Over the years that Lee spent working on his latest novel, “My Year Abroad,” there were many moments, he said during a video interview from Honolulu, where he has been spending most of this month, “where I was absolutely sure I was on the wrong track, and that I was this close to failure and throwing it away.”
That teetering sensation, the anxiety about his capabilities, is familiar to him. “Maybe that’s an immigrant alarm, an immigrant boy’s alarm: ‘I don’t belong here. I don’t really know the language, figuratively and literally,’” he said. “I don’t want to feel it, but I also kind of think that if I stop feeling it, that’s when something really bad happens. I don’t want to feel too comfortable.”
Why has this trick survived, when so many others haven’t? If you ask magicians — I spoke with six — they eventually land on one answer. “It’s just the simplicity of it,” said Mike Caveney, a magician who’s writing a history of the trick. “Magicians say a good trick is one that can be described in a few words, and ‘sawing a lady in half’ is very few words,” he added.
But the secrecy around how the trick is done obviously adds to its appeal, too. As much as everyone thinks they know how it works, “There might be 20 different methods in popular use,” Flom said.
This absurd relic of an antiquated era is technically part of Route 66, that mythical symbol of car-culture manifest destiny, and if you’re heading from downtown, it spills into the City of Pasadena, a mostly pleasant offshoot of LA that actually feels like its own city—a rarity in the larger county makeup. After landing at a merciful stoplight welcoming you to safety, the Arroyo Seco Parkway slows down to become a street named Arroyo Parkway, a main thoroughfare with a large number of businesses, including the first Trader Joe’s and the popular fast-food spot Lucky Boy. It’s a street that has history, but for the most part, it doesn’t feel all that historic. If you were to refer to it as “Route 66” to locals, they’d think you were a looney.
But it was on this street that a timewarp recently opened up, and Route 66 was briefly reborn. While renovating a building over the summer to become a new location of Howlin’ Ray’s hot chicken, a false facade was taken down, revealing underneath it a subtle miracle of the past: a massive neon sign reading “Adohr Milk Farms,” its script featuring custom ligatures, its red paint still relatively sharp, having been hidden from the sun for who knows how long. Just like that, a nondescript building on a nondescript block stuck out like a beacon, the sign bringing back to life a different time—a portal to another world. The sight of it was so jarring that it had commuters pulling over to gawk.
The black-clad members of a heavy metal band matched the color of the central Taiwan Legacy Taichung concert hall’s hulking amplifiers. But one member of the band stood out more than the others. Head shaved and dressed in her religion’s traditional orange robe, a Buddhist nun stood among them.
It all started with a single sentence in a blog post about Iceland: “A farmer is looking for support at a weather station and sheep farm.”
It was 2012, and, after studying photography in the industrial German city of Dortmund, I was ready for a change. I’d long planned on visiting Iceland, and when I read about the secluded farm, everything came together. I replied to the post, landed the job, sold most of my things and booked my flight.
In just a few years, she struggled through a hellish experience of IVF that included being mistakenly told that the baby inside her did not share her DNA, leading her to fear that the wrong embryo had been inserted, a sexual assault on a train while pregnant that went to trial, and the axis-tilting experience of her then-husband transitioning. In the very early stages of motherhood, Heminsley found herself unwittingly married to a woman. All of this contributed to an unsettling lack of agency over her own body and sense of womanhood, which forms the narrative of Some Body to Love.
This is a lovely book: lyrical, rich, full of wit, innocence and charm. They are the retelling of folk tales—origin stories—passed down to Irish Traveller children around the kitchen table or campfire as recalled and preserved by Oien DeBhariduin and beautifully illustrated by Leanne McDonagh.
By day it was all chalk, sheep and beech trees, big skies and isolated villages; at night the bright ribbon of the Milky Way arched above, soft moonlight bathing the fields, earning the AONB a Dark Sky Reserve designation. I’d stand in the garden in midsummer blackness, watching the dusty dart of the unromantically named C/2020 F3 Comet (AKA Neowise) while it was visible in the northern hemisphere, and unlocking an old obsession with constellations, our solar system and the Apollo missions.
Dantiel Moniz’s sparkling debut story collection, Milk Blood Heat, is vibrant and alive, full of energy and desire and with a sharp focus on the body. Two girls float adrift in the sea. A naked man stands on his bathroom scale. A woman looks at the remains of her miscarriage. Milk, blood, or heat appear in every story, functioning as the beating heart of the book. Through these three elements—each of them so clearly connected to the body—Moniz creates an honest, unflinching look at her characters’ innermost thoughts and desires.
Over the course of three novels, Melanie Finn has taken readers to settings as far-flung as picturesque Swiss towns and rural Tanzania. In her fourth, “The Hare,” Finn mostly traps us in an uninsulated, mice-infested cabin in Northern Vermont. This is not a cheery book, but like those Vermont woods in winter, it shimmers with a stark loveliness.
Let’s get this out of the way: “My Year Abroad” is not Chang-rae Lee’s best novel. Not even his second best. But can we agree that even Lee’s worst novel would be better than most authors’ best efforts?
Not the first modern trans memoir, but perhaps the first with literary ambitions, Conundrum helped establish one way of thinking about what it means to be trans. It’s an early example of the “wrong body” narrative (the phrase shows up on the first page), the story by which the truly trans person always knew she was a woman (if assigned male at birth) or a man (if assigned female). It’s also the kind of now-obsolescent narrative by which genital surgery, and only genital surgery, confirms trans women as really and only true women: Morris’s longed-for operation, in Morocco, becomes “the climax of my life.” Her preface to the 2001 reissue called the volume “a period piece.” Between the lead-up to surgery, the wrong-body story, and the occasional nostalgia for Empire, Morris’s memoir might now seem so dated as to provide no help for the present—except that it does, and not just for its rich style. Conundrum remains a sympathetic guide, not so much to present-day transgender struggles as to trans joy.
I forget tradition, a tray of sticky dates passed around the kitchen table, bismillah
in our mouths before we ravenously break the dusk, chew and spit back the pits.
Five minutes into our first call, Melissa Broder makes good on her reputation for having no filter. In a slightly shaved down, back-mouthed Philadelphia accent, she says that even though her agent “cut about 50%” of references to the clitoris in her new novel, “Milk Fed,” she still had to apologize to the sound tech monitoring her audiobook recording. “I know it’s Monday,” she told him, “I’m really sorry. It’s 11 a.m. and you’ve heard the word … like, 30 times already out of my mouth.”
Books aren’t holy, and declaring in capitalized, weirdly baroque curse words that you don’t like certain popular or well-regarded ones isn’t particularly scandalous or interesting. They are, after all, just books. Some are great, some are middling, and six of them are by Chelsea Handler.
It is a highly controversial way of thinking about nature and Naeem, a professor of ecology at Columbia University, often relies on humour to explain it. It doesn’t mean that fungi are about to unionise and charge humans for decomposition services, he assures me. Although, if they did, it would get expensive. We would be in even bigger trouble if the trees started to charge us for oxygen. Really, he says, ecosystem services are meant to help us understand that plants, animals and intact ecosystems are worth more to humans alive than dead.
What would you say was the most revolutionary new artistic medium of the 20th century? Cinema? Color photography? Video, installation, sharks pickled in formaldehyde?
I want to suggest to you that it was something simpler, more low-tech. Something you probably did in elementary school — and do now, by pinching and swiping your phone.
How strange my lack of faith must seem to you.
I see the way your god provides a cradle for your grief;
how lovely to be certain that the ancient story's true.
Singing is as psychological as it is physical. Stress attacks the vocal apparatus, tightening muscles that should remain loose and pliable, restricting breathing, closing off the throat, paralysing the tongue and lips. I was experiencing all of these symptoms as I took my place, centre stage, in the glare of the lights, and began our opening number, the Beatles’ song I’ll Cry Instead, originally sung by John Lennon. It would seem a little on the nose to suggest that Yoko, along with her and John’s son, Sean, were looking up at me from the front row, except they were.
Today, I can barely bring myself to listen to the CD of that concert, which Jann later presented to each band member as a memento. I wince at the tentative way I sing that “Ohhhhh” in Miss You, sneaking up on the note from below, sliding into it gingerly. I get there, sort of. But at what cost? By the end of the night, I was growling the lyrics to White Room like it was a Tom Waits number.
Suddenly detached from pesky copyright concerns, new editions of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel are going to print at multiple publishers. But the opportunity to re-release Gatsby brings with it a new challenge: figuring out how to package a book whose original cover has become iconic.
Thanks to pandemic restrictions on live performance and the expense and difficulty of mounting full productions online, readings have become a big part of the theatergoer’s quarantine diet. At first I balked at that development; what was theater if not a live, staged experience?
