Every teenager, or every teenager who is lucky, has a Keith. Keith is the friend who jokes and dresses with more swagger than anyone else, who looks out for misfits and makes them feel understood, who is the scourge of bullies and bigots and the master of revels, who can conjure laughs from thin air on nights when you are bored and skint.
Andrew O’Hagan met his Keith – Keith Martin – on the council estate near Irvine new town, on the coast of Ayrshire, 20 miles from Glasgow, where they both grew up. In the 1980s they went on CND protests and miners’ marches together, they were a wayward double-act chatting up girls, and while O’Hagan was still at school and Martin was working as a lathe-turner in a local factory, they formed a band. Thirty years later, with none of that history forgotten, it was O’Hagan who Keith Martin first called with the news no one wants to share; that he had been diagnosed with inoperable cancer, and that they had at best only four months of friendship left.
Got a Very Serious Book to sell about the dangers of radical right-wing overreach? In book publishing, this is the summer of the Sith Lord design palate.
The faces I fall in love with are distinctive. They have broken noses and wrinkles, crooked teeth and diagonal smiles. They are individual. They signal wisdom, a life lived. I can’t help but be grateful for these faces. More than that, I recognise my loved ones just as intensely as a person who could bring their faces easily to mind. My sense of connection is multi-faceted, engaging all my senses, and it’s full of wonder, because each time I look at them, I am seeing something new. I know them no less deeply. I just find my home in a different way.
The primal question it asks is this: If a terminally ill friend asked you to be with them, in another room, while they took the pills that would end their life, would you say yes or no? Either answer has its moral hazards.
Your Ad Could Go Here draws together a talented team of translators, made up of Murray, who also serves as editor, Hryn, Askold Melnyczuk, Marco Carynnyk, and Marta Horban. The lengths of the pieces vary, but they all show Zabuzhko’s predilection for long sentences and her fascination with collective memory. Rich, lyrical descriptions lasso the reader into the lives of the characters and into the historical dramas of the past and present.
Is it dark morning?
my children ask
The poem may not have loved her back, but in its own way it was steadfast. Even when the woman’s life seemed to be spinning from her control, there was one thing she knew she could depend on, one thing that always remained stable. The poem never left her, despite being reduced to a tattered photocopy, handbag-crumpled, grocery-squashed and splattered with dishwater and breastmilk. It stayed by her side when the woman drove herself, wailing, to the maternity hospital. It held her hand through weeks in neonatal ICU. It whispered under her pillow as she dreamt.
“There’s a heron in the book, too,” Patrik Svensson calls over after we notice the bird perched in the willow tree under whose arches the writer is being photographed.
In The Gospel of the Eels, the 48-year-old journalist’s extraordinary, prizewinning book on “the world’s most enigmatic fish”, such coincidences happen a lot.
Born in an Indian village with cerebral palsy, Kuli Kohli was lucky to survive. Neighbours told her parents they should throw her in the river, instead they brought her to the UK. As she grew up here, writing became her means of escape - and transformed her life in ways she never expected.
What does it say about capitalism, John asks, that we have money and want to spend it but can’t find anything worth buying? We’re on our way home from a furniture store, again. We almost bought something called a credenza, but then John opened the drawers and discovered that it wasn’t made to last.
I think there are limits, I say, to what mass production can produce.
We just bought a house but we don’t have furniture yet. We’ve been eating on our back stoop for three months. Last week a Mexican woman with four children rang our doorbell and asked if our front room was for rent. I’m sorry, I said awkwardly, we live here. She was confused. But, she said, it’s empty.
As the culinary experiments suggest, experimental archaeologists are on a quest to fill in the blanks of the archaeological record, to bring the lessons of the past into the present, and to experience what it felt like, smelled like, and tasted like to live in the distant past.
This is not your typical novel. There’s little in the way of plot; there aren’t even chapters. But that’s the point: It’s a mishmash. As Nayeri writes, “A patchwork story is the shame of a refugee.” Stick with Khosrou, though, and you’ll be rewarded.
The reward is empathy. Early on, Khosrou tells the reader, “The quick version of this story is useless. Let’s agree to have a complicated conversation.” “Everything Sad” invites us not just to see another perspective but to live in it. It’s openhearted storytelling when we need it most, an antidote to our divided times.
Contemporary English fiction is, with a few exceptions, a bourgeois affair: middle-class authors writing for middle-class readers about high-class problems. So Who They Was, the Booker-longlisted autofictional debut by Gabriel Krauze, arrives on the literary scene like the sound of gunfire over a south Kilburn housing estate.
Start with the square heavy loaf
steamed a whole day in a hot spring
Towards the end of his life, Lucian Freud attended the 80th birthday party of a friend, where a little girl was told not to touch him. “I’m not an object,” he protested. Perhaps she’d mistaken him for one of his portraits, because over the previous decades no artist had been better at manipulating canvas and paint to give the illusion of real human bodies, stilled lives. Everything about a self-portrait like Reflection (1985), from its intent pink-rimmed eyes to the shiny patch on its forehead, makes it look as if it is not a painting but a person, who is on the verge of leaning out of the frame to touch the viewer—though whether to kiss them or headbutt them it is hard to say.
Daddy investigates the shadier corners of the human experience, exploring the fault lines of power between men and women, parents and children, and the past and present. Cline deftly interrogates masculinity and the fates of broken relationships, examining violence on both a societal and personal level.
What sets Vesper Flights apart from other nature writing is the sense of adoration Macdonald brings to her subjects. She writes with an almost breathless enthusiasm that can't be faked; she's a deeply sincere author in an age when ironic detachment seems de rigueur. "I choose to think that my subject is love, and most specifically love for the glittering world of non-human life around us," she writes in the book's introduction. And that love is obvious throughout the book.
In “The Sound of Hope: Music as Solace, Resistance and Salvation During the Holocaust and World War II,” Kellie D. Brown shows how for persecuted and imprisoned Jews, music became a way to preserve their humanity and at times even their lives. Although the book is sometimes a bit of a slog, Brown has succeeded admirably in bringing together in one volume so much important research. While our current crisis differs vastly from the era she depicts, the contemporary resonance is inescapable.
It is the summer of all this and more:
of sea-rising romance
and heat-curdled revelry,
Yes, I have tried cleansing, cutting, bingeing,
purging, laughing, grieving, slutty fucking,
I first learned about the decades-long Japanese occupation of Korea in 1985, when my grandfather told me he still dreamed in Japanese. “Granfy’s first language,” he said, referring to himself, as he often did, in the third person by his self-chosen nickname. He regularly spoke of the superiority of Korean language and culture, such that I expected him to bring it up at every visit.
And so this revelation startled me. He didn’t explain this to me, either. I wanted to ask questions, but given how painful it seemed for him to tell me this, I remember thinking questions could wait. How could it matter enough to me, to who I was, to put him through that?
Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s new translation of 52 Chekhov stories doesn’t include many of his most famous works (their versions of those can be found in a collection from 2000, only available in the UK as an e-book). But walking the overgrown pathways of his less familiar stories can help give a fresh sense of why his storytelling has been so influential, and remains compelling in its own right.
Breasts and Eggs addresses the multifaceted nature of what it means to move through the world as a woman, which means presenting womanhood in a variety of ways, ages, and life experiences.
These source texts imagine that we continue to have a relationship with the dead after they have passed on, a relationship organized by a cosmic justice system. Underworld Lit thus asks: What is the underworld literature that can guide us now? What is the justice system that could address the sheer scale of death in our modern era, achieved by colonialism and racial capitalism? I don’t think that Underworld Lit aspires to be that text, perhaps ultimately suggesting through its intertextuality that any one book would be inadequate to that immense task. However, it does school readers on the fragility of innocence in a world where violence is epistemic and our sense of accountability is conveniently circumscribed.
Eric Weiner's The Socrates Express: In Search of Life Lessons from Dead Philosophers rekindled my love for philosophy. A smart, funny, engaging book full of valuable lessons, The Socrates Express is not an explanation — it's an invitation to think and experience philosophy filtered through Weiner's words.
