The title of Koren’s book is a doozy because it contains three words — musings, curious, aesthete — the meanings of which we all more or less think we know and yet which are also slippery and paradoxical, tending to drift away from us the harder we try to pin them down.
Ryan deftly portrays a number of serious challenges women faced during these troubling times, not just the rationing, but the billeting of strangers in their homes, the terrible problems unwed mothers faced, among others. The women discover a comradeship and the strength of female friendships in this heartwarming, delightful story of overcoming challenges in a wartime English village.
In science, Gifty notes, the hard part is trying to work out what the question is, asking something sufficiently interesting and different. Transcendent Kingdom is full of exactly those kinds of questions.
This book could have been as unsurprising as the privileged life Smith left behind. Man is bored, does hard thing, emerges with lessons. What makes Smith’s book matter is the wealth of world-building detail, as well as the journey through pain both physical and psychological.
This magnificent new book by Philip Hoare takes its title from that tale, but only as a point of departure. The narrative soon turns into a trip of another kind entirely, a captivating journey through art and life, nature and human nature, biography and personal memoir. Giants walk the earth: Dürer and Martin Luther, Shakespeare and Blake, Thomas Mann, Marianne Moore, WH Auden, David Bowie. Hoare summons them like Prospero, his writing the animating magic that brings the people of the past directly into our present and unleashes spectacular visions along the way.
For generations, Anna Karenina and Emma Bovary have loomed as the nonpareils of self-loathing literary heroines. For Anna, guilt over having abandoned her husband and child, paired with a jealous nature, compels her to destroy the love she shares with Count Vronsky — and head for the train tracks. For Emma, dumped by a conscience-free bachelor with whom she has an extramarital affair — and unable to repay the debts she accrues on account of her shopping addiction — a spoonful of arsenic ultimately beckons.
Lately, however, Tolstoy and Flaubert have had stiff competition on the self-harm front, thanks to women novelists intent on exploring their female characters’ propensity to act out their unhappiness on their bodies.
By the time Alec Ginsburg was 5, he knew he wanted to work at his father’s drugstore. “It wasn’t a decision, I just knew,” says Ginsburg, 29, who, along with his father, Ian Ginsburg, is now the co-owner of C.O. Bigelow in Greenwich Village. “I saw how he loved his work much more than my friends’ parents liked theirs,” Alec recalls. “He’d come home and tell me how he had met Lou Reed or David Bowie. My dad was like the mayor of Greenwich Village, and I thought, How cool!”
One man’s murder is another’s revolution. Viet Thanh Nguyen’s new novel The Committed, his sequel to 2015’s The Sympathizer, explores the moral duality of leftist violence in a book that marries thriller and theory, racing the reader through the criminal underworld of Paris before stopping to unpack Frantz Fanon. Using suspense as a vehicle for postcolonial philosophy has a certain logic: what could be more suspenseful, at least for ex-colonies and their diasporas, than the rush towards their own futures? Theory dominates so heavily that reading at times feels more like sitting in a graduate seminar than being swept away in a story. But narrative cannot exist without theory. The stories we tell ourselves take their shape from systems of thought and power. Try to imagine, for example, any rags-to-riches tale without capitalism.
Touch needs attention, Kearney argues, precisely because in this doubleness touch cross-relates (and fully enables) all of our other senses: “When we speak of touch we are not just referring to one of the five senses. . . . We are talking about touch in a more inclusive way, as an embodied manner of being in the world, an existential approach to things that is open and vulnerable, as when skin touches and is touched. So let me repeat one of my central arguments: touch is not confined to touch alone but is potentially everywhere. It is present not only in tactility but also in visibility, audibility, and so on.”
Josie George doesn’t know what’s wrong with her. The doctors don’t know either, though for 30-odd years they’ve been coming up with different ideas. Any exertion or stimulation exhausts her. There are times when she’s too weak to leave the house. A single mum with a nine-year-old son and a mobility scooter, she never knows how her health will be from one day to the next. It sounds like the material for a misery memoir. But the miracle of A Still Life – as much a miracle as her determination to write it – is its joyousness.
In easily digestible vignettes, Menéndez — a Guatemalan-American illustrator who worked as a bilingual art teacher in East Harlem — brings to life 40 Latinas from all over Latin America and the United States, from the 1650s to the present.
has no ministry—just an office
and a phone. She sleeps diagonally
on cool sheets, her blinds raised
to the moon. Mornings,
Two astronomers recently went looking for a monster black hole. They sifted reams of data from the most powerful telescopes on and above Earth for any sign of an invisible object hundreds of times the mass of the sun in a distant cloud of stars known as NGC 6397.
Instead, they found a nest of baby monsters, as many as five dozen: dark engines of annihilation, packed into a space barely larger than our own solar system, buzzing back and forth and throwing their considerable weight around in the dense core of the star cluster.
As you can see, “The Committed” indulges in espionage high jinks aplenty, but in truth the author is not as interested in them as a cursory plot summary might indicate. Nguyen is no le Carré and doesn’t wish to be. The novel draws its true enchantment — and its immense power — from the propulsive, wide-ranging intelligence of our narrator as he Virgils us through his latest descent into hell. That he happens to be as funny as he is smart is the best plus of all.
That strangely solitary house of Chen’s story, with besieged but unyielding owners who must let down a bucket through their window so food can be sent up to them, is one poetic image of the effects of the revolutionary violence that has made the country rich. Chen’s stories abound in such telling images — the extraordinarily high human costs of creating the new China, so reminiscent of those that have been paid before.
The Wild Track is an account of Reynolds’s five-year struggle to adopt a child and of the painful pleasure of becoming the mother to a troubled six-year-old daughter. It’s an extremely moving, sometimes baggy book (I wish its editor had been more ruthless in cutting the history of ambivalent motherhood injected into its first chapter). It has many great merits, among which is its ambivalence about the British adoption system, which Reynolds portrays as serving parents and children with admirable rigour that itself results in obstacles that cannot be in the interests of the numerous children brought up in care.
in a mind.
without a body,
air into air.
without a body.
A few years ago, my friend wrote a letter to the novelist Rick Moody. She did this because she had become too sick to write, but still felt strongly that she was a writer, even if there seemed to be an unbridgeable gap between the present and the way her life had been. She also did this because Moody, the author of “The Ice Storm,” was now an advice columnist. In his “Life Coach” column on Literary Hub, Moody told my friend that she should appreciate the tang of fresh mint in a salad and try to understand her writing, at whatever scale she could manage it, as “an honest gesture” toward “cataloguing what you feel and who you are capable of being now.” As I read the column, I felt disappointed for my friend, who had been through so much and was now being told to enjoy garnishes more. And yet she was extremely satisfied with this response. Because Rick Moody also told her that she was brave, that her letter was itself a moving act of literature, that she was, even through terrible suffering and the stasis of illness, still a writer. Rick Moody was, in other words, a surprisingly good advice columnist.
The book revives the persona of the downtown flâneur — it’s full of nods to Prince Street and Cafe Orlin and the Strand — and reading it feels like wandering around that pre-pandemic metropolis that we’re aching to get back to. From a business standpoint, the timing of books (and movies) tends to be arbitrary — they’re released when they’re ready — but every now and then a new one seems to dovetail with the cultural moment. “Love and Other Poems” is an example of that. It practically embodies the phrase “breath of fresh air.” It comes to us in the midst of widespread loss and grief, with faint signals of hope on the horizon, but it nudges us (if I can borrow a line from a poem by the Nobel laureate Louise Glück) to “risk joy / in the raw wind of the new world.”
Natsuki’s refusal to buy into the worldview that those around her hold fast to allows for a complex look into how individuals situate themselves in a society that, for one reason or another, is hostile to them. Earthlings is much more surreal than Convenience Store Woman, and through that often uncomfortable surrealism, Murata manages to push further into themes that appeared in her previous novel.
Like a photographer shooting a portrait, Robben captures his subjects in “Summer Brother” in a focused close-up. It’s intimate, even claustrophobic at times, just as life must be for an isolated boy like Brian, looking with wonder to the lights on the hill.
Filled with poetic, vibrant prose and rooted in Nigerian culture, Abraham allows us a glimpse at four lives as they diverge from a single traumatic moment. It’s devastating, in its quiet way, but it’s also funny and sweet and occasionally quite profound.