But with “Gloria” and several others recently, I’ve begun to feel that readings — virtual ones, anyway — have crossed a line: They are no longer fossils of an old kind of theater but early forms of a new one. With their own strengths and weaknesses, they amount to a separate if related genre, one that doesn’t look like it’ll be going away even once social distancing does.
In the first pages of Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi, the novel’s titular narrator is almost carried away by three converging tides. Plunged into a landscape of marble and bone, sea, sky and crashing waves, I felt equally immersed. By the time the tides receded, leaving behind a smooth object in Piranesi’s palm—the marble finger of a statue—I had the slight premonition that I, too, had been gifted something unique and unexpected.
My husband Marc and I contracted the coronavirus while traveling in early March. When Piranesi arrived mid-September, we still couldn’t walk a mile without chest pressure and fatigue. We began reading the book aloud to each other, skipping nights when our lungs ached or we were too short of breath to speak. Soon the novel became more than an escape—it was a world in which the emotional resonances of our new lives were embodied in a story we could recognize, something we could name.
As these essays demonstrate, Didion, even with her famous detachment, is no slouch at showing us what she means. But however welcome, there's a wistfulness to this book, for it is impossible to read without wishing Didion were weighing in on how the center still cannot hold and things continue to fall apart in the 21st century.
Brown Girl Sings Whalesong
When they say you are as big as a lumpy, blubbery whale,
When no one in the kingdom touched X’s heart, he grew
hungry for the end of desire. It seemed like lust at first but turned
Every poem an elegy,
Each moment of breath is a debt owed the dead.
More than twenty years ago, walking into a foreign bookstore in Tokyo, the first thing I noted was a slightly musty yet soothing scent. It came from the paper used for these books and magazines, which had been shipped from overseas—the paper either thicker or thinner, and certainly rougher, than its counterpart in Japanese publications. Breathing in the unfamiliar smell, I walked through the dimly lit aisles lined by stacks and shelves with a somewhat disorganized feel. I had ventured into this well-known bookstore to buy a copy of The Catcher in the Rye.
I found one and flipped the pages of the paperback, feeling the texture on my fingertips, my joy inexpressible. But I wouldn’t tell anyone about this visit to the store, let alone my excitement to “hear” Holden’s voice in his language instead of the Japanese translation I’d read. People around me, family or friends, would only see my interest in reading a foreign book in the original language as another sign of my weirdness. Whatever people had to say about this delight—intense yet quiet, and deeply felt—I was certain I found love.
That language fails to capture experience is no cause for disappointment, as it is not in the business of doing any such thing. If we can manufacture a linguistic representation of an experience, one that gives an idea of it without presuming to go proxy for it, then it has done its work. If more is wanted, if representation won’t suffice for the purposes at hand, well, you’re going to have to be there.
Satire, in the right hands, is nobody’s friend. It should make you wince, maybe even disgust you, at least as often as it makes you laugh. We’re now living in the best, and most dangerous, time for satirists — if, that is, you recognize that satirists are not advance agents for social justice, not benign tellers of parables designed to make you giggle politely at someone else’s foibles and misguided views, but never, ever, your own.
That’s where Blue Movie, Terry Southern’s guided missile of a dirty book, now bravely reissued by Grove Press, comes in.
A rich history woven with insights from four generations of the Grinker family’s research, “Nobody’s Normal” shows how a society’s needs and prejudices shape how it deals with mental illness, from the regrettable asylums and lobotomies of past centuries to the recent corporate trend of recruiting employees with autism. Grinker makes an edgier point, too: that cultural circumstances — whether in combat or on a college campus — can influence how someone expresses psychological pain.
Of course I stole the title for this talk from George Orwell. One reason I stole it was that I like the sound of the words: Why I Write. There you have three short unambiguous words that share a sound, and the sound they share is this:
In many ways, writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind. It’s an aggressive, even a hostile act. You can disguise its aggressiveness all you want with veils of subordinate clauses and qualifiers and tentative subjunctives, with ellipses and evasions—with the whole manner of intimating rather than claiming, of alluding rather than stating—but there’s no getting around the fact that setting words on paper is the tactic of a secret bully, an invasion, an imposition of the writer’s sensibility on the reader’s most private space.
The wager here is that an honest assessment of a poet’s actual achievement—mistakes and all—means more than another facile demonstration of artistic perfection. Whether or not this wins more converts to the cause of poetry, it might at least allow those who are already converted a less mystified relationship to their idols. Or as McAlpine has it: “Readers can get closer to poets and poems by knowing when they are wrong rather than by insisting that they are right.”
Our walk – prior to lockdown 2021 – is through the woods and down the path to the edge of Threipmuir reservoir in the Pentland hills, just south of Edinburgh. It is impossible to tell where the water starts as everything is covered in a thick layer of snow. And the snow is also coming down in earnest, landing on our eyelashes and into our dry bags, as we unpack and start to undress.
Once stripped to our swimsuits, neoprene boots, gloves and woolly hats, we approach the ice. A pickaxe makes little impact to begin with, but we continue with one of us using the axe while the other smashes away with boots and moves huge chunks of ice with our hands. It is quite a workout and seems so ridiculous that we laugh until we have tears rolling down our faces.
Ditlevsen’s memoirs, now published in a single volume titled “The Copenhagen Trilogy,” originally appeared in Danish as separate books: “Childhood” and “Youth” in 1967; the astonishing third, “Dependency,” in 1971. Read together, they form a particular kind of masterpiece, one that helps fill a particular kind of void. The trilogy arrives like something found deep in an ancestor’s bureau drawer, a secret stashed away amid the socks and sachets and photos of dead lovers. The surprise isn’t just its ink-damp immediacy and vitality — the chapters have the quality of just-written diary entries, fluidly translated by Tiina Nunnally and Michael Favala Goldman — but that it exists at all.
Abigail Dean was about to turn 30 when she suddenly realised that her job as a lawyer was using up all the oxygen in her life. “If I didn’t make a change,” she says, “I was going to still be there on my 40th birthday.” She took three months off, writing every day at Dulwich library in London, and ended up with the seeds of what would become her debut novel, Girl A.
“You don’t know me,” Lex, or Girl A, tells us as the novel opens, “but you’ll have seen my face. In the earlier pictures, they bludgeoned our features with pixels, right down to our waists; even our hair was too distinctive to disclose. But the story and its protectors grew weary, and in the danker corners of the internet we became easy to find.”
What seems to be emerging from this new census is a picture in which Newton’s great work was actually widely, and immediately, read and discussed, perhaps even enjoyed, by both his intellectual peers and a larger population. It adds a new element to the story of how modern science developed, with more likely to come as the researchers dig deeper.
Yet the idea that some of the central texts in the development of western science were either little distributed, or little read, has a certain strange draw.
In the four decades since, China has moved from being the headquarters of world revolution to being the epicenter of global capitalism. Its leaders can plausibly claim to have engineered the swiftest economic reversal in history: the redemption from extreme poverty of hundreds of millions of people in less than three decades, and the construction of modern infrastructure. Some great enigmas, however, remain unsolved: How did a well-organized, disciplined, and successful political party disembowel itself? How did a tightly centralized state unravel so quickly? How could siblings, neighbors, colleagues, and classmates turn on one another so viciously? And how did victims and persecutors—the roles changing with bewildering speed—live with each other afterward? Full explanations are missing not only because archives are mostly inaccessible to scholars but also because the Cultural Revolution was fundamentally a civil war, implicating almost all of China’s leaders.
Talking about smells can feel a little like talking about dreams—often tedious, rarely satisfying. The olfactory world is more private than we may think: even when we share space, such as a particularly ripe subway car, one commuter may describe eau d’armpit as sweet Gorgonzola cheese, another will detect rotting pumpkin, and a third a barnyardy, cayenne tang. What surprised me is that using phrases like “barnyardy, cayenne tang” is a perfectly valid, even preferred, way to write about nasal experiences. Many of the most seasoned perfume critics incline toward the rhapsodic, as do the would-be critics who gather on the Internet to wax eloquent about the things they’ve smelled. One of my favorite hubs for odor aficionados, the Web site Fragrantica, an online “perfume encyclopedia” that launched in 2007, has the feel of a cacophonous bazaar: on its message boards, users swap perfumed prose back and forth, racking up hundreds of new posts each day.
Jim had operated open-house policy at his home every Sunday evening for more than 40 years. Absolutely anyone was welcome to come for an informal dinner, all you had to do was phone or email and he would add your name to the list. No questions asked. Just put a donation in an envelope when you arrive.