The bullet train stops briefly to get the freshest meat from the vendors
it carries a returning army and the grown children are hungry
Back in spring, I saw list after list of books to read in lieu of traveling. If you are the sort of person who travels over the summer, the lists sympathized, 2020 was sure to be hard for you. (As if you didn’t have anything more pressing on your mind.) Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights, translated by Jennifer Croft, wasn’t on any of the lists that I saw, which is a shame, really. It’s made entirely out of travelogues, pilgrimages, lectures in something called “travel psychology,” and scenes set in airports. But Flights is filled, too, with a deeper theme for this stationary time—the longing not just for travel, but for immortality through movement, through time or space, accompanied by a fascination with our fellow travelers.
What haunted me, then and for many years, was the active verb in that sentence. My father didn’t have something done to him; he chose to end his life. I never got the chance to know my father, to experience his touch or see his smile. My last name came to symbolize desolation and emptiness, that a significant part of me was missing. No matter how much I wished to escape it, I would always be the daughter of a father who committed suicide. When I discovered in my mid-30s that I could change my surname without being married, I saw an opportunity to jettison what felt like my hurtful, shameful past.
Part memoir, part manifesto, it tackles such thorny issues as anal sex, smear tests, hangovers, teenagers, ageing parents, careers, the tyranny of the to-do list, big bums and the moment when your entire wardrobe seems to turn against you.
Diamond dives deep into a cultural analysis rich with literary, musical, and Hollywood references and examines the historical, social context of suburban sprawl, from post-war Levittowns to the contemporary decline of shopping malls. The Sprawl offers an insightful examination of the type of places the majority of Americans call home.
For you’re oval & thick-peeled, easy
to remove. For you’re seedless & tough
In a socially distanced world, disconnected from Dustin, I’m left remembering his capacious imagination for human contact. People get into our heads. And when we know they are out there, thinking of us, us thinking of them, that signal is so clear. What Twain told De Quille is true: “human sympathies can stretch.”
It took me a long time to admit any of that. I was, at best, ambivalent about where I come from, but filled with pure hate is more like it. Whenever somebody asked, I always told them I was from Chicago. That’s the way most people do it, right? If you’re from Round Rock, Texas, you’ll say you’re from Austin. If you grew up in Fountain in a house with four bedrooms, a two-car garage, and a big backyard, you just tell people “Colorado,” because they won’t know your hometown. If you’re from Long Island, ran on the cross-country team, and lived in a quiet little subdivision but moved away to college and never looked back, you’ll tell anyone who asks you’re from New York—which isn’t wrong. You just hope they assume you mean Manhattan and not Hicksville, which is over an hour away.
Yet getting to a place where I could clearly and honestly tell people yes, I grew up in suburbia, in neighborhoods up and down Lake Michigan, took a long time. I left as a teenager and immediately started telling people I was from Chicago. I never looked back—until I did.
A pile of little bones, sucked clean of gelatinous tendon and skin, is a sign of a good dim sum brunch had. These leftover knuckles of phoenix claws — more coarsely understood as chicken feet — were deposited on the outskirts of my plate throughout the meals that my family enjoyed about once a month when I was growing up. By the end of our teatime meal, the bones would eventually overtake their small plate.
The new novel is suspenseful and propulsive; in style and theme, a sibling to her previous books. But it’s also a more vulnerable performance, less tightly woven and deliberately plotted, even turning uncharacteristically jagged at points as it explores some of the writer’s touchiest preoccupations.
Written under time pressure and fueled by dismay, outrage, hope, heart, wit, and serious talent, the books span four years, from shortly after Britain's bitterly divisive Brexit vote in 2016 through the day before yesterday. (Actually, Summer concludes with a letter dated July 1, 2020, which was a few weeks after Smith submitted her final draft.) What will keep them fresh long after the news cycle has moved on is their passionate engagement with universal issues such as grief, injustice, human warmth and cruelty, and the life-enhancing powers of love, art, and decency.
“I would always have something to prove,” the narrator of Yaa Gyasi’s new novel says. “Nothing but blazing brilliance would be enough to prove it.”
In such passages of mingled frustration and determination, one senses an element of autobiography.
Tonight, I dressed my son in astronaut pajamas,
kissed his forehead and tucked him in.
I turned on his night-light and looked for you
in the closet and under the bed. I told him
‘Let’s face the considerable evidence that all sitting is harmful,” writes Galen Cranz, a design historian whose book The Chair traces this object’s long history. Not all sitting, of course. For people who use wheelchairs, they’re an elegant and crucial technology. And sitting itself is not the culprit; any unchanging, repetitive motion or posture fails to give the body the variation it needs. But Cranz, writing primarily for an audience of ambulatory readers in industrialised and therefore sedentary societies, is one of many researchers who have been saying for decades that chairs are a major cause of pain and disability.
But Frank isn’t the victim in this story because he’s going to be losing his job. Unlike the entitled woman ignoring safety signals, Frank’s reaction was measured. Frank was smart. He knew technology. Frank was rational and understood the folly of the woman’s rage. He knew he needed to retrain, adapt, and evolve. But for some unspoken reason, he was still driving a bus. Frank’s voice should be the one we elevate to escape the binary debate. Unfortunately, the woman’s hollowed cries have drowned him out.
Hession’s narrative is cheerful and funny. But it is also a meditation on loneliness, fear, and what we fill our lives up with to compensate for them. In more than one way, it is a coming-of-age story for the already aged. It is a reminder that we are scared children, grasping at the answers, often confused about what we should clutch to and what we should throw ourselves at.
Héctor Tobar’s latest novel is much more serious than its jaunty title suggests. It is a curious club sandwich of fact, fiction, speculation and ham, describing the wanderings and writings of a real person, Joe Sanderson, who is anything but a road bum. (Even if he were, he wouldn’t be the last, and his greatness is debatable.) But as a committed and self-conscious adventurer and romantic voyeur in search of the ragged and the rudimentary — a figure to whom I easily relate — he is absolutely of his time.
Up there with bad betrayals, which are all bad,
the worst to the self, I left mine with the elegant hotel
It should have been the happiest of happy endings, yet Winn, whose second book The Wild Silence is published next month, admits the reality wasn’t that simple. “I think when you’ve lived that way in that complete natural state then returning to what we would consider normal felt abnormal,” she says. “It felt completely false to be living in a village and there was also this almost overwhelming sense of not being able to walk away.”
Some time ago, I woke up in a hotel room unable to determine where I was in the world. The room was like any other these days, with its neutral bedding, uncomfortable bouclé lounge chair, and wood-veneer accent wall—tasteful, but purgatorial. The eerie uniformity extended well beyond the interior design too: The building itself felt like it could’ve been located in any number of metropolises across the globe. From the window, I saw only the signs of ubiquitous brands, such as Subway, Starbucks, and McDonald’s. I thought about phoning down to reception to get my bearings, but it felt too much like the beginning of an episode of The Twilight Zone. I travel a lot, so it was not the first or the last time that I would wake up in a state of placelessness or the accompanying feeling of déjà vu.
Yet I worry that people will grow digitally distant from what is for me and for many a defining element of classical music: the sheer sensual pleasure of being immersed in natural (that is, not electronically enhanced) sound, when a piece is performed by gifted artists in an acoustically vibrant space. Of course, electronic elements have been incorporated into music for several generations: Milton Babbitt’s computer music, Pierre Boulez’s delicate use of electronic enhancements, innumerable works that blend traditional instruments with rock guitars and drum sets. Still, the vast majority of classical performances involve traditionally trained voices and instruments that haven’t changed much in centuries — performing without a trace of amplification.
“Either woe or well-being, sometimes I have a craving to be engulfed,” writes Roland Barthes in A Lover’s Discourse. To be engulfed, according to Barthes, involves an “outburst of annihilation which effects the amorous subject in despair or fulfillment” and for Nina, the troubled protagonist of Sarah Gerard’s True Love, engulfment is the mechanism by which she annihilates herself — mostly in despair and occasionally in fulfillment.
Perhaps it was this obsession with letters, the beauty of their shape and the world of possibilities encoded in each one, that can explain the curious second proposal scene between Kitty and Levin in Anna Karenina (she rejected his first) in which the two communicate using just the first letter of each word they want to say. “He wrote the initial letters, w, y, a, m, t, c, b, d, t, m, n, o, t,” and Kitty understands intuitively that Levin is asking her. “When you answered me, ‘that cannot be,’ did you mean never or then?” Only t, only “then” it turns out, to Levin’s great happiness. In Creating Anna Karenina, Robert Blaisdell does not make this connection between Tolstoy’s work on the alphabet book and this scene from the novel, but it is the type of parallelism between the great Russian author’s life and art that interests him.
