Who is Hugh? In Sedaris’s stories, Hugh is a mainstay, a durable but background presence. (Fans at Sedaris’ shows ask after him.) He isn’t kookified, and he doesn’t get the laugh lines. When the kilter needs to be un-offed, he is deployed; he restores order, like the gods in the last act of a Greek drama. When the Sedaris family head to North Carolina to clean up their father’s house after his move to assisted living, everyone is stymied by a turd on the carpet left by some untended animal — but not Hugh, who picks it up with his bare hands and disposes of it. “You people, my God,” says Hugh, which is the kind of thing Hugh can be counted on to say. It’s the kind of thing he does say, over and over, in The Best of Me, the greatest-hits collection Sedaris published this month. It’s the reason Sedaris’s nickname for him is Congressman Prude.
Having existed for the better part of a year without full access to mine, I know that I do—surely not as much as those who come for computer guidance, language lessons, the internet, or peace; more, I’m betting, than those drawn by bean bag chairs, quinoa tabbouleh, and library-themed onesies. No matter what lures us to the library, though, as long as there are stacks, we may wander into them and never be the same. As they try to reopen or stay open, let struggling institutions not lose sight of this fact, nor five-star libraries make light of it.
I was never particularly thoughtful about my food when I had a microwave, taking for granted that most of the meals I picked up in the grocery had the promise of a pretty photo and an ingredient list too long to be reasonably made from scratch. But as I became a better home chef — motivated by a desire to understand what I was eating, as well as how satisfied I actually was by each meal — it became second nature to reheat each meal just as I'd originally cooked it. Each serving as good as, or better than, the first.
For nearly 40 years, Thomas Perry has been steadily building one of the most impressive bodies of work in contemporary crime fiction. His 1982 thriller, “The Butcher’s Boy,” won an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America and, decades later, remains a notable debut. Perry’s latest, “Eddie’s Boy,” circles back to that early masterpiece, bringing a long-gestating narrative to an elegant and satisfying conclusion.
Drawing on numerous literary sources, both familiar and obscure, Beaumont takes the reader on a labyrinthine journey into the literature of walking and thinking that thankfully strays far from the now well-trodden terrain of psychogeography. “What are the politics of walking in the city?” he asks in his introduction to The Walker. “What are its poetics?” In his attempt to definitively answer these questions, Beaumont enlists the help of authors such as Dickens, Joyce and Poe, as well as lesser-known writers, including the intriguing Edward Bellamy, whose novel Looking Backward, from 1888, was “the most successful utopian fiction published in the late 19th century”.
It was already close to 9pm. The race was on. We had exactly five minutes to drive to a secret location before the elderly Amma closed up for the night. We had to pick up our durian.
Let me set the scene: I was in Bangkok enjoying a much-needed catch-up with close family friends during Covid-19 curfew/lockdown. In Thailand that meant citizens must be home by 9pm. It seemed miraculous that the eternally buzzing metropolis obeyed this mandate, but not a vendor, an unnecessary vehicle nor pedestrian was spotted after this hour … except the few belligerent durian hunters. Such is the love for this extraordinary fruit.
But perhaps the most ominous feature of cram reading and super learning is that their popularity is inversely related to the type of society that spawns them. The commodification of knowledge, in other words, cannot thrive for long when those expected to consume its products don’t possess the time or money to do so.
I Talk Like a River is a bold book, a defiant book. I Talk Like a River is not a book in which the stutter is the main character; actually, there is no stuttering in the book at all. As a matter of fact, even the word "stutter" doesn't appear until the final page, and then, it is with great and deliberate ownership.
As literary landmarks go, it’s not quite Emerson greeting Whitman at the start of a great career. But this humble advert may herald the first American science-fiction novel. Although one might point to the crushingly dull “A Flight to the Moon,” from 1813, that text is more of a philosophical dialogue than a story, and what little story it has proves to be just a dream. “Symzonia; Voyage of Discovery” is boldly and unambiguously sci-fi. The book takes a deeply weird quasi-scientific theory and runs with it—or, more accurately, sails with it, all the way to Antarctica.
That final uncertainty made “Stuart Little” a pioneering children’s book. White’s departure from the predictable and tendentious moralism that prevailed in earlier children’s stories made “Stuart Little” an instant classic. The ambiguity of the novel begins with its opening lines. “When Mrs. Frederick C. Little’s second son was born,” White wrote, “the baby looked very much like a mouse in every way.”
White was being precise. Stuart is not a mouse. He just looks like one. In fact, in later editions of the book, White replaced the word “born” with “arrived,” which clouds Stuart’s origins even further.
White supremacy, patriarchy, transphobia, every other phobia—the roots of inequality have so invaded the core of society that the very notion of a single solution, let alone a superhero to provide it, is not just a fantasy, it’s an affront to reality. And yet we are overrun by superheroes. They are predominantly white men, though some superheroes of colour have recently emerged; more persistently celebrated, however, seem to be the women, most of them white, as though female-led superhero films are the last bastion of feminism. And with the December release of Wonder Woman 1984, it’s impossible for me not to think of Supergirl, which was released in 1984, two stories with identical time periods made thirty years apart. It’s impossible not to think about how much has changed and how much hasn’t. Women still don’t own superheroes, of course, but are superheroes even worthy of them?
“It’s the moral boundaries,” Buxbaum says. “It’s the kids at the center of power. I’m ultimately fascinated by: How complicit are we? Every decision I make on behalf of my kid, which happens every day — how complicit am I in this system?”
But my memories of Iran are of joy despite difficulty; of beautiful, provocative art created in spite of censorship, like Abbas Kiarostami’s poetic films and rapper Hichkas’s subversive music; and of kind strangers in grim situations. I think of boisterous nights next to Isfahan’s Zayanderud, a giant river that bisects the city. Today, the river is largely dried up after years of drought and government mismanagement, but in my memories, it’s as lively as ever, with people scattered on both banks in the evenings, laughing and playing music. If I was worried about anything, it was the heat, which often left me passed out in cramped taxis, and the stress of dealing with a large extended family full of histories and drama that I barely understood. I was mostly just excited to see a place that had loomed large in my fantasies for so long. Yet my friends’ reactions weighed on me more than I realized. As my departure date grew closer, I felt increasingly apprehensive.
No one has been a more incisive observer of the terms Americans use, and the transfers of power they allow, than David Bromwich. A Sterling Professor of English at Yale, Bromwich has for the past four decades been calling our attention both to the ways words shape the concrete features of our society, hardening sentiments into the institutions and norms that govern our lives, and to the role that each of us plays in that process, taking those institutions and norms and, in the act of speaking as such, translating them back into sentiments that we, through the affect-rich act of inflection, can defend, attack, and reform. In Writing Politics: An Anthology, Bromwich has collected nearly 30 essays (the earliest written in 1721, the latest in 1964) that he offers as examples of democratic speech at its turbulent best.
Maybe because the greats are gone.
Ella and Billie, even that grown girl of mine
In taking on heat and glacial melt and fire, Robinson is writing more realistic fiction than most contemporary novelists, for whom the physical world remains a backdrop for more interior stories. We are entering a period when physical forces, and our reaction to them, will drive the drama on planet Earth. We are lucky to have a writer as knowledgeable, as sensible, and as humane as Robinson to act as a guide—he is an essential authority for our time and place, and our deliberations about the future will go better the more widely he is read, for he is offering a deeply informed view on what are quickly becoming the great questions of world politics.
Adult readers of children’s books are often surprised by the grownup lives of their creators. But after all, artists who choose the medium of children’s books to express their creativity are not children themselves. In “Sometimes You Have to Lie’,” an engrossing and carefully researched biography of Louise Fitzhugh, Leslie Brody vibrantly tells the story of the complicated and ultimately triumphant life of the author of “Harriet the Spy.” She presents a full portrait of Fitzhugh, previously a shadowy figure at best, and places her firmly in the top rank of children’s book creators. What’s more, she establishes that Fitzhugh was a writer and artist who had an indelible impact on generations of young readers and adult writers as disparate as Jonathan Franzen and Alison Bechdel.
The nation’s splendor and depravity may be irreconcilable; its mysteries may be insoluble. But for Zoellner and other restless voyagers, there is still so much America out there if you point your wheels in the right direction, toward the ever-receding horizon.
Could this be the river that burned?
Under late summer’s waning moon
yellow star-points of fireflies flashed on
I was thirteen and wanted to work. Someone told me that you could get paid to referee basketball games and where to go to find out about such weekend employment. I needed income to bolster my collections of stamps and Sherlock Holmes novels. I vaguely remember going to an office full of adolescents queueing in front of a young man who looked every inch an administrator. When my turn came, he asked me if I had any experience and I lied. I left that place with details of a game that would be played two days later, and the promise of 700 pesetas in cash. Nowadays, if a thirteen-year-old wants to research something he’s ignorant about, he’ll go to YouTube. That same afternoon I bought a whistle in a sports shop and went to the library.
