Just as the discoveries of dark matter and dark energy shook the foundations of physics, our continued inability to unearth the identity and nature of most of the universe continues to shake them, and, consequently, it limits our understanding of our place in the universe. We still do not know much about the dark sector except that it exists; yet researchers often ascribe properties to dark matter based on presumptions that mimic known physics and are not intrepid enough. It seems to me that methodologies that might enable us to ask new questions, and find new properties or new roles for the dark in our universe, generate fear. Do we dread the dark so much that we project our fears onto the very phenomena about which we are scientifically ignorant?
Like most people, I have been walking more than usual during the pandemic and enjoying it. My meetings with students and colleagues have turned into walking meetings around campus for over a year. Now, I have a problem: School is starting soon, and I don't want to go back to the classroom. We all saw this coming. Give employees a taste of the outdoors, and they might not want to go back to their offices and desks. So I am thinking of teaching my fall courses outside.
Yet while I was researching this possibility, I discovered a problem. I had always read that walking increased cognitive functioning and problem solving, but it turns out that it's not that simple. In 2014, a new study showed that walking decreased rational and linear thinking and increased divergent thinking and imaginative mind-wandering. Uh oh. Will my students learn less if I teach them while walking?
Last week, the Swiss tennis legend looked squarely into the camera and shared the news: He would need another knee surgery “to give myself a glimmer of hope to return to the tour in some shape or form.” The emotion in his voice was as clear as his message: His recovery holds no guarantees about whether he will return to competitive tennis, to say nothing of the rarefied heights he has occupied for decades, as one of the greatest ever to hold a racket.
Federer, who turned 40 this month, will miss the U.S. Open, which begins Aug. 30. Because he is at such a career crossroads, the time is opportune to reflect on the man behind and within the image — to consider how a sensitive and hot-tempered teenager evolved to become not only an equipoised champion, but also his sport’s preeminent global ambassador.
In this weary and vulnerable place, poetry whispers of truths that cannot be confined to mere rationality or experience. In a seemingly wrecked world, I’m drawn to Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Autumn” and recall that “there is One who holds this falling/Infinitely softly in His hands.” When the scriptures feel stale, James Weldon Johnson preaches through “The Prodigal Son” and I hear the old parable anew. On tired Sundays, I collapse into Wendell Berry’s Sabbath poems and find rest.
Frankenstein is the saddest book ever written because it’s about a creator who abandons his creation. A parent who leaves a child. Shelley’s monster is left to wander the frozen North alone, across its icy nothingness, forever. When all it ever wanted was to feel loved.
Royce was born in Grass Valley in 1855, today better known as the birthplace of Joanna Newsom, whose broader clan includes the state’s current governor. His parents were 49ers. Muir was born in Scotland in 1836, and absorbed enough European romanticism by the time he arrived in California to allow him to experience its mountain sunsets as glimpses of the transcendent, rather than supposing, as Royce did, that something about the climate and topology and vegetation of the place precluded any such experience and limited any true Californian’s apprehension of reality to the plane of immanence.
The opposition between these two foundational articulations of what we might call “the Californian condition” explains, I believe, quite a bit about more or less everything that has happened there since.
Someone’s probably told you before that something you thought, felt or feared was ‘all in your mind’. I’m here to tell you something else: there’s no such thing as the mind and nothing is mental. I call this the ‘no mind thesis’. The no-mind thesis is entirely compatible with the idea that people are conscious, and that they think, feel, believe, desire and so on. What it’s not compatible with is the notion that being conscious, thinking, feeling, believing, desiring and so on are mental, part of the mind, or done by the mind.
The no-mind thesis doesn’t mean that people are ‘merely bodies’. Instead, it means that, when faced with a whole person, we shouldn’t think that they can be divided into a ‘mind’ and a ‘body’, or that their properties can be neatly carved up between the ‘mental’ and the ‘non-mental’. It’s notable that Homeric Greek lacks terms that can be consistently translated as ‘mind’ and ‘body’. In Homer, we find a view of people as a coherent collection of communicating parts – ‘the spirit inside my breast drives me’; ‘my legs and arms are willing’. A similar view of human beings, as a big bundle of overlapping, intelligent systems in near-constant communication, is increasingly defended in cognitive science and biology.
Here is my last good-bye,
This side the sea.
Good-bye! good-bye! good-bye!
Love me, remember me.
I am on this makeshift bed when we are gearing up for our third move, this time to Holland. I dream that I am at the foot of a row of gigantic water slides watching cobras writhe their way toward me. Their hoods flare and they sway as they rush downhill, a wall of slithering bodies. Their eyes are on me, and there’s nothing I can do but wait.
I wake up, terrified. My mother tells me that people dream of snakes during periods of change. “Because they shed their skins in order to grow,” she says, returning me to the foot of her bed.
Everybody pretends that you die only once. But that’s not true. You can die a thousand possible futures in the course of a single, stupid life.
A bucket list disguises a dark question as a challenge: What do you want to do before you die? We all want, in the words of Henry David Thoreau, “to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.” But is the answer to that desire a set of experiences? Should we really focus on how many moments we can collect?
Apparently, Corinne saw my problem as a personal challenge. We're going on a year now. It was nothing to be embarrassed of! Just, uh—if you can't ride a bike—she's gonna make damn sure you will know how to ride a bike. I don't know how to say this in a she-will-read-this-and-not-hate-me way, but Corinne is... determined. But aside from a comment here, there, or literally any time we were outside and Corinne saw a bike, I managed to avoid her cycling boot camp. Too snowy today! Too hot! Headache! Hemorrhoids!
Until The Trip.
For the love of god.
This year, at 46, I finally published a book. People who don’t know me often ask, “How did you find the time to write it?” — as if I might confess that I had help from either amphetamines or private access to an additional dimension. But I like to point out that, for most of my life, what I really made a career out of was being a non-writer.
As a result, it’s quite plausible that my real expertise lies in how not to write a book, and for prospective writers, there are lessons lurking in that failure that are just as telling as whatever I later managed to get right.
Even as late as the eighteenth century, ice cream was often reserved for those patient enough to wait for snowstorms or wealthy and patient enough to harvest ice from mountains or frozen rivers and keep it from melting in underground pits insulated with layers of sawdust, straw, or animal fur.
So part of the reason ice cream was so coveted is that, like vanilla, it was scarce and impracticable. And yet, even as its availability and practicality increased, so, too, did its associations with comfort.
While Korean barbecue restaurants may have sparked the initial appeal of Santa Clara’s Koreatown in the 1980s, today’s restaurants run the gamut, cooking foods that reflect what’s served at feasts in Korea — tofu stews, blood sausages, spicy rice cakes, braised short ribs, and black bean noodles. Korean Spring BBQ, one of the older guards and the first wooden charcoal grill Korean barbecue restaurant to open in the Bay Area, lists more than 60 dishes, while Jang Su Jang, another highly trafficked spot focused on meats and soups, boasts over 75 menu items.
This expansiveness was likely born out of the competitiveness that has long existed here. As the number of Koreatown restaurants has grown steadily over the past decades, restaurateurs have remained hesitant to stick to specialty items, instead presenting an expansive selection of dishes so customers won’t need to search elsewhere for what they want.
