortunate to have had the energy to be able to finish it—put a bow on it, as it were.”
Now we come to the problem: today, speech predominates. People gesture, but their gesture is clearly a secondary supplement. People also sign but, outside of deaf communities, they favour speech. So, if language did get its start in the hands, then at some later stage it decamped to the mouth. The vexing question is: why? Already in the 18th century, Condillac appreciated the difficulty of this problem. ‘With the language of action at that stage being so natural, it was a great obstacle to overcome,’ he wrote. ‘How could it be abandoned for another language whose advantages could not yet be foreseen?’ This is now known as the problem of ‘modality transition’. To his credit, Hewes fully acknowledged it, and every gesture-first proponent since has had to address it in some way. Can it possibly be explained?
And I now realize that it is this—that feeling of personalities colliding and conspiring in the serendipity of a moment—that makes a restaurant so essential to the hum of a community. It is this that I am craving. People. People savoring a moment together. We don’t need restaurants because we are hungry. We need restaurants because we are lonely.
There is a fine line between admiration and envy. I was reminded of that while reading Amy Stanley’s enthralling portrait of an intrepid 19th-century Japanese woman and the city she loved. Stanley, a professor of history at Northwestern University, renders the world of that rebellious woman, Tsuneno, so vividly that I had trouble pulling myself back into the present whenever I put the book down. “Stranger in the Shogun’s City” is as close to a novel as responsible history can be.
On the final page, Lilia cedes that “Roland was right about one thing. When you start writing about yourself, it feels like you can go on living forever.” Freedom or folly? For once, Lilia doesn’t offer a corrective intervention. I’ll try: What sounds like comfort, especially to the ears of readers and writers, actually expresses the book’s—and Li’s—deep ambivalence between writing and its illusion of immortality and the unspeakable suffering of going on living. But Li’s wisdom is this: we don’t own the ambivalence. Death does. In the end, as Lilia tells Roland, we all must go.
There’s an obvious irony to reading a global history of migration in this time of global stillness, when most of us have been confined to our immediate surroundings for months. Shah describes how our xenophobic tendencies may be an embedded immune response to the fear that outsiders carry novel pathogens, a disturbing theory in the midst of a pandemic that has heightened our divisions. However, “if we were to accept migration as integral to life on a dynamic planet with shifting and unevenly distributed resources, there are any number of ways we could proceed,” Shah writes, briefly touching on schemes such as permeable borders, legal pathways for migrants and wildlife corridors to stitch together broken biomes. As we begin to emerge from this forced suspension, perhaps newly ready to move, Shah’s book is a provocative invitation to imagine the inevitable migration of the future as an opportunity, rather than a threat.
the continental drift between us.
Your cold tea, my stale coffee,
Since we last picked our kids up at school, four months ago, we have taken two walks a day around our neighborhood on the south side of Chicago. I think between us my husband and I have walked the six blocks to Gwendolyn Brooks Park in Bronzeville fifty times. Our route is along Greenwood, past the flowering gardens of old brick houses, then across 47th street, past the art café, currently shuttered, near the health clinic and the historic mosque. A block later comes the park, which has a wonderful sculpture of the poet, the only sculpture of a Black woman in a public place in Chicago. On stepping stones behind the statue are lines of Brooks’s poetry that the children love to read and trace with their fingers. Certain lines have gradually become a part of how I move around in the neighborhood, where we live some blocks from the different houses where Gwendolyn Brooks was born, and grew up, studied, taught, wrote, had her own children, and watched the girls and boys as they skipped and ran. A line that feels strikingly resonant now is incised on the first little oblong stone, from Annie Allen, in the voice of a young girl. It reads, “How pinchy is my room!”
Walking to that statue, to read that line on stone underfoot, I feel how these days I am paying different kinds of attention. To the leaves, to losses, to constraints, on bodies and on daily ways.
I am in the Catskills in a charming, tucked-away treehouse of an inn. My room, walking distance to hiking trails, overlooks a waterfall. Morning coffee and evening vodka-tonic are taken on the deck where the temperature clocks in at a marvelous 75 degrees. Owls hoot. Birds chirrup. Wind tickles my legs.
During the coronavirus lockdown in Chicago, I dreamed about getting away to this leafy utopia. What I did not envision was the hell of crossing the country by car.
I’ve spent too much of my adult life trying to find not just good food, but the very best. Which is exhausting, and expensive, and has warped my own thinking. There have been days I’ve caught myself scheming ways to make more money, just so I can afford to keep eating the meals of my dreams. There have been years where I believed, happily, that it was possible for me—a white man completely untrained in cooking—to be an expert on what food someone else should eat. That I could package the quirky South and sell it to magazines, and that in doing so I was building a more tolerant and well-informed world.
In the collections of Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey, there’s a round ceramic disk, about the size and shape of a cobblestone, with the barest image of a face on it. Two eyes in a mushroom-shaped head, a mouth opened in a howl or scream of some kind. Radiocarbon dating puts its age at about seven hundred years old, which would make it one of the earliest known images of the Jersey Devil.
It had been some time since I fantasized about having a different face, but the outline of my profile was my first serious dissatisfaction with my appearance. When I was thirteen I accidentally glimpsed myself perfectly from the side by swinging the medicine cabinet open and noticing the secondary refraction in the bathroom mirror. I was horrified at my convexness, which I’d never quite seen fully before. My mouth protruded and my chin fell slightly away underneath it. My nose was an entirely different nose than the one I thought I had. It was sculptural. It had a bump in it. It didn’t look like any other nose in my family; not like my mother or father, not like my grandparents or my many cousins. Where did this statement nose come from? I looked like the wrong half of a moon.
Lauren Beukes’s fifth novel is a smartly written thriller that opens with a satisfying bang: a parent and child on the run after escaping a government compound where the young teenager has been quarantined and forced to undergo a seemingly endless series of tests. The parent is Cole. The kid goes through most of the novel under the alias of Mila. From that you could fairly assume that it’s a father and daughter on the lam, but Beukes — whose novel “The Shining Girls” dealt with a time-traveling serial killer — is all about turning assumptions and expectations upside down. Cole is actually Nicole, and Mila, her 13-year-old hostage to fortune, is actually Miles, one of the few males left after Manfall has taken 99 percent of those carrying the Y chromosome. This is because of a pandemic — yes, that again — known as the human culgoa virus, or H.C.V.
“Imperfect Women” is not a conventional detective story, but an investigation into character and motivation. The real mysteries concern love, friendship, obligation, the disappointments that come with the passage of time and the mysteries of other people’s hearts — as well as your own.
Judging by the many memoirs and documentaries that have appeared since 1987, the jury is still out on whether Warhol was an asshole, a saint, or both. Does it matter? His artistic legacy is secure, in part because he recognized the durability of cynicism. Gopnik, quoting Warhol, notes that truly modern art is without feeling. This may be Warhol’s great insight. Nihilism never goes out of fashion. Sometimes it even looks fun.
The uncanny elements of speculative fiction are able to effectively articulate these feelings as well as the sense that there is no stable ground, that things that were once familiar to us are now deeply unfamiliar. Freud’s understanding of the uncanny, however, offers an alternative: the things that are terrifying to us in their seeming unfamiliarity actually do stem from things that are familiar to us. The world of 2020 is still the world of 2019, no matter how much more terrifying things seem now. While recent events have highlighted a staggering string of systemic failures, this is still the same world as before, which means that these systemic failures have always existed, even if they were pushed below the surface for many. The broader awareness of the uncanny thus offers an opportunity for change.
“I love new proofs of old theorems for the same reason I love new roads and shortcuts to places I’ve already been,” said Sophia Restad, a graduate student at Kansas State University. These new paths provide mathematicians with a figurative sense of place for intellectual activity.
In November, the last time I was on an airplane, it was a rainy day in the Northeast. As the plane picked up speed along the runway, we were pressed against the seats in a sensation I always associate with sex. I inhaled and held my good-luck rock. The moment when the whole heft of the airplane leaves the surface of the earth is a moment of enormous erotic charge. The rise and press and all-at-once feeling of elsewhere, a temporary reprieve from the regular pull. In liftoff, in the erotic moment, we are freed of something.
Fake entries, or mountweazels, have often been used by compilers of reference works as a way to check for breaches of copyright: a plagiarist will unknowingly repeat the errors along with the rest. To Williams this is not merely an intriguing curiosity, but a testing ground for the notion of authority and its relation to our partial, creative, eccentric selves. Invented words are her way into those ever-fertile debates about how far language should be fixed or constantly remade. “Surely compiling a dictionary,” muses Mallory, is “like conceiving of a sieve for stars”. As the image suggests, she is romantic about words: longing to catch them, humbly awed by their power to spin free. She and Peter are hard-working logophiles who devote themselves to ordering the language inherited from others – but that’s precisely why they appreciate the power of occasional subversion. It’s why they care about coining words to match their own as-yet-undefined experiences.
This attention to sentence-by-sentence pleasure is an undervalued, even disdained, skill among thriller writers, too many of whom excuse a clunky, utilitarian style as “unvarnished.” They sacrifice style at the altar of momentum. But a precision-cut sentence can quicken the reader’s pulse as reliably as a surprise twist or a character’s excruciating dilemma. When a novel delivers all of the above — as “Love and Theft” ultimately does, its racecar engine revving to a smooth and satisfying purr — it can feel to the reader like a kind of miracle. In a word: thrilling.