More than a few deaths occur in Karen Powell’s debut novel, but despite its wild-and-windy-moors Yorkshire setting, “The River Within” is no stock northern English murder mystery. In well under 300 fast-turning pages, Powell manages something much larger and more complex: an autopsy of the entire caste system of post-World War II Britain.
He’s a poet who mesmerizes not by stillness but by zigs and zags, and he very much wants to take the reader with him as he island hops from idea to idea.
Give in to its choral quality for stretches of time, and it’s easy to feel not just the sweep of our centuries but the dialogical nature of our grandest ideas and most persistent struggles — a notion reflected in an essay by Katharine Fullerton Gerould, another writer to whom I was introduced by this book. In 1935, in “An Essay on Essays,” she wrote in favor of nonpolemical work. A good essay, she said, “inevitably sets the reader to thinking,” and “meditation is highly contagious.”
Each half folds back into the past, uneasy and mourning; time stretches and flattens, yearning for a place that for one reason or another doesn't exist any more.
As a physical component of the book, the cover is a skin, a membrane, and a safeguard: paper jackets protect hardback boards from scuffing and sun damage, while paperback covers not only hold the book together but also keep its sheets clean and safe from tearing. In the past, paper jackets were plain wrappers used to shield decorative bindings, but around the turn of the 20th century, illustration migrated from the boards to the jackets themselves.
In a metaphorical sense, a book cover is also a frame around the text and a bridge between text and world. The cover functions simultaneously as an invitation to potential readers and as an entryway into the universe that the writer has created, whether fictional, historical, autobiographical, or otherwise. Come, it says, join the party—or at least save the date.
Heini Hediger, a noted 20th-century Swiss biologist and zoo director, knew that animals ran away when they felt unsafe. But when he set about designing and building zoos himself, he realised he needed a more precise understanding of how animals behaved when put in proximity to one another. Hediger decided to investigate the flight response systematically, something that no one had done before.
Cats are the vessels for John Gray’s austere worldview in his new book, “Feline Philosophy: Cats and the Meaning of Life.” The title may make it sound like a stocking filler, unexpected from a philosopher best known for his contrarian politics and skepticism about human progress. “Apocalypse Meow” might have been more in character. But it’s not as cute as it first appears.
In sharing so much of himself beyond buzz words and headlines, Fox has given us a gift we didn’t know to ask for, a gift that isn’t anywhere close to diminishing with his years. You get the feeling that even with these memoirs behind him and inevitable health hurdles ahead of him, many more chapters are yet to come.
Just as I am used to being old
the next what-have-you is death
In an episode of his podcast Into the Zone, author Hari Kunzru goes with fellow author Geoff Dyer to visit the home of one of their shared literary idols. On the car ride there, Dyer asks Kunzru how he feels about literary pilgrimage. Kunzru responds, “I am always up for literary pilgrimage, but I am almost always disappointed.” Bleak-spirited as this is, I have to admit that I identified with the notion when I visited Arrowhead, Herman Melville’s historic home in the thinly populated Berkshire Mountains of Western Massachusetts. I’d not gone up to the area specifically to commune with the spirit of the legendary writer, but was instead there to visit my parents and escape Florida’s herd immunity approach to the coronavirus. Isolating myself with Melville was not an act borne of desire, but rather one borne of grave disappointment. In all my years of visiting the area, I’d never felt the urgency to see Arrowhead, but suddenly robbed of my own social life, it was time for me to go and see why a writer, like Melville, would actually ask for such dramatic solitude.
Ellie’s childhood dreams of using radio waves to listen for life in space have finally been realized, at what was at the time the most powerful telescope in the world: When she meets her colleagues that night, she tells them that she’s there to listen for “little green men.”
While Ellie eventually makes her pivotal discovery at a different observatory (the Very Large Array, comprising 28 smaller dishes), Arecibo became for me a symbol of this search. That’s one of the major reasons why the recent announcement that the National Science Foundation has decided to decommission the telescope hit me especially hard. The telescope is a powerful scientific instrument, but it’s also something more.
My job at the bookstore felt like occupational therapy. That was a little joke I told myself. Except only sometimes it was a joke, and sometimes I told it to myself like it was a joyous revelation, as though I couldn’t believe my good fortune that I had found myself in an occupational therapy program. It was a simple job. I only had to be there on time, open the store, put the money in the register in the morning, sell books to customers, keep the displays looking nice. The job felt gifted to me. As though the daily completion of these simple, straightforward tasks were the first steps to living a normal life. It’s true that eventually the small joys of these daily accomplishments would slowly deteriorate. The key taken away from me because I was late too many times; arguments with coworkers; then the new ones didn’t like me. And I knew the job could not last forever; the pay was barely enough to support me. It was not a ‘real job’. But there was a window of time where it seemed like I could maintain it. And there was another window that existed for me, smaller but more infinite; not of time, but of what I could hold onto.
“To me, typing is like work, Gaiman explained in a 2015 interview with Tulsa World. “Writing with a pen is like playing. And you can write on planes when they’re taking off and landing.”
The benefits of putting pen to paper aren’t just for famous authors. For those of us who spend most days in front of our computers, writing by hand has a number of psychological benefits, in addition to giving our eyes a needed rest from the glow of the screen.
A peculiar aspect of Joan Didion’s nonfiction is that a significant portion of it reads like fiction. Or, more specifically, it has the metaphorical power of great fiction. While younger generations may read her as a window into the mythic 1960s or September 11, it’s impossible not to see, too, how Didion’s examination of racial bias and the Central Park Five, Reagan-era El Salvador, or the smug, violent, white-male carelessness that characterized the infamous Spur Posse in Lakewood, California, in the early 1990s anticipated the deeply troubling politics of today. Still, there’s an energy to her writing—what she might call its “shimmer”—that goes beyond a given piece’s surface story, and that sheds an awful and beautiful light on a world we half see but don’t want to see, one in which potential harm is a given and hope is a flimsy defense against dread. Didion’s ethos is a way of seeing what’s particular to the world that made her, and that ultimately reveals the writer to herself.
For now, he conceded, there are limits to what can be achieved by the algorithm’s recursive method of problem solving, a practice known as regression. Although the machine can retrieve from a pile of data the fundamental laws of physics, it cannot yet come up with the deep principles — like quantum uncertainty in quantum mechanics, or relativity — that underlie those formulae.
“By the times that A.I. comes back and tells you that, then we have reached artificial general intelligence, and you should be very scared or very excited, depending on your point of view,” Dr. Tegmark said. “The reason I’m working on this, honestly, is because what I find most menacing is, if we build super-powerful A.I. and have no clue how it works — right?”
If you read “Finnegans Wake” for the off-color puns; if you take to Flann O’Brien’s satirical novels as happily as a pup going for a morning walk; if, like Aunt Ada Doom in Stella Gibbons’s “Cold Comfort Farm,” you suspect you saw something nasty in the woodshed; if, like J.P. Donleavy, you’d like to decompose when you die in a barrel of porter and have it served in all the pubs of Dublin; if you sometimes wish you were an extra in John Gay’s raucous “The Beggar’s Opera,” then Guillermo Stitch’s new novel, “Lake of Urine,” is for you.
Admittedly, that’s a lot of ifs. Can’t I also have, one might ask, characters I can identify with, a tendon of plot and the consoling sense that I’m a moral and high-minded person? Not here, no. “Lake of Urine” offers instead strange harbingers, offbeat mental exfoliations, subterranean impulses, verbal ambuscades and warty, warty manifestations of joy, wit and lust.
Even As We Breathe is filled with nuances specific to this place and this tribe, from the smell of pine sap and sourwood to the hymns sung in Cherokee at the reservation Methodist church. Clapsaddle was determined with this novel to write characters her students might know in real life.
One of the epigraphs in Simon Han's debut novel Nights When Nothing Happened is a line from "Epistle," a Li-Young Lee poem: "Before it all gets wiped away, let me say, there is wisdom in the slender hour which arrives between two shadows." Nights When Nothing Happened is very much about the private, shadowy parts of ordinary lives, but Han's evocative writing is anything but ordinary.
Margaret Atwood does not do nostalgia. This collection of poems, her first in over 10 years, is a reckoning with the past that comes from a place of wisdom and control. Now 81, she harnesses the experience of a lifetime to assume a wry distance from her subjects – as if, in an astounding world, nothing could throw her off balance. This mastery, even at her most subversively fantastical, is part of what makes her an outstanding novelist. But poetry is different. Atwood is an undeceived poet and, even though the collection is full of pleasures, reading her work makes one consider the extent to which poetry is not only about truth but about the importance of being, at times, mercifully deceived – what Robert Lowell dubbed the “sanity of self-deception”.
These are the ghosts that stalk this poetic, but often starkly vivid, memoir. In Byrne’s evoking of them, they are as alive on the page as they are in his consciousness. And, in the act of writing, he comes to a deeper understanding of the secrets that they held close in a culture that was the opposite of our own: tight-lipped, parochial, perhaps suffocating, but also quietly decent and dignified.