There would be a buzz in the air, as people of various nationalities - locals, immigrants, travellers - milled around the small, open-plan space. A pot of hearty food bubbled on the hob and servings would be dished out on to a trestle table, so you could help yourself and continue to mingle. It was for good reason that Jim was nicknamed the "godfather of social networking". He led the way in connecting strangers, long before we outsourced it all to Silicon Valley.
The tide of “New Journalism” that flooded the late 1960s and ‘70s may have been dominated by the exclamation marks, manic italics and machismo of Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer or Hunter S. Thompson, but the lower-key voice of Joan Didion has outlasted, and outperformed, those swaggering peers. Didion’s latest volume, “Let Me Tell You What I Mean”, makes that case easily with a dozen previously uncollected pieces from 1968 to 2000.
Philosophical as well as confessional, Ho Davies’s autofictional proxy shrewdly dissects the mixed-up emotions of parenthood while speculating on, say, why children love dinosaurs (it’s a way of thinking about adults), or why his distaste for anti-abortion rhetoric leaves him unsure of how best to tell them about “babies in tummies”. Tender yet clear-eyed, this is a thoughtful, consistently intriguing book, covering a lot of ground in a short space.
O grammar-rules, O now your virtues show;
So children still read you with awful eyes,
“Historically, to be a ghostwriter was to be seen as sort of a literary hack,” she said earlier this month during a video interview from her Manhattan apartment. A better way to imagine Burford is as a therapist, a cajoler, a confidante, and then a sort of medium once the hat comes on and the writing starts. (She can’t explain it, it just works.)
But she’s never in the shadows.
A trip to the Galápagos Islands would be a very fine thing in these times, wouldn’t it? And I am there, at least in spirit, visiting virtually on a four-day journey – on Zoom – with a group of artists led by Mary-Anne Bartlett, the founder of Art Safari, who has been to the archipelago several times. During the pandemic she has switched to offering virtual tours and workshops. But can such a visit give any satisfaction, anything like the pleasure of actually going? It is certainly a heck of lot cheaper, but would the relatively small fee be better saved up for an actual trip?
But I was still left with several pressing questions. Namely, how did we as a society go from maybe indulging in birthday cake several times a year — at your party and others — to tossing its essence into and on everyday items like coffee creamer and popcorn? Was this a new phenomenon, born out of the dearth of social interaction (i.e. birthday parties) during these unprecedented times? And, perhaps most importantly, what exactly is artificial birthday cake flavor?
Nnedi Okorafor’s new novella, Remote Control, opens with the itinerant 14-year-old Sankofa walking up to a strange house and announcing herself as an unwanted Christmas guest. She is known and feared, but fed and clothed as she walks around rural Ghana. Sankofa’s tale unfolds in the same future world as Okorafor’s Who Fears Death and The Book of Phoenix, and it is the latest in her series of Africanfuturist books to imbue the world of tomorrow with the languages, customs, and flavors of Africa.
The dust jacket is long gone and the title-embossed spine flaps free. Naturally, many of the pages are sauce-stained: honourable marks of our stove-side adventures together. New British Classics by Gary Rhodes may be more than 20 years old, but the marks of battle are clear. It remains one of my most consulted cookbooks. When I need cooking times for a rib of beef it’s where I go. When I want the perfect recipe for Yorkshire puddings or a steak and kidney pie, I know where to look. Rhodes died suddenly in 2019, but here he is still holding my clumsy hand. This is just one of the glories of cookbooks. They enable a nerdy conversation, whether the author happens to be alive or dead.
As warm darkness dropped each night,
a gentle breaker cresting the broad coastline,
roses sang long arias into my room.
Towards the end of 2020, a year spent supine on my sofa consuming endless internet like a force-fed goose, I managed to finish a beautifully written debut novel: Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson, which comes out next month. And yet despite the entrancing descriptions, I could barely turn two pages before my hand moved reflexively toward the cracked screen of my phone. Each time I returned to the novel I felt ashamed, and the shame only grew as I realised that, somehow, though the story was set in the present, and involved an often long-distance romance between two young people with phones, it contained not one single reference to what by then I considered a hallmark of present-day humanity: mindless scrolling through social media.
I came late to Allie Brosh’s “Hyperbole and a Half” — later than the outspoken fan Bill Gates and numerous enthusiastic writers for Psychology Today — but when I fell, I fell hard. (I even bought the calendar.) A selection of Brosh’s autobiographical word-and-image stories from her blog of the same name (which she began in college while procrastinating for a final), “Hyperbole and a Half” made me laugh harder than anything I could remember.
The Hare gives us an important, comprehensive picture of the stages of a woman’s learning, suggesting, that over time, teachers will be rejected, new ones sought, and the student might herself become a teacher. The need to adapt, however, to be on guard, to figure out new methods of surviving will be life-long, the way it is for an animal in the wild, hyper-conscious of its vulnerability.
Zadra and co-author Robert Stickgold’s fascinating new book, “When Brains Dream: Exploring the Science and Mystery of Sleep,” steers a reasonable and broad-minded course between the many interpretive whirlpools that have swallowed previous explorers of dreams. Though they tour a broad range of contemporary research and theorizing, they ultimately propose that a primary function of dreaming is to detect and dramatize the possible meanings of information latent in memories and associations that we rarely access while awake.
When wild elephant females reunite after a separation, they greet each other with great ceremony. The elephants flap their ears, bellow and place their trunks in each other’s mouths. The temporal glands next to their eyes may stream liquid, a sign of high arousal. And in “the ultimate expression of sheer, elephantine joy,” the animals then let loose with bladder and bowels.
With this description in “Wild Rituals: 10 Lessons Animals Can Teach Us About Connection, Community, and Ourselves,” elephant scientist Caitlin O’Connell kicks off an engaging tour of rituals in the animal kingdom. O’Connell defines a ritual as “a specific act or series of acts that are performed in a precise manner and repeated often,” often requiring intense concentration.
I sip my coffee. I read the news.
There are—to begin, unforgivably, with a cliche—two kinds of readers: those who forget all about secret bookcases and gardens and wardrobes once they’ve reached adulthood, and those who, when they move into a new home, still immediately check every loose floorboard and knock on every wall in the hopes they’ll encounter a treasure map, a hidden room, a keyhole under the layers of paint. Of course I belong entirely to that second group, and I have spent admittedly far too much of my adult life still looking for these passageways. I have long wanted to walk through one of these secret doors, the place where the mundane—the bookstore, the country house, the nursery in Kensington—transforms into the wondrous: Fantasia, Narnia, Neverland. But lately, as the pandemic drags on into nearly a year of relative confinement, I’ve been wishing instead to stop at the threshold, to open the door of the spare room and crawl into that wardrobe and not come out again.
As a writer, I reckon with how a book like this was born, how its earnest author intended for us to read it, and how the novel has survived a century, defying obsolescence through its clear-eyed understanding of our wishful nature. I want you to know that the publication of Gatsby broke Fitzgerald’s heart, and he did not recover from it. That this book has endured so beautifully is a meaningful consolation for all of us who persist in making things of our private vision—paradoxically, beyond our reach, yet seemingly so close within our grasp.
But now, he believes he’s discovered the centerpiece of his ambitious dream: fields of rice stretched out for miles of paddies, the feathery stalks -protruding from the sea itself. Scientists have long identified seagrasses as one of the most vital ecosystems in the fight against climate change, but what few knew is that those blades of grass also contain clusters of small, edible grains with massive potential. Of all the dreams León has chased in this quiet corner of southern Spain, this is the one he plans to build his future around. This, more than the Franken-fish or mussel sausage, is the one that could help rebuild his beloved region and, with any luck, even change the way we feed the world.
The Doctors Blackwell, by historian Janice P. Nimura, profiles two sisters who faced what was a daunting lack of choices for 19th century women. They achieved a series of near-impossible feats to become America's first and third certified women medical doctors. Nimura's account is not only an exhaustive biography, but also a window into egregious 19th century medical practices and the role these sisters played in building medical institutions.
The stories of Margaret and David and the millions of others who lived through the Baby Scoop are vivid evidence that policy and culture change the trajectory of individual lives. “Again and again,” Glaser writes of the era, “the nation’s powerful religious and political institutions collaborated to control women’s bodies and the destinies of babies.”
What decisions being made today will some future author — and readers — look back on as having had profound and unexpected consequences? What future books will be written about today’s assumptions, choices and mistakes?
God begins. The universe will soon.