Underlying most of these problems is a common issue: the fact that science, as he readily concedes, is “a social construct.” Its ideals are lofty, but it’s an enterprise conducted by humans, with all their foibles.
when my son is young I make him
kale popsicles: one pound of kale
shredded ginger lemon squeezed apples & water blended
he eats them two in hand as fast as they come
With this book, just like the four I wrote before it, once I started writing a draft, I worked on it — at least a little bit — every day until I was done. I’ve tried a variety of rituals and schedules and word-count goals: When I did NaNoWriMo, it was 1,667 words a day. Sometimes it’s 1,000 words a day. Once, on a tight deadline I aimed for 2,000 words a day. Sometimes, when I’m having a particularly hard time (like, for instance, now), I handwrite and don’t track my word count.
But the number of words doesn’t matter. What matters is that I’ve spent that time with my work. The most important thing, for me, is to keep at it, day by day.
When does a willingness to treat a complex issue with the depth and delicacy it warrants descend into Hamlet-like dithering? The form and fact of the question embody the spirit of what it is asking, thus rendering it unanswerable. The question is designed to forestall all action but further consideration of the question. In this way the question is answered: Time decides.
But aside from the name — a variant of Hamnet — attempts to draw comparisons between that masterpiece and the author’s son are odorous. We’re stuck, as we usually are, projecting our own sympathetic sorrow on the calamities of others.
To this unfathomable well of grief now comes the brilliant Irish writer Maggie O’Farrell with a novel called “Hamnet” told with the urgency of a whispered prayer — or curse.
Whereas Joan Didion wrote that we tell stories to live, Li delves into the ways our narratives bury the dead. Lilia Liska, traumatized, stubborn, conflicted, smart and deeply loving despite her best efforts to the contrary, is a kind of Scheherazade wooing herself to forgetfulness, trying to put to rest the memory of a man whose unacknowledged child died too soon, so that she can cherish the memory of that child by herself.
It’s little wonder that Trebek has written a memoir of consummate caginess, one of the wariest I’ve read: a friendly, often funny account marked by a reluctance so deep that it confers a curious integrity upon the celebrity tell-all. For years, he resisted personal questions (“Get a life,” he’d say in interviews) and resisted writing an autobiography. Only after the outpouring of support following his announcement last year that he had pancreatic cancer did he feel he owed something to the public.
which Abomination are you?
The quiz bait: Are you an ass lobster,
or a guy who’s just trying to jerk off
but there’s a bird lizard yelling at him?
“You can’t be telling people ‘Keep your chin up, fight on!’ and then all of a sudden you counter that by: ‘What happened to Trebek?’ ‘Oh, he killed himself. He just got too discouraged,’” the quiz show host says in an interview from his office. “‘Well, hell, he was telling us to be positive. And then he did this negative thing.’ So, yeah. That’s the responsibility that has bothered me.”
Trebek’s new memoir, “The Answer Is ... Reflections on My Life,” is dedicated to “those who are hoping to become survivors.” But as he reveals in the book — which will be published Tuesday — the burden of serving as a beacon of hope has weighed on him. When he began chemotherapy, he started having crying spurts out of the blue. He was troubled by this and confided in his oncologist about the tears. The doctor advised Trebek that they were likely a side effect of his treatment.
Perhaps broader America was ready to move on from the war, but many of its participants and chroniclers were not. “All wars are fought twice,” Vietnamese-American novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen would write decades later. “The first time on the battlefield, the second time in memory.”
This was a battle for memory. It would prove a defining one, worth revisiting today, as my generation of forever-war literati fights similar battles and, in many ways, stakes out similar paths.
You don’t know Norbert D. Larky and David D. Holmes, but you’ve definitely seen their work thousands of times in your life.
It’s the kind of thing that has existed in the brains of people who left the TV on an obscure cable channel in the middle of the night, the kind that doesn’t have 24 hours of content to fill their day.
Or maybe there was a glitch at the station and they needed to fill some airtime. What Larky and Holmes created in the early 1950s was the one of the most iconic test patterns the world has ever seen.
Here’s the thing I now know about dying. It looks like almost anything else. It sometimes looks like sitting down to eat an egg. It looks like just resting for a moment. It looks like just slowing down. The difference between the slowing down and the stopping is nothing at all.
In her new novel, True Love, Gerard continues to suss out this question of what love is, what it means, and how it functions—at times—as a weapon, as a cage. True Love often shows us what love is not, but what it is often mistaken to be. How many of us don’t have a definition of love? How many would define love the way Justice Potter Steward defined obscenity: I know it when I see it. bell hooks echoes Erich Fromm’s definition of love as “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.” Love is a verb.
With her eighth novel, O'Farrell brilliantly turns to historical fiction to confront a parent's worst nightmare: the death of a child. Set in Stratford, England, in the late 16th century, Hamnet imagines the emotional, domestic, and artistic repercussions after the world's most famous (though never named) playwright and his wife lose their only son, 11-year-old Hamnet, to the bubonic plague in 1596. Four years later, the boy's father transposes his grief into his masterpiece — titled with a common variant of his son's name — in which the father dies and the son lives to avenge him.
Alongside global Covid-19 and racial injustice, Rachel Cohen’s memoir about seven years spent reading Jane Austen may seem a welcome diversion or a silly distraction. Cohen herself, a reader of James Baldwin and the Russian poets, is initially “appalled” by her “condition” as a Janeite. But “Austen Years” is a thoroughly authentic, smart and consoling account of one writer’s commitment to another, in which Cohen, who is also the author of “A Chance Meeting: Intertwined Lives of American Writers and Artists” and “Bernard Berenson: A Life in Pictures,” entrusts her own thoughts and feelings to a great writer’s craft.
As the first lines of short story collections go, it’s pretty hard to beat the one that opens Modern Times, the debut of Irish writer Cathy Sweeney: “There once was a woman who loved her husband’s cock so much she began taking it to work in her lunchbox.” This, and the darkly funny page-and-a-half (A Love Story) it kicks off, are representative of Sweeney’s off-kilter sensibility. Her writing is direct, no-holds-barred; her sentences are as taut as bow strings.
Robert’s not coming in, my boss tells me.
I’m sitting sweating in a windowless office,
a stack of résumés eye-balling me, stinking
In short, the zeitgeist is rarely on your side. You write toward it, only to see it evaporate by publication day. And while some authors may catch the moment just right, and honestly, without mercenary intentions, such serendipities of art and chance are accidents, almost always. Those who aim, however earnest or well-intentioned, are doomed to miss the target by a mile.
Why are gimmicks often comically irritating? The very sound of the word seems to grate on popular philologist Ivor Brown, who nonetheless gives it a full entry in 1958’s Words in Our Time: “Comedians have their gimmicks, either as catchphrase, theme song, or bit of ‘business,’ which they exploit in…their appearances.” Gimmicks seem to provoke contempt simply because they are job-related: mere tools that have a strange way of stealing attention. In addition to being what Brown calls a “poor kind of artifice,” the gimmick irritates because it “abbreviates” work and time.
Repulsive if also strangely attractive, with a layer of charm we find ourselves forced to grudgingly acknowledge, labor and time-saving gimmicks are of course not exclusive to comedy. We find them in shoes and cars, appliances and food, politics and advertising, journalism and pedagogy, and virtually every object made and sold in the capitalist system.
Thirty years on, the A.D.A. has reshaped American architecture and the way designers and the public have come to think about civil rights and the built world. We take for granted the ubiquity of entry ramps, Braille signage, push buttons at front doors, lever handles in lieu of doorknobs, widened public toilets, and warning tiles on street corners and subway platforms. New courthouses, schools and museums no longer default to a flight of stairs out front to express their elevated ideals. The A.D.A. has baked a more egalitarian aesthetic of forms and spaces into the civic DNA.
But there’s still a long way to go.
What constitutes being “alone” can be fuzzy, but it ultimately comes down to the physical and psychological boundaries one draws around oneself. Honjok might partake in leisure activities alone, maintain a single-person household, avoid a workplace or office setting, limit social circles, abstain from sex or romantic relationships, or reject marriage or children. At its core, honjok culture is about resisting South Korea’s establishment society and putting individual needs and desires above loyalty to hierarchy and authority. But living independently doesn’t automatically make someone honjok, and identifying as honjok doesn’t preclude being part of a community — especially when that community is virtual.
There’s a danger that novels affirming the value of kindness and connection can tip into cliche; Joyce knows her material well enough to avoid this for the most part, and her deadpan humour undercuts any sentimentality. Her endings may not always be neatly happy, but they are fiercely hopeful.
Just when you think you can hear beyond
the mowers and raw hum of traffic
to the sound in high tree tops of the hermit thrush,
Now for a moment’s calm. Maybe it will go on
and on, like a Strindberg play,
Though some people have knocked out an entire short story in a single sitting, it’s more realistic to see writing a story not as an inspiration-fueled creative binge but as a multiweek project. It’s one you’re a lot likelier to finish if, rather than waiting for the muse, you create the possibility for inspiration by planning a time and setting up the circumstances that will allow you to write regularly. It also should be fun! The act of constructing plots, developing characters and creating dialogue can be challenging, even frustrating, but I never find it boring, and it just might allow you to escape from your daily life at the same time that you access the most imaginative parts of your own brain.
Here’s a one-month plan for completing your first short story.
But as I’ve aged, I’ve realised that career, and life, are never about climbing a ladder and breaking ceilings. Rather, they’re about making missteps and zigzagging as you take the brave, scary road to reinvention.