I remember the day I walked through
museums in Paris, the Louvre where
blue tilted through glass clouds as we
She lifts her head to gift the stars white
smoke and my lips are drawn to the floral
arch of her neck, inching higher, the swirl
her fragrant exhalations make becoming night:
The last time I spoke to Michael J Fox, in 2013, in his office in New York, he was 90% optimistic and 10% pragmatic. The former I expected; the latter was a shock. Ever since 1998, when Fox went public with his diagnosis of early-onset Parkinson’s disease, he has made optimism his defining public characteristic, because of, rather than despite, his illness. He called his 2002 memoir Lucky Man, and he told interviewers that Parkinson’s is a gift, “albeit one that keeps on taking”.
During our interview, surrounded by the memorabilia (guitars, Golden Globes) he has accrued over the course of his career, he talked about how it had all been for the best. Parkinson’s, he said, had made him quit drinking, which in turn had probably saved his marriage. Being diagnosed at the heartbreakingly young age of 29 had also knocked the ego out of his career ambitions, so he could do smaller things he was proud of – Stuart Little, the TV sitcom Spin City – as opposed to the big 90s comedies, such as Doc Hollywood, that were too often a waste of his talents. To be honest, I didn’t entirely buy his tidy silver linings, but who was I to cast doubt on whatever perspective Fox had developed to make a monstrously unjust situation more bearable? So the sudden dose of pragmatism astonished me. Finding a cure for Parkinson’s, he said, “is not something that I view will happen in my lifetime”. Previously, he had talked about finding “a cure within a decade”. No more. “That’s just the way it goes,” he said quietly. It was like a dark cloud had partly obscured the sun.
In a year of chaos and confusion, it's often been Noah's own show that we've all found ourselves watching. While we were struggling to Zoom into meetings back in March, Noah made a seamless transition to shooting The Daily Show in his apartment. As the nation convulsed over the latest viral videos of police killing Black people, Noah looked squarely into his cell phone camera and found what felt like the right words to say about George Floyd. If 2020 was a year that most Americans would like to forget, Noah's work is one thing we'll remember about it.
“For me, this has been one of the most liberating years mentally and emotionally, because it freed me from a lot of the paradigms and anchors that I had created for myself,” Noah told me. “For me, the coronavirus, if you look at it objectively, has stripped away a lot of the bullshit.”
The book, which follows the critically lauded “Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self,” from 2010, examines alienation and the phantasmagoria of racial performance—how certain interactions can seem so forced and strange that they might as well take place underwater.
Like the best autobiographers, Barack Obama writes about himself in the hope of discovering who or even what he is. It’s a paradoxical project for a man who is universally known and idolised, but this uncertainty or insecurity is his motivating force and his most endearing quality.
The club has six members. Maks and I bring the cake. Beth brings drinks. Talia sets out chairs in front of the bookshop. Penelope carries the metal grill and turns the shop sign to CLOSED. Follie, the black dog, goes wild. She jumps and licks and runs in circles. Then she goes in search of an empty bookshelf to curl into. We have a joke about Follie reading all the books inside while the club congregates on the shop terrace, across from the gates to the Luxembourg Gardens. It’s really not that funny. But somehow at a gathering, it can become hysterical.
Macfarlane walks for the same reason I do: to be connected. To the landscape, yes, but also to its history. Every walk, urban or rural, follows in the footsteps of those who have trod these paths before. For Macfarlane, this adds weight to the places he writes about, allowing his observations to extend beyond personal experience and into the realms of ethnography and art.
The name Nero immediately conjures an image of a demented, olive-wreathed emperor demonically fiddling in the red glow of a burning Rome — a picture that has endured to modern times, providing irresistible fodder for plays, operas, films, even rock songs. In “Rome Is Burning: Nero and the Fire That Ended a Dynasty,” historian Anthony A. Barrett, professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia, navigates through the complex evidence surrounding the Great Fire of 64 A.D. to show that much popular perception of Nero is illusory.
There could hardly be a more provocative book title than “The Last American Hero” to examine a figure from 20th-century history. Not only might a reader wonder what the word “hero” denotes here, they may also puzzle why there can be no more heroes to follow.
What is hope, in the end, but the antipodal twin of memory? A bright mirage projected on the clouds ahead, like a distorted image of the mirages cast on the clouds behind. We spend our lives framed, hemmed in by these dense fog banks, rarely realizing we’re alive in the sunlit space between. Or we’re like drivers at night, barely registering a never-heard-before song on the speakers or the sleep breathing of the passenger beside us as we squint ahead to where our high beams diffuse into fog, fearing a collision or watching for a sign, then checking the rearview yet again, ruminating on the rose-lit or blood-lit dimness behind. A prudent protocol for driving, maybe, but no way to live.
If you look at a map of Paris, you will see very plainly that Shakespeare and Company is ridiculously close to Notre-Dame. Right across the Seine. All you have to do is walk over a little overpass, which is to say the two are basically right across the street from one another. Google Maps clocks it at less than a 6-minute walk, door to door. (In my defense, we opted not to get the roaming data plan. I was on my own.) I spent a good half hour circling Notre-Dame, wandering off into side streets, utterly incapable of locating what was, to me, the second-most important thing to find in Paris. (The first was baguettes. I found those, no problem.)
I know this is going to sound so cheesy, but I swear it’s true: then I heard music. A lone violin! It was playing “Hallelujah,” which was my favorite song (which is to say I watched a lot of Shrek as a kid). I followed the sound, and then there it was: Shakespeare and Company, in all its glory.
What will be the next grand metaphor about the brain? Impossible to say, because we need to wait for the next world-changing technology. But in the mean time, Cobb suggests, the computer metaphor might be doing more harm than good. After all, he notes rightly: “Metaphors shape our ideas in ways that are not always helpful.”
“The world of reviewing is small,” says the sociologist Phillipa K. Chong, author of Inside the Critics’ Circle: Book Reviewing in Uncertain Times, and there is an unintended double meaning here. A critic has to write with some confidence and posture, but there is always the worry: Who cares?
admiral – when we came ashore the day before
the prostitutes – learning we had returned from the war
greeted us as if we had risen from the dead
In the four decades before the Civil War, an estimated several thousand enslaved people escaped from the south-central United States to Mexico. Some received help—from free Black people, ship captains, Mexicans, Germans, preachers, mail riders, and, according to one Texan paper, other “lurking scoundrels.” Most, though, escaped to Mexico by their own ingenuity. They acquired forged travel passes. They disguised themselves as white men, fashioning wigs from horsehair and pitch. They stole horses, firearms, skiffs, dirk knives, fur hats, and, in one instance, twelve gold watches and a diamond breast pin. And then they disappeared.
Why did runaways head toward Mexico? For enslaved people in Texas or Louisiana, the northern states were hundreds of miles away. Even if they did manage to cross the Mason-Dixon line, they were not legally free. In fact, the fugitive-slave clause of the U.S. Constitution and the laws meant to enforce it sought to return runaways to their owners. Mexico, by contrast, granted enslaved people legal protections that they did not enjoy in the northern United States. Mexico’s Congress abolished slavery in 1837. Twenty years later, the country adopted a constitution that granted freedom to all enslaved people who set foot on Mexican soil, signalling that freedom was not some abstract ideal but a general and inviolable principle, the law of the land.
But I am worried. In movies, empty museums often symbolize a world in which catastrophe has occurred. The streets of New York feel pretty normal, aside from the masks, but the museums faintly recall the post-apocalyptic setting of I Am Legend. The art that makes life in New York glow is going unseen. Staff members are being exposed every day to visitors who might be carriers. And if it stays this way for too long, some of these museums will struggle to stay open. It makes the glorious quietness, the ease of moving about the galleries, feel like a warning. And it makes it hard to imagine floods of visitors ever returning.
Regret and its effects are no strangers to books. Countless literary works, both fictional and not, explore our innate longing to return to the past, to experience a moment once again, and perhaps find some solace for our aching souls. Yet only time travel fiction allows its characters an opportunity to truly return to where its readers can’t.
Before the Coffee Gets Cold, the debut novel from playwright Toshikazu Kawaguchi, may explore similar ground to its predecessors in the genre, but it inventively limits the mechanics of its time travel to the confines of a small cafe, and is all the more resonant for it. At times, Kawaguchi’s hand is a bit too prominent, but despite the occasional clumsiness, the narrative is deeply moving.
These long winter nights offer a chance to burrow into literary challenges — this winter especially. And though “Kraft” may sound far afield from your usual reading choices, much of it takes place in America and revolves around the promise of Reaganomics. In other words, the perspective is foreign, but the setting familiar.