There is a harbour where an old sea-god sometimes surfaces
two cliffs keep out the wind you need no anchor
In the meantime, we could at least start measuring our impact on the world a bit more objectively. Which means paying attention to the myriad ways in which we could potentially screw things up, every hour of every day, and yet somehow – wonderfully, exhilaratingly – do not.
Luster smashes together capitalism, sex, loss, and trauma and constructs something new with the pieces, using pitch-black humor as glue. That this Frankenstein's monster of genres and topics works so well is a testament to Leilani's talent. That it all happens in a debut novel makes it even more impressive.
In the end, Park delivers a multi-layered happy-ever-after where our heroine is not only a wizard in the gaming industry, she's pretty magic at romance, too.
How central is shipping to contemporary capitalism and trade? The introduction to Laleh Khalili’s new book, Sinews of War and Trade: Shipping and Capitalism in the Arabian Peninsula, makes clear why focusing on maritime trade is no mere niche pursuit: 90 percent of the world’s goods travel by ship. Also, at the very outset, Khalili shows that, on the map of global trade today, it is China that takes center-stage as the factory of the world — and the oil that fuels China’s manufacturing derives primarily from the Arabian Peninsula.
In Wrong, we find a biography ten years+ in the making, on a writer who is still very much alive, and whose work is still a fresh and shapeshifting influence on contemporary global subculture. As equally fresh is Cooper’s intellectual vandalism on the homogenizing control mechanisms of America in particular.
“Tattoos are all about mortality and getting old,” she says. “They are all about who you are.” The writer, naturalist, poet and illustrator, who turns 50 this year, insists it has nothing to do with a midlife crisis: “I’ve had loads of those already.” Instead, it goes back to her earliest days and the death of her twin brother soon after he was born. “It has taken me many years to realise that was a very important loss for me.”
“It’s hard to think of a better example than the Hungarian Pastry Shop of what makes one love a city, a neighborhood, a place,” says the poet and writer Rachel Hadas. “That ‘what’ is hard to define but easy to recognize and to remember. It’s a combination: the location and the people, the coffee and the weather, the croissants and the conversations.”
Instead of anything didactic, Johnson and her blurring, expansive language merge the figurative and the literal, leaving us with a series of searing impressions of the girls and their connection, all of them vivid, distinct, and fleeting.
The poem’s accounts of nature and memory are illuminated by repeated images of light and colour. From this material Prior crafts lovely, elegant verse.
The past never stays where you left it
flying off to perch on some other branch
migrating to a different nest
Then, two years ago, a little-known graduate student named Lisa Piccirillo, who grew up in Maine, learned about the knot problem while attending a math conference. A speaker mentioned the Conway knot during a discussion about the challenges of studying knot theory. “For example,” the speaker said, “we still don’t know whether this 11-crossing knot is slice.”
That’s ridiculous, Piccirillo thought while she listened. This is 2018. We should be able to do that. A week later, she produced a proof that stunned the math world.
Experiences like my mother’s are commonplace for many women. They’re often fictionalized and folded into novels about immigrant experiences, novels many readers from immigrant communities have grown tired of. Can’t we tell stories other than the one about coming to America and assimilating? And yet, those narratives have a pull for me—they contain the stories about women’s loneliness that have always absorbed me.
Give me all of the seas. The still teal around silver-beached islands, where the far-out horizon is a thin line of barely perceptible colour change. A Rothko. Give me the choppy waters of a Turner, peaks of spittle-white masquerading as icebergs. I want the deep navy with the surface wobble of jelly; or the entirely transparent water that laps at the shore, transforming my normal-sized feet into milky giants.
Fundamentally, boredom is, as Tolstoy defined it, “a desire for desires.” The psychoanalyst Adam Phillips, describing the feeling that sometimes drops over children like a scratchy blanket, elaborated on this notion: boredom is “that state of suspended animation in which things are started and nothing begins, the mood of diffuse restlessness which contains that most absurd and paradoxical wish, the wish for a desire.” In a new book, “Out of My Skull: The Psychology of Boredom,” James Danckert, a neuroscientist, and John D. Eastwood, a psychologist, nicely describe it as a cognitive state that has something in common with tip-of-the-tongue syndrome—a sensation that something is missing, though we can’t quite say what.
Beauty on earth so blue, even the cheese flowers
a culture with no democracy... Yesterday (for example),
Bruce Pascoe stood near the ancient crops he has written about for years and discussed the day’s plans with a handful of workers. Someone needed to check on the yam daisy seedlings. A few others would fix up a barn or visitor housing.
Most of them were Yuin men, from the Indigenous group that called the area home for thousands of years, and Pascoe, who describes himself as “solidly Cornish” and “solidly Aboriginal,” said inclusion was the point. The farm he owns on a remote hillside a day’s drive from Sydney and Melbourne aims to correct for colonization — to ensure that a boom in native foods, caused in part by his book, “Dark Emu,” does not become yet another example of dispossession.
Writers who find themselves mired in procrastination would do well to take a page from Marcel Proust’s most famous book. Specifically, a page from In Search of Lost Time in manuscript form. Nothing more powerfully illustrates the truth of that creative-writing-class maxim, ‘writing is rewriting’, than the liberally crossed-out, lavishly annotated, occasionally doodled-upon notebooks in which Proust composed his seminal, seven-volume text.
As the cabin’s only cook and diner and Yelp reviewer, I was acutely over-aware of the quality of every item of food that I made, relishing dishes when I pulled them off and despairing when I made mistakes. The memory of my isolation chicken lingered on the edges of the kitchen — as I cooked, I was careful to curb my impulse to make all the food at once, and instead cut down my portions to a manageable amount for one person.
And while the final meal is an occasion to cherish, it’s also just sad.
“Alta California,” Neely’s account of his improbable journey, touches on many other layers of California’s fiendishly complex history. An uncommonly sensitive writer, Neely trains his eye equally on the natural landscape, on plant and animal life, and on the variegated human worlds through which his strange itinerary takes him. With no trail to guide him, he makes his way across public and private lands, acres of concrete and tracts of near-wilderness. Above all, he is walking through multiple worlds of time: into his first-person narrative, he weaves excerpts from the diaries of the Franciscan missionary Juan Crespí, subsequent historical records, and the memories of locals he encounters along the way.
Some girls can’t help it; they are lit sparklers,
hot-blooded, half naked in the depths of winter,
tagging moving trains with the bright insignia of their
In front of us, a July wind rippled the screen. Its blank canvas shimmered in the headlights of a handful of cars. Among the few already parked in the field were a pickup truck and a Rolls Royce so shiny I could see myself in it. In previous years we would have been inside, wearing sweatshirts brought along to combat the freezing AC, and there would have been an advertisement for concessions, a cartoon popcorn bag singing to a cheeky box of Raisinets. But this summer, we were told to bring our own food, stay in our vehicles, and wear a mask if we needed the porta potty.
Whenever I’m back home, I delight in being slightly askew from the daily rhythms of white-collar productivity — two hours behind New York, one ahead of San Francisco — and how that translates into a feeling of freedom from the liabilities of membership in civil society. Comfort with our hinterland status is also what distinguishes those of us on Mountain time from our neighbors on Central, forever ensnared in an unwinnable game of catch-up with the East Coast. Unlike in Dallas or Chicago, there’s not much wealth to be had on Mountain time, and even less notoriety. What the time zone offers instead is a sense of detachment from the economic and cultural centers of the nation.
Believe me when I tell you, “Little Scratch” is difficult. It will tax you. You will have to learn the syntax of a distracted and distressed mind. But rigor, in this case, is not without reward. Stick with me, and I’ll explain why I stuck with it (besides, of course, professional duty).
What next, we ask at the end, as breathlessly eager for more as Giovanna herself is, plunging towards adulthood. And we have our answer in this astonishing, deeply moving tale of the sorts of wisdom, beauty and knowledge that remain as unruly as the determinedly inharmonious faces of these women.
She has written another breathtaking, groundbreaking book, an intellectually rigorous exploration of the postcolonial toll on land, love and people, as well as a call to fight back. In her soaring poems, she deepens and revises the word “postcolonial”, demonstrating not only that love persists in the aftermath of colonialism, but that it provides a means of transcendence, too.