This book’s stubborn capaciousness ensure that it is not a ride for everyone. Yet any readers with a deep yearning to know more about the family who came before them will appreciate its fundamental curiosity and empathy. At its core, there is a powerful note, struck time and again, about the fleeting, mysterious nature of all lives. We are “endlessly vulnerable, desperately interesting, utterly defenseless,” Stepanova writes. “Especially after we are gone.”
Black silk handkerchief
over a glass of four-day-old rainwater
from the birdbath of a house
where patricide was committed.
In the mid-to-late 18th century, the reading public grew so sharply in Britain, France and Germany that historians speak of a reading revolution. Reading was often a shared activity. Rousseau recounts how he and his father read aloud to each other, often continuing all night until they heard the dawn chorus. But it was also, and increasingly, a solitary practice, especially popular among middle-class women who had leisure, access to artificial light, and enough money to buy books. People not only read more: they read differently, becoming more involved in fictional worlds. The first-person singular becomes increasingly popular as a narrative device, which brings the protagonist close to the reader. Such stories often recount the protagonist’s progress through sin and error to an understanding of his faults and the reception of divine grace.
Part memoir, part history, part pornographic novel, Gay Bar is a gripping read. By turns raunchy and melancholic, it charts Lin’s coming out, his relationships, and his early adulthood as a gay man. But Lin also applies a critical eye to these memories, thinking about ways in which gay bars, even while serving as sites of community, can also exclude and isolate. Deploying queer history and critique in this intimate way, Lin does not offer readers any answers—that is not his goal. Rather, he paints a portrait of a culture in transition, of a new queer world emerging and an old one fading away.
I learned the news of my mother’s death on Facebook. I had left her the day before, tiny swimmer in an Olympic-sized hospice bed. Her parched mouth was open, but her breathing was wet. When I kissed her forehead, she smelled salty, sweet—a sticky, human smell.
I read the news of her death sitting in Pearson airport, stress eating a hamburger. I was heading back to stupid London, where I had a stupid job interview I was not prepared for. When I had kissed my mother in her hospice bed, she was still alive and full of desire. She wanted to swim. I, too, needed her to be alive. I’d asked everyone not to disclose anything mother related until my interview was done, worried I wouldn’t board the plane. And then, instantly, she was gone because my uncle posted it on Facebook.
The world is a bit bleak at the moment, so we decided to get a little nerdy this week and dive into an entirely new frontier. So grab a bowl of your favorite Klingon cuisine and a barrel of blood wine, because we’re exploring something a bit different: the Klingon language and its interesting impact on modern pop culture.
Few writers who’ve ever lived have been able to create moods of transience, loss and existential self-doubt as Ishiguro has — not art about the feelings, but the feelings themselves.
If the Coen brothers ever ventured beyond the United States for their films, they would find ample material in this novel, which offers a familiar mix of dark humor and casual brutality — and an ultimately hopeful search for small comforts and a modicum of justice in an absurd and immoral world.
Kevin's eyes were closed, but rather than the usual darkness at the back of his eyelids, he was peering through a frame and into outer space. The cosmos stretched before him. He began to think about Einstein's theory of relativity. The equation E = mc2 appeared and he intuitively understood what it meant, more so than ever before.
The year was 2011, and Kevin was laying on a bed at an ibogaine clinic in Baja California. Kevin, who is using only his first name to protect his privacy, was participating in an observational trial on how the psychedelic drug could help people with addiction.
I used to avoid adding cheese when I made pasta, on the assumption that it was just making my dinner more fattening. Now I realize that I’m better off getting full from a bit less pasta—a refined grain—and a bit more cheese, perhaps a nice aged Parmesan. It’s also an easy way, almost a hack, to improve a healthy but unexciting meal, like the leftover quinoa with vegetables that I had for lunch this week. It was fine—until I stirred in about a tablespoon of goat cheese, which made it amazing. Is a guilty pleasure as pleasant when you remove the guilt? In this case, I’m inclined to say yes.
So Bittman’s “Animal, Vegetable, Junk,” a comprehensive treatise on humanity’s relationship to food, matches our moment — evincing a necessary sense of urgency but also making no bones about the challenge before us. “You can’t talk about agriculture without talking about the environment,” he writes. “You can’t talk about animal welfare without talking about the welfare of food workers, and you can’t talk about food workers without talking about income inequality, racism and immigration.” Every issue touches another.
In an age of crises — epidemiological and climatic, political and cultural — the crisis of expertise may be the most urgent, not least because its resolution will affect the others. The knowledge machine offers us one path forward, explaining how science works and how to care for it; but to explore other paths, new metaphors might be needed. If science isn’t to be captive to the market, to the up-votes and down-votes of capitalism or social media, then we will need to rethink whether it is a machine for producing a tradable good. After all, the machine stops.
Grey drizzling mists the moorlands drape,
Rain whitens the dead sea,
Around here the land swallows things. In 1910, 96 people died when an avalanche swept two trains down the side of Windy Mountain just west of Stevens Pass and into the Tye River below. The trains, on the final stretch of a new transcontinental route from St. Paul to Seattle, had been stranded for a week already, the tracks west buried in 35 feet of snow and telegraph lines down, no communication with the outside world. In the days following the disaster, rail workers dug out the trains and loaded bodies onto toboggans. The dead moved down the Skykomish Valley by sled to the sea.
In 1929 the Great Northern Railroad completed a new tunnel under Stevens Pass that kept trains off the steeper, avalanche-prone slopes of the upper Windy Mountain route. An almost eight-mile stretch, it’s the longest train tunnel in the country. It’s still used today, by Amtrak and Burlington Northern Santa Fe, and still dangerous: a complicated cooling system maintains ventilation through the tunnel, but train hoppers avoid it. Better to hitchhike over the pass than risk asphyxiation in that long, dark void.
Wakkanai (pop. 33,869) is Japan’s northernmost city. On a clear day, its residents can look across the La Perouse Strait to the Russian island of Sakhalin, which was a Japanese prefecture until the closing days of World War II. The city was a smuggling hub during the immediate post-war years, when movement between Sakhalin and Japan was forbidden, and smuggling resumed during the bubble era, when little of the seafood offloaded in Wakkanai had been caught legally. When I visited for the first time in 2011, two weeks before the Fukushima earthquake, Wakkanai was a city of colorful memories and little to boast about.
The mayor at the time was Yokota Koichi. Funding had been secured to build a new train station and transit hub in the city’s historic downtown, and Yokota proposed that multiple floors of the station building could be reserved for a nursing home. It’s difficult to overstate the symbolic importance of a Japanese rail hub to the commerce of the surrounding area; using it to house the elderly struck many Wakkanai residents as an attempt to “surrender to the future” instead of confronting it.
When we observe our loved ones sleeping, old or young, human or pet, we are instinctively drawn to their breath. There is something essential in it we are all attuned to, something we both automatically and unconsciously equate with life. Each time we check on each other, we are validating the words of the Roman philosopher Cicero, dum spiro, spero, “As I breathe, I hope.”
Artists, she declares, are “people whose work it is to make something out of nothing”. True, writers are conjurers, performing feats of legerdemain with words; but there is hard work in what they do, and the proud outcome is something made, the product of craft. A sentence by Didion, whether it sticks to 39 characters or articulates possibilities in multiple dependent clauses, is always a marvel of magical thinking.
This is one of many mundane lessons that M, our narrator, learns in her unconventional education as a traveling salesman. In readers are thrown into a child’s perspective as she eschews traditional learning in order to make a living with her father on the road. A world of tools and hardware catalogs lends itself to new relationships, unearthed secrets, and a coming-of-age story no one quite expected. This sparse, quiet novel is itself a collection of parts. Not quite a novel, far from a collection of stories, more disparate vignettes than anything else. At times, these feel incomplete. Parts without their fittings.
Matty’s ambivalence and yearning, and the book-long search for answers and security, combine to make Skin a thoughtful read.
It is Nguyen’s only childhood memory from Vietnam, and he isn’t sure if it really happened or if it came from something he read in a history book. To him, whether he personally witnessed the shooting doesn’t matter.
“I have a memory that I can’t rely on, but all the historical information points to the fact that all this stuff happened, if not to us, then to other people,” he said in a video interview earlier this month.