“More Than I Love My Life,” Grossman’s new novel, shows the writer at work in this characteristically expansive style, racing to stuff as much of life as possible into a single framework. This time around, as he explains in the acknowledgments, his book germinated from the real-life story of a Yugoslavian partisan fighter with whom Grossman developed a deep friendship over 20 years and who asked him to write her tale and that of her daughter. The novelist notes that he was granted “the freedom to tell the story but also to imagine and invent it in ways it never existed.”
Hamya’s novel follows a young, unnamed woman of color armed with multiple degrees and bitter experience of the job market. It follows in the tradition of recent novels explicitly concerned with the precarity of academia and publishing.
For people from the part of the world where he grew up, Aw reflects, “the normality of separation” is ingrained but produces pain “so deep that it can’t be spoken of in any way other than perfunctorily”. His memoir is affecting because, as well as reaching a better understanding of his own family history, he sees his ancestors in today’s migrants and reminds us that their stories are complex and remarkable, wherever they are from.
It is easy to see the appeal of kintsugi. Brokenness is not usually attractive. Scars are charming to a new lover, perhaps, in the warmth of a new intimacy. That’s when they play their best roles, prompting a reminiscence about a fall from a bike or an accident at school, then drawing attention back to the skin, inviting soothing measures. With age, we gather increasingly more cracks, even as they lose their richness. What 40-year-old has time to tell stories about all the marks life left on her body? What 50-year-old can even count how many parts he has lost to kitchen mishaps, unruly cells, or a fondness for sugar? Our flaws may still be lovely, even in aggregate, but rare is the person who can be bothered to find that beauty in them.
Kintsugi is a stunning reversal of this rule. An object that should have no future — a broken ceramic cup, or jar, or plate — is pieced together with lacquer made from the sap of the urushi tree and its joints are burnished with gold. The fault lines of a prior catastrophe bolt across the object like lightning; now it is the scars that shine bright. A centuries-old Japanese practice of repairing fine ceramics through an arduous, highly specialized, and expensive process becomes a biddable symbol for the beauty of imperfection.
I am in Venice, in search of Jan Morris, the great British travel writer and historian who died last November at the age of 94. I am here with my younger sister, Virginia, who has gamely agreed to a Morris-inspired itinerary. Our guidebook is not Fodor’s or Lonely Planet but Morris’s own The World of Venice, published in 1960 and still in print today. It is a rhapsodic book, zesty and beguiling, about this “lonely hauteur,” this “jumbled, higgledy-piggledy mass,” this “God-built city”: Venezia. Here, “all feels light, spacious, carefree, crystalline,” Morris writes with characteristic aplomb, “as though the decorators of the city had mixed their paints in champagne, and the masons laced their mortar with lavender.”
Youngson was 69 then and 70 when her debut – Meet Me at the Museum – was published. Her first instinct was to see her age as a commercial disadvantage. “I thought they would look at me and think: ’Oh God, how will we promote this?’” But then Meet Me at the Museum was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel award, and she had to think again. Her second novel, Three Women and a Boat, was published last year. Now 73, she is midway through writing her third.
As Marris details throughout the book, while there are good reasons to value animals as individuals, there is in fact no unassailable single reason to protect species. However, that realization does not mean we shouldn’t do so, only that we should go about it in a more thoughtful way, with an eye also toward individuals. Ultimately, Marris argues that it’s time to renegotiate our approach to wild animals and conservation to better match the realities of our human-dominated world.
Specktor writes honestly and cogently about each artist’s life as he weaves in his own foibles and experiences as an artist, father, son, and friend. Always Crashing covers a lot of ground, beginning with an explanation of the life-crash that called Specktor back to Los Angeles: his wife leaving him for a co-worker. From there, he measures the impact of F. Scott Fitzgerald on his career; writes eloquently of Eleanor and Frank Perry of Diary of a Mad Housewife; pens a psychological study of actress Tuesday Weld; and divulges Warren Zevon’s flaws.
Time was, if you read books, you’d be hard-pressed to escape the Jonathans. Franzen, Lethem, Safran Foer: white American men hewing to a midcentury model of novelist as public intellectual. Jonathan Ames, despite being named Jonathan, is not a Jonathan. But Michael Chabon is a Jonathan, and so is Jeffrey Eugenides. Franzen is the über-Jonathan, most apparently concerned with protecting the citadel of fiction from populist encroachment. The books the Jonathans published between 1999 and 2003 occupied that rarefied sliver of the market where literary fiction and huge cash cow overlap. This sliver is smaller now. The demographics have also been shifting, though not as dramatically as you might imagine. One reason must be that publishing is the most hidebound and retrogressive of all culture industries. The other reasons are even more depressing.
The bright spot amid all that gloomy indulgence was music — not just listening to it, but the rituals of listening, as well: the bespoke CD-R mixes I spent hours concocting for myself; the nights devoted to spelunking the murky, never-ending mineshaft of LimeWire; and, of course, reinforcing the electrical tape on my Discman knock-off so the hatch wouldn’t pop open randomly during playback.
At 18, these music adjacent routines began to coalesce around one record, specifically: Vespertine. Björk’s fourth studio album (her most critically acclaimed, if we go by aggregators like Metacritic) was released on August 27th, 2001, the exact day my freshman semester started. It couldn’t have been a happier coincidence. As it turned out, listening to Vespertine—not just the how, but the where—would lead me through one of the darkest periods of my life.
I was very blue for the weeks running up to my sixtieth. I suppose I was triste. I couldn’t explain to myself why I was so low. When I wasn’t researching and writing or sorting out my daughter’s university accommodation, I trawled the flea markets and vintage shops collecting stuff for my unreal estate in the Mediterranean. So far, I had found a pair of wooden slatted blinds, two linen tablecloths, a copper frying pan, six small coffee cups, and a watering can made from tin with a long spout. I was collecting things for a parallel life, or a life not yet lived, a life that was waiting to be made. In a way, these objects resembled the early drafts of a novel.
Whether you consider corpse technologies innovative, exploitative, or both, what humans do with their dead tells us something about what we believe — about our identities, our bodies, our place in the world, and about the definition and limits of life itself. Troyer’s book “asks readers to think about death, dying, and dead bodies in radically different ways,” and, despite its historical limitations, it succeeds.
Sasha, a quiet drunk, an esoteric, a poet,
spent the entire summer in the city.
When the shooting began, he was surprised —
started watching the news, then stopped.
Some trends, like hand-lettered titles or nostalgic 1950s graphics will come and go, while covers that feature an image of a woman turning her back from the viewer, for example, are so everlasting that some writers have joked they should be their own category. It seems that the frappuccino trend will likely go the way of the first camp: ephemeral as ever, and overworked enough to eventually go out of style before something new replaces it. But how did such a trend start in the first place? And what does it say about the publishing industry when covers are designed based on the psychology of the busy browser? Members of the publishing community were able to help me demystify some of the cultural and economic forces that intermingle to produce a book’s final visual identity.