The novelist Sybille Bedford is the patron saint of writers who hate writing. She described the actual act as “tearing, crushing, defeating agony” and filled her journal for 1949 with despairing accounts of “Thinking – Dawdling – Dreaming – Fiddling”, ending always with an accusatory blank page. Sometimes she tried to trick her muse by practising typing exercises, but even her typewriter seemed to get wise to this and she was left feeling “sick with disgust, discouragement, heaviness”. She used drink and drugs to jolly herself into a more productive state of mind, but in the end found that only weak black tea did the trick.
To break the spell of another today
I put on a special shirt;
proud of its perfection,
ready for the arena.
Elettra and I had still only been dating when we bought the land, and though Joanie loved the overgrowth, the wildness of it, she had suggested wryly we might need to shop around for a backhoe. She also deemed it foolish, signing a mortgage with someone you were not married to. Dreams are oftentimes foolish. For as long as I could remember, I had wanted a place in the woods full of tattered books to be read for the hundredth time and soft, cuddly pets and without any schedules or demands. I didn’t want to see any uninvited soul for days. Elettra wanted the same. We bought our 5-acre hideaway, and I proposed to Elettra on a craggy ledge backed by a brush-covered mountain. At our engagement party, which Joanie had been well enough to plan and attend that December, I told everyone the house would be ready in about nine months. As Elettra’s family became my family, I figured we could wait out the construction together.
Then one day in January, after we moved in, Joanie climbed into the hospital bed we had installed in the living room, and another kind of waiting began.
In the city, then, for the surrealists and other “modernists of the street,” every aimless step counts—precisely because it cannot be counted. The more aimless the better …
What to do with all of this anxiety?
That question hangs over Charles Baxter’s tense, wry and ultimately touching new novel, “The Sun Collective,” which vividly recreates the oscillating sense of dread familiar to anyone who hasn’t spent the last four years in a coma, or in Canada.
How much do we really know ourselves and each other? These questions linger long after the final pages of this supremely intelligent collection.
The science and story of the V-2 furnish the backdrop for the latest novel by Robert Harris, his 14th. Like “Enigma,” “Munich” and “Fatherland,” “V2” is another swiftly paced thriller that blends fiction with the facts of World War II. Running alongside the well-known history of the German rocket is the hidden tale of Britain’s attempt to stymie the rocket attacks — with algebra.
Anyone who knows the history of current events in Syria won't be surprised to learn that the secret library doesn't survive, nor do all of those young men. The story of the secret library, however, is preserved in this slim, vivid account, when so much else in Daraya has turned to dust.
With his latest memoir, No Time Like The Future: An Optimist Considers Mortality, Michael J. Fox reminds us that hope is an exercise and a discipline, not just a feeling or even a state of mind. The actor, author, and activist has already published three books, including two earlier memoirs, that course with the optimism he’s maintained nearly 30 years since being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Introspective and poignant, No Time Like The Future is the latest installment in Fox’s series of reflections on just how hard-won that famous sense of hope is.
Ross was right: the truths of the giraffe are more fabulous and potent than our fictions. Giraffes are born with no aid from the camel or hyena, but even so their birth is a wonder: they gestate for 15 months, then drop into existence a distance of five feet from the womb to the earth. It looks as brisk and simple as emptying out a handbag. Within minutes, they can stand on their trembling, catwalk-model legs and suckle at their mother’s four teats, biting off the little wax caps that have formed in the preceding days to keep the milk from leaking out. Soon they are ready to run, but still liable to trip over their own hind legs, a hazard they never learn entirely to avoid.
So, apparently, I was on the high school basketball team for three years until I was expelled from school, a pregnant sixteen-year-old girl. How is that something I could forget? The forgetting causes me great unease. I don’t want to see the photographs.
Reading Barack Obama’s deeply introspective and at times elegiac new presidential memoir, I thought often about something the writer James Baldwin said in 1970, two years removed from the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and despairing about America from abroad.
“Hope,” an exhausted Baldwin told a reporter from Ebony magazine, “is invented every day.”
David Farrier’s Footprints: In Search of Future Fossils attempts to harmonize poetic and geological time — and does so at a moment when the uncannily rapid pace of climate change has forced us to renegotiate our relationship to the natural and political future. We think in hours and days, not in centuries or millennia, but Farrier sets out to help us overcome this limitation through vivid evocations of what our distant ancestors might uncover thousands and even millions of years down the line.
The result is spare but effective, and its theme of endurance in the face of loss hints at how the genre may evolve to reflect our own continuing catastrophe, for which the most dystopian fantasies may turn out to be nothing but a dry run.
Is it still cool to memorize a lot of stuff? Is there even a reason to memorize anything? Having a lot of information in your head was maybe never cool in the sexy-cool sense, more in the geeky-cool or class-brainiac sense. But people respected the ability to rattle off the names of all the state capitals, or to recite the periodic table. It was like the ability to dunk, or to play the piano by ear—something the average person can’t do. It was a harmless show of superiority, and it gave people a kind of species pride.
There is still no artificial substitute for the ability to dunk. It remains a valued and nontransferrable aptitude. But today who needs to know the capital of South Dakota or the atomic number of hafnium (Pierre and 72)? Siri, or whatever chatbot you use, can get you that information in nanoseconds. Remember when, back in the B.D.E. (Before the Digital Era), you’d be sitting around with friends over a bottle of Puligny-Montrachet, and the conversation would turn on the question of when Hegel published “The Phenomenology of Spirit”? Unless you had an encyclopedia for grownups around the house, you’d either have to trek to your local library, whose only copy of the “Phenomenology” was likely to be checked out, or use a primitive version of the “lifeline”—i.e., telephone a Hegel expert. Now you ask your smartphone, which is probably already in your hand. (I just did: 1807. Took less than a second.)
Danielle Evans’s second story collection, The Office Of Historical Corrections, draws on the current zeitgeist with provocative narratives examining race, female friendship, and privilege. The collection concludes with a novella by the same name dealing with both our present obsession with truth and the historical legacy of racism. Women carry this collection, and the characters of these stories are burdened by the death of loved ones, emotional personal decisions, and the weight of their families in crisis, but the persistent interrogation throughout the collection is America’s unending racism.
And there is the learning to wield that power, the straining upward and the letting go, the bracing herself for the flames. Of her writing process, Valentine said in a recent interview: “I got to experience my brother again, imagine him laughing, see him as child full of potential, remember his life and not just his death.” When, days after Junior’s funeral, she and her siblings went to the freeway exit where he was shot and covered the cement wall in messages and drawings of flowers, Valentine wrote, “Come back, come back, come back.” The wall was quickly painted over. But she never stopped writing, and every sentence of this book is infused with that same urgency and longing. It is hers now, and all of ours, to hold.
One Covid-era hero, in my house, is Jacques Pépin, the French-born cookbook writer. Shortly after lockdown started, Pépin, who is 84, began issuing short videos on Facebook that explained how to cook really well using the simplest and homeliest things you have in your house.
There he is, preparing vegetable soup from odds and sods in his refrigerator, nonchalantly cutting the dark bits from old vegetables. Making a choucroute garnie, he throws in sliced hot dogs as well as other sausages. His quick chicken breasts resemble an entree that might have been served to Hemingway and Fitzgerald at the Café du Dôme. He’s a king of the tortilla pizza.
I can’t remember the last time I read a food book so interesting and so lively, let alone one that makes so many quietly political good points without ever becoming earnest or preachy. Let me add that it also comes with a recipe for parkin. What more could you possibly want?
It may seem an almost hilariously overdone homage to a highly specific period of Yankovic’s career. But the truth is his self-effacing persona conceals one of the late 20th and early 21st century’s greatest bodies of cultural critique — even if it’s in comedic-song form.
and have satisfied the finger-check of pulse
at throat and wrist
In Jersey’s Pine Barrens crickets rub their saw-toothed wings and I’m a child.
For Anna McGovern there is a satisfying, sensory pleasure to be had in rinsing milk bottles: “The very best thing about getting your milk delivered is ‘rinsing and returning’. Don’t cheat by putting your bottles in the dishwasher. Wash them, by hand. Put a small amount of water in the bottle, slosh the water around, put your hand over the top, shake it up and down, upturn the bottle, glugging the water out, then head for your doorstep and put out the bottle with a ‘plink’”.
This is one of many meandering, seemingly mundane tasks that McGovern delights in describing in her new book. Another is pegging out the washing (“Pull it out of the basket in a long, sweet-smelling, damp lump.”) In fact, when we speak about pottering, McGovern tells me she has done just that to “help order her thoughts”.
Isaac Newton’s “Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica,” or Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, published in London in 1687, nonetheless went on to become a scientific colossus. It unlocked the universe with its discovery of gravity and laws of planetary motion, and laid out a method of inquiry that became the gold standard. It was known as simply the Principia, the Principles.
Now, historians have discovered that the first, limited edition of the seemingly incomprehensible book in fact achieved a surprisingly wide distribution throughout the educated world.