Many histories of cyberpunk emphasize its literary precursors — its borrowings from hard-boiled detective fiction, for example, or the proto-cyberpunk elements in the science fiction of writers such as Alfred Bester, John Brunner, Samuel R. Delany, Philip K. Dick, James Tiptree Jr., and others. In addition to these literary influences, however, comic books also played a significant (and often unexamined) role in cyberpunk’s flowering into a recognizable literary and cultural phenomenon during the 1980s. On one hand, Japanese comics (manga) and animated cartoons (anime) such as Akira (1988) and Ghost in the Shell (1995) unquestionably helped shape (and were in turn shaped by) cyberpunk sensibilities. At the same time, however, European and American comics also served as a vital resource for cyberpunk aesthetics.
A personal connection of the author to a story seems to give a novel even more life on the pages. Such is the case of Janet Skeslien Charles’ “The Paris Library.” I seem to have chosen a wonderful assortment of World War II fiction lately, this being the most recent. Charles actually worked at the American Library of Paris, a unique library in France providing books in English and other languages to the residents of the city. This book is based on the story of the heroic librarians who struggled to keep the library open during the German Occupation.
You may not have heard of Robin Dunbar. But you will, perhaps, know of his work. Dunbar, now emeritus professor of evolutionary psychology at Oxford University, is the man who first suggested that there may be a cognitive limit to the number of people with whom you can comfortably maintain stable social relationships – or, as Stephen Fry put it on the TV show QI, the number of people “you would not hesitate to go and sit with if you happened to see them at 3am in the departure lounge at Hong Kong airport”. Human beings, Dunbar found when he conducted his research in the 1990s, typically have 150 friends in general (people who know us on sight, and with whom we have a history), of whom just five can usually be described as intimate.
The first wave whirs around in one
long enormous pipe; greens, blues,
Robert Frost said that the hope of a poet is to write a few poems good enough to get stuck so deep they can’t be pried out again. Hemingway’s stories are stuck that deep in me.
Many kinds of researchers—biologists, psychologists, anthropologists, and so on—encounter checkpoints at which they are asked about the ethics of their research. This doesn’t happen as much in computer science. Funding agencies might inquire about a project’s potential applications, but not its risks. University research that involves human subjects is typically scrutinized by an I.R.B., but most computer science doesn’t rely on people in the same way. In any case, the Department of Health and Human Services explicitly asks I.R.B.s not to evaluate the “possible long-range effects of applying knowledge gained in the research,” lest approval processes get bogged down in political debate. At journals, peer reviewers are expected to look out for methodological issues, such as plagiarism and conflicts of interest; they haven’t traditionally been called upon to consider how a new invention might rend the social fabric.
Instead of leaving metaphysics to the poets, Lightman became one of the poets—or rather a lyrical essayist. And as he shows in his expansive new book, Probable Impossibilities, he draws much of his inspiration from the very imponderables that Feynman and his ilk wouldn’t touch.
“In recent years, two requirements have emerged for good sex: consent and self-knowledge,” Katherine Angel writes. Judging by the number of freshers’ week workshops and op-ed articles devoted to the subject, consent is vital for better sex. This seems like progress – it takes women at their word and defuses the potential for sexual violence. But its conceit of absolute clarity, Angel argues, “places the burden of good sexual interaction on women’s behaviour”.
Here Comes the Miracle may be a story about loss but it is also a testimony to life, survival and the revitalising powers of memory.
Once we got there, we wanted to come back.
You would, too. After all, have you managed
lately to remember the journey is
more important than the destination?
One of the very first writers who ever thrilled me with that epiphanic frisson of “well, this is something new, isn’t it?” was Ambrose Bierce. My college lit classes were akin to swimming in seas of sameness, with an emphasis on that which was safe; that is, work that had been taught for seeming eons. Ambrose Bierce was not safe. Nor, alas, was he taught much.
I was not perspicacious enough to realize at the time the irony that Bierce was, indeed, not taught much, despite his work doing something hardly anyone’s work does now: veering off into direction upon direction, as though Bierce were a literary changeling. He was a newspaperman who could salt away nonfiction scenes such that they gained forever-life in your mind, his vignettes as indelible as personal memories stamped upon your brain, only they weren’t your memories, they just felt that way.
What may have gone unnoticed was his capacity to delight in the simplest things, in an un-filmed moment, especially given how much of the world he had seen and tasted.
Gay’s poem theorizes an ethics that is inescapably political, and its ebullient gratitude, fore and aft, reads not just as an overflow of thankfulness but as a concrete practice of the ethics Gay suggests. It is the kind of practice that eschews literary competition and anxieties of influence; it is the kind of practice that, in contrast to a death-dealing drive to possess, gives and receives gifts—books, saplings, time, poetic lines—with open hands. This holding-each-other, this mode of beholding, is a regenerative alternative to the slave ship’s hold.
Through Tiller’s sweet vulnerability and his steadfast grasp on hope, Lee tells a story of what it means to be plucked from darkness into the light of recognition, and in doing so, explores the fundamental human desires to be seen and to love.
There’s undoubtedly more to know about Lee and the creation of one of the major forces in American pop culture. This is an excellent dig below the geniality that shows casual fans who he really was. Famously, he wrote, or paraphrased something he heard as: “With great power there must also come great responsibility.” Well, maybe not. As another comics writer says here: “He’s a good guy. He’s just not a great guy.”
I am in need of a manicure.
A manticore. A man to cure.
But the pandemic has made us all stand still and face our own brand of bullshit. I was forced to slow down and evaluate my constant need for validation and approval; the fact that I didn’t know how to love myself properly. I started bucking against the notion that my self-worth was tied to my productivity and value in the marketplace. I told myself it was okay to do nothing. Editors were reaching out for hot takes, but I didn’t have anything new to say in the shock of the moment as it was unfolding before us.
Mrs. Bridge, published in 1959, is a classic American novel about the misunderstandings and alienation of an incurious housewife living in Kansas City during the interwar years. In lieu of the classic chapters-based format, however, author Evan S. Connell wrote 117 vignettes, which are presented chronologically. These neat, linear images function in several ways: as a social critique of the era’s lust for conformity, as an aesthetic choice representing the psychology of his protagonist, and as an attempt to explicate time’s relationship to a forward-looking, consumptive lifestyle—all of which make the book interesting and relevant today, over sixty years later.
[H]er account makes one of the strongest points yet in the French #MeToo debate: those who once advocated for sexual liberation would now be well advised to accept the liberation of survivors’ voices, too.
Creative people are frequently monsters. As Bernard Shaw provocatively declared, “the true artist will let his wife starve, his children go barefoot, his mother drudge for his living at seventy, sooner than work at anything but his art.” The novelist and journalist Sybille Bedford (1911-2006), the subject of Selina Hastings’s gossipy new biography, is a case in point: Bedford passed most of her 94 years sponging off friends, relations and many lovers, enjoying a life of ease and luxury through their sometimes incomprehensible generosity.
That year, whole seasons collapsed
around us. We were shirt-sleeved and suddenly
pummeled by storm. I prayed to be kept
Fifteen years went by before I understood what he meant. In those fifteen years I saw how neoliberalism, adopted in Chile at the end of the seventies, gobbled up the small businesses that my father’s trade depended on.
When I realised that everything was disappearing before my eyes, I knew I had to write a novel about what it had meant to live that life. There was the precariousness, but there was also the happiness of travelling the highways, cursing those who hadn’t purchased anything from us or, if we managed to close a sale, enumerating the treasures we would buy with the tiny commission we had made.
The idea that people may collect books as beautiful objects rather than as containers of text has outraged people for centuries. Even back in the first century AD, Seneca railed against people without a scholarly education using books “not as the tools of learning, but as decorations for the dining-room.” But the Reverend Thomas Frognall Dibdin, one of the founders of the field of bibliography, would hear none of it. His passage on the aesthetics of books from his 1817 The Bibliographical Decameron is worth quoting here at length:
“The general appearance of one's library is by no means a matter of mere foppery, or indifference; it is a sort of cardinal point to which the tasteful collector does well to attend. You have a right to consider books, as to their outsides, with the eye of a painter; because this does not militate against the proper use of the contents. I know full well that there are some snappish critics who go about ‘damning with faint praise’... and without sneering teach the rest to sneer, against what is called fine binding and ‘dapper outsides’... As if any scholar, or man of taste, could not relish the beauties of the volume which he opens, because that same volume happened to be coated in bright calf, or olive-tinted morocco!?”