The intensity of the baseball bat
Meets the ball. Is the fireball
Anniversary programming is symptomatic of classical music’s extreme fixation on the past, and the veneration of Beethoven played a pivotal role in the emergence of that mentality. In the years after his death, in 1827, concert halls became temples of undead gods, with a familiar wild-maned figure featured at the center of the pantheon. Beethoven himself in no way invited this turn of events. Although he was an overbearing and in many ways unpleasant personality, he was no megalomaniac, and the idea that his music would dominate the future repertory, to the exclusion of living composers’ work, would presumably have been anathema to him. Perpetually dissatisfied, eternally questing, he developed a musical language that was always becoming and never arriving. A proper tribute to Beethoven would show how his restless spirit has resonated with more recent music—as the Danish String Quartet has done in its exploration of the late quartets.
One can derive great pleasure in picking at random from the United Nations list: learning of how, for instance, the Albanian border with Montenegro was first agreed to by a delegation of Turkish pashas who went to Germany and signed the Treaty of Berlin in 1878; that the northwestern border of Myanmar, separating it from the Indian state of Manipur, was the result of a victory over the Arakanese by the Burmese army back in 1558; that in 1821 an entity called the United Kingdom of Portugal, Brazil and the Algarves annexed a free-spirited confection of small states gathered around the Río de la Plata’s estuary and known at the time as the Liga Federal, and in doing so set up a line still recognized today as the border between the modern countries of Argentina and Uruguay; and that the border between Ireland and Britain came about in 1921 when the 26 southern counties of the Irish Republic, all with a majority population of Roman Catholics, declared an independence from Britain which the six mostly Protestant-majority counties of the northeast of the island could not and would not accept, and who thus remained loyal, if troubled, and protected behind what would become a highly militarized border, for much of the century beyond.
Carrying us along, Polly conjures a richly textured, often lovely life of everyday loss and longing and endless speculation, where “everything goes missing but everything lives on, at least for a while, in the small kingdom of your head.” Indeed, Harrison’s novel takes the unreliable narrator to a whole new place: in short, to the center of everything.
Through her acute and thoughtful take on issues of truth-telling, McLaughlin reminds us that the novel remains a good mode to investigate our relationship to truth, in part because as a made-up form it remains flexible in its idea of truth.
Yet “Kidnapped” is also more than just exciting and more than just a kids’ book; it’s a thoughtful novel about politics and dissent, rich in moral complexity, and, for a reader in 2021, weirdly contemporary at times. It’s also beautifully written, the occasional Scots word or phrase contributing to its peaty flavor.
The cumulative effect of both of their careers in teaching women in medicine was enormous in expanding women’s roles in American society; their story is one worth knowing.
Black and I are talking on the phone about resilience, grief and writing, three things about which we both have many thoughts and feelings. Black’s 2013 memoir, “The Still Point of the Turning World,” introduced us to Ronan, her infant son, who had been diagnosed with a rare terminal illness, Tay-Sachs disease, that destroys nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. The diagnosis changed Black’s life forever. As she writes, “I had the sensation of skin falling away from bone. My life, the life as a new and hopeful mother, was over.”
But life, if you survive it, takes unexpected turns. And that thrashed Phoenix can still fly.
This obsession with absence, the intentional erasure of self and surroundings, is the apotheosis of what I’ve come to think of as a culture of negation: a body of cultural output, from material goods to entertainment franchises to lifestyle fads, that evinces a desire to reject the overstimulation that defines contemporary existence. This retreat, which took hold in the decade before the pandemic, betrays a grim undercurrent: a deepening failure of optimism in the possibilities of our future, a disillusionment that Covid-19 and its economic crisis have only intensified. It’s as if we want to get rid of everything in advance, including our expectations, so that we won’t have anything left to lose.
What stops her is not grit or bravery or strength. She does not summon an inner resilience — a word she will examine (and dismantle) in great detail. Instead, Rapp Black chooses to live after experiencing two potentially conflicting thoughts: “I don’t want to live my life, this life,” and “I don’t want to end my life, this life.” As much as she wants to stop her son’s suffering and escape the unbearable waiting for his death, she also wants to love again, “to know hope and happiness, to be in the world, doing work that feels real and meaningful.”
That work is made manifest in Sanctuary, in which Rapp Black tells of falling in love and becoming a mother again after Ronan dies in February 2013.
We were told that it is dangerous to touch
And yet we journeyed here, where what we believe
Meets what must be done. You want to see, in spite
Of my mask, my face. We imagine, in time
I know it may sound silly to be so attached to a little promotional booklet — or, in some cases, a single unadorned piece of folded card stock or sheet of printer paper — and imagine it represents mourning when there are many other things to mourn at the moment. And by now I know I’m stalling, am still staring at piles of Playbills on the bed instead of packing plates and mugs. It occurs to me that right now, if it were a normal Sunday a year ago, I’d be leaving for a Sunday matinee.
With the heaviest subjects, he travels light. With lighter subjects, he knows how to hold them in place.
Adamson’s new book, “Craft: An American History,” is less an examination of traditions and techniques than a blow-by-blow chronicle of this country through the lens of craft, from the European settlers to the maker movement and so-called craftivists of today. That no one has ever previously attempted this may be because when we bother to think about craft at all, it is usually through a gauzy haze. Yet Adamson manages to discover “making” in every aspect of our history, framing it as integral to America’s idea of itself as a nation of self-sufficient individualists. There may be no one better suited to this task.
Owusu's memoir is a classic "search for identity" story, one that's complicated by the fact that the ground beneath Owusu's feet is so unstable. Owusu's out-of-the-picture mother is white and Armenian American; her beloved father is Black from Ghana. His work with the United Nations gave Nadia and her siblings a cosmopolitan upbringing — Italy, England, Ghana, Ethiopia, Uganda — but no fixed sense of home.
“Craft in the Real World” is a significant contribution to discussions of the art of fiction and a necessary challenge to received views about whose stories are told, how they are told and for whom they are intended.
It was the very swiftness and uncritical enthusiasm with which Americans embraced an “easy” technological solution to a complicated problem that suggests that we are becoming increasingly comfortable with technosolutionism, and not just during times of crisis. Such acquiescence seems understandable at such times, when uncertainty prevails, but as we continue to struggle to find our bearings, it is worth considering the significant choices we have already made with regard to technological problem-solving, and begin to contend with the consequences.
Oh, hello, nice to see you, have a seat — let’s stress-eat some chips together. Let’s turn ourselves, briefly, into dusty-fingered junk-food receptacles. This will force us to stop looking, for a few minutes, at the bramble of tabs we’ve had open on our internet browsers for all these awful months: the articles we’ve been too frazzled to read about the TV shows we’ve been meaning to watch; the useless products we keep almost impulse-buying; the sports highlights and classic films that we digest in 12-second bursts every four days; that little cartoon diagram of how to best lay out your fruit orchards in Animal Crossing. Eating these chips will rescue us, above all, from the very worst things on our screens, the cursed news of the outside world — escalating numbers, civic decay, gangs of elderly men behaving like children.
“That Old Country Music,” the title of Kevin Barry’s new book of short stories, refers not to American country and western music but to “old-style” unaccompanied Irish folk singing. At the center of the book is a story about a heartbroken middle-aged song collector from Dublin who goes in search of a folk singer named Timothy Jackson, reputed to know songs “from deep in the 19th century. . . . Songs that nobody else had now.”
Sadeqa Johnson's new novel, Yellow Wife, is a harrowing tale of the life of an enslaved woman in Virginia, beginning in the 1850s. A challenging read but beautifully told, this thought-provoking page-turner is also surprisingly uplifting. And at its core, Yellow Wife is also a story of motherhood and the sacrifices a mother will make to protect her children — no matter how those babies come into the world.
I can’t account for Monroe, Michigan, in 1969
Or the unearthed Chippewa bones on the hot, sloped
As Ethan Kross, an American experimental psychologist and neuroscientist, will cheerfully testify, the person who doesn’t sometimes find themselves listening to an unhelpful voice in their head probably doesn’t exist. Ten years ago, Kross found himself sitting up late at night with a baseball bat in his hand, waiting for an imaginary assailant he was convinced was about to break into his house – a figure conjured by his frantic mind after he received a threatening letter from a stranger who’d seen him on TV. Kross, whose area of research is the science of introspection, knew that he was overreacting; that he had fallen victim to what he calls “chatter”. But telling himself this did no good at all. At the peak of his anxiety, his negative thoughts running wildly on a loop, he found himself, somewhat comically, Googling “bodyguards for academics”.
On the face of it, she’s an ordinary woman, a retired teacher in a Midwestern senior living facility winding down her days barely 200 miles from where she began them. Keen on Scrabble and skipping supper for dessert, she takes pleasure in the small things.