While we have a tendency to define ourselves based on our likeness to other things—we say humans are like a god, like a clock, or like a computer—there is a countervailing impulse to understand our humanity through the process of differentiation. And as computers increasingly come to take on the qualities we once understood as distinctly human, we keep moving the bar to maintain our sense of distinction.
All this made me wonder, Could I, a stuffy Canadian with lifelong body hang-ups, be brave enough to join the beer-sipping, wurst-grilling sunbathers? Living in a pseudo naturist commune or attending a nude parental meet-and-greet felt a stretch beyond my comfort zone, but two months into my new German life, I decided to get over my fear.
Sophie Hannah’s books got me every time, the twist throwing me a curveball I never saw coming. It was a rush, and I became addicted to it. Every time Hannah came out with a new psychological thriller, I snagged it. Each time I was amazed at the inventiveness of her plots. I’d read the back-cover copy and think: how will she ever pull this one off?
W.E.B. Du Bois has been a part of my intellectual life for as long as I can remember. At 16, I moved to Great Barrington, Mass., to attend Bard College at Simon’s Rock. Great Barrington was the birthplace of Du Bois, and as I learned when I was named a Du Bois scholar, the great man was so many things: an elder statesman of African American life, a distinguished historian, a sociologist, a civil-rights leader and an early model of what it might mean to be a public intellectual. He is, many would argue, the founding father of modern Black America. His writing, his ambitions, his failings and his accomplishments are the bass line of Honorée Fanonne Jeffers’s sweeping, masterly debut novel, “The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois.”
For every stoner who has been overcome with profound insight and drawled, “Reality is a construct, maaan,” here is the astonishing affirmation. Reality – or, at least, our perception of it – is a “controlled hallucination”, according to the neuroscientist Anil Seth. Everything we see, hear and perceive around us, our whole beautiful world, is a big lie created by our deceptive brains, like a forever version of to placate us into living our lives.
Surely there must be something beautiful to smile upon—
the umbered blue edge of sky as it fades into evening,
I’m called a writer, or often more specifically, a mystery writer. But the truth is that I think of myself primarily as a storyteller. And as a storyteller, I believe I have a sacred duty, a sacred promise to fulfill. Homer states it beautifully in his epic Odyssey: “Sing in me muse, and through me tell the story.” I believe the best stories come from a place deeper than our conscience thought, and as storytellers, we’re simply the vessels for the telling, channels for the greater truths.
In the past 40 years, more and more scientists have probed the phenomenon. Yet despite almost half a century of investigation, researchers still don’t agree on what’s happening during NDEs, or whether they can be explained at all. Some attribute them to hallucinatory flights of imagination, the last gasps of a dying brain. But others are exploring what NDEs may unlock about our understanding of human consciousness — and the possibility that it continues even after our bodies and brains power down.
There were times when I could only drag myself in three-day-old clothes to stand over the counter, knife in hand, inelegantly dice an onion, dip it in salt and devour it with white bread — a combination that still produced a burst of freshness and sensation so acute that it made my teeth ache. On days like that, just glinting through the tears wrung out by these pungent talismans, once believed to guard us from otherworldly evils, gave me a jolt of vitality. Tasting the stinging sharpness felt as if I were borrowing a bit of their aliveness, at a moment when mine couldn’t be found.
That afternoon, diners got the full buffet experience, and the scene appeared shockingly normal. People lined up at the carving station, waiting for a sliver of Wagyu, a hunk of prime rib and a slice of brisket. They scooped up individually plated, split rods of bone marrow waiting to be slurped. The space between the guests was less than six feet.
Nearby, mountains of crushed ice were sheathed in dozens of pounds of stacked crab legs, shrimp, oysters and scallops on the half shell, lobster claws and snow crab.
It is not incorrect to say that, for years, the way my family grieved my mother was to avoid acknowledging her altogether. It is not incorrect to say that we hardly invoked her name or told stories about her.
Kat Chow’s memoir, “Seeing Ghosts,” is a memorial to her mother delivered in a graceful, captivating voice. Like several acts of tribute to the dead in this book about grief and family, immigration and ancestors, it’s accomplished long after the loss that it marks. Chow’s mother died of cancer 17 years ago, when the author was only 13 years old. The passage of so much time hasn’t dulled the ache. A certain kind of sorrow lingers because a part of us wants it and wills it to persist, and Chow artfully and intelligently maps which kind of grief this is.
Atticus Lish’s second novel, “The War for Gloria,” is, by and large, a monster — solemn, punishing, kinetic, in easy contact with dark areas of the psyche, and yet heartbreaking in its portrait of a mother and son facing her mortal illness.
The stories are not flawless, and the achievements of stylistic originality, the shocks, often come at the expense of heartfelt connection with characters, but honestly, in this case, it’s more than a fair trade-off, to be pierced and thrilled again.
The universe is changing. But scientists didn’t realize that a century ago, when astronomers like Edwin Hubble and Henrietta Leavitt discerned that other galaxies exist and that they’re hurtling away from the Milky Way at incredible speeds. That monumental discovery sparked decades of epic debates about the vastness and origins of the universe, and they involved a clash of titans, the Russian-American nuclear physicist George Gamow and the British astrophysicist Fred Hoyle.
In his new book, “Flashes of Creation,” Paul Halpern chronicles the rise of Gamow and Hoyle into leaders of mostly opposing views of cosmology, as they disputed whether everything began with a Big Bang billions of years ago.
In the essay “Street Haunting,” published in 1927, Virginia Woolf describes nighttime walks through London as a kind of escape from the self. A city dweller, drawn to the “irresponsibility which darkness and lamplight bestow,” takes to the street to join the “vast republican army of anonymous trampers.” Woolf goes on, “The shell-like covering which our souls have excreted to house themselves, to make for themselves a shape distinct from others, is broken, and there is left of all these wrinkles and roughness a central oyster of perceptiveness, an enormous eye.” For Woolf, this is a matter not merely of voyeurism but of empathy: the street-haunter cherishes the “illusion,” nourished by rambling, “that one is not tethered to a single mind, but can put on briefly for a few minutes the bodies and minds of others.”
The problem is this: For a small but vocal number of people online, any opinion they dislike is, essentially, being expressed by somebody in their home. “Let people enjoy things,” as a way of saying “learn basic conversational dynamics,” is a banal but true statement. But in practice, “let people enjoy things” means something else: it is rude or inappropriate to dislike something. And it’s this overstep that I do, in fact, have a problem with.
Much like pizza, one does not simply order (or make) the amount of fried chicken they plan to consume that evening. To do so would be short-sighted, foolish, and—as I have already covered—stupid. Ordering a single meal’s worth of fried chicken deprives one of cold fried chicken, and cold fried chicken tastes good. Ordering what society tells us is “too much fried chicken” is responsible meal planning, actually.
How long has it been since you’ve sat down and really listened to that song? (I had to do it to write this article, so you have to do it to read it — I’m sorry, but those are the rules.) More than three decades later, it provokes several different variations on the philosophical question, “How did this get made?” Also: Is Billy Joel … rapping? Did he just rhyme “Malcolm X” with “British politician sex”? Does he always pronounce “Berlin” with an accent on the first syllable, or is he just stretching it to fit the syntax of the song? What’s up with the urgent, unbridled passion he summons to growl “Trouble in the Sueezzzz”?