The Fogging is an intensely introspective debut inspired by Luke Horton’s experience with "fogging" — a routine spraying of pesticide to eradicate mosquitoes from beachside resorts. Horton calls the real-life incident a "scene from a horror movie", which compelled him to imagine it as a pivotal point in the decaying relationship of a couple on holiday.
They found a jar of freckle cream today
on an island in the South Pacific
and immediately assumed it was mine,
Screens and artificial intelligence have shown up regularly in the horror genre since the dawn of the personal computer. “Ghost in the machine” stories are so common that, when I submitted a proposal for a horror novel about technology, my editor warned me against deploying a malevolent A.I. as my antagonist.
But it’s hard to find scary stories that depict how we become the ghosts in the machine. The anxiety we feel when our virtual connections outweigh our real ones is more often a subject for nonfiction, such as a 2018 New York Times article headlined “A Dark Consensus About Screens and Kids Begins to Emerge in Silicon Valley.” A quote in the piece from a Silicon Valley office worker — “I am convinced the devil lives in our phones” — has stuck with me like the tagline on a dog-eared vintage horror paperback.
Ionce asked the great historian Richard Southern whether he would like to have met any of the medieval saints and churchmen about whom he wrote so eloquently. He gave a cautious reply: ‘I think they probably had very bad breath.’ He may have been right about that, but it would be wrong to infer that this was something which didn’t bother them. The men and women of the Middle Ages may have had a greater aversion to unpleasant body odours than their descendants do now. If so, this was bad luck, for they were much more likely to encounter them than we are in our deodorised world.
#AloneTogether has been trotted out a lot during the pandemic, but this was personal. I felt comforted that my Edinburgh neighbors, a group of strangers I’ll never meet, internalized our presence and the reason behind it. Though quarantining far from home, we were embedded in a neighborhood, surrounded by kind people.
In Ghost Wood Song, Waters leans into themes of family, shame, grief, and legacy. Her prose and setting are rich, and Shady’s voice is one many young people will be able to relate to as she navigates relationships and hardship. Like many of the other characters, she is secretive and interior. At times, this made it feel like the story was happening more inside her than around her, and because of this I felt disconnected from some of the biggest plot reveals. Similarly, I was sometimes surprised by characters’ opaque intentions. Perhaps this was part of the point, however — often people are unknowable.
It is only October and already
the snow is falling. I watch it
change direction with the wind.
One morning last year, early in the course of his treatment, Trebek felt so sick that he lay down on the floor of his dressing room, sobbing from the pain. Producers suggested canceling the rest of the day’s tapings, but Trebek insisted on hosting all five episodes. When he walked onto the stage and greeted the audience, he felt focused, like himself.
“Once I introduce him on that stage, he is Alex Trebek,” said the longtime “Jeopardy!” announcer Johnny Gilbert. “You can tell that that’s what he’s living for.”
Such comfort foods, according to the dominant paradigm of Anglo-American food culture, are almost invariably bad for us — balms for the soul but never what the body needs, at least not nutritionally. But there’s a paradox therein: In medieval Europe, as in many of the world’s food cultures today, comfort and health were inseparable; pleasure and familiarity were among the guideposts to maintaining the body’s equilibrium, a notion that persisted in popular thought even as medical science transformed over the centuries.
The Only Good Indians is a disturbing horror novel about revenge and sorrow that houses a narrative about identity and the price of breaking away from tradition at its core. And that identity, Native American, isn't monolithic here; the four friends are Blackfeet, and while that means being Indian, not all Indians are the same. Also, the horror is unlike anything you've read before. It goes from disturbing flashes of thing that may or may not be there to in-your-face explosions of gore and violence tinged with supernatural elements. Jones has a talent for creating unsettling atmospheres and images, but he also enjoys explicit violence; a scene where an elk calf is pulled from inside a dead woman will stay with me forever. That's a good thing.
At the center of the novel is a question: Why did Shakespeare title his most famous play for the son who had died several years earlier? (Hamlet and Hamnet are used interchangeably in parish records of the time. They were, essentially, the same name.)
The book builds toward an intriguing speculation, which I will not reveal here. As it unfolds, it brings its story to a tender and ultimately hopeful conclusion: that even the greatest grief, the most damaged marriage and most shattered heart might find some solace, some healing.
In Juan Cárdenas’s novel Ornamental, the city has no name. It could be here, or anywhere. Its location in time isn’t specified either. There’s a faintly futuristic overlay, but the narrator’s diction swings between antiquated formality and present-day slang, and, among other anachronistic details, there are both spider monkeys and henchmen on the security team. Characters, too, are referenced only by generic designation. “My wife,” “the directors,” “the taxi driver,” “the architect.” Even descriptive nouns of that kind are withheld from the study participants, who have volunteered for the trial of a new recreational drug that exclusively affects women. They’re granted only numbers.
We’re all living through amplified despair, loneliness, collective grief, anger. Great books about love, like this one, feel like precious and impossible gifts. We should cherish the writers who provide them. Persaud shows us the importance of allowing people into our lives who will squeeze us when we need it, rub our backs, offer us a drink, pick us up from the airport. Through her characters, she teaches us, as Walcott did: “You will love again the stranger who was your self.”
The darkness of the future may not mean that anything is possible, but it certainly means that no particular outcome is certain. This uncertainty is the grounds of hope; it also means that hope in itself is insufficient. Hope demands that we work to build a better future on those uncertain grounds.
As Suzanne Marchand shows in her meticulous new book, porcelain has been integral to German life since its reinvention in Saxony in 1708 (the Chinese perfected the craft centuries earlier). It was initially a plaything for princes, as Böttger’s incarceration suggests; Augustus and his rivals sponsored state-run factories for what one called the “splendour and prestige” of their realms. From that beginning, Ms Marchand traces porcelain’s role in German history, examining its uses from Romantic busts of Goethe to Nazi egg cups.
let’s go lurking
all city on our feet
bat swoops without fail
In the just over two years since his tragic death, Bourdain has taken on a near-mythic stature as an emissary for food culture, an individual whose far-flung televised travelogues evolved over time from carousing misadventures into full-blown celebrations of genuine cultural exchange. By the time of his death, Bourdain had played a pivotal role in the mainstreaming and democratization of food culture, essentially bulldozing centuries-old elitist notions of fine dining by dint of his fierce advocacy and boundless enthusiasm. Bourdain’s overarching hypothesis—that political and social inequality could be both better understood and significantly redressed through an investigation of what and how we eat—has become so widely accepted that it can be strange to reflect that just two decades previous these ideas were largely alien. His big move from workaday chef to revolutionary frontiersman began in earnest 20 years ago, and the journey it would take him and his audience on was breathtaking.
Literature is full of weird afterlives. Franz Kafka died in 1924 believing that his manuscripts would be burnt. Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851) was originally a flop. But the 1960s embrace of Hesse ranks with the weirdest of them all. He never visited the United States. He didn’t speak Englisch. His only drug was red wine. But by 1968, as Der Spiegel observed, the hippies had pulled this fading writer ‘out of the doldrums’. Hesse went on to become the bestselling German author of the 20th century, and sits below only the Brothers Grimm and Karl Marx as the most translated German writer of recent decades.
Perhaps because I spend a lot of time listening to people with crazy opinions, I am sympathetic to the view that the only way to live a healthy intellectual life is to expose oneself constantly to weird or detestable opinions. But I never sign petitions or open letters. I told the letter’s organizers that if I have something to say, I will write my own damn letter. Open letters are terrible, and you should never write one or sign one.
Here are reasons why the genre of open letters should die.
“A Good Family” is a lively suspense diversion that provides the eternally welcome assurance that nobody has it all, at least not forever.
I am bathing again, burying my face
into the great nations of moss.
The first artist of international stature to emerge in California, he intended to photograph the 21 Franciscan missions of Alta California, built a century before when the state was a remote province of New Spain. He ended up shooting 17, most represented with multiple views.
Among them was Mission San Gabriel Arcángel, an imposing edifice in what is now Alhambra, just east of Cal State Los Angeles — towns whose names underscore the region’s Spanish ancestry.
But these aren’t Victory Gardens, any more than scattered individual refusals to pay rent constitute a general rent strike that challenges entrenched power. A true Victory Garden push would look like something else. It would channel the idled energy of mass unemployment away from despair and into something productive and hopeful, while also relieving stress and increasing access to high-quality fresh food. It would be unmistakably political, even radical. Scotts Miracle-Gro markets Victory Gardens as a self-affirming individual lifestyle choice. History offers a different model.
The current format won’t foster such accidental fusions. Nor will it foster much interaction between diners, which, to me, is an integral part of the buffet experience. I’ve learned a lot about Philippine, Brazilian, Indian and Pakistani fare while standing in a buffet line. Those days appear to be gone for now, which is why, aside from the sheer risk involved in dining out, I won’t be staking out a buffet anytime soon. Not until I can recognize it as one, and not until I can talk to my buffet neighbors freely without spreading anything more than information.
Abigail Willard meets herself coming and going.
Literally. The heroine of Debra Jo Immergut’s second novel, “You Again,” keeps colliding with her younger self in New York. At first Abigail, a married, middle-aged mother of two, assumes she’s seeing a freakishly similar look-alike. But the girl with her hairstyle is wearing her shoes and raincoat, and she is making out with Abigail’s dangerous addict ex-boyfriend on a street corner: It is, maybe, Abigail herself. And her younger self must be warned.