On the other hand, she’s an extraordinary woman whose life embodies many of the century’s most meaningful advances. The granddaughter of homesteaders, her forebears fled Europe to escape conscription into the Kaiser’s armies. After nearly dying of scarlet fever as an adolescent, she went in three short decades from living among sharecroppers to socializing with astronauts. A militant if unconscious feminist, she fought for equal pay for women even before joining the Navy during World War II.
Luster sails into 2021 on clouds of praise, vapour trails of hype streaming behind it. “The most delicious novel I’ve read,” says Candice Carty-Williams; “brutal – and brilliant” opines Zadie Smith. Perhaps she would say that, being Raven Leilani’s mentor and former tutor at NYU.
But she’s also right: Luster is both brutal and brilliant, and a debut that’s sure to still be topping best-of-the-year lists in 12 months’ time.
The gardens of Highbury House in a small village in England provide the setting for a range of emotions and experiences in Julia Kelly’s “The Last Garden in England.” They are at times enchanting and, at other times, gloomy with neglect, but always provide a wonderful venue for the lives touched by them.
None of us can know what’s coiled inside another human being; the closer one is to a person, in fact, the greater the shock may be when all is revealed (if it ever is). Distance, then, can sometimes be as useful to the biographer as intimacy. In Bacon, Mena saw something that was apt to escape others – a gilded ease, as well as an isolation; an unexpected tenderness – and in their magnificent new life of the artist, the Pulitzer prize-winning critics Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan are wise enough to make good use of it, deploying Mena’s memory at a point when others might have been inclined, in the race to the finish, to throw it away. But then, this is them all over. How judicious they are, how determined to rub away at their subject’s corners. Until now, the best books about Bacon have been the work of his friends (Michael Peppiatt, Daniel Farson, David Sylvester): volumes that, however interesting, are muddied with affection (or its reverse), vested interests and, perhaps, a certain complacency. This volume, though, is the opposite. It rings as clearly as a bell. I cannot remember the last time I was so aware of the sheer hard labour involved in biography, even as I was captivated by every line. (They slogged, so I didn’t have to.)
“The good ones can be remembered like that, yes,” the doula said to me. On the other hand, a traumatic birth, she said, handing me a cup of tea, usually has a beginning, middle, and end. There is no narrative arc to my son’s birth.
Even a week afterward, sitting on the couch with the doula as she rubbed my leg with her confident hands, the discrete moments of my labor hadn’t yet cohered into a story. Pregnant, I hadn’t thought much about labor until its inevitability hung over the last month, and then it was all I could think about. Normal tasks receded into a haze, so consumed was I with this single extraordinary thing I was about to do. In bed one night, days before I gave birth, my toenail snagged on my sheet and I wondered at the fact that life went on amid my anxiety, that my toenails still grew and required clipping.
What comfort is there in the truth? It’s a question weighed and refracted in a thousand different ways in Danielle Evans’s “The Office of Historical Corrections,” a magnificent, searing collection of six stories and a novella.
As “An Unquiet Englishman” maintains, Greene was a product of his political and cultural context. But what made him truly remarkable was his ability to transcend that context and his personal quirks to create literature that is, to quote Ezra Pound, “news that stays news.”
It struck me that instead, it would be more constructive if I were to list the ways in which food affects politics and decision-making.
Historically, a luckenbooth was a place from which to trade, a lock-up booth on the Edinburgh Royal Mile; or often, by metonymy, the traditional heart-shaped brooch you might buy from one, to pin to the clothes of your firstborn and ward off evil. But whatever the word meant a hundred years ago, Luckenbooth the book is about now. Fagan’s booth of stories – her Cornell box of frenzies, tragedies and delights – offers the present moment in the endless war between love and capital. It’s brilliant.
The surface familiarity surely helped Audrain land a massive advance for the book, which is “Good Morning America’s” book-club selection this month. But what makes it stand out from the rest is Audrain’s nuanced understanding of how women’s voices are discounted, how a thousand little slights can curdle a solid marriage and — in defiance of maternal taboos — how mothers really feel, sometimes, toward difficult children.
Hooked and On Not Being Someone Else point toward the rewards of thinking about literature as bound up with our lives, not cut off from them. Dispensing with the pose of critical aloofness, both Felski and Miller urge literary scholars to reflect on why we care about works of art as much as we do.
Hidden in the lawn at my foot: a black walnut, halved,
a vomer bone nestled in skull, heart-shaped & snout-
like. Insides reveal holes—empty sockets with eyes
I probably put too much food in my novels, but food is what people do, at least my people. They think about it, and they talk while they’re eating it; it’s in their errands and the shape of a life’s story. Writing about it can be a dodge on a hard day; for a previous novel, set in 1905, I felt I had to spend days on the New York Public Library’s website staring at the Buttolph menu collection. Parts of a new novel, The Center of Everything, are set in the 1960s and in the 80s, and I wanted to be careful of anachronisms; it’s not easy, remembering what you cooked, when, what brands were in the store. The huge changes in food in the last fifty or sixty years—embodied, to a degree, by stores like the one that hired me in 1982, Dean & DeLuca, have blurred together. Haven’t we always had Stilton and lemongrass, frozen pot stickers and fresh mandarins?
Working on children’s books in the midst of a pandemic and hurricanes Eta and Iota, which devastated Central America in November, hasn’t been easy. Internet service has been sporadic. She has also taken time away from the books to help hurricane victims.
But Siu is determined to complete her mission as an author: to “undo a lot of the fairy tales that make up the history and narratives of what the United States is.”
She got into her car with Dillon and set off for home. As she pulled out of the parking lot, she called her sister. “Hey Ronda, can you look up on the computer what you do when you get struck by lightning?” There was a pause followed by some swearing. “You go to the hospital!” Ronda shot back. Shana had been to the local hospital before, but her mind felt hazy. “Ronda,” she said, as her chest tightened and the ringing in her ears grew louder. “I don’t know how to get there.”
In my first year of school, we grew trees. We were taken into the playground and taught how to press our seedlings into the soil, to pat the new plants in their plastic containers, very gently, against the ground. We watered them, stuck masking tape along the sides and scribbled our names in black marker. It was the first time I had ever nurtured something, and I wouldn’t do it again until adulthood.
The project of this book is to unravel some of the cultural and medical history of, and explain the complex and varied conditions that affect, what are usually called “speech disorders” – and to argue that their impact on those who have them is substantially worsened by a society that insists on seeing them straightforwardly as disorders in the first place.
Start with loss. Lose everything. Then lose it all again.
Lose a good woman on a bad day. Find a better woman,
Yet we can turn to these greats to recover the “aim of art”—which is to “ask the big questions,” such as “how are we supposed to be living down here?” Although I cannot assent to a number of Saunders’s answers to that question, I am grateful for his reminder of the goal of art. In an era diseased by “facile, shallow, agenda-laced” information (“as you may have noticed,” Saunders says, tongue-in-cheek), A Swim in a Pond in the Rain is especially welcome.
Sure, Byrne shares a few Hollywood tidbits — lying about knowing how to ride a horse to land a part in John Boorman’s “Excalibur,” getting scolded by Laurence Olivier for merely asking him for the time (“you should buy yourself a watch”). But Byrne, who turned 70 last year, has written something more introspective and literary: an elegiac memoir that explores the interior life of a Dublin boy who finds himself almost accidentally — and incidentally — famous. It’s a story about Ireland and exile and carrying the ghosts of family and home through time.
The late Roger Ebert once wrote that “the movies are like a machine that generates empathy.” Great fiction comes off a similar production line—its many parts and widgets are often designed to engender identification and empathy from the reader, to get them deep inside the head of a stranger. The short stories of Argentine author and journalist Mariana Enriquez are seeing machines—lenses that throw the uglier side of the human condition into uncomfortably sharp focus. She shows us horrors (both historical and otherworldly) that the naked eye doesn’t want to see.
You didn’t need to be a pubescent boy (or his father) to fully appreciate the charms of Maila Nurmi — a.k.a. Vampira — when she first appeared on late-night KABC-TV in the spring of 1954. But it didn’t hurt. She was tall, beautiful and frightening and she screamed like a banshee, climaxing each howl with a lewd lick of her full lips, which even in black-and-white glistened bloodily. Her pale body was almost a caricature of an hourglass figure, like one of those inexplicably bountiful women featured in the pinups of Joaquin Alberto Vargas, for whom Nurmi had modeled only a few years earlier. But what made Vampira most memorable was the jokes she slyly delivered at machine-gun speed: pop, pop, pop. She came heavily armed with oodles of sexy, macabre puns and she wasn’t afraid to use them.