The novelist Tash Aw was 15 when he noticed the difference. He knew that his classmates at school weren’t all ethnically Chinese like him. There were Tamil kids who played hockey, “Malay rocker boys” who cut out pictures of Metallica from magazines and glued them to their textbooks. But now, as they all geared up to sit their O-level exams in a publicly funded school in Kuala Lumpur, Aw realised that the divisions between them weren’t so neat. There was a boy whose parents were illiterate and worked as labourers in a rubber tree plantation. Other kids, from richer families, would be sent the following year to plush boarding schools in England, regardless of how they fared in the exams.
The many themes which come together in this valuable work meet on the background of the influence of Italian Renaissance philosophy on 16th-century English culture in general, and on Shakespeare in particular — the same author I met in my father’s house in Florence, the birthplace of Italian Neoplatonism and of Marsilio Ficino. There goes the familiarity I had felt in reading: I didn’t just feel at home — I was.
The city of Edinburgh was the epicenter of a powerful energy pulse on Aug. 22, 2018 — not the kind that precise scientific equipment can detect, but one whose ripples would be felt by sensitive human instruments in the weeks and months that followed.
That evening, Michaela Coel, a rising British TV star, was invited to address her colleagues at the prestigious Edinburgh International Television Festival. Speaking to a few thousand industry peers in a lecture hall and countless more viewers watching her online, she shared stories from her ascent, a narrative that was by turns wryly comic and devastating.
All these changes that people are embarking on during the pandemic make me think that we weren’t that happy before the pandemic. What about our lives prevented us from seeing things that are so clear to us now? When I talked to friends and neighbors about this, two themes emerged. The pandemic has disabused us of the illusion of time as a limitless resource and of the false promise that the sacrifices we make for our careers are always worth it.
Rajiv Mohabir’s Antiman wonderfully lives up to its description as “a hybrid memoir.” As I read poet Mohabir’s debut foray into nonfiction prose, I was reminded of my affinity for collage art — the way that so many different pieces of art can come together in surprising ways to make something beautiful and unexpected has always fascinated me. I found Antiman to be a collage of sorts. Mohabir weaves together stories, prayer lyrics, journal entries, dictionary definitions, and musical chords to create his kaleidoscopic, genre-defying memoir.
"The People We Keep" is not a book to pick up lightly — it will make you fall in love with the characters, it will break your heart, it will make you laugh and cry and feel all the emotions the characters feel through author Allison Larkin's tremendous talent for bringing characters to life.
Although the ending may have had one thread too many to wrap up, Rochon's central love story comes through beautifully with inspiration, heart, and soul. Taylor and Jamar are magic — they'll keep you enthralled from the start of the book to the very last word.
Two summers ago, I found myself face to face with a 400-year-old mystery. I was trying to escape the maze of books at Firsts, London’s Rare Book Fair, in Battersea Park. The fair was a tangle of stalls overflowing with treasures gleaming in old leather, paper and gold. Then, as I rounded a corner, a book stopped me. I felt as though I had seen a ghost—and, in a sense, I had.
Stamped onto its cover was an intricate monogram that I recognized instantly. It identified the book as the property of Lady Mary Wroth. She was a pathbreaker. A contemporary of Shakespeare in the early 17th century, Wroth was England’s first female writer of fiction. The startling thing about seeing this book was that her house in England burned down two centuries ago, and her extensive library with it; not one book was believed to exist. As a literary scholar specializing in rare books, I had seen a photograph of the monogram five years earlier on the bound leather manuscript of a play Wroth had written that was not in the library at the time of the fire. Now it appeared that the volume I was staring at—a biography of the Persian emperor Cyrus the Great—had escaped the inferno as well.
Buying the first issue of Heavy Metal magazine in the winter of 1977 was a life changing event for thirteen year old me. An anthology graphic arts magazine that launched in April, 1977, Heavy Metal was published by the same folks who brought us National Lampoon. An American version of the French comic Metal Hurlant, the magazine mostly reprinted European artists who were new to most Americans, but soon became internationalist graphic art heroes: Angus McKie, Philippe Druillet, Enki Bilal and Mobius.
The latest contribution to this collection was published in the journal Nature in June, a paper by astronomer Lisa Kaltenegger (fittingly director of the Carl Sagan Institute at Cornell). Kaltenegger and her collaborators used new data from the European Space Agency’s Gaia mission to figure out which stars have, have had, or will in the next 5,000 years have the right view to detect Earth in orbit around the sun—using the same technology that we today use to detect planets around other stars. Kaltenegger told me that part of her inspiration—aside from the new availability of this Gaia data—was to help guide future searches for extraterrestrial intelligence; SETI research looks for signals extraterrestrials might be beaming to Earth. She said, “In the ’60s,” at the dawn of SETI, “they started to think if we wanted to send a signal, we would send it to a place where we know there’s a planet. … And so then you reverse that viewpoint.” Who might be out there who knows the Earth is here?
Francisco Goldman’s latest novel, Monkey Boy, launches its protagonist, Frankie Goldberg, on a journey of self-reflection, as he takes a three-day voyage from New York City to visit his ailing Guatemalan mother in the Boston area. Old neighborhoods and haunts rush by his train window, triggering memories of a past he’d thought hidden, blacked out. From his experiences of an abusive father and childhood bullies to the events of the Guatemalan Civil War, about which he writes articles as a journalist (including an assassination case he is investigating that is tied to the war), Frankie excavates the past in the hopes of finding himself among the rubble of his memories.
In this subtle and profound meditation on the science of life, filled with memorable insights into the past and future of biology, Zimmer reveals the extraordinary complexity and diversity of life, as well as the ingenious attempts of scientists to probe its origins and how it may have evolved on other worlds.
In midsentence. Like a pregnant sow
in another mud- and mire-laden trench,
Having washed out of the Air Force during the early years of World War II for flying out of formation, my father talked himself into the job of entertainment director at a GI training camp in Greensboro, North Carolina. There, he watched as young men, mostly from the inner cities, were whipped into shape in six weeks before being shipped overseas. This experience was the foundation of his ideas of fatherhood: discipline, order and obedience.
When I came under his command less than 20 years later, I was 11 years old, shy and bookish, as well as small and underweight. To address the obvious physical inadequacies and in spite of the fact that both he and my mother were small-boned and five foot seven and five foot two respectively, he implemented a regimen of exercises and practices that he had observed in Greensboro: jumping jacks, pull-ups and push-ups. To help me gain weight, he insisted on chocolate milkshakes and finishing what was on my plate. His guiding principle was, “With eating comes the appetite.” This felt like an order which I had no choice but to obey.
The Allman Brothers Band formed during a volatile era of Vietnam War protests and the Civil Rights Movement, and the release of a live double album, “At Fillmore East,” which included the song “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed,” propelled them to fame in 1971. Before lead guitarist Duane Allman died at age 24 in a motorcycle crash, and was interred here later that same year, Good Times Magazine journalist Ellen Mandel interviewed him.