There are times when I remember
all of them fondly enough for them
to be here once more, all around
“Our cultural seismology is being revealed,” said Anthea M. Hartig, the director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History of the events. Of these three earth-shaking events, she said, “The confluence is unlike most anything we’ve seen.”
Museums, she said, are grappling “with the need to comprehend multiple pandemics at once.”
I have felt the pangs of pandemic-induced boredom as badly as anyone. In the World Series of Staring Contests I am currently leading my easily distracted cat in a best-of-999 series 131-49. But even I never considered “driving” across the country on Street View. Surely, I thought, Schultz had achieved some kind of Pandemic Boredom God Mode.
But Schultz is not doing this out of boredom. At least, not nearly as much as I would have expected. He’s clicking his way across the country as a sort of research project.
Throughout, you feel in the safe hands of a storyteller dedicating their talent to our pleasure. The Liar’s Dictionary is a glorious novel – a perfectly crafted investigation of our ability to define words and their power to define us.
Watts’s novel is best read as a call to start seeing beyond finite empathy economies. It plays with the idea that understanding ecological and personal catastrophes through each other is something cringey and then challenges that cringe’s gendered stakes. The Inland Sea doesn’t assert the equivalence of climate catastrophe and the guy who doesn’t call, but allows them to exist in concert. The large crises of the novel are shot through with smaller pains — indignities and heartbreak and badly inserted IUDs that serve as micro indices for other kinds of harm.
Lacey is such a talented writer that she casts a certain spell, even when that spell is distant and difficult to tune in.
The book bears the massive responsibility of preserving Sarah’s legacy, but it also asks the reader to bear some responsibility for understanding Sarah’s complex humanity. Any addict can imagine herself in Sarah’s place: Now it’s the nonaddict’s turn. This kind of imaginative empathy seems particularly crucial as people continue to die of opioid overdoses all over the country. So read “The Heart and Other Monsters” and start seeing addicts as human. It’s all on you now.
My grandmother pours salt
into my right palm, places thin slivers
of garlic in my left. She explains
Tokyo is a confederacy of contradictions. A place where ubiquitous salarymen and Shimokitazawa hipsters and Harajuku girls sit slurping soba stool to stool; where ancient temples and centuries-old onigiri stalls coexist alongside hedgehog cafés, sky-high skyscrapers, and lights that never seem to stop flashing, like Times Square on steroids. In some ways, expecting the unexpected, making sense of the nonsensical, is par for the course.
As someone who has lived in Japan and travels there somewhat regularly, then, I’m surprised to find myself surprised by this country music subculture, its current crackling under the city, bubbling up in saloons like Country House in Minato, Happon in Kunitachi, Hee Haw in Nakano, Chuck Wagon in Aoyama, and Cowboy-Bar Boro in Chiyoda; a lifestyle manifest in stores like Bailey Stockman (cowboy boots), Albuquerque (leather wallets and belts), and Oregon Trail (western wear). In these bars, basements, showrooms, and dance halls, there is a fervor and fever for a facet of American lifestyle that I did not expect to find outside of the 50 states. But perhaps that says more about me than it does these acolytes of Garth, George, Johnny, Willie, Reba, Randy, and Dolly.
“At first, we took out the love scenes, and the show was falling a little flat because we’re all about romance and family interactions,” said Bradley Bell, the executive producer of the CBS daytime drama. “One of the first ideas we had was to bring in mannequins for the intimate scenes and hospital scenes, and it’s working quite well — we’re shooting it from a great distance or in a way you can’t see the form is inanimate.”
How are the performers reacting to their lifeless co-stars? “We’ve had a lot of strange looks and questions like, Do you really want to do this?” Bell said. “But everyone is game. They are getting their first latex kiss.”
When Breakfast in America first opened in 2003, most customers were students in their twenties—and of those 70 percent were American. Within a couple years, it had completely flipped and 70 percent were français. And thanks to “regulars” who’d been frequenting the diner for nearly two decades, the average age was now 30 to 35.
That said, it was rare to get anyone over 60, unless they were dining with their extended family or babysitting their grandkids. And seniors over 70—almost unheard of. That’s why I was so excited when our 86-year-old neighbor said she’d never been to an American restaurant and wanted to try mine.
“Just the fact that the same number of people came out as went in is a triumph,” says Mark Nelson, one of the original eight “biospherians”. Far from a failure, he regards Biosphere 2 as an unsung achievement in human exploration, as do many others. “I like to say we built it not because we had the answers. We built it to find out what we didn’t know.”
Like other artistic endeavors, garden making can be a response to loss. Creating a garden can be as much a re-creation as a creation; an idea of paradise, something that reconnects us with a landscape we have loved and which compensates us for our separation from nature. Way back in ancient history, the fabled hanging gardens of the city of Babylon were intended to do exactly that.
A book about the most famous composer in the western canon, a “dead white male” at that, isn’t an obvious place to look for insights into our current plight. Yet from the opening paragraph, Laura Tunbridge’s short, illuminating study of Beethoven (1770-1827), published to coincide with the 250th anniversary of his birth, casts a loose net across the centuries and deftly gathers in the connections. Not that she could have known quite how pertinent her starting point would be. Beethoven: A Life in Nine Pieces opens with a prolonged campaign, begun soon after his death and lasting nearly two decades, for a monument to the composer to be built in his birth city, Bonn. If our current preoccupation is more about knocking down than erecting, this statuary episode reminds us of our compulsion to honour, in lifelike replica or exhaustive biography, those we celebrate.
Now even the snow has grown sad –
Let overwhelmed reason go,
And let’s smoke our cigarettes through the air-vent,
Let’s at least set the smoke free.
If I could get away with it, I'd read my kids Hilary Mantel's The Mirror and the Light at bedtime so I might actually have time to finish it. As it is, I am so tired at night that I can barely read a few pages before I conk out, which is too bad, because it's REALLY good.
I'm not sure they would go for it. I mean, they haven't even read Wolf Hall yet (ha)!
My best-laid plans have kind of tanked. My kids and I are lucky to get a nature walk in twice a week, and those oral reports I had them doing every day? Well, frankly, I'd rather not say. What, with teaching decimals and how to tell time and how density affects matter, not to mention my work, keeping kids quiet while Daddy is on his fourth Zoom meeting of the day, laundry, cooking and cleaning every two minutes (PLUS figuring out new ways to cook lentils and chicken wings), AND monitoring five new kittens, I have to say I've let some of my plans fall by the wayside. I barely make it to the mailbox to see if my new shipment of fabric and elastic has arrived, much less find time to read for myself.
Edinburgh, of all British cities, is the most theatrical: the Cowgate arch; the march of crow-step gables up the Grassmarket; the great rake of the Royal Mile. All the city’s a stage, and all the men and women … well, where are they?
There is a feeling of waiting for the play to begin. Conditional plans are being made for Scottish tourism to reopen on 15 July, but visitor numbers in the capital are likely to be significantly down because the festivals have long been cancelled. But then again, this year will not see the usual summer exodus of residents escaping the festival crowds.
Meanwhile, lockdown Edinburgh is uncanny. Streets that should be busy with tourists, phones and raised voice are deserted. This invites a question: without visitors, what is this city like?
The Projectionists — excuse the pun — illuminates a peri-history, a circum-history and adds another level to Barber’s idiosyncratic publications. Barber doesn’t use any obvious overriding critical theory but moves swiftly and seamlessly through what could be New Historicism, post-structuralism, Freudianism and many other critical means of establishing narrative for his fringe actors in the history of cinema in the 19th and 20th centuries. This is one of those rare books, a very readable and erudite academic account of the innovative filmmakers and projectionists Barber believes should be more prominent as players in the history event of the arts.
It used to be Herb Lily
had my number
but now that I have his
when local lobstermen call
Put a sun in Sunday, Sunday.
Eleven please ten hoop. Hoop.
Cousin coarse in coarse in soap.
Cousin coarse in soap sew up. soap.
Cousin coarse in sew up soap.
Why, until now, had I been reluctant to dip into her books that predate our relationship? Lots of reasons, I suspect. There’s jealousy: Who snuggled her on the sofa as she read that Ann Patchett when it came out? And my own inadequacy: What if I start Galsworthy’s 900-page “The Forsyte Saga” (which she regularly rereads) but lack the endurance to finish?
I think I also want to preserve a bit of mystery. The longer you are married, the fewer surprises, so maybe if I don’t read Wilkie Collins, the girl who devoured his works can remain a stranger. As a teenager, one of Cyd’s favorite books was Jack Finney’s “Time and Again,” a book that lives inside her but that I had never heard of. It can just be hers. A girl has to have her secrets.
For Tawada, selfhood is always in flux, a function of language and shifting desire. That view is postmodern, of course, but it is also Buddhist, and very much a part of traditional Japanese culture. Over and over again, her characters are forced to face their own mutability, at various times switching genders, bodies, even species, just as in a fable or a particularly wild Kabuki play.
In the spring of 2016, biologists at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service came to a terrible realization: The Yaqui catfish, the only catfish species native to the Western United States, was on the cusp of disappearing. After a week of searching, they could catch only two wild fish. They estimated that, at most, just 30 fish remained.