At home in Scotland, as I gaze at the familiar view above Caddon Water, I think of Dorothy and her gift for finding the profound in the local. Her example seems increasingly important as restrictions have tightened across the country. Like Dorothy, we cannot go too far from home, but while we cannot access distant lands or grand vistas, we can come to know the places where we live. Through the same kind of everyday attentiveness that Dorothy brought to her Grasmere walks, we can, walk by walk, day by day, create a sense of belonging, and call our hearts to quietness.
In a moment, having finished this, I’ll go down and eat one, safe in the knowledge that it might see me through – not just to the first splash of tonic this evening, but in its own small way to when all this is over, and the world roars back to life at last.
Obama’s extraordinary first book, “Dreams From My Father,” was published in 1995, a year before he was elected to the Illinois senate, and traced his family history alongside his own coming-of-age. “A Promised Land” is necessarily less intimate and more political, offering close-up views of the major issues that Obama faced during his first term, including the economic stimulus, health care, immigration, the environment and the forever war in Afghanistan.
Presumably left for the future volume are, among other fraught subjects: the 2016 election, his abdication of his own “red line” in Syria, the entrenchment of the surveillance state and a discussion of drone strikes. This isn’t to say that “A Promised Land” reads like a dodge; if anything, its length testifies to what seems to be a consistently held faith on the part of the former president — that if he just describes his thinking in sufficient detail, and clearly lays out the constellation of obstacles and constraints he faced, any reasonable American would have to understand why he governed as he did.
One Night Two Souls Went Walking is a triumph of a novel, and one that arrives at the perfect time — we're all living in an injured world, hoping for some kind of deliverance. And deliverance has a way of coming whether we believe in it or not, Cooney seems to say, the darkness may just yet be punctured by light, or something like it. Or as the chaplain wants to tell one of her patients: "Please imagine what hope is, and please then have it."
Written in the Stars has two often-used romcom tropes — opposites attract and fake relationships — at the center of its story. This does risk a predictable plot, but Bellefleur uses her tropes not only as obstacles to romance but as a means to fill in the gaps in her characters' personalities.
Time is filled with beginners. You are right. Now
each of them is working on something
and it matters. The large increments of life must not go by
When I was little, before I departed the sunny, Pacific chaos of our world for the chilly, Atlantic silence of the new world, we often had tinola for Sunday lunch at Lolo and Lola’s house, where I would spend weekends. In the early mornings, Lolo and I would stroll the barrio streets to buy fresh pandesal from the local bakery, me skipping along in mumbled song with the roosters, him punching the air with calisthenic fists, just as he had done with the American GIs during the war. In Pennsylvania, where he had followed us a year after we left, he would walk me to and from school, the two of us passing a bag of sticky, sour sampalok between us, spitting out the smooth, shiny seeds into our palms. He always wore his pristinely white Reeboks and sometimes his ten-gallon cowboy hat. I still remember my shame on the days he would arrive in that hat.
I am tired of design magazines and paint companies trying to sell me on dull “neutral” colors. They claim ”Beige Is Back,” that there is a historical elegance and calming effect to monochromatic off-whites. I don’t buy it. A minimalistic approach to color in modern buildings and interiors doesn’t relax me—it puts me to sleep. When I awake, I am angry. The historical notion that bleached Greco-Roman temples represent beauty is a myth. The ancients never rendered their structures, interiors, and ornament without color. Their architecture was vividly polychromatic.
The magic takes hold as soon as I step into All Hallows by the Tower churchyard. It’s gone midnight and at first I look right towards one of the City of London’s oldest churches. Then I turn left, with a coldness trickling down my spine as I stare deep into my own past.
The Moth of the title has only metaphorical association with nocturnal lepidoptera; it’s actually a small aeroplane, manufactured by de Havilland between the wars. The Mountain is a real mountain, the big one, Chomolungma, also known as Mount Everest. And in those days still unconquered. What – or rather who – links the two? The answer is Maurice Wilson.
“Whenever I go to North Korea,” Immanuel Kim told an interviewer in 2017, “I see people reading.” In the metro, in elevators, in buses and restaurants. But what were they reading, in a state unrivaled in the harshness of its censorship? As a graduate student at the University of California at Riverside studying Korean literature, Kim—who is now a professor at George Washington University specializing in North Korean culture—had become curious about North Korean fiction, which was usually dismissed as mind-numbing propaganda. There was a basis for this stereotype, it turned out, but after eight months of diligent reading, Kim began to find work that he genuinely liked. One of the best novels he discovered, something different from almost all the rest, was Friend by Paek Nam-nyong.
When serious pianists tour, though, they almost never bring their own instruments, which require professional movers to transport. From their student days, pianists are compelled to develop adaptability. After practicing a piece at home, a Conrad Tao or Jeremy Denk must perform on whatever instrument a hall has to offer. And some can be pretty bad. Young pianists at the Juilliard School have long traded battle stories of having to play on a “real PSO” — a “piano-shaped object.” Very fine pianos vary enormously in terms of sound, action and responsiveness to touch. Even a superb Steinway in a concert hall may take adjusting to, and may not suit a particular pianist’s preferences.
I’d been staring at the ground too long. That’s most of what foraging is, by the way. It’s ignoring the blue sky and the trees to focus your gaze on the dirt. I was walking through cobwebs, surveying the woodland floor for almost an hour, when I finally saw one: a tiny, pale chanterelle mushroom sticking up near the trail’s edge. It looked sickly, or at the very least elderly. Perhaps it was a sign that this section of the woods was untraveled, or maybe nobody had ever thought to pluck it from its habitat.
But the psychological, or "physiopsychological," aspects of sighing are finally starting to be explored. A recent theory proposes that sighing is not just a reset for the lungs and breathing, but for our emotions too, bringing us back to stasis from big emotions, whether they be positive or negative.
Sighing might also not be just a byproduct of emotions, but could induce feelings too, like relief. Intriguingly, there may also be such a thing as too many sighs. People with anxiety disorders who sigh more than others might be dysregulating their breathing by over-relying on the soothing powers of the sigh. Ultimately, what's being uncovered is that unlike what the song "As Time Goes By" from Casablanca claimed, a sigh is not just a sigh.
Since childhood, my father had longed to stand on the spot where his father had been wounded as an American soldier in World War One. Family legend told of the weeks when my grandfather had been reported dead, followed by news of his presence in a rural French hospital, and finally the long struggle to bring him home.
It was my sister’s idea to make Dad’s dream come true. In the aftermath of my mother’s death, she felt it would draw the three of us together, and that it would keep my dad going a little longer. She had always been the organizer in the family, the listmaker, the one who barked directions at cab drivers. Now she would lead us through London, Paris, the Somme Valley, and a few square miles of wooded terrain near the Ourcq River, not far from the village of Chateau Thierry.
Barack Obama is as fine a writer as they come. It is not merely that this book avoids being ponderous, as might be expected, even forgiven, of a hefty memoir, but that it is nearly always pleasurable to read, sentence by sentence, the prose gorgeous in places, the detail granular and vivid. From Southeast Asia to a forgotten school in South Carolina, he evokes the sense of place with a light but sure hand. This is the first of two volumes, and it starts early in his life, charting his initial political campaigns, and ends with a meeting in Kentucky where he is introduced to the SEAL team involved in the Abbottabad raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
Dehumanising technology, unimaginative city planning and austerity have made us unhappy, unhealthy and hostile. This book is a crucial call to arms: in the wake of the pandemic, Hertz argues, governments have an opportunity to rebuild along better lines. Yet I have little confidence that the British government is thinking about the importance of community. If we could issue a reading list to 10 Downing Street, I’d put this book near the top.
Cats suffer from dementia too. Did you know that?
Ours did. Not the black one, smart enough
to be neurotic and evade the vet.
On June 2, 2015, two metal-detector hobbyists aware of the area’s heritage, George Powell and Layton Davies, drove ninety minutes north of their homes, in South Wales, to the hamlet of Eye, about four miles outside Leominster. The farmland there is picturesque: narrow, hedgerow-lined lanes wend among pastures dotted with spreading trees and undulating crop fields. Anyone fascinated by the layered accretions of British history—or eager to learn what might be buried within those layers—would find it an attractive spot. English place-names, most of which date back to Anglo-Saxon times, are often repositories of meaning: the name Eye, for example, derives from Old English, and translates as “dry ground in a marsh.” Just outside the hamlet was a rise in the landscape, identified on maps by the tantalizing appellation of King’s Hall Hill.
Powell, a warehouse worker in his early thirties, and Davies, a school custodian a dozen years older, were experienced “detectorists.” There are approximately twenty thousand such enthusiasts in England and Wales, and usually they find only mundane detritus: a corroded button that popped off a jacket in the eighteen-hundreds, a bolt that fell off a tractor a dozen years ago. But some detectorists make discoveries that are immensely valuable, both to collectors of antiquities and to historians, for whom a single buried coin can help illuminate the past. Scanning the environs of King’s Hall Hill, the men suddenly picked up a signal on their devices. They dug into the red-brown soil, and three feet down they started to uncover a thrilling cache of objects: a gold arm bangle in the shape of a snake consuming its own tail; a pendant made from a crystal sphere banded by delicately wrought gold; a gold ring patterned with octagonal facets; a silver ingot measuring close to three inches in length; and, stuck together in a solid clod of earth, what appeared to be hundreds of fragile silver coins.