“I light the building with sun behind it, which illuminates the clouds,” Thom said when asked how to capture the dazzle of mirror glass. Retired and living with his wife, Aesook Jee, in the San Gabriel Valley community of Rowland Heights, 87-year-old Thom still approaches his craft with well-honed technique and poetry in equal measure. “You are photographing the reflection, not the building. The building is just a frame for the reflection of the sky.”
His composition depicts a futurist utopia, with hints of dystopia. Nearby buildings are shrouded in shade, and the freeway is eerily empty. Such is the L.A. of the 1970s, equal parts sci-fi optimism and vérité. It’s a period that architecture historians call Late Modernism, a time of sprawling urban growth set against social change.
When the copies of the class picture arrived at our house, I opened the envelope at our kitchen table and eagerly examined the outcome. Excited, as always, to see how my outfit had registered on camera, I scanned past the short kids sitting crisscross applesauce in the front row, the delicate littlest girls and the pipsqueaky boys. I noticed kids in prints of trains and butterflies next to kids wearing short skirts and brand-name sneakers. I saw our stern but caring teacher, Mrs. T. And then my eyes were drawn to a giant color block of blue in the center of the back row, a blonde head rising above everyone around me. I felt exposed, my stomach sinking. Was that me?
As I settled into my seat before takeoff, I felt, improbably, a sense of accomplishment. That I’d made it onto this (nearly empty) plane felt like a big deal. That I was permitted to travel abroad, a miracle. The road to J.F.K., to this flight, to my seat had already been long and steep.
It began in 2016, when, over Skype, the London-based composer-lyricist Michael Bruce and I wrote the first draft of our musical adaptation of the 2006 film “The Illusionist,” itself based on a short story by Steven Millhauser. It wound past second, third and fourth drafts, past two developmental workshops.
Shortly after Stan Lee, the Marvel Comics legend, died in 2018 at 95, biographer Abraham Riesman paid a visit to his only sibling, younger brother Larry Lieber. Though he had drawn comics for Stan on and off for 60 years, Lieber never felt emotionally close to him. He tried to explain his brother the best way he knew how: by comparing him to an iconic film character. “I feel like I’m talking about Charles Foster Kane,” he told Riesman. “Who was he? What was he? What was he like? It depends on who you talk to at what moment.”
Riesman, whose 2016 article dissecting the Lee Myth went viral, has now written a book-length biography to peel back all the layers on his complex subject. “True Believer: The Rise and Fall of Stan Lee” is a well-researched, engrossing and compulsively readable book. It’s also brutal.
Soon after mere seconds after he became the body no more of the present continuous with the name his parents had given or our most recent
For 80 years or so, proclaiming that you were having a nervous breakdown was a legitimized way of declaring a sort of temporary emotional bankruptcy in the face of modern life’s stresses. John D. Rockefeller Jr., Jane Addams, and Max Weber all had acknowledged “breakdowns,” and reemerged to do their best work. Provided you had the means—a rather big proviso—announcing a nervous breakdown gave you license to withdraw, claiming an excess of industry or sensitivity or some other virtue. And crucially, it focused the cause of distress on the outside world and its unmeetable demands. You weren’t crazy; the world was. As a 1947 headline in the New York Herald Tribune put it: “Modern World Viewed as Too Much for Man.”
When different narrators take on chapters devoted to different characters’ points of view, the listener’s engagement with the book can be heightened. On the other hand, when narrators join in together, in what are often referred to as ensemble productions, the text is usurped by performance, the book disappearing into thespian clamor.
Perhaps the best known is Garfield Minus Garfield, which removes all evidence of the title character to yield a comic about a lonely man talking to himself. Relieved of the pet that is at once his antagonist and his companion, Jon might sit silently for two panels before saying, “I dread tomorrow.” Without Garfield, the strip shifts to a register of psychological realism in which Jon’s circumstances become horror instead of comedy.
The chief virtue of the novel is how it transforms all that is ugly and cheap about online culture — the obsession with junk media; the fragmentary and jerked presentation of content; the mockery, the snark; the postures, the polemics — into an experience of sublimity. Lockwood grasps one of the most extraordinary tricks of the internet, which is its capacity to metamorphose billions of short, often brutish and haphazard utterances into something that feels immensely and solidly real; a single entity, “the internet”; a presence that overwhelms us with both wonder and despair.
Jaouad’s point is that we never fully get better, just as we were never fully well in the first place. Life and death, health and sickness … they overlap and blur together in the singular experience of the now.
Pass it to me, I said.
I want to make long and delicate incisions
in which these gathering clouds can sleep –
But what really kept her going – gave her the keenest sense of the relationship between engulfment and mastery – was the quest for perfect prose. A belief in that idea will have its downside, or side effects. “There certainly is what doctors call a ‘migraine personality’,” she wrote in her essay “In Bed”, “and that personality tends to be ambitious, inward, intolerant of error, rather rigidly organised, perfectionist.” But the kind of person who testifies to a more-or-less equal terror of having an article killed (“soul-searing”), of witnessing “one’s own words in print” (“mortal humiliation”) and of committing to paper any sentence that would “expose me as not good enough” is likely to produce something worthwhile.
With even the first phrase, I feel I’m out of my depth. “Worst, there is none,” I could understand. Or “No worst, there is.” But “No worst, there is none”: What can that possibly mean? That nothing worse exists? That nothing better exists? That perhaps there is no difference, ultimately, between the two?
It lacks a title, this sonnet, but what could it be called? A title would offer to ease a reader in, like a stepping-stone. There is to be no ease in this exhausting, anguished howl. Reading it is like going out into a full-force gale. Or staring into the solar eclipse (where we are warned never to stare). What’s so compelling about the poem is that it concedes nothing and will not compromise. Looking for something to put on a wedding wishes or get well card? You’ve come to the wrong 14 lines.
On a Saturday afternoon in late December, Bill Lee walks through his empty restaurant in Chinatown. Though the tables are draped with white tablecloths, the dining room functions more as a storage space. Wedged between tables are stacks of red-cushioned dining chairs. Signage, featuring large photos of the restaurant’s dishes, leans against a wall. A lone bottle of hand sanitizer sits on a dining table. A year ago, the scene looked very different — the chatter of locals and tourists filled the room as they feasted on Cantonese and Chinese American dishes.
Opened in 1920 at 631 Grant Ave., Far East Cafe is one of San Francisco Chinatown’s oldest restaurants. Much of its decor remains unchanged from its early days: oil paintings depicting historical scenes from Guangdong (where many early Chinese immigrants hailed from), large hanging lanterns from the province, and a set of dark wood-paneled private booths behind red curtains. Buttons for summoning wait staff remain on the walls, though the bell system no longer works.
Friends, will you bear with me today,
for I have awakened
from a dream in which a robin
made with its shabby wings a kind of veil
You know it’s just that
At the very beginning of our first lockdown, I copied a line from US poet Maggie Nelson’s book Bluets and stuck it to my wall. The words are about aiming to be “a student not of longing but of light” . In these oddly boned days, that quote guides me onwards. Now that travel of any form has shape-shifted so vastly – as we’re held so firmly in one place – how might we navigate those delicate paths between longing and reality? Travel, for many of us, has long been a way to keep our creative flames lit. Seeing new places, experiencing unfamiliar things, meeting people different from ourselves: these are the kindling for our fire. Here in Ireland we are once more locked down to within 5km of our homes. Rather than giving in to the ache for all the places I cannot go, I’ve been gazing back at when I discovered the east coast of this island for the first time.
Some of the biggest names in the business in the 21st century — including Zaha Hadid, Rem Koolhaas and Bernard Tschumi — have spoken of the group’s influence on their work, and, in the 1960s, Superstudio helped establish Florence as a hotbed of avant-garde design. Yet today, the city’s museums contain hardly any references to the pathbreaking group.
Thomas Maltman’s The Land is a gloomy, strange novel. On one hand, it’s a tale of lost love, grief, loneliness, and physical entropy that follows a young man after a horrible accident as he takes care of a couple’s dog and property through the winter. On the other, it’s a timely story about the dangers and, for some, the appeal of religious zealotry, white supremacy, and conspiracy theories. Maltman uses elements of mystery, literary fiction, and noir to bring these overarching themes together cohesively, and he adds plenty of poetry along the way. The resulting narrative is dark and depressive, but it illuminates the way religious fanaticism can be a refuge for the lost, often with devastating consequences.