For approximately two decades, the last known Yaqui catfish in the United States had been kept in artificial ponds built in and around San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge, on the Arizona-Sonora border, and at a local zoo. Creatures of rivers and wetlands, they had not reproduced. Still, federal and state biologists felt they had to try one more time. In a last-ditch breeding effort, the agency gathered 11 fish and shipped them to a hatchery in Kansas. Within weeks, all of them died. Eventually, even the one geriatric catfish left on display at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum had to be put down.
The South Pole Wall, as it is known, consists of thousands of galaxies — beehives of trillions of stars and dark worlds, as well as dust and gas — aligned in a curtain arcing across at least 700 million light-years of space. It winds behind the dust, gas and stars of our own galaxy, the Milky Way, from the constellation Perseus in the Northern Hemisphere to the constellation Apus in the far south. It is so massive that it perturbs the local expansion of the universe.
But don’t bother trying to see it. The entire conglomeration is behind the Milky Way, in what astronomers quaintly call the zone of avoidance.
Walt Disney demanded and received the powers of a democratically elected government, and his corporation ducked the botheration of, you know, constituents. Constituents who might challenge Disney’s top-down plans or even vote them out of power. The constitutionality of this arrangement has never been challenged. I suppose this proves no one minds the arrangement all that much. But I tend to think otherwise. I think it proves that the people of Florida are no different from patsies across time and space: too ashamed to admit when we’ve been had.
“By turning the state of Florida and its statutes into their enablers,” T. D. Allman writes, “Disney and his successors pioneered a business model based on public subsidy of private profit coupled with corporate immunity from the laws, regulations, and taxes imposed on people that now increasingly characterizes the economy of the United States.”
Connections can serve as a nice substitute for depth, especially in popular fiction. But in the trench of meaning, connections run shallow rather than deep. It doesn’t take much to notice them, but they are always pleasing. And Mitchell is pleasing. At this point, reading his newest novel is like picking up a thread in the dark and following it until you reach the next knot. For readers who haven’t touched any of Mitchell’s back catalogue, Utopia Avenue is unlikely to offer anything special, but for those who have, the book is buttressed a bit by its place in the larger scheme. The author is building a long Something, on a scale rarely seen in fiction that is to be taken seriously, and like a cathedral being made in installations, the finished product is something only Mitchell can see, and the imagined whole is beginning to look more majestic than its composite parts.
You are doing what anyone would do
when you kneel in broad daylight, Patricia,
in the middle of a Cork street to whisper
The hero of Rick Gekoski’s debut novel at first seemed to be a misanthropic crank. James Darke, a retired English teacher, spent months at home wallowing in gloomy thoughts, replaying wistful memories and berating the cruel and idiotic ways of the world and his fellow man. When it emerged that Darke was broken by the loss of his wife, the story and its protagonist acquired heft. A coming-of-old-age tale unfolded into a poignant yet hard-hitting meditation on grief, with a richly complex character at its centre.
Three years on and Mr Gekoski has written a supremely accomplished tragicomic sequel. If “Darke” depicted a painful journey into the light, “Darke Matter” charts forward steps and glances back at the abyss, while exploring a murky moral issue. It is more ambitious than its predecessor, and the author pulls it off in style.
Kendra Atleework’s memoir Miracle Country opens with two major events: the California wildfires of 2015 and Atleework’s rushed return to the Owens Valley, where the fires reached and threatened her childhood home. Atleework’s home is safe in the end, but this opening introduces two themes the book explores: the danger inherent in the California desert landscape, and Atleework’s intense attachment to this area she calls home. It also introduces her family as being at the root of Atleework’s connection to the Owens Valley; neither of her parents were originally from the region, but both felt a bond with the landscape—its hiking trails and beauty and possibilities, good and bad. Atleework’s mother passed away when she was sixteen, and this loss shapes Atleework’s poignant and skillful exploration as she connects her memories and the history of the Owens Valley to tell her own story of her home.
Social criticism is embedded within the Gothic formula, a truth that Silvia Moreno-Garcia certainly appreciates. Her new novel, Mexican Gothic, is a ghastly treat to read, but this supernatural escape tale isn't simply escapist. Set in Mexico in 1950, when women weren't yet allowed to vote, Mexican Gothic explores how, for its independent female characters, marriage threatens to be a premature burial.
Kaufman, of course, is the clever one here, and he has a blast tweaking toxic masculinity, celebrity worship, political correctness, filmmaking, therapy, high art, low art and much more. Themes that have long preoccupied the writer, particularly in the films “Adaptation” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” reappear in “Antkind.” Humanity’s ever competing perceptions of reality, the unreliability of memory, the question of God’s existence and the malleable nature of storytelling are measured again and again in this novel that is long but never dull.
Once in the vast middle of pain—pain stopped,
and a certain clarity descended.
In the sudden effortlessness of being, I could
forget the body. I stayed perfectly still,
Its first victim was my friend David. He was planning to retire and dedicate himself to writing. He told me that the flesh was weak and now that he was getting old, he’d gotten the itch to make himself immortal. Despite the clichés, I was relieved to learn that, in a circle as prosaic as ours, I wasn’t the only one with literary proclivities, so I pulled out the courage from where I’d stashed it away for years to show him my only manuscript that I judged to be more or less presentable. I won’t give any details about the story, but I will note that it was sad (it wanted to be), and the underlying theme had to do with how fragile and fleeting we men are, whether we like it or not, dreaming of creative grandeur or accepting it as a fairly impractical enterprise. One day, after a friendly chat about our personal lives and the luck we’d each had with our respective patient wives, David read the seven pages I handed him. He did it in silence while I struggled not to scrutinize him too much, alert to the slightest change of expression, sipping coffee with eyebrows arched and smoking like a man on death row, cigarette after cigarette, butt to tip, tip burning down to butt, then again butt to tip. Smoke and more smoke. When he finished he said that it had impressed him—my story, not my Bogart or Belmondo impression.
“Damn! I can smell the maturity…If I didn’t know you’d stolen time from other duties, I’d swear your pages were those of a professional. I sure wish I could write so naturally, as if without thinking, about something that’s so close to us all.”
Rare right now, the airplanes. Before, the planes taking off from Logan tracked a path I saw from my pillow in bed, high lights wing-blinking in the night sky in ascent from Boston. Not anymore. Not for now. Before February of this year, the planes blurred into the texture of the everyday, cigarette wisps of contrails, sky-height roar, as regular as the honking geese, which sometimes I notice and sometimes disappear into the familiar static of any afternoon, by the river. Now, I see an airplane and think: Who’s going anywhere? And why? Then I remind myself it could be cargo, small packages, love letters. To see an airplane now is to be aware of both presence and lack: Oh, look, there one is; oh, gosh, I notice because they’ve been mostly gone. And then comes the press of knowing, the weight across the chest, the reminder why.
The gravity of knowing. “The more you know the more you think,” Anne Carson said recently. And the more you think the more you question. What are we supposed to know? What’s better sensed than understood? What happens when the gravity of knowing threatens to tear apart and turn upside down the way the world has existed for you? Do you run away?
It isn’t often that we are tasked with thinking about the history of the food that we eat, unless it shows up in a Jeopardy! question or we ask our informal family historians to detail whose mother passed down this or that version of pound cake. But there are plenty of reasons to pay close attention: for curiosity’s sake; for deepening an appreciation of and respect for cooks, food, and technique; and for gathering perspective on what came before us. “Very few (if any) foods are invented. Most are contemporary twists on traditional themes,” Olver wrote on the Food Timeline. “Today’s grilled cheese sandwich is connected to ancient cooks who melted cheese on bread. 1950s meatloaf is connected to ground cooked meat products promoted at the turn of the 20th century, which are, in turn related to ancient Roman minces.”
The problem is that these days we’re overloaded with bad information that can be accessed instantaneously, with few intermediaries running quality control. “I think it’s a little too easy to turn to the web,” Oliver, who was also a longtime friend of Olver’s, told me as we talked about the legacy of Food Timeline. “What I worry about is that people aren’t learning critical thinking skills. Once in a while I run into someone who has never used a primary source — wouldn’t know it if it hit them on the head. Libraries are where you’d find that stuff. It’s not the same as using a Wikipedia page at all.” Or, if not a library, a mammoth resource compiled by a certified reference librarian herself. Whenever a reader would write in asking a question, or when Olver herself would become interested in the provenance of a certain food, she’d turn to her personal library of thousands of food books, and her litany of professional resources and skills, and write out detailed answers with sources cited on her website.
In a world that is endlessly reshaping itself in the grips of malign and incomprehensible powers, we are all hapless Punchinellos, like B. And yet it is only through being such that we can find — as Kaufman’s novel does, too — anything resembling grace.
In this tightly controlled yet highly unpredictable novel we discover what it is like to come of age in a part of America that is always changing, always the same.
I have arrived here after taking many steps
Over the kitchen floors of friends and through their lives.
The dun-colored hills have been good to me
And the gold rivers.
In August 2016, a park ranger stumbled upon 323 dead wild tundra reindeer in Norway’s remote Hardangervidda plateau. They had been killed in a freak lightning event. But instead of removing the carcasses, the park decided to leave them where they were, allowing nature to take its course – and scientists to study this island of decomposition and how it might change the arctic tundra ecosystem.
Over the years scientists observed the bloated, fly-infested bodies turn into dry skeletons. The latest paper, published by the Royal Society in June, looked at the creation of a “landscape of fear”, as top predators such as wolverines, golden eagles and arctic foxes took advantage of the carrion.