Who knew that the postmodern Armageddon would feel quite so peaceful? On a bright autumn morning, as the pandemic’s second wave rolls in, the streets of Westminster are quieter than on a Sunday dawn. Here, the British state and its offshoots—the public bodies, the think tanks, the charities—normally throng and hum. But the state and its appendages are working from home, so you enter Tate Britain from a near-deserted riverside where a solitary leaf-collector blows autumn into piles. Once inside, in the Tate’s new exhibition of works by J.M.W. Turner, crisis and catastrophe explode in ecstatic vortices of light and shadow, blaze and mist. Two centuries ago, emergencies really acted up.
Cities are not only made from bricks and mortar, they are built out of institutions, and the governing structures that formed Edo were from the outset intimately tied to the ruling Tokugawa Shogunate, which was toppled in the mid-19th century during Japan’s Meiji Restoration. In 1862, the heavily armed samurai compounds were abandoned, and by 1870 the networks of beggar-spies who once policed the city had been replaced by gendarmes in crisp serge uniforms. It is not just Edo’s urban fabric that has disappeared but also a whole social order, and with it an entire mentality.
Luckily, there are other ways to visit this vanished city. Possibly no other country in the world possesses as rich an archive of early modern sources as Japan, nor as rich a tradition of writing fine-grained urban history.
In his latest books, Horowitz — long admired for creating the television series “Foyle’s War” and “Midsomer Murders,” as well as the Alex Rider spy thrillers for young people — showcases a cleverness and finesse that even Dame Agatha might envy. “Moonflower Murders” resembles a super Mobius strip, interlacing multiple degrees and levels of fictiveness.
C.J. Cooke’s new novel, The Nesting, ticks all the boxes of a satisfying thriller, but it’s more than just a safe bet for a good read on a dark and stormy night. Cooke’s thought-provoking depiction of the sinister side of motherhood and Mother Nature adds depth to the book’s fast-paced, gripping plot and amplifies its eerie atmosphere.
“I can’t draw,” he said. “I’m one of the few artists where the paper becomes less valuable when I draw on it.”
As an aspiring cartoonist with no artistic ability, Martin was in a tough spot. So last year, he contacted the illustrator and cartoonist Harry Bliss and asked if he wanted to work together.
Our manner of collaborating was this: working from David’s literal translation of a manuscript of Yi Lei’s poems, I would listen to the poem’s statements and the images, essentially trying to visualize the poem’s realm, and to align myself with the feeling and logic of the work. Then, I’d attempt to re-envision and re-situate these things in English. Occasionally, this was a matter of shifting toward smoother, more active, evocative language. Often, it entailed locating a relationship between verbs and nouns and aligning those features within a new metaphor or image system.
Have you read a book review recently? The ones that make the rounds, dropped in DMs and threaded down Twitter timelines? They all fixate on a certain quality. Critics—and the authors they cover—seem to be obsessed with self-awareness. Writing about oneself isn’t new at all, but what’s current (and quickly growing stale) is the overtly self-conscious way contemporary writers have chosen to go about it.
The novel felt like it had been written for me. I am dark-skinned and was called “fat, black, and ugly” nearly every day of my teenage years. Claudia MacTeer, one of the novel’s narrators, is also dark, but she has something I instantly realized I didn’t: an ability to question assessments of beauty and worth. When her peers have “a loving conversation about how cu-ute Shirley Temple was,” Claudia narrates, “I couldn’t join them in their adoration because I hated Shirley.” Likewise, other children love blue-eyed baby dolls, but Claudia relishes dismembering them. To my mind, these were unthinkable displays of strength. And this was a strength particularly valuable for African American girls.
As we head into what looks to be a cold, hard winter exacerbated by the coronovirus pandemic, British writer Katherine May offers some warming advice: Embrace your winter!
Why is a word used to describe a literary technique also the word used to describe the buffoonery, the cruelty and carelessness, of contemporary political and economic life? What is in a word as minor as “gimmick”?
For Sianne Ngai, a professor of English at the University of Chicago and the author of “Theory of the Gimmick” (Harvard), the answer is: everything, or at least everything to do with the art consumed and produced under capitalism.
You’ve probably already heard a description of the formation of black holes that goes something like this: crush matter down to tremendous densities and you’ll make a black hole. This is true. Compressed matter is one avenue to the creation of black holes. Heavy stars collapse under their own weight at the end of their life cycle and the material of the star crushes to catastrophic densities until a black hole forms. Still, stellar collapse is not the only imaginable mechanism for their formation. The dense quash of matter is often mistakenly taken as synonymous with the black hole. But that’s not the essence of the black hole. Black holes are not stuff.
It felt good to move my body. And accomplishing something gave me a jolt of mood-lifting dopamine. In the middle of an achingly difficult year, here was a simple task I could complete – something good for me.
You’re so curious about what the next episode will bring that even if you’ve stepped away from the book for a meal or a good night’s sleep, you feel like one of those 19th-century readers who stormed the New York Harbor, awaiting the arrival of a new installment of a Dickens novel.
What happens when you live in a world where what you can do is all that matters and you don’t really know how to do anything? In The Arrest, Lethem writes about a world that’s ready to move on from humanity’s bullshit toward something healthier and self-sustaining. The questions he poses to his characters is whether or not they’re ready to move forward with the times, or if they’d rather spend their remaining days on Earth dreaming about sushi.
Written with humor and honesty, Lehrer takes us through necessary, cosmetic, and life-altering surgeries, as she tackles her sexual identity, friendships, family ties, and her art career. The girl on the operating table is transformed into the skin she lives in—"a queer crippled Jew with peculiar shoes, a dreadful, grievous monster." Readers see Lehrer grow—from page to page—into a radically visible advocate, teacher, curator, and human-being.
Particulate Matter is a moving example of how to write about climate change, not didactically, but with the deep impact of both personal loss and literary elegance.
Because for writers, or perhaps any artist, this movement between thinking and storytelling — between thinking and finding something to do — represents the ethical turn in Smith’s philosophy and in what she calls “the most powerful art.” This art, which like all art “stands in a dubious relation to necessity,” she’ll say, is produced in response to love — in fact, she’ll say this art is love enacted, like a banana bread made with love, like her portraits. Love, something we all respond to with whatever capacities we have at our disposal at any moment, the emotion at the center of grief, all this grief, which diminishes our capacities and must be the reason we fear love so much. And why we need it so much. Not just now, but especially now.
How did we get where we are, we human freaks of nature? Language, rational thought, art, science and technology set us apart from other species. Add to that list (more curse than accomplishment) an acute awareness of our own mortality. Other animals show faint glimmerings of innovation – crude tool use, for example – but no other species has so much as invented a fork, let alone a bicycle or a nuclear power plant. Something happened in the evolutionary history of Homo sapiens to cause an explosion of ingenuity orders of magnitude greater than anything seen in other species, including our big-brained cousins the Neanderthals. But what? And when?
But this is Jonathan Lethem, a master at subverting expectations of form and genre. He has not written a conventional postapocalyptic cautionary tale. If anything, he seems more interested in unpacking assumptions built into such tales, and why we seem to have an endless appetite for stories that, presumably, should make us feel terrible.
There was the day: the forsythia
at your fence a conflagration
of yellow, the sun, a more obvious
conflagration of yellow, and spring
When our family was young
and the children took off over the stones like little dogs
as we followed in our different conversation
and the game was, to come back with the Best
Imagine going in to wake your child for school to find an empty bed. Then imagine a sobbing security guard appears at your door. Can you feel the bewilderment, fear and dawning horror as a kind of physical pain? Can you bear it?
This is what happened to New Zealanders Linda Collins and her husband Malcolm McLeod on the morning of 14 April 2014, the morning they discovered their beloved only daughter, 17-year-old Victoria Skye Pringle McCleod, had committed suicide near their home in Singapore. Loss Adjustment is Collins’ clear-eyed memoir of navigating, and somehow accommodating, this loss.
In his new book Dictionary Poetics, Craig Dworkin gives renewed attention to the places poets find their words, and he frequently scours reference texts for anomalies and disjunctions in definition as source material for his poems. Looking through a much broader scope, Piers Pennington and Andrew Blades’s Poetry & the Dictionary tracks the centuries-long relationship between the terms of their book’s title. Together, these two studies remind us that the dictionary itself cannot be “depersonalized,” that no “picture” it presents is necessarily clear.