“How are you helping the revolution?” she asked.
Skydog’s reply would become Southern rock legend.
“Every time I’m in Georgia I eat a peach for peace.”
But when sound was integrated into film, the mighty Wurlitzers fell out of use. Decades later, when silent movie theaters were demolished, many of the organs needed to find new homes, and restaurant owners were ready to snatch them up. What followed was a new entertainment hub within pizza parlors, like Ye Olde Pizza Joynt, and other businesses that installed antique organs in the middle of their dining space to charm their customers.
Resolving the great cosmological debate of the mid-20th century was not on their agenda. Yet in 1964, astrophysicists Arno A. Penzias and Robert W. “Bob” Wilson unexpectedly discovered a radio hiss that turned out to be relic radiation from the early universe. Much to their surprise, their finding, after being interpreted and published the following year, helped settle a long-standing argument about time and space. The Big Bang theory postulated the universe had been created with an initial burst of matter and energy, whereas the steady-state theory—its main rival—described no primordial eruption but rather a slow, continuous creation of material that remains ongoing. The Penzias-Wilson discovery of background radiation tipped the scale toward the Big Bang, away from the steady-state.
Given the success of Mexican Gothic, which landed Silvia Moreno-Garcia in the New York Times bestsellers list and made her — finally — a household name, it'd be understandable to expect her to repeat that novel's formula; a wonderful mix of gothic horror, historical fiction, and nightmares. However, Velvet Was the Night, her latest novel, is nothing like Mexican Gothic, and that's great because it'll show her new readers what others have known for years: Moreno-Garcia's work is like a wild pendulum that swings from horror to fantasy to noir, and she does them all equally well.
Modern food is not just the products on the shelves, but the acres and people transformed so we can consume those products. The nineteenth century laid the groundwork for those new places and Tulare Lake, a ghostly landscape, is an example of the violence written into them. Its history can help us wrestle with the full brunt of food choices, and how the health of bodies is entwined with our current food system, its past — and its future. Each jar of peaches or glass of milk produced on Tulare bottomland owes a portion of its nutrients to the land and water management of the ancestors of those who live and work almost within sight of the dried lake, and its existence to layers of violence. Understanding those histories can help guide the ecological and human reanimation of ghost acres.
We linger among the birches. The exertions of Kang La have tired humans and pack stock alike, and with Bhijer cut from our journey, we have a day to burn. We spend it resting in a grove beside a shallow, sparkling river. A second reason for our layover is the predicament of Vishnu, the smallest and youngest among us.
He claims to be fourteen but looks ten. I never see him without his striped wool cap pulled down to his eyebrows. The cap has lop-eared flaps, from which the tie-cords dangle to his chest. His face is dark, his eyes quick and wary. You could not fail to notice him, and not just because he is so small among the adults. His profile would have done well upon a coin or a movie poster, and he carries himself with a lightness that catches the eye. His older brother had been asked to join the expedition, charged with bringing several horses, but an obstacle arose and the brother could not come. The horses, however, were still needed, as was the money to be earned by their rental. And so the family sent Vishnu in his brother’s stead, as custodian for the stock.
Packed with social criticism, satire, ghosts and narrative turns of the screw, Lippman's Dream Girl is indeed a dream of a novel. And all the literary pilferings Lippman herself has committed here are acknowledged, front and center.
Brenda Lozano’s “Loop” is a good litmus test for just how palatable this method has become to a general readership. True to its title, Lozano’s book does go round and round in circles. And though it doesn’t feel intended to alienate, it does reside comfortably on the more experimental end of the spectrum.
Suddenly, her phone rang. “Why are you sending me this?” Varotto asked. Altrov Berg explained what was happening. Varotto was confused. She hadn’t sent any emails to Norstedts all day.
With Varotto on the phone, the two Norstedts employees scrolled through the messages. The emails looked like ones Varotto would send: The text used the same font, and the signature at the end was styled just like hers. Then, with Varotto still on the line, Mörk got yet another email asking for the password.
Wingspan is what’s known among serious gamers as an “engine-building game,” which means that as the game goes on, the combination of birds you play becomes more and more efficient at generating points each turn, like an engine running faster and faster. Your cuckoo lays eggs, and the eggs not only give you points but make it possible to play more birds, which also give you more points but have their own powers that generate points in other ways. I prefer thinking about the mechanism of Wingspan not as an engine I am building, but as an ecosystem I am fostering. If I’ve strategized well, the birds in my ecosystem will be knitted together into a web of complex, mutually beneficial relationships. Activating the cascading effects of these healthy interconnections is the greatest pleasure of playing Wingspan.
It’s those interconnections that Hargrave began mapping out in a ginormous spreadsheet once she decided she really did want to design a board game. For four years, she researched birds, brainstormed play ideas, and—most crucially—tested the game, over and over, every week for years, with a group of friends who helped her refine her vague idea for a game about birds into an experience that’s engrossing, contemplative, collaborative, and even beautiful.
“Once I began living truthfully I felt like I could breathe again. I no longer have to lie or hide,” King writes. “I can be my authentic self, and I can say this with pride: It’s been a lovely, sometimes lonely, often soul-shaking, ultimately gratifying ride. It’s been full of sparks and recrimination. But I came through it.
“I am free.”
John McPhee has said that the lead of an article serves as a searchlight that shines down into the body of a piece—which is a good enough description for a work of nonfiction, where story is already formed, has already happened, and needs only to be reported—but the first sentence of a piece of fiction serves as much more than searchlight or hook or even lure to the reluctant reader. The first sentence in a work of fiction places the first limitation on the utterly limitless world of the author’s imagination. Before that first sentence is composed, anything is possible. The fiction writer is free to write about anything at all—we are, after all, just making this stuff up—in any voice at all: a child’s, a dog’s, a dead man’s, a god in his heaven, even in the voice of the author herself.
The blank page is nothing less than the wondrous realm of infinite possibilities, and the first words we place on it are nothing less than, well, a sentence, the prison kind, a confinement of all that roving, beautiful, undefined promise into a particular story bound by time and place (four prison walls and a floor and ceiling) and voice (of the prisoner, of the other inmates) and rules (our jailor), narrative rules and grammatical rules, rules of logic and composition, experience and sense, rules that we must attend to even if—most particularly if—we set out to break them.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Yawn. That cloying love poem, “How do I love thee?” That portrait where she looks at us sideways, her heavy curls shadowing her face. A Victorian invalid who was the victim of her father’s tyranny. What, really, does she have to do with us today?
Not much, one might think, until one reads poet Fiona Sampson’s brilliant, heart-stopping biography, “Two-Way Mirror: The Life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning,” which reads like a thriller, a memoir and a provocative piece of literary fiction all at the same time.
Because of the Fagradalsfjall eruption’s location near both the capital and the country’s biggest airport, it quickly established itself as Iceland’s latest volcanic mass-tourist attraction. On my computer, in New York, I’d seen videos of people cooking eggs on cooling lava, playing volleyball there, and getting married as craters oozed behind them.