“The landscape of fear framework has provided a better understanding of animal decisions in relation to food and safety trade-offs, predator–prey relationships and how communities are structured across trophic levels,” it concluded.
I lost my sense of smell for maybe five or six days in May. Ostensibly, it was a symptom of contracting COVID-19, though I wasn’t tested, as I wasn’t terribly sick beyond a fever and fatigue. This total blackout of smell was unlike anything I’d ever experienced; it took only twelve hours to set in. I confirmed it by running my fingers through the herbs I have growing in small pots, then lifting my hands to my face and smelling. I do this fairly often, proud I can keep these aromatics alive in the grimy circumstances of a Brooklyn windowsill. When I did so, I realized I couldn’t smell a single herb—not my lemon thyme, oregano, not the sage nor dill, usually so distinct and sweet. The moment cut me. I thought: to live without being able to smell things that grow?
A day later, I underlined the loss by opening a bottle of Skerlj’s Malvasia. It’s a favorite wine of mine from Friuli, usually tropical, splashy, and brusque with acidity. I couldn’t sense any of the big florals, citrus, and saline aromas I have more or less memorized on this wine. It was disorienting. I didn’t drink more than an ounce, as the fruit on the palate also flattened entirely. I found myself thinking for days about what it would be like if this were permanent loss, if herbs or coffee disappeared from my life—if wine did.
Charlie Kaufman's Antkind is a novel only Charlie Kaufman could have written. I'm aware of how vague that sentence is, but I assure you it fits the novel perfectly. Antkind is strange, disjointed, and obsessive. It's also a wildly imaginative narrative in which Kaufman mentions himself several times, discusses his own work, and claims no one has made a "real" movie about New York. You could call it a brilliant piece of metafiction or a marvel of postmodern storytelling and you'd be right — but you could also call it bloated or a flashy, eloquent mess and you'd also be right. Ah, subjectivity.
If art can’t reclaim maimed pasts, erase pointless ones, or promise better futures, a writer who keeps us listening to her alienated female narrators, intrigued by their fates, has managed a feat.
Romalyn Ante is a nurse who came to the UK from the Philippines when she was 16 and is now based in Wolverhampton. This collection, her captivating debut, gives insight into her life: the everyday labour of working for the NHS – with its emergencies – offset by memories of the country she misses (the antiemetic of the title being a drug used to treat sickness and nausea). The opening poem, Half-Empty, begins with a quotation from Prince Philip: “The Philippines must be half empty - you’re all here running the NHS.”
His remark, balanced between compliment and insult, throws down a gauntlet (or a hospital glove). Ante is more playful than angry but in this moving, witty and agile book, there is more than one full-hearted poem of prince-shaming potential.
Where should we find consolation,
dwelling in the north? Amid the stunted
desperate plant life clinging
I'll begin with the story of YS Falls, a set of cascading drops and cool, clear pools set in a Jamaican rainforest. It’s in Saint Elizabeth parish, where for a few years now I’ve been taking my son on vacation. Saint Elizabeth is a beautiful part of the country, far off the beaten path; to reach it from Montego Bay or Kingston takes four or five hours on bad roads. There are few walled resorts here, no package tours of sunburned Americans and Europeans getting drunk at 10 A.M. The people are nice but not too nice; large stretches of the coasts remain undeveloped. I like it because it has yet to be ruined by people like me.
According to locals (and TripAdvisor), YS is one of the wonders of Saint Elizabeth. Last April, on what happened to be my son’s 15th birthday, I hired a taxi to take us there. Davey did not want to go; he wanted to “chill” and “sleep in.” But I wanted to “experience this natural wonder.” So my angry kid and I arrive at YS, which upon first impression is paradisiacal. We walk into the main building, where we must pay a fee (OK, fine), and we are assigned a guide. There is no other way to see YS; we can’t wander around on our own. The guide asks for Davey’s iPhone. I think he’s holding it to keep it safe and dry. But no. For the next hour, he herds us through the falls on a trip that is organized entirely around photo ops. We’re trapped in a conga line of tourists, each group with its own guide who’s holding their smartphones, taking Instagram-worthy shots. We are told to pose in front of one set of falls and—tap!—the guide gets the shot. We’re told to frolic in a pool and—tap!—we’re captured sheepishly frolicking. We are in a kind of hell.
The term “Asian American” is like a balloon: weightless, hollow, all skin. It seems ready to burst at any moment, and yet refuses to be tied down. Coined by UC Berkeley students in 1968 and inspired by the Black Power movement, “Asian American” was once a term of hope and revolution. Replacing words like “Oriental,” this new identifier was created to form a political coalition across Asian ethnicities. But in its contemporary usage, the term has instead consumed and smoothed ethnic and class differences among Asian Americans. What is left is an imagined monolith. To the extent that “Asian American-ness” is something that Asian Americans can experience at all, the term feels like a reminder of its own emptiness.
Melding criticism, theory, history, and memoir, poet Cathy Park Hong’s essay collection Minor Feelings presents a fraught and considerate attempt to say what it means to be Asian American today. Borrowing a framework from filmmaker and theorist Trinh Minh-ha, she avows not to “speak about,” but to “speak nearby,” an approach that acknowledges the difficulty and folly of aiming to represent everyone.
“22 Minutes of Unconditional Love” is an arresting novel that explores the alchemy of contradictions that exist in all great works of literature. Observant and witty, Merkin makes each sentence pack a provocative wallop. So, come for the promise of a compulsively readable novel — “Obsession makes for good copy,” the narrator tells us — and stay for a fascinating lesson on the making of art.
This artful meditation on memory and identity centers on a woman who has just arrived at the Meadowlark Institute for Memory Research in 1999. Wendy Doe has no identification, no memory and no one looking for her — who is she?
For those who find themselves drinking more than usual in the era of Covid — especially women, who are more likely to become alcoholics later in life — “Quitter” is both a warning and a reminder: If you can stop drinking after one or two beers, you’re not better than Barnett and the more than 60 million Americans who binge drink. You’re just luckier.
In the past two decades, we have already given over much of our ability to navigate the world to black-box algorithms; as that journey accelerates into a smart machine future, we would be advised to look out where we are going.
I am a parcel of vain strivings tied
By a chance bond together,
Dangling this way and that, their links
Were made so loose and wide,
Named after the Innu word for “wind of the north,” Tshiuetin is the first railway in North America owned and operated by First Nations people. Its southern terminus, I would soon learn, is about 15 hours east of Toronto by car.
Canada was built by rail. The country’s early railway system was a vital tool for economic growth, but it also abetted Canada’s colonial mission. In addition to carrying goods and services, trains in Canada disseminated disease among the Indigenous communities on whose land this country was built. And while the country’s railroads offered the possibility of expansion to some, for others they were harbingers of forced relocation.
I didn’t know how to cope when we finally broke up. I was terrified that I was fundamentally unlovable. The breakup left me with no understanding or acceptance of myself, no clue what went wrong, and a nagging feeling that I wasn’t good, capable or smart enough. I was afraid that, without him, no one could guide me to become the person I was expected to be. I was a shell of a person and, at the time, it didn’t seem like anything could change that.
Alone in my childhood bedroom, surrounded by Queen paraphernalia and other band trinkets, I found myself Googling Freddie Mercury, trying to comfort myself with details about a person who made no apologies for being who he was and overcame staggering adversity in the celebrity world. His legendary voice was wafting through the room when I found a website advertising the party. There was no better way, I figured, to find myself than honoring the musician I admired most. I found a $500 round trip, booked a plane ticket, found myself a place to sleep after the party and, a few months later, set out to chase Freddie’s spirit.
After I got married, I started taking walks in the Aoyama Botanical Garden every Sunday afternoon. It was a way of taking a break from work and domestic chores – if I stayed home on the weekend, Midori, my wife, would always end up asking me to fix something. After breakfast, I’d take a book and walk from our neighborhood to Shinjuku Avenue, where I’d enter the garden through the east gate. That way, I could walk by fountains, cross the lines of trees in the courtyard, and, if the sun was shining, sit down to read on a bench. On rainy days, I’d go to the café – almost always empty at that time – and settle down by a window to read. Going home, I’d leave the garden through the back gate, where the guard would nod politely in recognition.
Though I went to the park every Sunday, it was years before I entered the greenhouse. As a little boy, I’d learned to enjoy gardens and forests, but I’d never been interested in individual plants. To me, a garden was an architectural and green space where you could go alone, but only if you had something to read or amuse yourself with, and where you could even take clients to close a good deal. When I was young, I’d gone to that same garden with a girl from school and, later on, a college girlfriend, but neither of them had thought to visit the greenhouse, either. I admit that the building wasn’t exactly enticing: it looked more like a chicken coop or storehouse than an enclosed garden. I imagined it to be an oppressive place, maddening like Tsukiji Market, though smaller and filled with unknown plants that had unpronounceable names.
Making your way through this novel feels like riding a high-end convertible down Hollywood Boulevard on the prettiest day of the year while luminaries wave to you from the sidewalks and nothing truly bad ever happens. Of course, eventually all the flower children will become boomers, the designated bad guys of our time, but that’s no concern of Utopia Avenue. As with enjoying any great party, the art lies in knowing when to leave.