Nearly 20 years ago, Tiffany McDaniel’s mother, Betty, told her a family secret. To say the rest is history would be an egregious cliche if it weren’t the simple truth. McDaniel’s vivid new novel, “Betty,” fictionalizes that history, drawn in part from her own interviews with her mother, her grandmother Alka and other family members.
Five straight days of rain,
and the enormous hosta we moved out back
Is there a place for happiness in all this? There certainly should be. It can’t be ignored that happiness exists; too many people have experienced happiness for themselves and seen it in others. But once Schopenhauer admits that happiness exists, there is a risk that his pessimism will start to unravel. Even if it’s true that every living thing must encounter suffering, this suffering might be offset by finding some amount of happiness too. Some suffering might be the means to a happiness worth having or even a part of such happiness. If this is so, then Schopenhauer hasn’t yet given us a good reason not to want to exist. Happiness might make life worth living after all.
Textbooks were designed to distribute essential curriculum under any circumstances. This is “any circumstances.” During normal schooling, textbooks are one tool of many that a skilled teacher can draw upon, but right now, with so many other tools difficult or impossible to implement, they are essential.
“Summer” is a prose poem in praise of memory, forgiveness, getting the joke and seizing the moment. “Whatever age you are,” one character comments, “you still die too young.”
Set over a long summer’s weekend in a university town in the US midwest, Brandon Taylor’s crisply narrated first novel – one of eight debuts up for this year’s Booker prize – dramatises the blind (and not so blind) prejudice endured by its class-crossing black protagonist, Wallace, a gay postgraduate biochemist raised in the deep south.
It is a paradox of social media that although we are inundated at all times with the thoughts and opinions and activities of everyone we’ve ever known, we can never unequivocally know why. What a person is thinking, why they said what they did, why they chose that exact punctuation, what their hope was for this small bit of output. Emma Jane Unsworth’s new novel, “Grown Ups,” grants you precisely that voyeuristic look into the hideous unseen machinations behind the posts. And it is deeply unsettling.
In the language of flowers // I am the one who says // fuck you
I won’t be anyone’s nosegay // this Mary is her own // talking bouquet
In 1953, Isaiah Berlin published his long essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” outlining his now-famous Oxbridge variant on there are two kinds of people in this world. He drew the title from an ambiguous fragment attributed to the ancient lyric poet Archilochus of Paros: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog one big thing.” Written with the aim of pointing out tensions between Tolstoy’s grand view of history and the artistic temperament that saw such a view as untenable, Berlin’s essay became an unlikely hit, although less for its argument about Russian literature than for its contention that two antithetical personae govern the world of ideas: hedgehogs, who view the world in terms of some all-embracing system, seeing all facts as fitting into a grand pattern; and foxes, those pluralists or particularists who refuse “big theory” for reasons either intellectual or temperamental.
It’s a plain gray journal, fabric with bound pages—my husband’s favorite, because they lie open flat. He was the one to leave the journal for me in the psychiatric ward. He’d asked the staff if I could have it. I’d found it tucked under my pillow.
The journal was a way of finding order after a psychotic episode where my sense of time and reality had been scrambled with visions of the apocalypse and the belief that I was experiencing a simulation, surrounded by animals and voices and demonic faces. The journal was also my first clue of what was real.
Though M. T. Anderson couldn't possibly have planned it, his new book The Daughters of Ys feels like it was created for just this moment. The story's driving force and key image — a torrential flood of natural and unnatural origin that sweeps away a city — is the perfect symbol for our era. If you've felt your brimming anxiety about the coronavirus overflow as you've tried to keep up with the never-ending tide of news about it, you'll sympathize with Anderson's characters.
These are, for the main part, poems to do with a changing relationship with time; there’s a certain sense of loss, a questioning as to how it’s all come to this, but the dark feelings are borne with good grace and, often, good humor.
Light, time, water, weather, growth, and decay: transience is Oswald’s muse, and it inspires startling, almost fugitive leaps of syntax and perception.
In her introduction, Macdonald writes that she hopes this collection “works a little like a Wunderkammer,” a German word usually translated as “Cabinet of Curiosities,” but she prefers the more literal “cabinet of wonders.” It is that, but the treasures in it are mostly not exotica and relics collected from far-off lands. They’re all around us, just waiting to be noticed by the right person.
One would be hard-pressed to find a site whose name fires up the imagination more. But the site and its name are more than sheer sensationalism — the history of archaeological excavations at Armageddon is about how capitalism, science, and history came together to underwrite biblical archaeology in the first half of the 20th century.
We like to think of philosophers as “philosophical” – calm, undisturbed by sex or money, ambitious only in wanting to find the truth. This book gives the lie to that image. “Calm” is absolutely the last word you would use to describe any of the four philosophers in this book.
Lord, I confess I want the clarity of catastrophe but not the catastrophe.
Like everyone else, I want a storm I can dance in.
I want an excuse to change my life.
Brown snow lines the roadways.
The still, grey city whispers
“It is just kind of a coincidence, obviously,” Ottessa Moshfegh says of the importance of isolation in her fiction, from her home in Pasadena, California. “But yeah, it has been a major theme in my life.” She was due to be in the UK this summer as part of a publicity tour for her third novel, Death in Her Hands, but she had an odd sense “that something was going to get fucked up”. Clearly, she didn’t foresee a global pandemic, but her 2018 cult novel My Year of Rest and Relaxation, in which her unnamed narrator holes up in her New York apartment, has made her the unofficial laureate of lockdown. “I guess it makes me glad that people are having a place to put their isolated misery,” she says of the novel’s resurgence in recent months.
Even before Covid-19, there was a long-running national obsession with staycations in Sweden. Here, they’re known as ‘hemester’, which comes from the Swedish words for home, ‘hem’, and holiday, ‘semester’. While hemester can mean you’re simply staying put in your apartment or house during your annual leave, it is also commonly used to talk more generally about taking a vacation anywhere within your own country. Despite a growing trend for international holidays over the past few decades (before the Covid-19 pandemic, Swedes were among the most-travelled nationalities in the world), spending time in summer homes remained a calendar staple for both wealthy families and those on lower incomes.
“I think in the Swedish mentality, it becomes something almost necessary in order to connect with nature and recharge your batteries for long, dark and cold winter,” explains Jennifer Dahlberg, a US-born blogger and author who is currently writing a book set in the Stockholm archipelago, where she’s spent summers for the past two decades.
“Tales From the Ant World” is a rapturously unapologetic hymn of praise to the roughly one quadrillion ants on the planet (here, as in earlier books and many a lecture, Wilson points out that if humans weren’t so conspicuously the dominant species on Earth, visitors from another world would immediately call this “the planet of the ants”). Wilson has encountered a great many of the world’s 15,000 ant species, both in the laboratory and in the wild, and he has genial, involving stories about all of them.
Physics says: go to sleep. Of course
you're tired. Every atom in you
has been dancing the shimmy in silver shoes
nonstop from mitosis to now.
One of the pleasures of Shields’s work is encountering women characters who are so fully realized. In the first pages of “The Stone Diaries,” Daisy’s mother, Mercy, is busily preparing a Malvern pudding before her husband, Cuyler, returns from the quarry where he works as a mason. But the pudding isn’t for him. Cuyler is a “dainty eater,” “a pick-and-nibble fellow”; he does not crave sweetness. As Mercy lifts a teaspoon of sugar to her lips, we understand: The pudding — combining its ingredients, smoothing its layers and, finally, consuming it — is an indulgence she entertains for her pleasure only.
They aren’t about humans imposing their ways on others; they’re about us learning to critique our own norms through interaction with other intelligent beings. These stories don’t pretend to be high art, but they are different lenses we can use to envision the future. We will need all kinds of stories to share with the galaxy. It’s lucky we’re so good at coming up with them.
In a novel that is, like all of Smith’s, rich with references, characters quick to share stories about artists and their work, and the misfits and heroes of history, “Summer” is more than a perennial season. It is the bravura performance of a writer, poised at the edge of the day’s vast darkness, gathering all the warmth and light of our inner summer.
In their vibrant book, “Big Friendship: How We Keep Each Other Close,” Friedman, a journalist, and Sow, a digital strategist, seek to give friendship the serious treatment they believe it deserves. The mission to elevate the status of friendship has been central to their popular podcast, “Call Your Girlfriend,” and their efforts led journalist and author Jill Filipovic to deem the pair in her 2017 book, “The H-Spot,” “Modern feminism’s grandes dames of female friendship.”