It was therefore disconcerting when, on that late-May afternoon, I drove to the end of an access road and entered a brand-new—but empty—parking lot. A sandwich board was leaning against an uninhabited white trailer, advertising “LAMB SOUP / FISH N’ CHIPS / HOT-DOGS.”
As a writer, I’m always trying to rekindle that feeling, of connecting to words through their sounds, not just their meanings. So I read poetry every day, and my reading takes a particular form: On the first day of every month, I pick a poem, and then I read that poem every day that month.
With grammar approaching the status of anachronism, Bryan A. Garner’s Taming the Tongue is not a screed for the return of grammar, but rather a joyous review of 100 items in Garner’s personal collection of almost 2,000 grammars published during what he sees as the heyday of English grammar. It is not intuitively obvious that a book about 18th- and 19th-century grammarians and their work could be seen as a romp, but a romp it is!
It’s natural to think of the Renaissance in Italy in purely visual terms. But focusing on striking paintings or architectural splendors alone gives us an incomplete picture of that era.
“[E]qually if not more important for the centuries to follow,” King writes, “were the city’s lovers of wisdom” — people like Vespasiano da Bisticci, who is the subject of his engaging new book.
The realities of rationality are humbling. Know things; want things; use what you know to get what you want. It sounds like a simple formula. But, in truth, it maps out a series of escalating challenges. In search of facts, we must make do with probabilities. Unable to know it all for ourselves, we must rely on others who care enough to know. We must act while we are still uncertain, and we must act in time—sometimes individually, but often together. For all this to happen, rationality is necessary, but not sufficient. Thinking straight is just part of the work.
The very core of Imamura’s novel surrounds one key problem that many of Japan’s social issues can be traced back to: the epidemic of loneliness – a widespread unsatiated desire to initiate and maintain relationships.
James Albon’s new graphic novel, The Delicacy, is not one to be read just before heading out to dinner. Set in the world of flashy restaurants, this parable of greed and ambition comes with a macabre ending that will undoubtedly put you right off your chanterelles on toast. But even so, it’s a treat from start to finish. Unlike so many recent comics – miserable, wilfully obscure books that I’ve often struggled to get through – this one is a page-turner, as addictive as the dishes dreamed up by its hero, a young man known to his family as Tulip.
I light incense on the stovetop, trail cinders
through an empty house. I’ve decided to believe
For many travelers, the prepandemic pace of whirlwind getaways and bucket-list-skimming trips seems so 2019. Now, as destinations cautiously reopen, travelers who spent a year or more confronted by climate change, social activism and a lack of human connection are embracing slow motion as a sustainable speed for exploring the world.
Marguerite Hanley, a native Californian who lives in Amsterdam, is one of those travelers. “After a year of being forced to look inward, we have all realized the value and impact of our actions, both globally in terms of Covid, as humans infringing on habitat, and how we treat people in our community,” said Ms. Hanley, who recently decided to decelerate an ambitious honeymoon in Africa planned for next March. Instead of a whirlwind trip that included a Botswana safari, a visit to Cape Town and an exploration of South African wine country, she scaled down to concentrate on a few camps in Botswana that support conservation and local communities.
Nature has been an escape for many of us during the Covid-19 pandemic. The freedom of wild animals has seemed especially wonderful when our own movements and associations have been clipped. If you watch wildlife closely, however, you will eventually witness the uncontrolled spread of illness — the worst-case scenario we have spent more than a year of our lives now trying to avoid.
My experience as a physician — a professional life spent mainly tending to the dying — and as a daughter who navigated my mother’s last years with chronic illness, has kept me alert to the national conversations now taking place about the role of professional caregiving as essential health care.
I don't know how I got to be as old as I am without knowing that dressage horses danced to music. Don't get me wrong: I knew dressage was fancy horses. I just didn't know it was fancy horses who danced to an orchestral arrangement of Queen's "Radio Ga-Ga."
This year, King has already delivered one novel with a strong connection to the world of books. In March’s “Later,” the protagonist’s mother works as a literary agent, her livelihood dependent on the output of a single best-selling author. A scary predicament indeed.
King’s new novel, “Billy Summers,” goes all-in in its depiction of a neophyte learning to craft a story. Billy, however, isn’t an earnest young creative writing student at some community college. Rather, he’s a 44-year-old sure-shot assassin, albeit one who shoots and kills only “bad” people.
Like “Fun Home,” Alison Bechdel’s magnificent graphic memoir, her new work also uses a familiar scaffolding to build a book that seems brand-new and slightly unfamiliar. “The Secret of Superhuman Strength” is a highly crafted literary work. Following its graphic predecessors, “Superhuman Strength” gets its mojo from Bechdel’s blend of low-cult form and high-cult subject matter.
Taking the title of Jan Grue’s memoir, “I Live a Life Like Yours,” literally, I approached it first by creating a mental Venn diagram, testing the veracity of his titular statement. And indeed, many areas in our lives do intersect: We are both married with children and pursue demanding careers. Moreover, we each bear the weight of a devastating diagnosis and a sobering prognosis. Confronting society’s stigmas and the general aversion to anything other than what is considered “normal,” we struggle to balance others’ expectations and presumptions with our own. To slightly different degrees, we have each accepted the necessity of a wheelchair.
What I was relieved to discover was that San Francisco isn’t dying; instead the people and characters that make the city fun are still out there and bringing the city to life. Sure, at the restaurant I went to, I traded an indoor table for an outdoor parklet, but when a fellow single diner turned to me, nodded, then recommended a couple of plates he was eating, it felt like a taste of what I’ve long loved about the city.
Words, though they seem limitless in quantity, tend to exist within boundaries: What you can understand or learn through the vessel of language, you can just as easily misunderstand or forget. In his sophomore poetry collection Pilgrim Bell, Kaveh Akbar shapes language into prayer, into body, into patchwork — clarifying only what can be known.
Like both Black Mirror and Russian Doll, Sarah Zachrich Jeng's The Other Me resists categorization, blending the impossible with the probable with the downright plausible. Kelly Holter has some choices to make no matter where she winds up, and that may be the most important message her creator has to impart. It will be interesting to see how Jeng combines psychology and thrills in her next book, especially if she keeps her characters' emotions in mind.
With a pacy plot and a protagonist you feel for, Gold Diggers blends magic, mythology, alchemy and melodrama into a story about anxiety, assimilation and ambition (“the substance to settle the nerves of immigrant parents”). Indian immigrants, we’re told, were “duty bound to live out” the American dream. But “what does it mean to be both Indian and American?”
In 2007 Gwendoline Riley, then age twenty-eight and already the author of three acclaimed novels, described her writing life as lacking “any tremendous triumph or romance—I feel like I’m just always trying to be accurate, to get everything in the correct proportion.”
As literary aspirations go, it sounds modest. And by superficial measures, Riley’s novels are unambitious: light on conventional plotting, narrow in scope, and told from the perspectives of women close to herself in age and background. Riley has tried using the third person, she said in 2012, but it “always sounds so false.” As for adopting a male point of view: “Ugh, men’s brains! That vipers’ nest? No.” Her protagonists are writers, too, encouraging the frequent assumption that she draws directly from life. But to regard Riley’s fiction as titivated memoir is to misperceive what beguiles her readers: not barely mediated personal experience but its sedulous transmutation by a strange, rare talent. As Vivian Gornick wrote after reading the letters of Jean Rhys, a novelist with whom Riley shares some kinship: “The letters are the life, and the novels—there’s no mistaking it—are the magic performed on the life.”