There is a common saying not to speak ill of the dead, but what about glorifying them? Can complications arise from such reverence? For 28-year-old Nadia Owusu, her father, who passed away from cancer when she was 14, was exempt from criticism. “For my father, over the years, I wrote several elegies,” she writes, now 39, in her new memoir, Aftershocks. “In them, he was canonized. I needed to believe in something big and pure and godlike. Because I could not bring myself to believe in a god I had never met, a god my father hadn’t believed in, I chose to believe in my father.”
Who are any of these people—Wilson the mechanic or his lusty, buxom, doomed wife, Myrtle? Which feelings are real? Which lies are actually true? How does a story that begins with such grandiloquence end this luridly? Is it masterfully shallow or an express train to depth? It’s a melodrama, a romance, a kind of tragedy. But mostly it’s a premonition.
There may be no singular best answer in an impossible situation, but the question remains: how do we find the kernel of shared struggle, the channel of solidarity into which we can direct our energies, not only for our own good but for the other mothers around us? What would it take to stretch out from our atomized lives and ask other mothers, in other social locations, “What are you going through? What do you need to flourish as a human? What do your children need?”
At the start of the pandemic, I found myself in the enviable position of translating Atlantis: A Journey in Search of Beauty, a round-the-world travelogue co-authored by the Italian architect Renzo Piano and his son Carlo, a journalist. My world had shrunk to the size of my apartment, or, on many days, my screen, yet every day that I sat down at my desk, I could be sure that, thanks to this book, something new would sail across it. A new setting, a new memory, a new subject kicked around by father and son, newly relevant reflections on public spaces by someone who has spent a lifetime redefining them. I felt lucky and grateful, as if I was being propped up and fed light, like a giant peony, or one of the airy buildings built by Renzo.
Yet the theory of niche construction is controversial among evolutionary biologists, partly because natural selection is traditionally believed to work ‘blindly’: it is thought to sculpt organisms over millennia to become adapted to their ecological niches, with no steer from the goals or purposes of organisms. Humans undergo the same sculpting, but rather than evolving to fit a pre-existing niche, it’s widely accepted that we’re active agents who shape the environments to which we adapt.
Caitlin Horrocks’s second collection, Life Among the Terranauts, is compiled of humorous and tenacious stories that serve as a reminder that the flyover states are rife with folklore and intrigue. The sense of place matches the sense of wonder, a perfect amalgamation of geography and plot.
Vanderbilt becomes frustrated with the parental malaise surrounding him at his daughter’s tournaments. “Seeing someone playing Angry Birds, I want to tap them on the shoulder and say, ‘Why are you having kids do chess while you do that?’” he writes. Determined to reverse this trend, Vanderbilt starts playing chess himself: entering beginners’ tournaments, occasionally even drawing matches against his own daughter. Inspired by the resulting sense of cognitive rejuvenation — the “beginner’s mind,” he explains, is one in which the ego dissolves and the world becomes once again interesting — he launches an ambitious curriculum of skill development, focusing primarily on chess, singing, surfing, juggling and drawing, with briefer diversions into open-water swimming and jewelry crafting.
1. Once when I was still small, maybe five years old, I fell over in front of my grandpa and banged my knee and he praised me for not crying.
A novel and its numbers: a novel as its numbers. And why not, if, as Pound puts it, “number is the source of all things.” It was the Pythagoreans who first started suggesting that an elaborate system of numerical resemblances exist between nature and the cosmos. The Pythagoreans believed that numbers not only possessed attributes (reason, opinion, harmony, and justice) but also, Aristotle writes, “since it seemed clear that all other things have their whole nature modeled upon numbers, and that numbers are the ultimate things in the whole physical universe, they assumed the elements of numbers to be the elements of everything, and the whole universe to be a proportion or number.” A lot happens to get numbers from the cosmos of the fifth century BCE to the computer of the mid-20th CE, but the basic idea that a number is something to be seen, heard, and read remains to this day. And that’s just one part of the equation.
Among the things I have not missed since entering middle age is the sensation of being an absolute beginner. It has been decades since I’ve sat in a classroom in a gathering cloud of incomprehension (Algebra 2, tenth grade) or sincerely tried, lesson after lesson, to acquire a skill that was clearly not destined to play a large role in my life (modern dance, twelfth grade). Learning to ride a bicycle in my early thirties was an exception—a little mortifying when my husband had to run alongside the bike, as you would with a child—but ultimately rewarding. Less so was the time when a group of Japanese schoolchildren tried to teach me origami at a public event where I was the guest of honor—I’ll never forget their sombre puzzlement as my clumsy fingers mutilated yet another paper crane.
For the first time in our 10 years together, we needed to be alone. I tried to manufacture this by going on walks on my own, but a short stroll in the local park wasn’t doing the job. I was keen to venture into the Dales but reluctant to go solo. I’ve hiked all over the world (Patagonia in Argentina, the Dolomites in Italy, the Semien mountains in Ethiopia), but always in a pair or group. The spectre of “stranger danger” means I’m not entirely comfortable alone in remote spaces. I considered my options and hit upon an idea: the semi-solo hike.
Pavel Lembersky lives between two languages. His short stories, originally written in Russian and brought into English through the deft work of translators such as Jane Miller, Sergey Levchin, Alex Cigale, Ross Ufberg, Kerry Philben, Lydia Bryans, and the author himself, appeared last year in a collection titled The Death of Samusis, and Other Stories. Like Lembersky himself, almost all of the characters in Samusis are Soviet immigrants, many of whom pepper their English with Russian words or their Russian with English. Theirs is a hybrid experience, double-sided, and, as a result, Samusis is rife with innuendo.
The Liar’s Dictionary may ultimately excite the intellect more than the heart. But as its characters struggle to free themselves from all artifice, even—or maybe especially—that of language, you may find yourself wanting to stand back to see the bigger picture, even as you lean in close to examine its dots.
From the blockbuster 2018 movie “Black Panther” to the new "Future State" series from DC Comics that's about a Batman who is Black, the comic book universe continues to make strides toward meaningful representation.
But exclusion used to be the norm, not just for fictional characters of color, but also for real-life artists during the golden age of comic books, an era that stretched from the late 1930s to the mid-1950s.
Against the dead illusion, decayed reality and vile bodies there is always the countermovement of imagination, pushing back against an unreal reality. There is Bowie’s scintillating, permissive intelligence that speaks to us in our aloneness and reaches out to touch our aliveness. All we have to do is listen and give him our hands. As he says in “Rock ’n’ Roll Suicide”: You’re not alone. You’re wonderful.
Marian Engel's 1976 novel Bear, which tells the story of a relationship between a woman and her ursine lover, has been called one of the most controversial books in the history of Canadian literature.
But experts say the Governor General Award-winning book is also one of the most daring and relevant examples in the Canadian canon, deftly mixing comedic scenes with important themes such as colonialism and our relationship to the wilderness. One expert says it also touches on the issue of Western appropriation of Indigenous stories.
I started writing Call Me by Your Name as a diversion. I had absolutely no idea it was going to be a story, much less a novel. One April morning I was dreaming about being in an imaginary Italian villa overlooking the sea. It was a real-estate fantasy: a swimming pool, a tennis court, wonderful family and friends, plus the attendant personnel: a cook, a gardener and a driver. I had even picked the house from a painting by Claude Monet.
Some years ago, researchers in Ushuaia, the southernmost city of Argentina, observed some unexpected winter visitors. Martillo Island, a speck of land in the Beagle Channel, regularly attracts tourist boats owing to its photogenic colonies of magellanic and gentoo penguins. Visit today, however, and you may just be lucky enough to spot an outsider: a king penguin, staring out across the channel from the island’s pebble beach, head and shoulders taller than the gentoos and about twice the size of the magellanics.
She told me about the sticky “syrup kisses” she always got from the neighborhood kids after they had their pancakes, how she would wear that maple-syrup scent all day long as she worked, how she watched the children she knew as babies grow old enough to come in to the enjoy the diner on their own.
“I’d just like to have the chance to say goodbye,” she told me, in tears.
What author Nuala O’Connor attempts in her novel “Nora” may be considered sacrilege by some. What she achieves is serene.
In case you haven’t read it, Uncommon Type is a very good book. It would have to be for this story to continue. Had it been a bad book or just a good-enough book, I would have put it down, but page after page it surprised me. Two days later, I sent an endorsement to the editor. I’ve written plenty of jacket quotes in my day, mostly for first-time writers of fiction whom I believed could benefit from the assistance. The thought of Tom Hanks benefiting from my assistance struck me as funny, and then I forgot about it.