This book pries at the distinctions between things: the ornithologist, obsessed with “nature”, still has a pair of binoculars. Macdonald studied literature at Cambridge and it shows: nature is not like us, and not not like us. It is estranged but familiar. Everything is political and lensed through class.
Millennials have grown up in a world shaped by boomer priorities, boomer attitudes and boomer policies — but that world is slowly crumbling. This book should help boomers understand millennials a little better, and they might as well: The winds are shifting in our direction.
Madgalena is a geography book about a river that is also a political history of Colombia, an admonition of ecological disaster, an impassioned defence of indigenous wisdom, and a memoir of the author’s various travels and friendships over the years.
The black kitten cries at her bowl
meek meek and the gray one glowers
from the windowsill. My hand on the can
to serve them. First day of spring.
If we imagine the circle described in Maracle’s Memory Serves, we could say that I have added something—if only a series of questions—to our shared effort to approach that which is “hidden and cherished” as we circulate the books we love, the essays we read. Washuta and Warburton, along with their contributors, have contributed a great deal to this effort. So listen carefully, be a witness; if you have something to add, Reader, add it. We can only try, essaying together.
When our edit was ready, we sent it for Ms. Ferrante’s approval. All correspondence with her was routed through her English-language publisher, who forwarded it to her Italian editors, who sent it along to her, then relayed her response. We never had direct contact with her. (Her celebrated translator, Ann Goldstein, who has also been interviewed in our section, works the same way — she has never met or interacted with Ms. Ferrante directly.)
A note came back explaining that, while she was happy overall, she had never before acquiesced to such extensive editorial intervention. She asked that ellipses be placed everywhere in the text where we had made an editorial change. This was an unusual request, one I had never encountered before.
With so much of our life now confined to our homes, it can feel like we’re in an alternate reality where we are the playthings, forever trapped in a dollhouse. So while you’re at it, this might be the perfect time to invest in some charming miniatures to dress up your living arrangement.
None of the alternative Americas envisioned by the conspicuously talented Matthew Baker in his new collection of short stories, “Why Visit America,” is implausible. That they don’t read as preposterous, even as they confound, is due to the author’s inventive play with form and his deeply affecting focus on human desire. On the surface they investigate the varieties of political leaning in today’s United States — late late-capitalist, careening toward authoritarianism, attempting to grapple with often imperfect solutions to systemic inequity — but their real intention is to convey what it feels like to be not a citizen but an individual.
What remained of a redbud still bloomed while oil
was pumped out of the prairie
below what they called a mountain
Seen in full, the finished cycle directly confronts our unsettling world without assuming the arrogant role of an oracle. While teeming with the anxieties of both history and the disorienting present, they are also emphatic narratives of idiosyncratic characters facing — and sometimes transcending — the isolation of modern life. Without bombast or melodrama, Smith exposes the quotidian horrors beyond the paralyzing headlines while capturing a latent hunger for beauty and unity that pushes individuals beyond comfort to imagine (yes, it’s possible) a better world.
As Smith herself put it during a long email exchange, these books may be experimental in their topicality but they are also deeply embedded in the origins of the novel — of the word itself. “The novel form comes originally from it being meant to be about the latest thing, the most novel thing,” Smith wrote.
It makes sense that Kaufman, one of our deepest and most imaginative thinkers about the self, would want to write a novel, one of our most conspicuous channels for self-investigation. That novel, “Antkind,” has arrived, and, due to its length and slapstick sense of humor, it has already been labelled Pynchonesque. But the author referred to most often in the book is Samuel Beckett, and this offers a better clue about the tradition Kaufman aspires to belong to. In contrast to Pynchon’s political epics, Beckett’s work is one of the landmark achievements of literary introspection. “Molloy,” the first book in his mid-century trilogy (and the one most often alluded to in “Antkind”), contains no secondary characters and hardly any events. It is famous partly for showing that great art can emerge solely from a mind wrestling with itself.
Taipei was a city that belonged to my childhood imagination. Built of words spoken quietly to me by my mother, its streets were paved with her longings. The air was made of memories. In this place, Taipei was a single hillside, a school at its crest and a tenement block at its base. A packed-dirt road cut a straight line between them, bustling with street-food sellers in carts that looked uncannily like the Toronto hot dog vendors of my youth. There was no wind, and there were no trees. The light was yellow, and the only smell was that of the choudoufu my mother missed most after leaving Taiwan.
“But does it really smell like poo?” I would ask her, having never smelled choudoufu before.
Picking up a sequel to a book as original as Gideon the Ninth is a little scary—the first book set an incredibly high bar. Tamsyn Muir’s second novel, Harrow the Ninth, thankfully, clears it with room to spare. Returning to that preposterous but somehow organic blend of black magic and science fiction, Harrow the Ninth is a gleeful, genre-bending romp, sliding effortlessly between different modes of horror, and is relentlessly funny without ever dropping its core seriousness. Muir has once again distilled several variations on “frenemy” to fuel a compelling cast, and the novel’s pacing is amazingly controlled given how chaotic the story is—like a building deliberately falling down.
What if, instead of loving Romeo and dying dramatically, Juliet fell for Benvolio and their relationship died a natural death? That’s the question posed in “Sweet Sorrow,” the new novel from David Nicholls that just might be the sweetest book to brighten your late summer.
The apple tree in the backyard with white waterfall blossoms:
In his introduction, he openly acknowledged this, writing ‘Secondhand booksellers are the most friendly and most eccentric of all the characters I have known. If I had not been a writer, theirs would have been the profession I would most happily have chosen.’
If Greene was alive today, he would look at his beloved second-hand and antiquarian bookshops with an air of sorrow, leavened with a touch of bewilderment.
The neuroscientist David Eagleman has said, “You’re always living in the past”—meaning not that the past haunts us, though it does, but that what we experience as the present is in fact the past, the very recent past, the just past. In a way, then, time is memory—not clock-time, perhaps. Not Einstein’s time. But human time is human memory.
In his poem ‘God’s Grandeur’ (1877), Gerard Manley Hopkins laments modern man’s estrangement from the divine with the lines: ‘The soil/Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.’ The beach is one of the few places where the modern human foot can comfortably achieve a state of elemental earthly contact.
But then the snack bar on the other side of the parking lot beckons. My feet, blissfully shoeless, arrive at the curb to meet a jagged expanse of sun-baked asphalt, gravelly pebbles and the remnants of smashed beer bottles, and my idyll comes to an abrupt end in a heartfelt appreciation of the purpose and power of the humble shoe.
This novel reminds readers of why we go to books in search of answers to life’s great questions, among them how to demand more of our lovers and ourselves, how to guide the children in our lives and how to grieve our losses and our mistakes. We could all stand to follow Betty’s advice to Mr. Chetan to follow a romantic lead: “Do it while your teeth in your mouth and not in a glass by the sink.”
“If nobody sees you, are you still there?” Vivek Oji asks from beyond the grave in Akwaeke Emezi’s powerful new novel, “The Death of Vivek Oji.” It’s a question that ripples outward into the rest of the book, drawing readers and characters into a search for Vivek’s true self. Though the book opens with the ominous news of his death and is framed as a kind of mystery around it, the truth we spiral toward has far more to do with Vivek’s life, its secrets and its moments of unfettered joy.
When we refer to someone as having a “bunker mentality” we usually mean they are so stuck in their ways that they’re unable to look around and see the world for what it is. But is it possible that the rational response to the state of the world is to retreat into a bomb-proof, virus-free bunker?
In his new book Bunker: Building for the End Times, Bradley Garrett, an American “experimental geographer” and “urban explorer”, sets out if not to answer this question, then at least to raise it. Never before in recorded history, he writes, “has humankind faced such grave, and myriad, existential threats” as we do today.
Increasingly, the threats and fissures that mark our reality are known, but this doesn’t make them any easier to comprehend. It’s only when a potential disaster turns actual that it becomes real to us — and in that moment it will still feel incomprehensible, impossible, unforeseen.
More confounding than any maze,
With dead ends at every turn,
Lapis means “layers” in Bahasa Malaysia, Malaysia’s national language, and Sarawak is a state located on the northwestern coast of Borneo. The kek (cake) is aptly named. Slice off a piece and you’ll find a kaleidoscope of colorful layers, meticulously arranged in distinct geometric patterns. Making it is a long, grueling process that tests even the most seasoned of Sarawak’s bakers.