Both Mann and Gates appear optimistic that the world can stop climate change, but they are also under no illusions about the scale of the challenge we face and the many obstacles that lie in our way. They also show just how wrong those people are who think we cannot or should not succeed.
The boy waits, ladle in hand,
his gaze fastened to two eggs
poaching in the old woman’s red
clay bowl, but she isn’t doling out
One way of looking at human creativity is as a process of pulling balls out of a giant urn. The balls represent ideas, discoveries and inventions. Over the course of history, we have extracted many balls. Most have been beneficial to humanity. The rest have been various shades of grey: a mix of good and bad, whose net effect is difficult to estimate.
What we haven’t pulled out yet is a black ball: a technology that invariably destroys the civilisation that invents it. That’s not because we’ve been particularly careful or wise when it comes to innovation. We’ve just been lucky. But what if there’s a black ball somewhere in the urn? If scientiﬁc and technological research continues, we’ll eventually pull it out, and we won’t be able to put it back in. We can invent but we can’t un-invent. Our strategy seems to be to hope that there is no black ball.
Around Valentine’s Day, I raise my glass particularly high to any couple who managed to save up any top chat for a romantic dinner for two. What on earth is there to talk about when you haven’t been anywhere or done anything for a very long time? In the absence of such discussion, may I present three ways to remind someone why they love you: the general concept of cupboard love; the very specific qualities of butter; and the particularly special advantages of brown butter?
The Emperor’s Feast tells the story of Chinese food, starting 3,000 years ago with the Book of Rites (Liji), attributed to Confucius, which described meals as the thing that “separated savagery from civilisation – the raw from the cooked”. But Clements also cleverly uses food – the part of Chinese culture with which many western people are most familiar – as a way of charting the complex history of China, a vast country made up of many peoples, cultures and cuisines.
Sarah Jaffe’s new book, Work Won’t Love You Back: How Devotion to Our Jobs Keeps Us Exploited, Exhausted, and Alone, has an answer to this question and it’s a sobering one that all workers need to hear. The language of love, passion, and care, which permeates our work culture, creates the illusion that if we work hard enough, we will be rewarded with advancement, belonging, affinity, and self-worth. What Jaffe’s book sets out to show is that this language helps to not only create and reinforce emotional attachments to our workplace, profession, or employer, but also to justify oppressive working conditions. The rhetoric of work-as-love acts as a powerful weapon of economic exploitation wielded by the managerial class and by workers who lack class consciousness.
Catton taught herself screenwriting “the nerdy way,” she says — by consulting books, including John Yorke’s guide to dramatic writing, “Into the Woods: A Five-Act Journey Into Story.” She also revisited early seasons of “The Sopranos” and read the corresponding scripts. “And then the Robert McKee school is all about rewatching ‘Chinatown,’” so she did that too.
Catton estimates she wrote as many as 300 drafts of the pilot episode because, she says, “any story has infinite possibility to adaptation, so I felt like I had to try multiple approaches.”
Learning a language is a kind of practice, as anyone who’s ever learned one will tell you. It has its own drills, milestones, peaks, and valleys. Its own rituals, such as repeating phrases aloud three times so they will register in your ears, the choreography embedded into the interface of tongue and palate. The reverberations echo in your skull—even if forgotten five minutes later, a residue remains. One ploughs through printed dictionaries and delights in their idiosyncrasies, which are missing from the online versions. There are “found poems” in certain dictionary entries. There’s pleasure in the way the language lives on your tongue, in your throat, each language residing there differently.
As someone who, as an adoptee, had to perform identity, I am continually fascinated by the ways identity shifts within, and in between, languages.
Black holes are prisons of light. They are both metaphor and physical entity, mute commentary on what is known, unknown, and unknowable. Well-studied but poorly understood, like a virus.
Given the ubiquity of home-field advantage, it’s surprising that there’s not a real consensus about what causes it. The pandemic—when some leagues played at neutral sites and some did not, and some teams played in front of fans while others did not—provided a number of controlled experiments to test the leading theories.
The results of those experiments have been striking, both because of what they’ve confirmed about home-field advantage and what they’ve left uncertain.
All books open with a mystery. Sometimes it’s a mystery of plot—who committed the murder?—and sometimes it’s a mystery of character: what kind of a person is this? “Bina: A Novel in Warnings,” by the Irish-Canadian author Anakana Schofield, dispenses plot details sparingly, so that you hardly know what has happened or why, and yet the book’s driving enigma turns out to be of the second variety. Oddly, this is the case even though Bina (“that’s Bye-na not Bee-na”) tells us, from the first sentence, exactly who she is and what her intentions are. “My name is Bina and I’m a very busy woman,” the seventy-four-year-old narrator announces. “I’m here to warn you, not to reassure you.”
As a graphic designer — of books such as Emma Cline’s The Girls and Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series, and of The Atlantic as the magazine’s creative director — Mendelsund is minutely acquainted with the ways pictures characterize words, and vice versa. He’s also a two-time novelist whose most recent book, The Delivery, gives sparse narration a more explicit storytelling function.
War novels are a dime a dozen, but with a female protagonist who is embroiled in the dangerous underbelly of dissident London, The Imitator adds to the canon of texts that counters the traditional depiction of wartime women as simply holding down the fort while men go to battle.
The subtitle of Atherton Lin's book is Why We Went Out, and the London-based author offers plenty of reasons in this remarkable debut. Gay Bar combines memoir, history and criticism; it's a difficult book to pin down, but that's what makes it so readable and so endlessly fascinating.
the most dangerous men
Misunderstanding has been a part of The Great Gatsby's story from the very start. Grumbling to his friend Edmund Wilson shortly after publication in 1925, Fitzgerald declared that "of all the reviews, even the most enthusiastic, not one had the slightest idea what the book was about." Fellow writers like Edith Wharton admired it plenty, but as the critic Maureen Corrigan relates in her book So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures, popular reviewers read it as crime fiction, and were decidedly underwhelmed by it at that. Fitzgerald's Latest A Dud, ran a headline in the New York World. The novel achieved only so-so sales, and by the time of the author's death in 1940, copies of a very modest second print run had long since been remaindered.
One of the formulas created by the Machine can be used to compute the value of a universal constant called Catalan’s number more efficiently than any previous human-discovered formulas. But the Ramanujan Machine is imagined not to take over mathematics, so much as provide a sort of feeding line for existing mathematicians.
It’s not that the morbid weight of Childhood is overemphasized, but that we can’t yet comprehend its towering figure in full until the trilogy’s completion. Childhood, Youth, and Dependency unfold with an arsenal of foreshadow in the place of exposition.
He opens his eyes. His eyes
the color of its gray coat, his chest
dressed in a single gold cross,
If hope were an object, it would be poet Alex Dimitrov's new book Love and Other Poems.
In its entirety, the book itself is one long love poem — to New York City, to the moon, to the many "scenes from our world" — but it's mostly about what it means to have hope, even when we feel like we're all alone.
The clarity of Didion’s vision and the precision with which she sets it down do indeed feel uncanny. Her writing has often revealed what was previously hidden, parsed what was unconscious, be it the miasmic unease of the late 1960s or the subterranean structures of national politics. Reading her now, she does seem prophetic, as manifested, for instance, in her concerns in 1968 about the weaknesses of the “traditional press,” whose unspoken attitudes and “quite factitious ‘objectivity’ ” come “between the page and the reader like so much marsh gas.” Perhaps those iconic sunglasses were really X-ray specs.
Between Two Kingdoms, Jaouad's searching memoir of her illness and its aftermath, takes its title from an observation in Susan Sontag's Illness as Metaphor: "Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick." The line between them, Jaouad discovers, is more porous than most people realize.
A man walks beside them
with a whip that he cracks.
The cart they draw is painted
with Saracens and Crusaders,
fierce eyes and ranks of spears.
There are so many things to fear in life, but punctuation is not one of them. That semicolons, unlike most other punctuation marks, are fully optional and relatively unusual lends them power; when you use one, you are doing something purposefully, by choice, at a time when motivations are vague and intentions often denied. And there are very few opportunities in life to have it both ways; semicolons are the rare instance in which you can; there is absolutely no downside.