One could call Natural History a “philosophical book,” a novel that remains in dialogue, throughout its pages, with the tradition of twentieth century French philosophy, from Badiou to Derrida. The book overflows, as has become Fonseca’s trademark, with multiple stories that direct the reader in different directions, but which slowly begin to trace the contours of a recognizable conceptual phantasmagoria. From Badiou, it seems to adopt his “theory of the event” and the idea of trying to find a truth, even when the final piece of the puzzle permanently eludes us. And from Derrida, it seems to borrow the idea that every event bears the traces of a previous event, traces that work as displaced repetitions, distorted copies of an original that never gets fully actualized. As such, two main conceptual threads seem to guide the text: the first one a reflection on the notion of identity, which has always fascinated Latin American writers; and the second one about the role of art. Far from abstracting into realm of pure autonomy, art is seen here as an intrinsic part of reality itself, incapable of escaping its ethical responsibilities.
Over the past months, members of the Worker Writers School have been writing “coronavirus haiku.” Posted on the Worker Writers School Instagram and Twitter accounts, these poems convey the exhaustion, fear, and stress of NYC life and work during the COVID-19 pandemic, and provide a creative virtual space for reflection and community. Some speak to the strange quiet of city streets and feelings of isolation; others describe the intensity of frontline work and the anxieties of food insecurity. This ongoing project provides a further testament to the vital work of the WWS and to the expansive resonance of Social Poetics. On the page and beyond, Nowak’s commitment to the “first-person plural” offers an urgent, much-needed social vision for poetry today.
Ysenda Maxtone Graham’s dartingly curious book spans half a century, 1930-80, ending with the era of computers and economy travel. It is based on enthralling interviews. There are prewar memories of rising at 4am to dig potatoes from the Scottish soil, shaving the hair off pigs’ carcasses or picking snails from dry-stone walls for London restaurants, all for a hint of pocket money.
The one-day holiday goes to the seaside and back in the works coach, dads decanting straight into the pub. The nowhere holiday means games in derelict buildings, the freedom of the streets, three chairs plus a sheet for a tent, Victorian novels, teenage romance. If you can stay put for all this then why bother with a boarding house, where they sometimes had the gall to charge extra for the condiments?
For a girl to scam the world
to slip out the lies from her body
she must open up and risk the penetration of fakes
and know herself as a name she didn’t choose.
I’d print out a crocodile & feed it
my left hand, then print out another,
prosthetic hand & feed it that one,
etc., ad infinitum. The beast would be
hungry, & I have less use for myself
At the fraying tips of Southern Louisiana, it can be difficult to tell just how close the water is until you’re face to face with it. Standing on the dock out back of the Cecil Lapeyrouse Grocery in Chauvin, a fishing town seventy miles south of New Orleans, Melissa Martin points across the bayou to a marsh where several pale, wizened tree trunks reach up from the earth as if in praise or in penance. Small and lithe with long, wavy hair the color of heron feathers, Martin recounts standing around with one of the old-timers who stops in for coffee at the 106-year-old store each morning. He told her that a century ago, sugarcane fields stretched across that now soggy expanse as far as the eye could see. But today, the land has been eroded, most of the sugarcane industry has picked up and moved north, and what remains are sunburnt grasses and salt-ravaged cypress skeletons, waiting to be swallowed by the ever-encroaching water.
Over the course of the afternoon, as she drives down Highway 56 (aka Little Caillou Road) and back, Martin, chef and owner of Mosquito Supper Club in New Orleans, points out a dozen more horizons where land or homes, a dock or a bait shop used to be. Some of them have been taken by the organic shuffling of generations, others by storms and flooding; so much has been swallowed by the oil industry’s diversion of the Mississippi or the hungry, rushing Gulf of Mexico. Martin says that Bayou Petit Caillou, which bobs with shrimp trawlers and oyster luggers, and runs parallel to Highway 56 past her hometown of Chauvin, is arguably the country’s longest Main Street—a geographical point of reference that carries life in and out by the tides of the moon. These islets and peninsulas, and all the water that runs through and over them, are deeply Cajun territory. And Martin, though she’s lived in New Orleans for almost twenty-three years, cannot identify anywhere else as home. Her life’s work and her recently published cookbook revolve around the food born of these waters, the unwritten recipes that have passed through its kitchens and greased its Magnalite pots. It’s a tradition of Cajun cooking that she sees as vital to document—particularly at this moment when this ragged fringe of America has already, by many, been chalked up to lost.
For my senior piano recital in college, encouraged by my teacher, I took on an ambitious program. I opened with an elaborate Haydn sonata and ended by pairing a Chopin nocturne with his teeming Ballade in G minor. I also played the first three of Schoenberg’s Five Piano Pieces — intensely complex, atonal works that hooked me.
At the center of my program was Beethoven’s Sonata No. 31 in A flat (Op. 110), my first attempt at playing one of the composer’s visionary late sonatas. I loved Opus 110, which begins with a sublime, rustling first movement and ends with a formidable fugue. The work seemed to me to occupy a wholly other realm: elusive, mystical, beyond style, beyond era. Just playing it well wasn’t enough. You had to take listeners with you to its distant cosmos.
Long before smartphones, my father knew how to text. He wrote postcards.
On his office desk, he kept a stack of the tan, 5-cent stamped, blank postcards sold at the post office. The addresses were pre-typed (by his secretary) so when he got the notion all he had to do was grab one, scribble a few lines (always vertically), and put it in his wooden outbox. At college 2,000 miles away, I could count on one showing up in my mailbox once a week or so.
Of my heart
A missing piece.
It hurt, it hurt,
Oh, how it burned!
This happened a few months ago, when my family, being residents of a county that was enduring a scary early spike in COVID-19 infections, began sheltering at home in the most austere way we could. I rarely stepped outside. We had everything from diapers to eggs delivered to our front stoop. The notion of going out for burgers was incomprehensible, but I learned that you could get a Shake Shack kit through Goldbelly, and this news sent ripples of joy through our household. (Apparently my teenage children had grown much wearier of my “Italian improv” cooking than I had realized.)
I should be grateful. That kit wound up teaching me about myself and the tricky nuances of cooking a proper Shake Shack-style burger. But I learned these lessons by messing up. If we’re being honest—and my kids had no problem with being bluntly so—I botched the job. Perhaps my mistakes can be your guide as we head into the Fourth of July weekend.
To this aged Michelangelo, with his frailties, his frustrations, and his insoluble contradictions, William Wallace has devoted the latest and most poignant of his books on the artist (there are six others). Because all creative people start out as young people, we have a tendency to ascribe creativity to youth itself, but mature masters like Michelangelo remind us that the urge to create has nothing to do with age or the lack of it, but rather with that inventive spirit both he and Vasari called ingegno—inborn wit, cleverness, genius. The spirit often manifests young, but like wine and wood, it depends on age to reveal its full complexity. When Michelangelo turned seventy, as he does at the beginning of Michelangelo, God’s Architect, he had nineteen more years to live, every one of them spent at work. As dear friends died and his body weakened, he took on a remarkable series of huge, daunting projects, fully aware, as Wallace emphasizes, that he would never live to see them completed. In his deeply spiritual vision of the world, his own limits hardly mattered; God had called him, and he had answered.
Griffin’s point is not to demonise working-class men, but rather to point out the ways in which the role of “bread winner” could be as oppressive to a man as it was to his dependants. Many autobiographers report a father’s drinking becoming heavier in response to overwhelming pressure – the death of a child, an industrial accident, a local downturn in trade. Griffin is also exquisitely alive to the fact that, while memoirists may find it just about acceptable to mention a father’s drinking, there are all kinds of incidents that may feel too shaming to get a public airing. Stories of a mother who leaves, or gets sent to the asylum, or has an extra baby with the lodger may simply be impossible to share, especially with the grandchildren for whom so many of these accounts were touchingly written.
For readers who can tolerate that much unresolved unreality in their fiction, “Death in Her Hands” may be just the ticket. And even if you have your doubts about the novel, it’s an odd enough enterprise to make you glad that it exists.
Outside Trinity, Edmund Burke
removes his pocket handkerchief
to rub the pigeon droppings from his brow.
Oliver Goldsmith puts down the book
he has been reading since 1864.
A poem is a gesture toward home.
It makes dark demands I call my own.
When a new issue of The New Yorker arrived at the very end of August, the cover featured a generic picnic scene, with people sunbathing, hiking, riding horses. The first few pages held the usual ads for nylons and women’s clothing from Lord & Taylor or Bergdorf Goodman. But there was something unique about this issue: there was no “Talk of the Town,” few cartoons, no book reviews. The entire issue was devoted to one feature, 68 pages long (some thirty thousand words), written by war correspondent and novelist John Hersey. His temporary titles for the piece, “Events at Hiroshima” or “Some Experiences at Hiroshima,” had fallen away in favor of the simple and powerful: “Hiroshima.”
Sometime in the 1980s Catholic primary school teachers in Ireland abandoned the concept of sin, considering it too harsh for the six-year-olds they were training for the confessional. They reached instead for the phrase “a failure to love,” a devastating switch that moved children from the pleasures of transgression (who doesn’t like a good sin?) to the wilderness of abandonment. It was like accusing them of causing their own loneliness. There is, perhaps, a game to be played with novels along these lines, dividing fictional characters into those who sin and those who are merely wrongheaded and sad. It might also be useful to ask if the latter are more often female.