What an impossibly daring premise for a novel — an act of almost Lucy-level audaciousness: to imagine that you could push your grandfather into the life story of the most famous comedian of the 20th century. Re-creating that TV legend in all her remarkable detail is essential, but not enough. What really keeps “The Queen of Tuesday” flying is that Strauss understands that the private romance enjoyed by the star and his grandfather is equally tragic and poignant.
Last Call on Decatur Street is a preface to the collapse of a city constructed upon unspoken injustices, a flashback to life before Hurricane Katrina tore off the beautiful façade that for years managed to distract many people from the ugly sentiments beneath. It is a story about sufficiently loving what is broken to want to repair it. But it is also the story us allies try not to tell ourselves: the story of how our perception of ourselves as liberal makes no difference.
Melissa Faliveno’s hometown in Wisconsin was nearly destroyed by a tornado when she was a year old. Instead, the neighboring town was all but swept away, its structures and people violently displaced from the geography of Faliveno’s childhood. She herself grew up under the shadow of that tangential loss, and the essays in her debut collection, “Tomboyland,” appropriately twist around the questions of grief, violence, identity and home that the tornado in the opening pages whipped up.
Ngai makes the case that the gimmick, whose value we regularly disparage, is of tremendous critical value. The gimmick, she contends, is the capitalist form par excellence. The book’s argument starts from the simple premise that the gimmick is “simultaneously overperforming and underperforming,” confounding our normal estimations of labor, value, and time. Ngai distinguishes the gimmick from its kin — kitsch, camp, conceptual art — making the case that, although superficial resemblances may bind the gimmick to these categories, the calculations of worth and cheapness it involves us in set the gimmick apart as a specifically capitalist form.
are having a summit –
they chase around the garden
Ultimately, what New York’s vision of the city provided, beset as it was by legitimate concerns about overcrowding and flimsy technology, was an expanded idea of how we might live together. Against the prescriptions of Howard and his ideological successors, New York refused an austere definition of nature that would prescriptively guide what people wanted and how they settled. In doing so, the city toyed with the limits of its own control, finding disaster never far from the inventiveness that characterized its way of life.
But Chris is more hopeful. “It’s important to me to be optimistic about the future,” he said. “For now we have to keep planting and raising shellfish, hoping that things will eventually get back to normal.”
“Fisherman adapt,” he added, “and always find a way to keep moving forward.”
I can’t remember a time before Pee-wee Herman. This is true chronologically, as Paul Reubens began appearing exclusively as his most iconic character years before I was born, but Pee-wee has also been a constant in my family story. My first trip to meet him was a cover for my parents’ separation and the harsh means through which it was achieved. As a result, I experienced what should’ve been the defining traumatic event of my early life as something else entirely: a big adventure.
You could be forgiven for thinking that adultery, a cornerstone of so many great nineteenth-century novels, had been exhausted as a subject. Sexual barriers have long since been torn down, taboos lifted, transgressions neutralized; from Anna Karenina’s point of view, things would look positively utopian. Yet the heart is as muddled by freedom as it was by constraint, and that is where the mordant, bruising “Luster” charges in.
I first read the book as part of the selection process for the Observer’s annual January lookahead to the best first novels of the year. It sang then and returning to it now has been a delight. Rarely does a debut novel establish its world with such sure-footedness, and Stuart’s prose is lithe, lyrical and full of revelatory descriptive insights. This is a memorable book about family, violence and sexuality
Benjamin Piekut’s book Henry Cow: The World Is a Problem is a biography and study of Henry Cow, a British collective of musicians whose existence spanned roughly 10 years from incubation to dissolution (1968–’78). But its aim is grander than that. The book is also a meditation on a range of issues: what Piekut calls “the vernacular avant-garde” in music (but with implications for artistic practice in general); the racial and sexual politics of contemporary music; communal life as an art project; improvisation and uncertainty as a method for living in the world; and (as the book’s subtitle, borrowing a phrase from one of the band’s members, suggests) on the world not as a given reality but as problem to be confronted and resolved.
The hearing aid was warm from his ear
when he slipped it into mine,
and what I remember isn’t the brief blazing
of his fingers along my earlobe,
The border between Argentina and Brazil had been closed by the coronavirus pandemic for nearly two months when, in early May, an unusual convoy approached the checkpoint in Puerto Iguazú. There were 15 people, all of whom had gone days with little sleep, and six vehicles, including a crane and a large truck.
Behind the truck was a specialized transport box.
Inside the box was an elephant.
“Summer,” says a character in Ali Smith’s new novel, “is really an imagined end. We head for it instinctually like it must mean something.” Smith’s quartet of seasonal novels has also been heading for summer. Beginning with Autumn in 2016, they have arrived punctually, one per year, each in its eponymous season and as close to the events described as possible. The project has been an attempt to narrow the gap not only between a novel’s conception and its publication, but between art and the reality it consumes in order to produce itself.
Where O’Donoghue nails it is in her writing about women who make art, female collaboration, and identity. Here she is witty, tender and insightful, especially on the way oppression bleeds its way through the generations.
Alexis Daria's You Had Me at Hola had me at Latinx representation, sexy soapy plot, and a meta-telenovela addicting enough to actually get picked up by Netflix IRL. This book fizzes with sex, betrayal, lies, and family drama — but the good news is, it comes without an actual telenovela's requisite cliffhangers and tragedies.
Michael Gorra, an English professor at Smith, believes Faulkner to be the most important novelist of the 20th century. In his rich, complex, and eloquent new book, The Saddest Words: William Faulkner’s Civil War, he makes the case for how and why to read Faulkner in the 21st by revisiting his fiction through the lens of the Civil War, “the central quarrel of our nation’s history.” Rarely an overt subject, one “not dramatized so much as invoked,” the Civil War is both “everywhere” and “nowhere” in Faulkner’s work. He cannot escape the war, its aftermath, or its meaning, and neither, Gorra insists, can we.
Tristram Fane Saunders, The Telegraph
In her elegantly written and boundlessly entertaining first book, The Sirens of Mars, Johnson not only answers that big “why”, making a case for how those frozen red wastes could support life, but also achieves something more remarkable: she makes wild goose chases gripping, and abandoned ideas beautiful.
Rain stuck in clouds along the ridge,
Kennesaw Mountain and yellow
crane, the metal road dead-ends in air.
It comes in deepest dark, riding
a nightmare. You wake yelping,
you think from your fear, but discover
A handbrake turn on a hair-pin bend.
Merry-go-round? No, the waltzer.
And yet, being unable to see real works of art in person for months has made me realize just how much I have come to depend on seeing works online—and how I get more from that experience than I’d been willing to admit. I have not felt much desire to delve into the online offerings of galleries and museums, but nonetheless I have been seeing lots of art onscreen—it’s just that I’ve been getting it straight from the artists, mainly via their Instagram accounts.
If that heat source proves to be a neutron star, it would be the youngest example yet found of one of nature’s most extreme creations. Neutron stars are the densest stable configurations of matter in the universe — typically with half again as much mass as the sun, compressed into a ball the size of Boston. Think of all of Mount Everest shrunk into a teaspoon. Any more mass falling on a neutron star could tip it into the endless collapse of a black hole.
I was born in late 1954 so I am 65 years old. I figure I have another 30 years, with some luck, of active intellectual life. But if I look backward and forward within my family, I knew as an adult some of my grandparents who were born late in the nineteenth century, and I expect that both I will know some of my own grandchildren when they are adults, and that they will certainly live into the twenty second century. My adult to adult interactions with members of my own direct genetic line will span five generations and well over two hundred years from the beginning to the end of their collective lives, from the nineteenth to the twenty second century.
I’m going to show how shocking the changes have been in science throughout just my lifetime, how even more shocking the changes have been since my grandparents were born, and by induction speculate on how much more shock there will be during my grandchildren’s lifetimes. All people who I have known.
Krien resists easy conclusions, following her flawed characters with sharp, sympathetic eyes, before leaving them without fanfare, still compromised and still uncertain, but with the chance to rework the angry echoes of the past into a song of their own.
What sets Hannah’s War apart from other spy thrillers is its moral compass, as well as its probing of Hannah’s connection to her work. The reader debarks from the roller coaster of its suspense plot pondering questions of love, loyalty, morality, and identity.