This story, in which the bullied children age into a world clamoring for the flavors they grew up with and come to embrace the cuisine they tried to reject, is true for many. But in its retelling and fictionalization, it’s been filed down to its most obvious and recognizable parts. There is no nuance to the “lunchbox moment,” and while the trope-ification of these real-life experiences conveys trauma and discrimination to often white readers or viewers, it leaves no room for the people whose lives did not fit that template. Yes, we can’t be what we can’t see. But what are we seeing? And what do we lose when we reduce our culinary experiences to one story?
Zorrie Underwood, the titular character of Laird Hunt’s lovely new novel, is a woman alone. Orphaned at an early age and forced to live with an aunt who has “drunk too deeply from the cup of bitterness,” Zorrie cultivates an awareness of the natural world that anchors her grief-ridden life. By some measures that life might be considered insignificant. Zorrie spends all but a few weeks of her 70-plus years in Clinton County, Ind., a farming community where the women are “as scratched-up as the men.” In Hunt’s hands, however, this rendering of a woman lauded as “a giver of gifts and a gallant defender” becomes a virtuosic portrait of midcentury America itself — physically stalwart, unerringly generous, hopeful that tragedy can be mitigated through faith in land and neighbor alike.
The word “innocence” is not easily applied to Seidel’s work. His poetic credo, articulated in a Paris Review interview, is: “Write beautifully what people don’t want to hear.” He’s the Dark Prince of American poetry, a writer of glittering malice, one who cuts against the grain of almost every variety of community feeling. He’s not a poet for everyone, but no poet worth anything is.
The year is probably too young to make this kind of pronouncement, but the new novel I know I'm going to be rereading in the coming months and spending a lot of time thinking about is Vendela Vida's We Run the Tides. It's a tough and exquisite sliver of a short novel whose world I want to remain lost in — and at the same time am relieved to have outgrown.
In both political and personal spheres, messages of “peace and love” or “love wins”—or even the now-popular “love is love is love is love”—can sometimes come across as empty platitudes. Yes, love wins in the movies, and we want to believe in its power, but such statements are often interpreted as presenting love, falsely, as a conclusion rather than a starting point. They, too, can fall into a cliché of positive psychology, and, worse, sometimes seem to make light of the lived experiences of suffering and oppression. But when a writer approaches the topic with the earnestness of a lifelong devotee and the fierceness of a skilled lawyer, a word as fraught as “love” can gather up its full gravity, its revolutionary potential. In See No Stranger: A Memoir and Manifesto of Revolutionary Love (2020), attorney and activist Valarie Kaur reframes the message of love so that it becomes the starting point, the guiding light, and the infinite wisdom-source for transformative action.
Smith’s follow-up is a different sort of experiment. Rather than reach back into history, she set out to create a work rigorously interested in the present moment. The aim wasn’t to do something with the novel form but rather to dispense with what has long been understood as the genre’s prerequisite: time. The UK edition of Autumn appeared in 2016, mere weeks after she delivered the manuscript to her publisher. (The novel was published in the United States a year later.) It tells the story of a young girl and her friendship with an elderly neighbor, one that distilled the political moment even as it was happening. A novel engaged with politics is not surprising; a novel keeping pace with the headlines—in particular, those about the Brexit drama as it unfolded—was.
Readers of Autumn may not have been aware of Smith’s intentions, but it was the first in a “Seasonal Quartet” that she intended to publish at the same brisk clip—Winter in 2018, Spring in 2019, and now Summer. None of the books is exactly a sequel to its predecessors. In each, we are introduced to a separate cast of characters making their way through a United Kingdom riven by bizarre domestic politics, reckoning with Europe’s refugee crisis, and ruminating on the moment’s pop culture and the off-kilter climate of the modern world. This is a work—if we consider the four books a single work, as Smith clearly does—fixed in the contemporary, aspiring to tell us about a world that is still taking form. In Winter, the characters fret over Twitter and argue about “the [ice] shelf the size of Wales that’s about to break off the side of Antarctica.” How like life.
I once worked for a few weeks at a big, busy company, and one day I asked, jokingly, “Where do I go to cry?” An hour later, I was taken aside and told in seriousness about a specific stairwell. Another person there led me on a five-minute walk through the skyscraper to a tiny, hidden conference room, and then made me promise to keep the location a secret, a vow I have kept. (They also cried.)
With 99 protons and 99 electrons, it sits in obscurity near the bottom of the periodic table of chemical elements, between californium and fermium. It first showed up in the explosive debris of the first hydrogen bomb in 1952, and the team of scientists who discovered it gave it a name to honor Albert Einstein.
When Chang-rae Lee was young, he was drawn to old souls. He published his first novel, “Native Speaker” (1995), at twenty-nine, and though its protagonist is roughly the same age, he is so freighted with world-weariness that he seems twice that. Lee’s next two novels, “A Gesture Life” (1999) and “Aloft” (2004), were both narrated by retirees, men looking fitfully backward. Now Lee is fifty-five, and his sixth novel, “My Year Abroad” (Riverhead), brims with youth. Its narrator, Tiller Bardmon, is a twenty-year-old college dropout just back from an adventure overseas, whose outrageous particulars he recounts in wide-eyed detail in the course of the novel’s nearly five hundred pages. Where did he go? To Asia, the place that many of Lee’s previous characters left for the United States. Much is made of Tiller’s heritage—he is “twelve and one-half percent Asian,” one-eighth—and the novel delights in the prospect that the Old World should now beckon to this representative of America’s “growing minority of basic almost white boys” with the same promise of reinvention that the new one offered to Tiller’s forebears, once upon a time.
The roads taken by the family in The Removed, Brandon Hobson's new novel, are essential ones in this moment of national reclaiming. The story in this book is deeply resonant and profound, and not only because of its exquisite lyricism. It's also a hard and visceral entrance into our own reckoning as a society and civic culture with losses we created, injustices we allowed, and family separations we ignored.
In a short book about biography, Hermione Lee, literary life-writer par excellence, offered two metaphors for the art at which she excels. One was an autopsy. The other was a portrait. “Whereas autopsy suggests clinical investigation and, even, violation,” she wrote, “portrait suggests empathy, bringing to life, capturing the character.” She argued that these contrasting approaches had something in common. They “both make an investigation of the subject which will shape how posterity views them.”
Lee is clearly no coroner, even when writing about the dead. Tom Stoppard is her first living biographical subject—on a roster that includes Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, Virginia Woolf, and, most recently, Penelope Fitzgerald—and she concludes her portrait by lobbying posterity on his behalf. Stoppard “matters,” she writes; “he will be remembered.” His significance seems a strange thing to feel in need of proving. Surely if Stoppard’s reputation in postwar British theater weren’t secure, this giant biography—nearly twice the length of Lee’s last—would never have been undertaken.
New York is the best city to cry in.
Speak plainly, said November to the maples, say
what you mean now, now
For those who choose a career in entertainment or the arts, there is no 9-to-5 job, consistent and secure, to greet you every day. There is no pre-set career path laid out before you with obvious and logical steps up from entry-level to top of the heap. There are no paid holidays, no bonuses, nothing remotely resembling any type of security. For me and countless others in my circle, the only comfort and security is being wrapped in a blanket of others in the same position, a collective of fellow dreamers providing desperately needed emotional support, any time, day or night. Providing love.
But like most love affairs, I couldn’t really see or appreciate it until it was over.
Throughout Don DeLillo’s nearly fifty-year corpus of fiction, the number seven appears and reappears as a kind of talisman, a charm that his characters carry through the crossfire of American history. Jack Gladney, the narrator and professor of “Hitler studies” in “White Noise” (1985), pauses mid-monologue to stare at the carpet and count to seven, a moment of private ritual as he lectures about the Führer. Lianne, of DeLillo’s 9/11 novel “Falling Man” (2007), whose husband has narrowly survived the attacks on the World Trade Center, finds “a tradition of fixed order” in the act of counting down from a hundred by sevens. And, in “The Silence” (2020), DeLillo’s most recent novel, set on Super Bowl Sunday in the year 2022, one character turns to the same habit after a mysterious digital apocalypse blacks out the big game—and everything else.