Or I would have forgotten about it, except that I got a call from Tom Hanks’s publicist a few weeks later, asking whether I would fly to Washington in October to interview the actor onstage as part of his book tour.
For the past decade, I have experienced the continuous ring of tinnitus in that ear and now wear a hearing aid. Yet the sounds of reading are very much alive in my head. Occasionally, I’ll commit to memory a poem by one of my favorite poets — Marie Howe, say, or Jean Valentine — and for a spell I know the sound of her words intimately, almost like a heartbeat. All of this is thanks to Doctorow and what he taught me: Read deeply, steal what you can and always listen for the music.
Yet, perhaps because of the length or the immersion in detail, I found that I missed both Roland and Lilia when the book was over. Perhaps this story of a grief that lies too deep for tears sank somehow into me after all.
Painter, retired civil servant and the eldest child of Lucian, Annie Freud launched her poetry career with funny, often highly sexualised light verse. Now at 72 she has published her fourth collection, Hiddensee – a book that locates her quite differently, as a former student of comparative literature whose imagination is furnished with European high culture and who is, it turns out, a highly accomplished literary translator.
‘What I have written is an odd kind of memoir, notable — if at all — for what has been left out.” There are no spoilers in the closing words to “Unsolaced: Along the Way to All That Is,” Gretel Ehrlich’s latest collection of interconnected essays. While Ehrlich may regard it as “odd,” the reader has no way of knowing what is missing. What remains is a lovingly observed account of the lives of people, animals and the landscapes that sustain them, spun together as deftly as a spider’s web, filled with purpose and urgency.
During the seemingly endless hours of coronavirus isolation, many are pursuing new educational experiences — trying out a musical instrument or finally picking up that brush to learn the art of painting. For those with more scientific yearnings, and who regret not taking a few courses in college to learn about the physical world, theoretical physicist Frank Wilczek offers a way to catch up. His latest book, “Fundamentals: Ten Keys to Reality,” attempts, according to the author, “to convey the central messages of modern physics as simply as possible.”
It still surprises me that some of my favorite novels are westerns. It no longer surprises me that they’re written by women. The territory once dominated by Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour has long since been opened up by Paulette Jiles, Mary Doria Russell, Molly Gloss and other women who have cut fresh trails in this old genre.
The latest foray comes from Anna North, a reporter for Vox. Her new novel, “Outlawed,” stirs up the western with a provocative blend of alt-history and feminist consciousness. The result is a thrilling tale eerily familiar but utterly transformed.
In his quirky new writing guide, “A Swim in a Pond in the Rain,” he implores, “God save us from manifestos, even mine… The closest thing to a method I have to offer is this: go forth and do what you please.”
He saves that bit for the end (spoiler alert), but from the start, Saunders recognizes the tension inherent to any book about writing: No one system can define successful writing, yet any book on the subject is obligated to propose some kind of process for it.
Last year inflicted ill-health, death, bereavement, unemployment and poverty on some, and led others to look inwards and re-evaluate lifestyle and priorities. Many have sought therapeutic remedies for anxiety and insomnia as well as advice on how to feel happier. Some ancient Mediterranean answers to such psychological issues can be found in John Sellars’s little book. It explores the ideas of the Athenian philosopher Epicurus, born in 341BC, 19 years before Aristotle died. Epicurus taught that the most important factor in achieving happiness is mental tranquillity. Epicureanism can ease contemporary worries, Sellars believes; in some ways it resembles cognitive behavioural therapy.
“Peanuts” may not have the cool factor of other things in our culture, but it has transcended the test of time; it has become an almost Talmudic totem, a talisman, one that we take with us, celebrate with, and perhaps cling to all the more tightly in times of trouble.
For most of us, the beginner stage is something to be got through as quickly as possible, like a socially awkward skin condition. But even if we’re only passing through, we should pay particular attention to this moment. For once it goes, it’s hard to get back.
Even though I gave away or sold perhaps 150 boxes of books in 2020, the stunned amazement of anyone who wanders into my basement or attic apparently remains, to quote Sherlock Holmes, the one fixed point in a changing age. Admittedly, only a small number of people crossed my threshold during this time of coronavirus restrictions, but most never even bothered to ask, “Have you read all these books?” They just stood dumbfounded, though a few were overheard to murmur, “I feel sorry for his poor wife” or, more rarely, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” My living room, to my delight if no one else’s, can now pass as the ramshackle library of an impoverished London club circa 1895. More and more often, I settle into a shabby, cat-clawed wing chair with the day’s newspapers and periodically snort “Harrumph!” or grumble that the world is going to hell in a handbasket.
After a three-hour bullet train ride, I stepped into the shivering cold of snow country in northern Japan. Still jet-lagged from the 11-hour plane ride from Los Angeles to Tokyo, I wasn’t prepared for this bone-chilling weather. But I also knew I was shivering from the sheer joy and anticipation of eating good soba. “Soba” means buckwheat and is also the name of the long, beige Japanese noodle. I am known to travel the distance to eat soba, but this trip meant more than that.
You wouldn’t expect a comic novel about a dictionary to be a thriller too, but this one is. In fact, Eley Williams’s hilarious new book, “The Liar’s Dictionary,” is also a mystery, love story (two of them) and cliffhanging melodrama.
The heroes of the traditional Western were always sure about what made them the way they were; what made a man a man. For Ada and the other "outlaws" of this spirited novel, the frontiers of gender and sexuality beckon to be explored.
Meeting yourself in media is no guarantee that the mirror will be kind or wanted. Instead, it’s often a jagged glass you catch yourself in before it catches you. And even when you know it’s coming, the blood’s still warm and sharp. What of me, of us, was I to witness in “The Prophets,” the debut novel of Robert Jones Jr., set on an antebellum plantation in Mississippi?
When did I know that I’d have to carry it around
in order to have it when I need it, say in a pocket,
In the end, the ship would be lost to ice. Three and a half months out of Amsterdam, with the crew already drifting into scurvy’s embrace, Dutch explorer William Barents found the passage east blocked. In the last days of August 1596, he surrendered to the Arctic for the third time.
Drawing on his own extensive discoveries in the field, the work of previous archaeologists, the historical record and Native American oral traditions, MacDonald provides an essential account of Yellowstone’s human past. Tobin Roop, chief of cultural resources at Yellowstone, says, “As an archaeologist, working in partnership with the park, MacDonald has really opened up our understanding of the nuances and complexities of the prehistory.”
MacDonald sees his work, in part, as a moral necessity. “This is a story that was deliberately covered up and it needs to be told,” he says. “Most visitors to the park have no idea that hunter-gatherers were an integral part of this landscape for thousands of years.”
The story of nachos doesn’t start and end with a resourceful restaurant employee assembling a few basic components. From the chips, to the toppings, to the molten yellow cheese that’s become synonymous with the dish, the history of nachos can tell us a lot more than their simple ingredients list might suggest.
I found this out a few days after my wedding. My husband and I were eating the misshapen remains of a cheese tray in bed, after the tempest of uncles and hailstorm of aunts had swirled away. The last of the Greek cousins were gone. My mother-in-law, having conjured ice cream for a hundred people out of a freezerless kitchen, and my mother, her finger-joints swollen from pulling apart the maddening layers of ninety-six fuchsia tissue-paper flowers, had escaped back to their own lives. But our guests had left something behind: the yellow-striped card box, teetering on top of a bin of dirty forks.
The Liar's Dictionary, "queasy with knowledge," is an audacious, idiosyncratic dual love story about how language and people intersect and connect, and about how far we'll go to save what we're passionate about.
Just as front-line workers have been pleading with people to wear masks and practice social distancing, environmental activists have been trying to get us to wise up to the consequences of our actions. If we are visual learners, perhaps the 12 photographers featured in “Human Nature: Planet Earth in Our Time” can finally get through.
This book is a delight, and it’s about delight too. How necessary, at our particular moment. Novelist and short story writer George Saunders has been teaching creative writing at Syracuse University in the US for the last 20 years, including a course in the 19th-century Russian short story in translation. “A few years back, after the end of one class (chalk dust hovering in the autumnal air, old-fashioned radiator clanking in the corner, marching band processing somewhere in the distance, let’s say),” he had the realisation that “some of the best moments of my life, the moments during which I’ve really felt myself offering something of value to the world, have been spent teaching that Russian class.”
Photographed from 18,000 miles in 1972, Earth had the look
of a marble, or so people said. Eighteen years later, we shot it again,
Parenthood, it turns out is not only a recurring topic of contemporary fiction, but our very ambivalence about parenting—like so many other writerly anxieties—has become the subject of our books.