On 16 April 1934, Maurice Wilson set off from the Rongbuk monastery in Tibet to climb Mount Everest via the North Col, entirely alone. He carried 45lb of equipment and food including a defective altimeter, his talismanic “flag of friendship”, an ice axe (but no crampons), a copy of The Voice of Silence (his Buddhist text), and a concave mirror (to signal his progress). He also bore the blessing of an ageing lama, and the dream of reaching the roof of the world – the first person ever to do so – on his 36th birthday. Remarkably, he had no technical mountaineering expertise, nor even any alpine experience. In fact, as Ed Caesar notes in this gem of a book, “Wilson had hardly climbed anything more challenging than a flight of stairs”.
In the 18th century, the body snatchers who grubbed up coffins and sold exhumed corpses for medical research were ghoulishly nicknamed “resurrection men”. Carmen Callil, whose motives are a good deal nobler, is a resurrection woman: after a decade spent delving in archives and visiting nameless graves, she has unearthed her family’s past in a book that is both a heartfelt outpouring of pity and sorrow and an irate demand for restitution.
Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.
She agrees but then deflects: what about if men just want to be acknowledged, or are insecure, or are following animal instinct? What are the alternative possibilities, the other ways of looking? And there it is: Gaitskill’s determination to explore, to strive to understand not just her own mind, but — without judgment — the minds of other people.
A. R. Ammons is famous for saying, “touch the universe anywhere, you touch it / everywhere,” and Bialosky’s Asylum is an embodiment of this belief. The various meanings of asylum that move through the book refuse to cancel each other out. Where one poem might touch an existential terror, another offers compassionate refuge. As we see from the poems quoted above, this happens not only across poems but also within single poems. Asylum’s searching cosmos suggests that living with these paradoxes about safety and danger and continuing to believe — in love, in language, in nature — is the only way to be fully human — feeling, accountable, caring, brave.
As David Michaelis makes clear in “Eleanor” — an excellent single-volume biography of America’s greatest first lady — modest rebellion best encapsulated her paradoxical personality anchored in Victorian morality and cutting-edge feminist bravery. With her toothy smile and genial radiance, utterly void of pretense, Eleanor epitomized grace under pressure, folksy common sense, loyalty to friends and a bedrock belief in American democratic virtues. Her lifelong bully pulpit mission was preserving individual liberty against the European totalitarian model of empowering the state at the citizen’s expense. Although rather shy and polite, she nevertheless became an outstanding orator with an irrefutable fan base. “I have faith in you,” she reassured the American people after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. “I feel as though I was standing upon a rock, and that rock is my faith in my fellow citizens. Whatever is asked of us, I am sure we can accomplish it. We are the free and unconquerable people of the United States of America.”
What’s most fascinating is the dynamic of members of a psychotherapy group determined to strip themselves bare in front of an audience, and every time we’re pulled back to Tate’s search for a partner, we miss that other setting: a strange, foreign land, even for people who have spent years in more traditional therapy. According to Dr. Rosen, group-therapy dynamics are all about individuation, but “Group” may be most compelling when Tate focuses on collaboration.
It’s an old word, fading now.
Dearly did I wish.
Dearly did I long for.
I loved him dearly.
On 29 October 1945, the New York City branch of Gimbels department store unveiled a new product. Billions upon billions would follow in its wake.
Gimbels was the first to sell a new kind of ink pen, the design of which had taken several decades to come to fruition. The pens, made by the Reynolds International Pen Company, promised an end to the messy mishaps users of fountain pens encountered – leaking ink, smudges and pooling ink blots.
In the end, Li transcends the individual through the way she focuses so singularly on the I, moments of aloneness, and solitary memories, rather than on feelings she has from shared memories. Yu, too, transcends the individual, though he does so by offering his experience as a way of representing collective experience.
A book is many things to many people, and such is the novel Lucky’s. It’s a paper monument to the old Greek diaspora. A fictionalised account of an awfully specific phenomena in Australian history. It’s a saga that encapsulates elements of family drama, true crime and Greek tragedy. Most of all it’s a must-read from a new favoured son of the Eptanisa.
Even in the absence of more incisive social commentary, “White Ivy” is still a highly entertaining, well-plotted character study about a young woman whose obsession with the shallow signifiers of success gets her in too deep.
But what if the primary way in which we are unique, and one of the ultimate causes of our remarkable rational and linguistic capabilities, turns out to be the unique way in which we are emotionally drawn to one another and the world? What if humans have become so rational and linguistic because of the very special kind of social way we interact and emote? How might it change our way of understanding ourselves, our relationships with and responsibilities to one another, our fellow animals and our planet if we came to see the foundation of human uniqueness not in our capacity for reason, but in our capacity for empathy? If we realised that we are the very special animal we are because of our very special ways of caring for and about one another – a care that we project into the nonhuman world? The rational animal has used its reason to wreak havoc on the planet and its inhabitants. Could the empathic animal begin to undo some of that harm?
Hands up, who’s rubbish at drawing? Ha! Bet you’re not as bad as me.
For years this rarely bothered me but, like so many of us in the first lockdown, I gloried in previously familiar green city spaces, and longed to record the joy they brought. A quick snap on my phone – destined to join hundreds not looked at again – never quite captured the moment. So I was intrigued to see that Walthamstow-based artist Sharon Drew was running “green sketching” sessions in Epping Forest, on the edge of north London, near her home and mine.
They Say Sarah is an erotic work that explores the dialectics of desire, possession, madness. The “turmoil of the senses” in which the narrator and Sarah live ultimately leads to despair, destruction, death. Today, when so many writers are turning to stories about their upbringings and their political journeys, it is satisfying, now and again, to be shown the darkness that lurks within all of us, the latent itch for reckless passion — and to be reminded that fiction can be made from a purely metaphysical examination of the subterranean drives that govern our lives.
In “I Talk Like a River,” the Canadian poet Jordan Scott recalls his own childhood struggle with stuttering. His episodic narrative, told in a few straightforward sentences per page, accompanied by gorgeous illustrations by Sydney Smith, is an empathetic conversation-starter for families seeking help for a young — or not so young — person who stutters.
When it stops snowing in winter and deep cold arrives to crack the
“The very things that made me love Harvard — its seductiveness, its limitlessness — also made it a very convincing villain,” Cooper writes in “We Keep the Dead Close: A Murder at Harvard and a Half Century of Silence,” her book, 10 years in the making, about the case at the heart of the rumor. “Harvard felt omnipotent.”
At 500 pages, “We Keep the Dead Close” — which will be published by Grand Central on Nov. 10 trailing superlatives from the high-profile authors Ron Chernow, Stacy Schiff and Patrick Radden Keefe — is a true-crime procedural and a record of its author’s all-consuming obsession, unfolding in what can seem like real time. But it is also, more unusually, a young woman’s reckoning with an institution whose mythic reputation belies unsavory secrets.
My initial plan was to skip all of the major key numbers, but that proved impossible, despite myself, once I stumbled through the opening bars of the first invention in C major. The music was absurdly simple: just a few notes from the C major scale up and down, then a leap and a trill—an ornament consisting of the rapid alternation between two notes.
It was all so logical: figure out what key you are in, noodle around in the scale until you find something reasonably catchy, modulate to related keys now and then according to some straightforward rules, and return home.
Many at the margins proofread their bodies, clipping what they think will not be accepted—often splintering their very ideas of self. This fear of being rejected, of getting caught, haunts the novel and is most palpable in Ivy’s relationship with Gideon. Yang takes a character who is a confessed thief from the first page, and etches her with qualities that turn her into a complex, layered, and unpredictable character.
This is a high-risk move: it takes a story about not fitting in and turns it into a sort of freak show – even though it’s hinted that the Grand Guignol grotesqueries of these scenes aren’t really happening. But whatever Earthlings is, whatever planet it comes from, it’s a tale of quiet desperation to make your brain fizz.
Her title, Scoff, plays on two meanings, the first being to chow down and fill your boots with whatever good things come your way, while the second means to mock or negate another person’s way of life – their taste, in other words. In Vogler’s rich survey these two meanings weave around each other as she offers a series of bite-sized chunks on the social status of everything from gingerbread to veal, fish and chips to quince.
Once a month
when the moon loses everything,
Don Max takes a chair
to the edge of the sea.
There’s a passage in Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes in which the French theorist, eyeing his own author photo (turned head, silvered temples, faintly illuminated desk) exclaims: “But I never looked like that!” And yet, how can one know? You are, indeed, “the only one who can never see yourself except as an image” whether that be in the form of a reflection or a photograph. Moreover, one can argue that the author photo is a particularly deceptive sort of image, one that is meant to elicit disparate or even contradictory feelings in the viewer.
Our family line of food fanatics may well stretch back over generations: the greed-gene honed over eons, mutated to fixate on the gratifications of grub at the expense of everything else. However, for me, it all begins with my maternal grandmother, an ardent eater, force-feeder and devout believer in the stomach as the only way to the heart: Mumji, almost everybody calls her, the motherly moniker perhaps partly an acknowledgement of her role as arch-feeder. Her cooking swells sympathies and bellies, raises tempers and temperatures, sends some running and brings others back begging for more. She wields ingredients like weapons and has made food the front line in a fight for first place in the affections of the family. At her hob or her table, hospitality often holds hands with its brother word hostility. Both are birthed from ghos-ti, their ancient Indo-European root, which meant host, guest and stranger—the trio of roles through which we shift all our lives. So apt that this inescapable flux was once contained in a single word.