The value in returning to these books as adults is in reminding ourselves what it’s like to be a kid, to gain a different perspective on the world, and to expand our understanding of different experiences and communities. And, of course, to be entertained.
Matter and energy are neither created nor destroyed, or so says modern physics. The subatomic substrate that adds up to the eyes scanning these words, the fingers holding them within sight and all the rest of your soft, unaccountable self, used to belong to other things—an apple or a cow, maybe—and they will belong to yet others in the future. What we are now, as long as we are, is a temporary contraction.
Could there be a more spot-on title for Saïd Sayrafiezadeh’s second collection of short fiction than “American Estrangement”? All seven of the stories here grow out of an America gone menacing and strange. Some portray a country that is through the looking glass, others a culture still recognizably our own. And yet, that still is a key modifier because in Sayrafiezadeh’s work, everything is bad and getting worse.
Call it fate or an unfortunate coincidence that Dr. Seuss' The Lorax celebrates its 50th anniversary the same week the United Nations releases an urgent report on the dire consequences of human-induced climate change. The conflict between the industrious, polluting Once-ler and the feisty Lorax who "speaks for the trees" feels more prescient than ever.
The package arrived on a Thursday. I came home from a walk and found it sitting near the mailboxes in the front hall of my building, a box so large and imposing I was embarrassed to discover my name on the label. It took all my strength to drag it up the stairs.
I paused once on the landing, considered abandoning it there, then continued hauling it up to my apartment on the third floor, where I used my keys to cut it open. Inside the box, beneath lavish folds of bubble wrap, was a sleek plastic pod. I opened the clasp: inside, lying prone, was a small white dog.
Claire Luchette's debut novel, Agatha of Little Neon, offers a counter-narrative about a young 21st-century nun who's neither a holy fool nor a musical miracle worker nor a monster.
In place of checklists of things to do before you’re fully awake or paths for getting to inbox zero, Burkeman offers some history lessons, a bit of Buddhist philosophy here and there, and a few actual tips.
Not like you think, but yes, he’s upside down.
St. Joseph faces my childhood window.
As of today, March 26, 2021, I no longer know how to write a poem. I have no idea how I wrote the poems in this book.
In some ways, this state of unknowing is exciting. A poetry teacher of mine once said, quoting the poet Muriel Rukeyser, “You need only be a scarecrow for poems to land on.” Perhaps, then, my amnesia as to how I made these poems indicates that I’ve been, at times, a scarecrow: a landing place, a vessel, a channel for poems. I like that. To me, it seems preferable to be a channel than what I usually am: a self-will-er, a scrambler, a filler of holes, a looker in “glittery shitdoors” for love (as I note in the poem “Man’s Search for Meaning”).
Reading is not a beachy activity. Reading is for armchairs and bay windows and loverless beds. Bring a book to the beach and you’re agreeing to ruin the book. No matter how careful you are, sand will stuff the creases between the pages—seven years after a beach trip during grad school, I still find sand in my copy of Delmore Schwartz’s collected poems. As a teenager, I vacationed in Jamaica with my dad’s family during the school year and brought Candide—homework—to read on the beach. I fell asleep 10 pages in and woke up as flaky as fish food, my skin road-flare red save for the pale, book-shaped mark on my chest. Was the sunburn the book’s fault or my fault for failing to apply sunscreen, intent on earning my first-ever tan?
It was the fault of the book.
I don’t think of myself as a Luddite; I’ve tolerated Zoom calls and e-books decently well during the pandemic, and I navigate Facebook and Twitter about as well as the average online citizen. It’ll do, in a pinch. But the pandemic has made me feel the pinching. It kept stoking an urge for a more tactile book experience.
To call the warning “early” is generous. It usually arrives between a few seconds and less than a minute ahead of the quake—advance notice that, in duration, is somewhere between a sneeze and a red light. The Achilles’ heel of the system is what its designers call the “blind zone.” Those who might benefit the most from a warning—the people at the epicenter—won’t get one, because the S waves arrive too soon. Still, if you’re far enough outside that bull’s-eye, a few moments can be meaningful. In the past few decades, more than half of earthquake injuries in the U.S. have been caused by people or things falling—two occurrences easily avoided if you have time to take cover beneath a sturdy piece of furniture. For those who are landing planes, assembling electronics, operating cranes, or drilling into molars, even the smallest warning would be welcome. You might have just enough time to lock the wheels on your wheelchair, or to remove your scalpel from your patient’s chest. The effectiveness of the warning depends on how much can be done in a handful of seconds. The goal of E.E.W., therefore, isn’t just to sound the alarm. It’s to help transform knowledge into action as quickly as possible.
Perhaps innovation does not come naturally. Most of us do things the way we see others doing them, the way they’ve always been done. The idea of a frustrated person becoming an inventor as they silently scream, “There must be a better way!” has become a cliché. Maybe that cliché is scarcer than we think.
For the vast majority of not-yet-21-year-olds, the 21st birthday holds a mythical allure, the promise of legal alcohol and long nights spent with friends at the bar. Sure, most newly minted adults can’t afford to move out of their parents’ home, get married, or even graduate college without crippling student loan debt, but in many ways, the 21st brings with it the type of life-altering opportunities that other major birthdays simply don’t, however hard they try. (Sorry, sweet 16s.)
That is, of course, for folks who didn’t have the misfortune of spending their 21st in quarantine during the first waves of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020. Those who did experienced a much different milestone, one forged awkwardly at the intersection of living through your first plague, often at home with parents or other family members, while awaiting the joys of graduating into an economic crisis from which the recovery is skewed toward billionaires and corporations. To put it simply, for those who turned 21 in the past year and a half, 21st birthdays just didn’t feel like 21st birthdays.
THE MOST SURPRISING thing about The Vixen, Francine Prose’s historical novel about the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, is how laugh-aloud funny it is. Prose manages to interpose her narrative of that terrifying night in June 1953, when news of the execution interrupted television programming, with an episode of I Love Lucy, so that the two Ethels — Mertz and Rosenberg — become entwined in a sort of madcap symphony of pathos. It is a testament to Prose’s mastery as a storyteller that what emerges is a penetrating look at the underside of comedy — namely, how the human condition can be so predictably cruel and paranoid.
And yet, this is also a book steeped in the warmth of Jewish family life, post–World War II. We learn about the Rosenbergs through the eyes of a feckless young Harvard graduate named Simon Putnam, whose life is built on a series of lies, starting with his name. “Putnam” was bestowed on his grandfather by an immigration official on Thanksgiving as a joke in honor of the holiday, when he was given the goyishe surname of a Mayflower pilgrim. In other words, assimilation is at its peak in America just as everyone is presumed to be a commie sympathizer and the two-martini lunch is in vogue.