The narrator of Miranda Popkey’s first novel, Topics of Conversation, is the daughter of an old Hollywood family, now in gentle decline. Her nice, white life “was going to be suburban, it was going to be upper-middle-class,” but she throws all that into disarray when she decides to leave her husband, John, who loves her. She does this despite the fact that he was “so kind and so supportive and emotionally generous and a good listener…everything a liberated woman is supposed to want.” Her remorse is partly political: How can a woman refuse all that for herself, when it is exactly what she wants for women in general? Her regret is also, in part, simply human—she does not love a man who loves her, and the pain he feels when she leaves him makes her feel badly about herself.
It is hard to know how to classify Toronto author Jean Marc Ah-Sen’s second book, In the Beggarly Style of Imitation (Below the Level of Consciousness). Marketed by the publisher as “a brief survey through the illustrious forms and genres of literary expression,” it is neither a traditional collection of short stories nor a conventional novel. What it does offer is a bewildering, subversive, and at times extremely funny exploration of how style shapes reality.
Silvia Moreno-Garcia's Mexican Gothic is a thoroughly enjoyable, thought-provoking novel. I want to discuss it around tea, preferably while in the mountains, preferably somewhere well-lit. I remember placing my bookmark in the book and thinking, I should not have read this before bed.
I was afraid of what I might dream.
I heed a path trotted for me before.
I am this impaired — forgetting
and forgetting and forgetting. What else
is this wave crashing into shore
but an attempt to cleave remembrance?
As I was walking all alane,
they came to me,
and they were very well,
their upper lips beaded
There’s no reason why the art gallery as we know it, a 19th century invention, should last forever. But there’s also no sign of an alternative on the horizon. As with other small New York businesses that’ve been closed since mid-March, it’s not clear how many galleries will be able to hold out long enough to reopen. (When I began writing this, galleries had begun to reopen in Berlin, Paris, and elsewhere with proper protection, but no clear date for reopening had been set for those in New York; now the latter have started reopening, still mostly, it seems, by appointment.) For now, artists depend on galleries, if not for subsistence—few have ever been able to live entirely from the sale of their work—then to make their work known, to cultivate a public for it.
The pandemic has not put an end to all gallery activity, though: Galleries are going gangbusters trying to keep their constituencies involved online. My inbox has never been more full of frantic appeals for attention. Galleries that used to send out announcements a couple of times a month now seem to reach out on a daily basis, asking me to check out their highlighted work of the day, to peruse their “online viewing rooms,” or to join the audience for a virtual studio visit with one of their quarantined artists. I’m having none of it. I’ll be happy to bide my time and wait until I can safely see real things in real three-dimensional space.
And maybe, as we use this time to rethink many of the other systems that have seemed so immutable, so natural, so much a part of the way things just are, we can reflect on why we thought we needed all those heroes in the first place, or how they were foisted on us. Eventually, we’ll go back to the movies, but maybe we’ll be less docile, less obedient, when we do. I’m not necessarily saying that we should abolish the Avengers, or defund the DC universe, but fantasies of power are connected to the actual forms that power takes. What feels like a loss in this superhero-free summer might be liberation.
There’s a bit in “Wayne’s World” that I think about all the time. Wayne (Mike Myers), the host of a public access show with a cult following, is grandstanding about the artistic integrity of his program when the scene spontaneously combusts into a surrealist orgy of product placement. Wayne slickly presents a Pizza Hut box, crunches a Dorito, takes a refreshing swig of Pepsi. The scene culminates with Garth (Dana Carvey), Wayne’s introverted sidekick, languidly reclining in head-to-toe Reebok gear. “It’s like people only do things because they get paid,” Garth says. “And that’s just really sad.”
I keep that Garth moment handy, in GIF form, to deploy whenever I recognize that ambivalent impulse in myself and others, which is all of the time. When I first watched “Wayne’s World” as a little kid, I identified with Garth’s shy, proud demeanor. Like Garth, I was muted by social anxiety, hypersensitive to attention and frustrated at being misunderstood; my favorite part of the movie was watching Garth’s sheepish exterior crack into boiling rage. But over the years, I have been drawn to the character on a more existential level. He has become a kind of beacon — a guide to being a real person in a branded world.
In Sex Robots & Vegan Meat, Jenny Kleeman examines the innovations that promise to change the way we love, eat, reproduce and die in the future. “What you are about to read is not science fiction,” she warns in her preface. “We are on the brink of an age when technology will redefine … the fundamental elements of our existence.” First on her list of apocalyptic developments is the production of AI-enabled, animatronic sexbots, which, depending on your viewpoint, provide warmth and comfort to socially isolated men or allow misogynist incels to live out their rape fantasies. Her research takes her to Abyss Creations, the throbbing heart of the industry where hyperrealistic dolls are created complete with custom-made hair, nipples and vaginal inserts.
When at last
the last fires burnt
out upon the prairie,
trains could be
In Jim Carrey’s new semi-autobiographical novel, “Memoirs and Misinformation,” there are flying saucers and a fire-bombing on Rodeo Drive, apocalyptic fires devouring Malibu and a mega-budget Hungry Hungry Hippos movie written by Kenneth Lonergan. One moment, “Carrey” dreams of strangling his late mother; the next, he pines for Renée Zellweger (“his last great love”) and challenges Nicolas Cage, a man “whose artistic bravery had always given him courage,” to a jujitsu duel. (Warning: Cage fights dirty.)
Cowritten with novelist Dana Vachon in the third person to capture what Carrey calls the “wholeness that has an infinite knowledge of all of its parts,” “Memoirs and Misinformation” is, like the twisted political drawings Carrey posts on Twitter, entirely its own thing. A satire of Hollywood’s self-absorption coinciding with the end of the planet, none of it is real ... except when it is. And given the extreme circumstances that have marked Carrey’s life, it’s sometimes difficult to sort out fact from fiction.
On 26 April 1976, after suffering a stroke that robbed him of the ability to walk and speak, the matador Sidney Franklin died in a nursing home in Manhattan, roughly thirteen miles from his native Brooklyn. Fifteen years earlier, on 2 July 1961, Ernest Hemingway donned his ‘emperor’s robe’ and shot himself in the head with a double-barreled shotgun. As young men, the two had split bottles of brandy in Spain, had traveled through the countryside together (a remarked-upon odd couple, one clean and effete and the other greasy and unshaven), had watched bombs explode in Madrid during the Spanish Civil War. The New Yorker journalist Lillian Ross had said theirs was a friendship between a great man and a lesser one. I am the grand-niece of the lesser one.
When Dartmouth College offered me a full scholarship and fellowship to study full time in its mathematics doctoral program, I did not stop to think. Like Henry David Thoreau, I went to the woods to “live deep and suck out all the marrow of life,” which in my case meant spending all of my waking and many of my sleeping moments thinking mathematical thoughts. Thoreau, I was certain, would have understood. “The most distinct and beautiful statements of any truth must take at last the mathematical form,” he wrote.
At Dartmouth, I felt like a poet. I spent my days attempting to write mathematical proofs that distilled hidden truths into concise, elegant prose. Indeed, I overheard more than one debate regarding whether Kenneth Appel and Wolfgang Haken’s proof of the long-unsolved Four-Color Theorem was valid, for everyone agreed that it was neither as concise nor as elegant as a poem.
Not even the lockdown could stop the most dedicated sea-swimmers of Brighton, the British seaside city an hour’s drive south of London. Making the most of their daily exercise quota, the Speedo-wearing stalwarts of the Brighton Swimming Club carried on as always. Arriving at the sea wall as the sun rose over the boardwalk, they teetered down the pebbly beach toward the lapping tide and slid in. Now that pandemic restrictions have lifted, these enthusiasts have been joined by daytripping crowds braving a record-breaking heatwave across the U.K. to bask in the sun.
Brighton’s sea swimmers are all sorts: a nurse, a tattoo artist, a retiree of 85 whose minder supports him into the surf until he’s deep enough to float. Companions with as much in common as a corporate focus group, they share one passion. And they do it, on average, five times a week. “If it’s too rough to swim,” says 49-year-old psychotherapist and daily swimmer Sam Milford, “we’ll lie in the path of the waves and allow them to wash over us.” In this good-time town legendary for hard-partying into the wee hours, the sea swimmers prefer the high that comes from submerging yourself in the English Channel before breakfast.
Adrian Duncan’s second novel, A Sabbatical in Leipzig, presents us with the limit, both structural and thematic, as the point from which human meaning flourishes. Its protagonist, Michael, is a retired Irish bridge engineer who spends a morning puttering around his apartment in Bilbao, playing versions of Schubert’s Trout Quintet, drinking coffee, and describing with frankly idiosyncratic focus a series of encounters with objects that serve as portals to the past. None of these objects or effects — mechanical drawings, a porcelain cup, the quality of light reflected in accidentally harmonious or at least sympathetic windowpanes, an envelope of photographs — open into emotive Proustian sinkholes or sequences; there is instead a gently obsessive and narrow margin to Michael’s concerns. They are not sudden lava flows of memory, but the contours of a ritual enacted each morning before he leaves for his daily trip to the nearby Guggenheim Museum, to visit Richard Serra’s huge steel structures in, once again, a set order, with intent.
Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s “Mexican Gothic” is a feminist horror novel inspired by Gothic classics including “Jane Eyre” and “Wuthering Heights.” It’s also a nod to fairy tales, though not the Disney versions. “Mexican Gothic’s” characters recall the macabre stories in which Cinderella’s sisters chop off their feet and Sleeping Beauty’s stepmother meets her fate in a barrel of snakes.
Poised on a bridge, streetlights
on either shore, a man puts
a saxophone to his lips, coins
in an upturned cap, and a carousel