During one key moment, E. Lily Yu’s disquieting debut novel On Fragile Waves offers a kind of authorial self-critique regarding the representation of diasporic migrants. A character Yu calls “the writer” has traveled to Australia to interview asylum seekers in the Afghan migrant community there and to visit detention centers as part of her research. The writer is given a tour by Sister Margaret, a nun and a tireless advocate for refugee families — including the Daizangi family, whose story forms the center of the novel.
Irish. That is the one-word review I wanted to write after finishing Michelle Gallen’s début novel “Big Girl, Small Town.” I mean it as the highest of compliments, but the Books editor would not welcome the logistical nightmare of laying out a one-word review and, in the end, it’s probably a disservice to Gallen and could be interpreted as dismissive or snarky. It’s not.
The intergalactic conspiracy to which Winter's Orbit builds is less gripping than Kiem and Jainan's rise to power couple. But when these sensitive boys figure out what actually makes their match work, that's when sparks fly.
At Jones Point Park, I seek out
the Boundary Stone in its niche
in the retaining wall.
Serve spaghetti and meatballs to an Italian, and they may question why pasta and meat are being served together. Order a samosa as an appetizer, and an Indian friend might point out, as writer Sejal Sukhadwala has, that this is similar to a British restaurant offering sandwiches as a first course. Offer an American a hamburger patty coated in thick demi-glace, and they’ll likely raise an eyebrow at this common Japanese staple dubbed hambagoo.
Each of these meals or dishes feels somehow odd or out of place, at least to one party, as though an unspoken rule has been broken. Except these rules have indeed been discussed, written about extensively, and given a name: food grammar.
“Hi Sandra, I’m sorry to have to tell you, but the company has decided to close the newspaper due to COVID so, unfortunately, you’ve been terminated.”
“It sucked the air out of the room” is an expression I’d heard many times, but didn’t fully grasp until my publisher delivered that message during a phone call late last August. The call about the closure of my beloved community paper came two weeks before my 62nd birthday. Even as I processed what it meant to lose the job I’d loved for 20 years, and to lose a newspaper that had been around for 112, the realist in me knew immediately this layoff would reverberate. Because of my age and ever-diminishing number of print and digital news publications, I knew this likely meant the end of my journalism career.
The challenge often with fiction that tries to do this much is that it's easy for the reader to pick up what feels inorganic, or less lived-in and fully observed. Chen, however, seems to have no problem at all bridging the divides of class, gender, and ideology. What else can explain this unlikely page-turner of a book, except her already envious career as an embedded journalist, reporting on everything from the Chinese criminal justice system to tech companies.
In a series of rich and varied portraits, mostly of life in China but including forays to Atlantic City, N.J., and Arizona, she unleashes a powerful and enticing new voice, at times as strange as the dark fairy tale master Carmen Maria Machado, at others as inventive as the absurdist king George Saunders — but always layered with the texture available to a foreign correspondent who has seen it all.
There comes a moment in every Easy Rawlins mystery I’ve read, where I realize I have no idea what’s going on. The plot picks up speed, becoming a hectic Tilt-a-Whirl ride where dead bodies, cold-stone killers, femmes fatales, crooked cops and lost spaces in Los Angeles whiz by at top velocity. It’s at this moment — when I’m most exasperated with Walter Mosley as a writer — that I’m also most admiring. Because, once again, I realize that I don’t care all that much that I can’t keep track of what’s going on — no more than I care that I can’t keep track of what’s going on in “The Maltese Falcon,” “The Big Sleep” or “Cotton Comes to Harlem.”
At a time when awarding medical degrees to women seemed laughable at best and immoral at worst, Elizabeth Blackwell persisted in making a life in medicine. Her sister Emily followed in her footsteps. In telling their story in “The Doctors Blackwell,” Janice P. Nimura invites us to learn about medicine, well-to-do women and social movements of the 19th century. After delving into the sisters’ letters and papers, the author ably illuminates the Blackwells’ struggles, the opposition they faced and the allies who helped make their success possible.
Where Frostquake triumphs is as metaphor – a network of images that describes how Britain was beginning to unfreeze from the 50s. Nicolson does best with anecdotes that lie far from the beaten track.
Now Great-grandmother comes through the backdoor. Her head latticed like corncribs, her legs tied with chicken wire. Her limbs had been taken quickly apart, bones dismantled, spirit folded up. She moves around the room.
The tradition of reading on the toilet may be as old as wiping our asses, but as we’ve stopped using newspapers and catalogs to clean ourselves with, why have we continued to find new ways to read on the toilet?
Still, she was fearful of returning. She had been invited by Pat Nixon to attend a small ceremony to mark the hanging of the formal White House portraits of President Kennedy and Jackie, painted by the artist Aaron Shikler.
“As you know, the thought of returning to the White House is difficult for me,” she repeated in a handwritten letter to Pat Nixon on Jan. 27, 1971.
This is an entertaining and atmospheric picaresque – though in the midst of our own pandemic, Wilson’s satire of misguided churchmen and unscientific plague doctors feels somewhat quaint: our own leaders appear far more monstrous. Still, it is often ingenious and frequently hilarious. Brother Diggory kills many, yet survives to tell the tale. I for one am glad.
Sarah Langan's Good Neighbors is one of the creepiest, most unnerving deconstructions of American suburbia I've ever read. Langan cuts to the heart of upper middle class lives like a skilled surgeon and exposes the rotten realities behind manicured lawns and perfect families, and the result is horrifically plausible.
Sam van Zweden’s debut memoir, Eating With My Mouth Open, is a sprawling narrative that examines ideas of family, home and identity via food. As she reflects on her own food memories, Van Zweden attempts to unpick the tangle of ideals, expectations and contradictions that lie at the heart of our relationship with food, with each other and with our own bodies. This is more than just a story about food; it is the stories we tell ourselves about food, and the stories that food tells about us.
Some people say the devil is beating
his wife. Some people say the devil
is pawing his wife. Some people say
the devil is doubling down on an overall
I had a concept—a woman from an alternate universe, trapped in our New York City, risks it all to recover the only copy of a novel from her home. I’d even made a comprehensive outline on notecards, so I knew what needed to happen to her before the end. But how do you even write a novel? I didn’t know. I hadn’t learned in my classes. A real writer, I’d always thought, is motivated solely by the call of their art; they can’t do anything but write. And yet, to my dismay, writing had become a form of clock-punching for me. I was doing it so I’d have something to show for the high-stakes detour I’d taken in life. Only 40 pages in, I felt lost.
What qualifies as a longer sentence in a poem? It’s unlikely this question can be answered in a way that applies to more than a single example, and certainly we cannot define it by word count or number of clauses. Muldoon’s longer sentences are those that test the elasticity of his own metaphors—how taut can they stretch before the poem’s figurative thinking seems ornamental to (rather than generated through) the poem’s structure. The title poem of Frolic and Detour (2019), his thirteenth and most recent collection, is telling: to avoid this sort of unwarranted frenetic movement, readers will look around for a familiar stop while we travel. When I frolic around my neighborhood, I wander around playfully; on a detour, I’m hoping to arrive somewhere while intentionally avoiding obstructions on my usual path.
It is a tale of how lies and omissions can shape and warp us. It is a story about reconciliation, set against a backdrop of racism and resentments. But more than anything, it is a meditation on family and forgiveness.
Sybille Bedford is not a household name, but among her coterie of admirers in Europe and America she is held in high esteem. Her reputation rests upon a relatively slim literary output over the course of a long life (1911-2006): notably, four works of fiction (three earlier novels were deemed inferior and remain unpublished), a memoir, books about travel and international legal processes, a biography of her friend Aldous Huxley that is still the definitive one, and sundry journalism. Her first published novel, “A Legacy” (1956), rescued from possible oblivion by Evelyn Waugh’s encomium in The Spectator, has become something of a cult classic. She had limitations as a writer, the most significant being that she really had only one story to tell: that of her own life. But what a life it was! And now here we have it, elegantly related by Selina Hastings, the author of finely wrought, literate biographies of Somerset Maugham, Nancy Mitford and Waugh himself.
I appeared to have been run over by a train,
a train long out of eye- and out of earshot.