Susie Yang’s wonderful debut novel, “White Ivy,” is literary fiction rather than category romance, but the author uses romance the way Jonathan Lethem or Ling Ma use science fiction and horror: as inspiration, as a theme ripe for variation, as a counterpart to argue with and as a lover to court. “White Ivy’s” final, bleak wedding isn’t so much a parody of romance as an embrace of its sublimated, hidden darknesses — dappled, as Yang writes, “like a sunlit path lined with flowers and green things.”
Ralph Ellison said that “some people are your relatives but others are your ancestors, and you choose the ones you want to have as ancestors.” I returned to this idea again and again while reading Nicole Krauss’s superb new collection, “To Be a Man.” In each of these moving stories, we feel the weight not only of family, but of history and faith and leaving a legacy, pressing down on every one of her characters.
If there's one thing the #ReadWithMC community agreed on about Peace Adzo Medie's debut novel, His Only Wife, it's that the world received a much-needed contemporary Ghanaian love story—even if it didn't seem so at first—with complex characters.
Erpenbeck’s refreshing frankness and incisive thinking permeate this collection. Written over two decades, Not a Novel includes snapshots of a happy childhood in the German Democratic Republic, literary criticism on writers she admires (including Hans Fallada, Walter Kempowski, Thomas Mann and Ovid) and meditations on her own work as a writer. We learn of her love of folk tales, how their “intensity” and “harshness” infiltrate her own fiction, and how music (she worked as an opera director) taught her “to give shape to the gaps between the words, those mute spaces, to give rhythm to the silence between the words. The pauses are part of the text, they may be the finest part…”
I headed for higher ground this morning,
climbing a ridge against a freshet’s flow,
whose April sound came less as song than yammer.
While researching the book, I spoke to artists, and to people about their experiences with art. I watched movies. I visited galleries and museums. And of course, I read: art criticism and history, biographies and memoirs. But increasingly I found myself drawn to another kind of writing, one in which the writer engages so deeply with art that they’re driven to create a book in conversation with that experience. These books were subjective, defiant, joyous, skeptical. Some were fiction, some nonfiction, some an amalgam of the two. All of them spoke to the complexities of creation, and the complicated relationship between artist and audience.
Sclair was obsessed with death. She displayed caskets at her house and had a skull-and-crossbones motif on her personal checks — but she never attempted to communicate with the dead. That just wasn’t her thing.
“I never discuss ghosts,” Sclair said in 1999. “I have no interest in the subject.”
However, her afterlife was just beginning.
Professor Caroline de Costa is awaiting feedback. Several months ago the editor of the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology requested an editorial from a world-renowned Melbourne urologist to address what she saw as a lack of research and, more concerningly, a persistent lack of knowledge about an essential part of the female reproductive system.
The urologist, Professor Helen O’Connell, agreed. But a week after the editorial was published, De Costa’s inbox remains suspiciously silent. She suspects her colleagues, used though they are to dispassionate discussion of female genitalia, may be too embarrassed to write in.
Not everything turns out OK. If you have not read all of Sedaris, then I will not spoil the grief, or the joy, of his family’s arc. And if you have read all of Sedaris, well, then you have probably spent the intervening years entering the cartoon contests in the back of The New Yorker and baking prune challahs and pickling your children in adoration and rage and have therefore forgotten everything. Time to start again. You must read “The Best of Me.” It will be a new experience, knowing that enough time has passed to find humor in the hardest parts of life. More than ever — we’re allowed to laugh.
The Australian-American writer Shirley Hazzard (1931-2016) wrote her first short story when she was 28. She sent it to The New Yorker, where it fell into the hands of William Maxwell, who would go on to publish nearly all her stories. She’d bring one in and he’d read it in her presence while repeating the word “Yes.”
There was much to say yes about. Hazzard’s stories are shrewd, formal and epigrammatic. One feels smarter and more pulled together after reading them. You drop into one as if you were a wet cell phone and it were a jar of uncooked rice.
A lot of people will find "Just Like You" an underwhelming and unambitious book because it's just a love story about two vulnerable, viable people from different backgrounds who find comfort in each other. But there are others who might insist that's not just the most important story — it's the only story that matters.
The end of the world was a song most of us found
too painful to sing. The chorus cut through us
“The sense wasn’t physical at first,” he went on, “just this really nice, strong awareness of her. And then I had the distinct sensation of her arms around me and her leaning in close against my back. It was tactile and fantastic. I felt warm. I was completely calm and happy, smiling from ear to ear. That hardly ever happens to me.” His nervousness about the rain ebbed, and it occurred to him that Katharine was there to keep him safe on behalf of their two sons. She—her presence, her spirit—rode behind him for twenty minutes or so. “What I know is that it did not feel at all like a product of my imagination,” he said. “It felt external to me. It felt real.”
He wasn’t prepared to name what the experience pointed to: that he had been visited by my sister’s ghost. Like other secular North Americans, he is aware that we must uphold a certain paradigm and say “this cannot be.” After all, Doug considers himself a rationalist: the son of an engineer, himself an amateur astronomer. Nevertheless, the sensed presence mattered deeply to him. “It was,” he said, “a remarkable, indelible experience.”
Anyone who has worked in politics will testify that the story is a set text for candidates, their advisers and those who watch them. It is revered for teaching timeless and universal lessons about power and authority, when to assert it and when to show restraint. Many is the fast-talking aide – whether in Westminster or Washington – who will identify a weak link in the campaign team or around the cabinet table as Fredo, the middle Corleone son, or an emerging threat who must be dealt with as Moe Greene. I know of one UK politician who instructs all new staffers in the example of Amerigo Bonasera, the undertaker who opens the novel: the moral of his story is that the right favour to ask of someone is the favour that they can do and do well.
Yet it is difficulty that perhaps best exemplifies the medium’s strange overlap with modernist art. Difficulty is baked into video games, even when they’re easy, insofar as obstacles to progression are an essential part of the form. Moreover, in certain games, like in certain modernist works, difficulty can obtrude as the work’s defining feature. Here one might object that difficulty in games — say, that of guiding an anthropomorphic slab of meat through a maze of whirring blades in Super Meat Boy — is intellectually and aesthetically empty compared to that of parsing Gertrude Stein’s enigmatic repetitions or tracing T. S. Eliot’s classical allusions. Yet in fact, as Leonard Diepeveen notes in his cultural history The Difficulties of Modernism (2003), during its heyday modernism was often dogged by the critique that its difficulty was of a purely gamelike kind, akin to that of a crossword or picture puzzle. If gameplay challenge initially seems like a far cry from the difficulty of the modernist artwork — with its solemn claims of revealing fundamental truths about language and perception as such — history also licenses us to turn this distinction on its head, and to ask whether difficult games might reveal something about modernism.
Rather than chafing against isolation, though, Australians these days are more willing to smile in the mirror. Island living looks like a privilege when the world is pestilent. Those gnawing questions about travel, recession and the loss of global experience are being shoved down, below a more immediate appreciation for home and a search for silver linings.
Such a treat a bright blue sky is after a morning of gray in the Pacific Northwest. Even more special is when the equally bright white elongated clouds line up just so, creating a perfectly complimentary background of blue and white for a group of dark earthy green conifers, towering over unremarkable manmade structures and people too busy to pause and look upward to notice how proud they look, standing tall enough to pierce the clouds, without self-consciousness or apology. Theirs is a quiet kind of confidence, such an enviable quality. How wise they seem to me. How I admire them. But these are not my trees. Even after living with them for twenty years, they feel foreign, a constant visual reminder that this is my second home. My trees are two thousand miles away and don’t reach the clouds.
Our dream of belonging, so often viewed in recent years as nearing attainable, remains tantalizingly out of reach. On the other hand, it is that very striving that makes for the quintessential American story: the outsider who tries to make it big, gambling it all on a phantom target somewhere at the nexus of money, love, and esteem, like that shifting green light at the end of the dock in “The Great Gatsby.”
Susie Yang’s trenchant debut novel, “White Ivy,” about a young Chinese-American woman’s misguided quest to marry up and fit into the white East Coast upper class, recasts this classic narrative of the huckster and its dynamics of striving and disillusionment through a potent Asian-American lens.
Hungry is a story about food, class and families and the distance travelled between a terraced house in Carlisle and multimillion-pound London restaurants that quake at your arrival. Above all, it’s a gorgeous, unsentimental tribute to the relationship between Grace Dent and her father, George. It’s about the ways in which love is communicated in a working-class family that doesn’t do “touchy-feely” and what happens when a man who has never been one for intimate talk slowly slides out of reach into dementia.
Fueled with visions of giant tortoises
and blue-footed boobies, I lace up my boots.
A surprise snowstorm lurks just hours away;