In a style reminiscent of the commonplace book, Gabbert interlaces the voices of scientists, psychologists, sociologists, and other thinkers to help explore disaster in greater relief. The myriad voices lend Gabbert a variety of entryways for exploring the problems of our world and make the book less a collection of worries than a highly-informed conversation that invites readers to consider our role in the world’s eventual end.
Iceland “rose up from these waters in the first place precisely because of those plates, their penchant to slip and grind and spill their molten heart”. The island is its own centre, a place geologically and culturally unique, but Greene is from Boston and to her it feels like an edge. “Not just here but always, something happens at the edges,” she writes. No other country has so many small museums, 265 by her count, in a nation of 330,000 and her book is an exploration of the “territory staked out under the name ‘museum’”. She’s interested in what museums mean, as well as what they might become.
Rent a house near the beach, or a cabin
but: Do not take your walking shoes.
I decided to take on a year-long experiment of reading only women authors. My energy to read—and especially to be an engaged, opinionated reader—was dwindling. I wanted to find inspiration and understanding in the voices of other women. It was reductive, I knew, to imagine other women were the solution, but at the same time I craved reductive thinking. I just wanted things to be simple, and to work.
It has been nearly 20 years since the night in a newspaper office in Delhi when I came across a copy of a fax V.S. Naipaul had sent in response to a reporter asking for his rules of writing. (“Avoid the abstract; always go for the concrete.”) I found those rules useful. In recent years, I have had a mantra of my own: “Write every day, and walk every day.” A modest goal of 150 words daily and mindful walking for 10 minutes.
In 1991, I was 40 years old, recently divorced, with two children—17 and 12—and running a young executive consulting and coaching company just starting to show promise. I stared out the window above my desk at a double row of tall pine trees, the same species that circled my childhood home across town. They were my focus when I lifted my strained eyes from looking into one of 147 boxes of letters, books, and other documents that made up my father’s literary archives at Dartmouth College, in Hanover. It was a sunny Monday morning, and the collection was being held in a nondescript steel storage building a few miles south of campus.
Friends were surprised I was spending my Monday mornings in a structure we’d all driven by a hundred times and never noticed. With a large overhead door facing a side street for loading and unloading, the warehouse had only a few windows, one of which I could look out of on the woods. The boxes were in storage while the college built its new Rauner Special Collections Library, my father having made this donation to his alma mater several years prior when he and my mother moved into a retirement facility north of town.
“The animals are dying. Soon we will be alone here.”
These two short statements – declarative, understated – open The Last Migration, Australian author Charlotte McConaghy’s debut novel. They work to set both the scene and the tone of the book: the novel is dreamy, elegiac, often heightened to the register of fairytales or myths; and it is set in a near future, where the effects of climate change have meant that the world’s animal life has almost completely died out.
The photographer, Eiichi Matsumoto, had covered the firebombings of other Japanese cities. But the scale of the calamity that he encountered in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he later recalled, was on another level.
At a Red Cross hospital near Hiroshima’s ground zero, he met victims dotted with red spots, a sign of radiation sickness. And on the desolate, rubble-strewn streets of Nagasaki, he watched families cremating loved ones in open-air fires.
“I beg you to allow me to take pictures of your utmost sufferings,” Mr. Matsumoto, who was 30 at the time, said he told survivors. “I am determined to let people in this world know without speaking a word what kind of apocalyptic tragedies you have gone through.”
So we appeal to the power of literature, a refuge we turn to when forced to confront contradictions that lie beyond reason or theory. Through the language of literature, we can finally come to empathize with the suffering of nameless and unknown others. Or, at very least, we can force ourselves to stare without flinching at the stupidity of those who have committed unforgivable errors and ask ourselves whether the shadow of this same folly lurks within us as well.
But apparently Mr. Ngiam (or Wen, or Yen, depending on transliteration) did not write down the ingredients for his immediately popular cocktail, leaving its interpretation largely up to the imagination of the thirsty. Like an urban legend, or the epic poem “Beowulf,” the Singapore Sling survives by oral tradition and collective memory, and modern versions might in no way resemble the original.
Yet harris is an expert practitioner and guide; we are always in her orbit, captivated as she manipulates language, un-doing worn traditions, engaging the reader intimately, and unforgettably.
On Christmas Day 1170, Thomas Becket delivered a sermon to a packed chapter house at Canterbury. His theme was the death of one his predecessors as archbishop, St Alphege, hacked to death by the Danes in the early 11th century – the only martyr in the role so far. “There will soon be another,” Becket declared. Four days later, a quartet of knights arrived drunk, on a perceived mission from the king, and dashed the archbishop’s brains across the cathedral floor. It is easy to see how, knowing his time was up, Becket might identify with Alphege. In The Book in the Cathedral, however, Christopher de Hamel argues that the two had something more tangible in common: an elaborately jewelled psalter – a book of psalms – once owned by Alphege and later treasured by Becket.
— i want to speak of unity that
we have been speaking of since ’67 when I first stepped
One amazing thing about language is the sheer fluidity with which it allows us to manage such everyday episodes of joining forces and parting ways. It is literally the most versatile brain-to-brain interface we have: a nimble, negotiable system that enables people with separate bodies to achieve joint agency without giving up behavioural flexibility and social accountability. So before we throw out language because of its supposedly low data rate, let’s look a bit more closely at the ways in which it helps us calibrate minds, coordinate bodies and distribute agency.
Weeks after her death I was rummaging through her email, looking for some evidence that she had lied to me. That she had conveyed hope about a hopeless condition. That the evidence of the disease was worse than I imagined. As if a chart could explain what I had seen for myself but still chose to deny.
In an age where almost no one writes letters, this collection is a stand-in for a personal, entertaining and generous correspondence. Is this a way of saying Kingsolver is not a poet? Absolutely not. As a novelist, she is a smart craftswoman, at ease with the grand scale, and here proves herself a committed miniaturist, innovative with the shape of poems, at home with a villanelle and with a particular flair for last lines that concisely turn the tables.
Like Marisha Pessl and Rivka Galchen, Hofmann knows how to create intricate illusions of certainty in the midst of derangement. The result is a rare novel that encourages you to read as though your sanity depends on it — just a little further, just a little faster. It’s an unsettling simulation of living in a state that denies basic facts and perpetuates the most inane claims.
Every Bone A Prayer, the slipstream — that liminal combination of the literary and the fantastical — debut novel written by a survivor of child sexual abuse, bears within its pages striking beauty and strangeness in equal measure.
Much earlier in the story, Betsy and Nancy and their mother go on a cross-country road trip. At a Super 8 in New Mexico, Nancy and their mother — a fascinating figure, vulnerable and cruel — bond over their struggles with mental illness; the mother eventually commits suicide too. That night, Nancy bestows upon her sister a nickname that reverberates across this memoir: “Lucky Betsy.” What does it mean to be lucky, to be spared, when such luck carries with it the burden of bearing witness? In the end, Bonner is the only one who can tell this story, because she is the only one who survives it.
The day my body caught fire
the woodland darkened. The horizon
was a sea of maids, rushing to piece me
In the evening it started to rain, pooling in the backyard until the earth couldn’t swallow it anymore and the grass went under, a jade gleam like a rice paddy. Then it started coming in, finding the weakness under the sliding doors, seeping and spilling so gently across the white tile of the living room, almost apologetically, because it had nowhere else to go.
In Hawai‘i, it rains almost every day, but for the most part gently, at the edges of waking life, early in the morning and again at night, what the weather reporters duly describe as passing windward and mauka (mountain) showers. When it does fall during the day, you can usually see it before you feel it, dark clouds massing in a corner as the rest of the sky stays that ridiculous blue, a color impossible to prove to anyone who doesn’t live here. It can feel like rain is a place apart, with borders; you can drive out of it in a minute—walk out of it, even, by simply crossing to the sunny side of the street.
We were two or three weeks into building a cabin when the first two-by-four became the target of a sudden, white-hot flash of anger. It was the summer of 2018, in the middle of Washington’s emerald-soaked Cascade Range, and I was on the phone with my father, seeking advice about some framing conundrum, while my longtime friend Patrick (who goes by Pat) was wrestling a 16-foot board toward a miter saw. When the whir of the blade stopped, it became immediately clear that he had cut it wrong. The sawdust still airborne, Pat reached down, grabbed a two-by-four with the conviction of a Baptist preacher, and sent it flying into the forest with a short, crisp, “Fuck.”