In the Japanese city of Wakayama, a stone’s throw away from ancient castle ruins and the Kumano river, a 74-year-old restaurant called Toho Chaya specializes in an ancient form of sushi. To make narezushi, the restaurant packs rice inside salty fish carcasses and ages them for months. Toho Chaya has always done things the old-fashioned way, from making narezushi to conducting an interview by fax machine. “Since it is made by fermentation, it tastes similar to cheese or yogurt,” writes chef and owner Ikuo Matsubara via fax.
The English writer Eley Williams’s spirited first novel, “The Liar’s Dictionary,” is about lexicography. It’s a celebration of the people who compile dictionaries, even if they’re driven out of their minds in the process.
This book wisely does not answer the question of how he did it. Instead, it integrates the appeal of magic with the desperate attempts of poor immigrants to escape the chains of poverty. Houdini became a great escapologist, but escaping those chains was, perhaps, among his biggest feats.
An irresistible aspect of Exercised is Lieberman's firm stance that no shame or stigma be attached to those who find it challenging to sustain an exercise program: "So if, as you read these words, you are seated in a chair or lounging in bed and feeling guilty about your indolence, take solace in knowing that your current state of physical inactivity is an ancient, fundamental strategy to allocate scarce energy sensibly."
Indolence is not good for us, of course. Sitting for long hours, for instance, encourages inflammation throughout the body and is associated with chronic disease. This is especially true of the way we tend to sit in our culture — on a chair — compared to cultural traditions of squatting, kneeling, or sitting on the ground which causes the muscles to be more highly active. Yet if you're attached, literally, to your chair or couch, all is not lost: In one study, when participants interrupted their sitting with just 100 seconds of movement every half hour, the result was lower blood levels of sugar, fat, and bad cholesterol.
Books about exercise are nothing new — especially not at this time of year. But “Exercised” is different from the usual scrum, in that its objective is not to sell a diet or fitness plan. Lieberman is a professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard University, and he comes to the material as a reluctant exerciser himself. In first grade, he writes, he once hid in the closet during gym. He ran and hiked in college but he didn’t do much of it because he was “largely ignorant and anxious about what kinds of exercise to do, how often, how vigorously, and how to improve.”
It’s January. A swan’s wing overhead
reminds you of his Fifth
To the male guides who accompanied Henriette d’Angeville as she stubbornly reached the summit of Mont Blanc in 1838, her achievement marked a turning point in mountaineering history. Henriette’s accomplishment helped to break through the age-long belief that the “fairer sex” could not endure the strenuous activity of mountain climbing nor could their “weaker constitutions” survive in harsh climates and thin, oxygen-depleted environments. Although Henriette’s achievement on Mont Blanc is today little-known, societal perceptions of what women could achieve in the outdoors began to crumble in the nineteenth century.
Retracing his past through the labyrinth of old Liverpool, Jeff Young has conjured a book of plangent beauty and longing. Ghost Town is in essence a memoir, but within its short span it contains multitudes: a meditation on loss, a family album, an ode to the power of reading, a loving memorial to a city, and a long goodbye.
The Prophets is indeed an outstanding novel, delivering tender, close-up intimacy, but also a great sweep of history. The novel names chapters after books of the Bible, but what really frames it are poetic sections written in the mysterious, eternal voices of seven ancestors, speaking out from the darkness.
Grant died in 1986, in the midst of a cross-country tour called “A Conversation with Cary Grant.” He had been hosting a series of Q-and-A sessions with fans in smaller cities, places that would not usually see visits from such a Hollywood legend. At the time, Grant was finally opening up and accepting himself, little by little. The journey of self-discovery took his entire life. Whether he ultimately found solace, we will never truly know, but this fine biography gets us as close as we have ever been to seeing Grant whole.
Ah, yes, those opinions. Sontag was celebrated both for her own strong opinions and those that she inspired. So it was inevitable that her biography would do the same—act, in effect, as a proxy for what everyone wanted to say about Sontag by allowing them to contest what should or should not have been said about her by her biographer. I wondered how he had coped with all that.
“Those strong feelings were exactly what I dreaded when I was first asked to do this book, and I decided I didn’t care,” he said. “If I had cared, I couldn’t have written the book.”
When Alan Donnes, the first of the last three leaders of National Lampoon not to be sentenced to prison, joined the company, five years ago, he discovered that it was a magnet for off-the-wall film pitches. One day, he took a call from a guy who knew a guy with $5 million and a script for “the perfect National Lampoon movie.” “It always scares me when they say, ‘It’s the perfect National Lampoon movie,’ ” Donnes said, sitting in his office at National Lampoon headquarters, in Los Angeles.
Of all the senses, taste, inextricably linked to smell to awaken flavors, is the perhaps most evocative in its ability to conjure memories of time and place. I am fortunate to have roamed the world, both for work and play, and my kitchen holds the bounty of this wandering, letting me relive a globe-trotting that has halted with the pandemic.
Peter Ho Davies, who teaches writing at the University of Michigan, is well known for his literary achievements. Winner of several prestigious awards, he has published two short-story collections and two previous historical novels. In his latest offering, “A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself,” he attempts something new: an unnamed third-person narrator, a contemporary story delivered in the fashion of a prose-poem, and a meandering style. It is a candid look at fatherhood, the stresses a family undergoes when a child is born and difficult choices one must make in life, as well as the shame that can result.
When did “fitness” become a pastime in itself, an interest separated from any particular physical activity? When people employ a “personal trainer”, what are they training for? What is the thing for which they must sweat to attain a state of perpetual readiness? And when did “fitness” become not just a physical but a moral good, the obligatory aim of every citizen? Luckily this book enables one to approach such mysteries from the comfort of one’s armchair.
The title is a play on “lust” and lustre, a type of glaze. “For me the book is about desire, and what it means to try to seize the right to make art as a young black woman,” she explains. “I had those two main poles of the book – there’s the body and then there’s art.”
I realized I need books with a personal foundation already in place: books that I already know are outstanding, that I know will transport me—books that I trust because of my long history with them. I have such books already on my shelves, but I also bought a couple more.
Where we will be in three weeks seems unknowable, let alone three months, or 12, or more. Everything is very hazy right now. Hope may not be accessible to us. But The Hard Tomorrow makes me feel understood, and it’s a reminder that even if everything is awful, much is beautiful. The world renews itself, over and over. Spring, at least, will come. We keep going.
Barack Obama in the white house was like Elvis drafted in the Army: both were vibrant men who had to operate with extreme limitations on their public selves.
Because Elvis did not want to appear to be seeking special treatment, he was deprived of the soldier’s universal right to complain — about the food, a hard-assed sergeant, a crummy work detail, anything. In A Promised Land, the first volume of Barack Obama’s projected two-volume presidential memoirs, we are reminded again and again — and not by the author, because some part of him would consider it unseemly — that the one thing the first African American president could not do was appear to be “too Black.”
Snow fallen, another going
gone, new come in, open
A unique law, willed into existence by the people of California, declared decades ago that the coast is a public treasure that must be shared by all. Entrusted with this mission is an unusual government agency that has waged many epic battles against the state’s most powerful and wealthy.
One woman has been there since the very beginning.
George Orwell died at University College Hospital, London, on 21 January 1950 at the early age of 46. This means that unlike such long-lived contemporaries as Graham Greene (died 1991) or Anthony Powell (died 2000), the vast majority of his compendious output (21 volumes to date) is newly out of copyright as of 1 January. Naturally, publishers – who have an eye for this kind of opportunity – have long been at work to take advantage of the expiry date and the next few months are set to bring a glut of repackaged editions.
I recently found myself on a metal chair in the Jardin du Luxembourg, in Paris, submitting to my first-ever session of “philosophical therapy.”
I was there because I had gotten an email from a philosophy professor I knew explaining that he offers personal therapy sessions. After months of various lockdowns, it was a chance to have a new experience, and to spend time with someone who doesn’t live in my apartment. Plus it was in English (the professor is also an American who lives in Paris), and it can be done outside.
On one level, sadly, it's about the banalities of domestic life; sadly, I suppose because we all have to live with and deal with them. On another level however there's something else going on beneath the surface of all these domestic tensions, but even that could be said to be similarly banal, since anger, resentment, bitterness and disappointment all come as part of the package.
Peter Ho Davies’s powerful account of fatherhood begins with tests, chromosomes and complications; the chance that the birth might be “normal”, and the chance that it might not. More tests come, and a choice is made: to terminate the pregnancy. The couple return home and, slowly, start to think of what might come next. “Will you write about it?” asks the wife. “You can, if you want.”
My whole dazed life
I implored begged
wailed for saints
to awaken rescue