As they saw it, the way to ensure the integrity of science was to enrich and deepen its connection to the public, not to sever it. The Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger, winner of the 1933 Nobel Prize for his contributions to the mind-bending new theory of the atom, was embarking on a second career as a popular science writer. A scientist didn’t truly understand a concept, Schrödinger argued, until he could explain it to a non-expert. Schrödinger stressed not the autonomy of science but the way it depended on something beyond empiricism – a faith in the essential universality of human perception. And he insisted that scientific discoveries gained in meaning by being shared as widely as possible, thereby multiplying the subjective experience of ‘discovery’.
A common joke is that the chore of pandemic cooking has reduced us to eating piles of slop. But for a weird, specific, tertiary reason, I actually was. In May, I burned my esophagus. My doctor prescribed a soft food diet, for which there is no clear definition. Finding a truly soft food is difficult. Polenta can be rough. Beans have scratchy skins. Greens are fibrous. Rice is unyielding, bread is dry, yogurt stings, vinegar burns. Ground meat feels gristly, herbs have pointy stems, and entirely too many types of ice cream come with bits.
There’s a woman who has very loud orgasms in my apartment block in Berlin. Olympian, operatic, verging on the absurd. It’s hard to tell where the orgasms are coming from because the apartments are stacked around a courtyard, but they keep coming. For the past two months, in the hottest summer on record, (since 1970-something, someone somewhere said) the woman has exhaled euphoria at least three times a day. I wake up to her morning release, have a cup of tea around the same time as her afternoon delight, and smoke to an orgasmic soundtrack every evening.
Now, some 15 years after all that cosmic embarrassment, Hawke has published a novel called “A Bright Ray of Darkness.” It’s about a young movie star who got caught cheating on his stunningly gorgeous wife. This recycled gossip is tiresome, but what’s most irritating about “A Bright Ray of Darkness” is that it’s really good. If you can ignore the author’s motive for creating such a sensitive and endearing cad, you’ll find here a novel that explores the demands of acting and the delusions of manhood with tremendous verve and insight.
Rare is the first book that reveals the writer fully formed, the muscles and sinews of her sentences firm and taut, the voice distinctly her own — think Imbolo Mbue’s “Behold the Dreamers” or Casey Cep’s “Furious Hours.” But Cherie Jones’s lavish, cinematic debut, “How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House,” rises to that high bar, its beguiling title a steppingstone into a Barbados that’s both Caribbean paradise and a crime-riddled underworld. Which is to say: The novel’s a stunner.
In the world of classics, the exchange between Dan-el Padilla Peralta and Mary Frances Williams has become known simply as “the incident.” Their back-and-forth took place at a Society of Classical Studies conference in January 2019 — the sort of academic gathering at which nothing tends to happen that would seem controversial or even interesting to those outside the discipline. But that year, the conference featured a panel on “The Future of Classics,” which, the participants agreed, was far from secure. On top of the problems facing the humanities as a whole — vanishing class sizes caused by disinvestment, declining prominence and student debt — classics was also experiencing a crisis of identity. Long revered as the foundation of “Western civilization,” the field was trying to shed its self-imposed reputation as an elitist subject overwhelmingly taught and studied by white men. Recently the effort had gained a new sense of urgency: Classics had been embraced by the far right, whose members held up the ancient Greeks and Romans as the originators of so-called white culture. Marchers in Charlottesville, Va., carried flags bearing a symbol of the Roman state; online reactionaries adopted classical pseudonyms; the white-supremacist website Stormfront displayed an image of the Parthenon alongside the tagline “Every month is white history month.”
It’s my first Palm Sunday in Rome. The year is 1966. I am fifteen, and my parents, my brother and I, and my aunt have decided to visit the Spanish Steps. On that day the Steps are filled with people but also with so many flowerpots that one has to squeeze through the crowd of tourists and of Romans carrying palm fronds. I have pictures of that day. I know I am happy, partly because my father is staying with us on a short visit from Paris and we seem to be a family again, and partly because the weather is absolutely stunning. I am wearing a blue wool blazer, a leather tie, a long-sleeved white polo shirt, and gray flannel trousers. I am boiling on this first day of spring and dying to take off my clothes and jump into the Roman fountain—the Barcaccia—at the bottom of the Steps. This should have been a beach day, and perhaps this is why the day resonates with me so much.
“Truly Like Lightning,” his fourth novel, is another left turn: a stab at a hefty, Tom Wolfe-style social novel that wrestles with big themes. But his most complex novel is also the best of the batch, and makes a solid case for him as a real-deal novelist. It’s a provocative, entertaining book that, much like Wolfe did, exposes our collective foibles and makes everybody look a little cartoonish. But it persuades you that we deserve the caricature he’s made of us.
If there was ever a novel to defy a one-sentence description, Melissa Broder’s new novel would be it. An exploration of hunger centered on a young woman with an eating disorder who finds salvation in the arms of an Orthodox Jewish frozen yogurt scooper, “Milk Fed” is an even stranger animal than this description might suggest. Estranged from her family, from her body and from the spiritual world, the so-named Rachel obsessively plans and counts her highly restricted caloric intake down to the last muffin top, then forces herself to burn off 3,500 of said calories per week at the gym.
How do we relate to irony and cynicism in this new age of the alt-right? Stylish, despairing and very funny, “Fake Accounts” doesn’t necessarily provide an answer to this question. But it adroitly maps the dwindling gap between the individual and the world. However much time the narrator spends alone, in her head and online, she is formed by what is happening outside. Eventually, the realization hits: The entire time, the call has been coming from inside the house.
This is a novel of tangles and absences, aggressively resistant to sentimentality. To follow its wrenched syntax is to experience the frustrating dogleg lanes of consciousness, the distortions and failures of memory and self-narration.
I first discovered zhen zhu nai cha, as bubble milk tea, or boba, is known in Chinese, when I was ten. It was the early nineties, and I’d been in the United States only two years, living and going to school in Connecticut towns so uniformly white that soy sauce was still considered exotic there. A few times a year, my mother and I would take the Metro-North an hour south to New York City for the sole purpose of stockpiling Chinese groceries. These were not leisurely shopping trips but carefully strategized plans of attack, during which my mother practiced bargain-hunting as blood sport. Behind her I’d trudge, up Canal and down East Broadway, a weary foot soldier weighed down by growing satchels of fish tofu and Chinese cabbage and hoisin sauce. Invariably, our last stop was Taipan Bakery, which offered an end-of-day discount on goods such as red-bean buns and sponge cake, my favorites. At some point, it also began selling a newfangled drink, served in plastic cups with jumbo straws and what appeared to be shiny marbles piled on the bottom. An order cost about three dollars, half of my mother’s hourly wage cleaning houses. Yet every time she relented and let me buy one, and the victory tasted as sweet as the drink itself.
The idea is polarizing. Some physicists embrace the multiverse to explain why our bubble looks so special (only certain bubbles can host life), while others reject the theory for making no testable predictions (since it predicts all conceivable universes). But some researchers expect that they just haven’t been clever enough to work out the precise consequences of the theory yet.
Now, various teams are developing new ways to infer exactly how the multiverse bubbles and what happens when those bubble universes collide.
The world of the present is characterized not so much by the omnipresence of noise as by the impossibility of silence. It’s not that we can’t hear the signal, but that the multitude of signals leave us no time to take stock, to reflect, to experience. The news, for example, used to come daily to your door in a little bundle, or set out on a rack at the café, or in measured doses on TV at certain hours of the day. Now it is an incessant stream: noisy chatter — yes — but as heavy and concerning as the world itself, and which draws us in whenever we, inevitably, reach for our smartphones.
Mark C. Taylor’s Seeing Silence is, among many things, a response to this condition, which is connected with, though not the same as, the “postmodern condition.” The postmodern, Taylor suggests, is the “desert of the real,” borrowing the phrase from French philosopher Jean Baudrillard’s writings on simulacra and simulations. And the noise of the present is what must happen when the real comes crashing back in through the facade. Baudrillard, Taylor explains, “knew this virtual reality could not last and tried to warn us about the looming disaster.”
In barely a hundred pages, Chris Kelso pulls off an almost migraine-inducingly condensed history of his literary hero’s Scottish visits and lasting impact on its psychic landscape. It does what all good non-fiction does, in that it creates the desire to read or reread the original source material as well as reappraise one’s own thoughts and feelings about the subject. For a first time non-fiction author (at this length anyway) I’d say that’s a job very well done.
on the altered face of an abusive moon
pain feels like the fault of them in pain
local and inevitable
frilled collateral shapes with anguish.