Can a person with a tattoo have a soul? To judge from a broad swath of contemporary fiction, the answer would seem to be no — at least if the tattooed person in question is young, lives in a place like Los Angeles or Austin or Brooklyn and works in the arts. In that case, the character is clearly a member of the species “hipster,” almost always written about ironically, portrayed as too vain and ridiculous to be taken seriously.
It’s refreshing, then, that David Goodwillie’s very good new novel, “Kings County,” depicts such people with genuine, unmitigated sympathy and good-fellowship, as if, in spite of their fashionable lifestyles, they are as fully human as anyone else.
“Inferno” is a disturbing and masterfully told memoir, but it’s also an important one that pushes back against powerful taboos. We still don’t like to talk about postpartum mental illness, or the fact that, when a mother becomes ill and doesn’t have a support system or access to mental health care, the emotional damage to both her and her children can reverberate across generations.
“Carcass. Cut in half. Stunner. Slaughter line. Spray wash.” From the first words of the Argentine novelist Agustina Bazterrica’s second novel, “Tender Is the Flesh,” the reader is already the livestock in the line, reeling, primordially aware that this book is a butcher’s block, and nothing that happens next is going to be pretty.
“Migrations” is a nervy and well-crafted novel, one that lingers long after its voyage is over. It’s a story about our mingling sorrows, both personal and global, and the survivor’s guilt that will be left in their wake.
Blume reminds us that Hersey’s work still best describes what that would look like on an intimate level; like his original reporting, “Fallout” is a book of serious intent that is nonetheless pleasant to read. There are knowable reasons for this, including Blume’s flawless paragraphs; her clear narrative structure; her compelling stories, subplots and insights; her descriptions of two great magazine editors establishing the standards of integrity that continue at The New Yorker and other high-end magazines today; the oddball characters like General Groves who keep popping up; and most of all, the attractive qualities of her protagonist, John Hersey. In a world sick with selfies, Hersey’s asceticism still stands out.
Not to give anything away, but “in about five billion years, the sun will swell to its red giant phase, engulf the orbit of Mercury and perhaps Venus, and leave the Earth a charred, lifeless, magma-covered rock.” That’s how Katie Mack starts her story. It’s downhill from there.
Through that story, she ultimately offers a transhistorical definition of literariness: literary texts fabricate belief, but they also raise belief as a question, troubling it, reconfiguring its meaning. And although Kahn herself does not go so far, The Trouble with Literature might also prompt us to wonder what role literature plays in the organization of contemporary categories of knowledge.
Listen: there is no proof that this moment,
silver nitrate and sparkling, will be remembered.
In the cultural moment before Giorno, poetry was largely relegated to bohemian circles and college campuses. Radical figures like Allen Ginsberg occasionally surfaced in pop culture, but much American poetry at the time seemed staid. Giorno, perhaps more than anyone else, reconfigured poetry in the image of rock music. In his hands, poetry became sexual, performative, and dangerous—a polymorphous art that looked to the future rather than to the past. You can debate whether it was good to have poets on MTV in the 1980s and ‘90s; you can’t debate it was remarkable for them to be there at all.
The success of audiobooks need not come at the expense of any other format, but rather it feels like we are all recognising that a good story, well told, is a balm in these fractious days, however it finds its way into our heads and however many times we’ve read it.
Our family is like a closed-circuit Indian Food Channel, one that I can directly relate to much more than any recent Indian reality show on Netflix. Together we prepare other family favorite dishes, like potato chops, a dish my late grandmother (Jeanette's mother) made from mashed potato cutlets stuffed with minced beef (or vegetables.) This prep-intensive dish, that many of us avoided for its inconvenience, we now did with intent, even happiness.
A cheese is just one small piece of the world—one lump of microbe-riddled milk curds—but each is an endpoint of centuries of tradition. Some disappear for months or years; others never return. The cheesemonger and writer Ned Palmer told me that, when a cheese is lost, “Your grief reaches back into the past—into decades and centuries and millennia of culture. You feel all of that.”
Jerkins makes plain that denying space for Black identities in history is itself a legacy as American as its original sins of racism and enslavement. By exploring the truth of that past with such integrity, this memoir enriches our future.
I said trouble. I meant summer. I can’t wait
For summer to be over. Just because you’re
Long long ago. In the days before the words “Brexit” and “Covid-19” existed. Back when “unprecedented” wasn’t yet an everyday kind of word. I’m talking back, before the words “Windrush” and “Grenfell” took on terrible new meaning, before an MP was murdered outside the library of her constituency by a man shouting the words Britain and First, back when the word “humbug”, traditionally a sign of its speaker’s Scrooge-like spirit, hadn’t yet been used in parliament to handbag female MPs pleading with a British prime minister to be less aggressive given the real threat they faced (and face) every day. Back then, on a quiet winter dark afternoon in December 2015, I met my publisher, Simon Prosser, outside the British Library in London.
We were on our way to see some of Keats’s handwriting. I’d had an idea for a series of books; the first one, which I was about to start, was going to be called Autumn, and we thought we’d visit Keats’s poem about autumn in the original as a sort of talisman.
Today, the future of the human appears as a digitally encoded question mark.
Beyond the infrastructures we have known, how can we rethink liveness and the human anew in this context?
While the journey of self-discovery may be predictable, Miss Benson’s Beetle is a joy of a novel, with real insight into the lives of women, the value of friendship and the lasting effects of war. “There was always darkness,” realises Margery, “and in this darkness was unspeakable suffering, and yet there were also the daily things – there was even the search for a gold beetle – and while they could not cancel the appalling horror, they were as real.”
There are probably going to be a lot of lockdown books. Or maybe not: maybe as the new world becomes the new normal we’ll want to hurry forward, away from our first intuitions of change, shedding them behind us because nothing’s so stale as the news from last week. But whichever way it turns out, I think this collection of little pieces by Zadie Smith will endure as a beautiful thing. Although it’s born out of the pandemic and the lockdown, it feels like a doorway into a new space for thought.
Though written in prose, Trethwey’s memoir is awash in metaphor, its language a meditation on the role that poetry—and storytelling more broadly—can play in reconciling trauma. In the depth and clarity of her retrospective study, Trethewey also offers lessons for surviving the cataclysms of the present.
Like a round grey stone lodged
in the fork of a tree
the tooth sits intractably
The voice instructed us to inhale slowly through our noses, then to exhale slowly. To focus on our breath. I kept breathing, but nothing happened. No calmness swept over me, no tension released from my tight muscles. Nothing. Ten, maybe 20 minutes passed. I started getting annoyed and a bit resentful that I’d chosen to spend my evening inhaling dusty air on the floor of an old Victorian house. I thought about getting up and leaving, but I didn’t want to be rude. Then something happened. I wasn’t conscious of any transformation taking place. I never felt myself relax or the swarm of nagging thoughts leave my head. But it was as if I’d been taken from one place and deposited somewhere else. It happened in an instant.
I’m not a particularly picky eater, and at some point in most meals I mix my food into an unrecognizable — but delicious — pile of intermingling flavors and textures. Yet I find something about these weird plastic dividers deeply soothing. They’re a reminder that while I am neither child nor parent, I can do whatever the hell I want during this global crisis, and what I want is to eat like a baby. Suddenly, I find myself longing for the OG food-separating device, which has been putting in the work for decades: the cafeteria tray.
Researched over the better part of a decade, Nicholson Baker’s new book, “Baseless: My Search for Secrets in the Ruins of the Freedom of Information Act,” chronicles his efforts to confirm whether or not the United States used biological weapons during the Korean War.
At least, that was the first impetus behind the book. But when Baker (“Vox,” “The Size of Thoughts”) came up against documents that were more redaction than text, “Baseless” became — in his words — a book “about life under the Freedom of Information Act.”
In taut, agile essays which braid anecdotal yarns around steady, multi-angled excavations of writers like DH Lawrence, Marguerite Duras, and Colette, the book builds a case for re-visiting one’s own personal canon and seeing what was either skipped the first time round or negligently missed. Valorising effort, labour, and the “life-long project to see oneself primarily as a working person,” Gornick positions re-reading not as a regression into nostalgia or narcotic reassurance, but a form of active confrontation with our prior reading, thinking, multiple and estranged selves.
Object permanence: something my dog doesn’t think
I possess. She sits on the ball when she no longer wants