Isaka isn't trying to express some grand cultural idea. He wants to give us the irresponsible pleasure of sheer entertainment. And he does. At once outlandish and virtuoso, Bullet Train is like one of those dazzling balance beam routines that keep you hoping the gymnast will stick the landing.
Edge Case is a wonderful novel, smart but not showy, emotional but not sentimental. It asks us to examine a broken society that most of us have helped create, either by our actions or our apathy, and to consider what we'd do when someone we loved has changed irrevocably.
Small Joys of Real Life is an easy, pleasurable read with surprising depth. There is doom in this life, more than we possibly realise, but there is also promise and hope; not just in new life that grows within us, but in our little moments of living, breathing joy even as we stare down the barrel of certain, unpredictable death.
I felt acutely that there was something illicit about what I was doing. When I carried my computer to bed, my husband muttered noises of disapproval. We both make our livings as writers, and technological capitalism has been exerting a slow suffocation on our craft. A machine capable of doing what we do, at a fraction of the cost, feels like a threat. Yet I found myself irresistibly attracted to GPT-3—to the way it offered, without judgment, to deliver words to a writer who has found herself at a loss for them. One night, when my husband was asleep, I asked for its help in telling a true story.
I had always avoided writing about my sister’s death. At first, in my reticence, I offered GPT-3 only one brief, somewhat rote sentence about it. The AI matched my canned language; clichés abounded. But as I tried to write more honestly, the AI seemed to be doing the same. It made sense, given that GPT-3 generates its own text based on the language it has been fed: Candor, apparently, begat candor.
Most people spend their lives thinking about poetry so infrequently that it takes a marriage (or a death) to coerce them into listening for a moment. The after-party anecdote is no novelty: when one attends a wedding, a poem is read—sometimes written specifically for the event, for the people being wed. What makes that poem suited to the occasion for its making, its public reading; what does one expect from the ceremonial poem? For the crowd at a reception dinner, after cocktail hour, does the poem express the intense love of those being married? Is it different from a toast? Does it approximate the reflections and conversations cherished in making this lifetime decision? Does that disagree with the party’s levity? Who does the poem include in its audience besides everyone in that moment? I suspect the answer is anyone who cares, if several hundred years of wedding poetry speaks to the present.
On the surface, this appears to leave young workers with ample tools to improve their working lives: to get an education on how they’ve been screwed, with a manual showing them how to make their narrow escape. But a closer read reveals a wolf in sheep’s clothing – a publishing trend pretending to provide the answers to structural problems that merely acknowledges a broken system and seeks to address it through superficial, commercially-friendly solutions.
Today, the section can seem like an anachronism — a cramming of countless cultures into a single small enclave, in a country where an estimated 40 percent of the population identifies as nonwhite, according to the Census Bureau, and where H Mart, a Korean American supermarket chain, has become one of the fastest-growing retailers by specializing in foods from around the world. Even the word “ethnic,” emblazoned on signs over many of these corridors, feels meaningless, as everyone has an ethnicity.
“The Human Zoo,” the fascinating new novel by PEN/Faulkner Award-winner Sabina Murray (“The Caprices,” “Forgery,” “Valiant Gentlemen”), is a tale of indecisiveness. Or maybe it’s a political thriller. Or it could be a love story.
It’s definitely a social critique targeting the grotesque inequalities of an authoritarian regime in the contemporary Philippines. It also takes a look at past colonial-era outrages: the human zoos of the title, in which indigenous tribespeople of the Philippines were put on display for the delectation of American and European audiences at world’s fairs in the early 20th century.
“‘But … the main character, it — isn’t she …’ Mrs. March leaned in and in almost a whisper said, ‘a whore?’” With these words, prompted by the suggestion that she was the unwitting muse for her husband’s latest novel, the eponymous protagonist of Virginia Feito’s debut book of fiction ushers us into her world and her ensuing descent into madness. It is the first of many such instances, both real and imagined, in which Mrs. March is confronted with her husband’s work, for everywhere she turns it seems that people are talking about his novel — and, by extension, about her and Johanna, the fictional character in question.
“Playlist for the Apocalypse,” Rita Dove’s new book of poems, is among her best. The title makes it leap from the bookcase. It’s about life in what she calls this “shining, blistered republic.”
“Save your tears for when your mother dies,” is a proverb that singer-songwriter Michelle Zauner heard a lot from her Korean mum, Chongmi, when she was growing up in Eugene, Oregon. Her friends had coddling “Mommy-Moms”, always at the ready with a white lie or a verbal affirmation; her own mother, by contrast, provided love tougher than tough. “It was brutal, industrial-strength,” Zauner writes in her first book, a vibrant, soulful memoir that binds her own belated coming-of-age with her mother’s untimely death, and serves up food, music and, yes, tears alongside insights into identity, grief and the primal intensity of the mother-daughter bond.
Shortly after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Maj. Gen. Leslie R. Groves of the U.S. Army, who directed the making of the weapons, told Congress that succumbing to their radiation was “a very pleasant way to die.”
His aide in misinforming America was William L. Laurence, a science reporter for The New York Times. At the general’s invitation, the writer entered a maze of secret cities in Tennessee, Washington and New Mexico. His exclusive reports on the Manhattan Project, when released after the Hiroshima bombing, helped shape postwar opinion on the bomb and atomic energy.
At the time of my first novel’s death, I had written fewer than twenty new pages, best characterized as a project rather than a novel. I was twenty-nine years old, hardly ancient, but I had been writing fiction since I was sixteen. Thirteen years is either a lot of time to throw away to pursue a new career, or a lot of time to be doing something and not yet know what you’re doing.
Somethinggate is so ingrained that it has become one of those cultural allusions that I’ve been writing about lately. It’s a useful bit of shorthand, and everyone knows where it comes from and to what it pays homage, right?
William Shakespeare's All's Well That Ends Well is rarely staged. A so-called "problem play" that explores questions of morality, its ambiguous tone, unlikeable characters, and confusing ending have rendered it unpopular. The gist: Orphaned Helen, a "poor unlearned virgin," is desperately in love with noble Bertram, who is kind of a jerk. She cuts a deal with a king to magically heal him in exchange for compelling Bertram to marry her. Bertram refuses to consummate the marriage, so Helen fools him into sleeping with her in a "bed trick." In the end, in one line, Bertram seems to suddenly love Helen back.
Early in Mona Awad's new novel All's Well, protagonist Miranda Fitch calls the play "neither a tragedy nor a comedy, something in between." That's also an apt description of Awad's book — a surreal exploration of chronic pain, women's believability and visibility, and desperation that straddles the line between comedy and horror.
Elena Ferrante’s novel, The Lying Life of Adults (2019; out in English translation by Ann Goldstein in 2020), follows Giovanna, a Neapolitan girl on the brink of adulthood, as she learns about life through her family and their stories of the past. The novel also follows a bracelet as it is passed from one female character to the next, tying them together and, by revealing secrets and truths, breaking them apart. Ferrante often uses objects in her fiction to explore relationships and time, but she also uses them as objective correlatives; while the bracelet in The Lying Life of Adults serves as a way to move the reader through the plot, it is also clearly identified as an object, one that carries symbolic meaning. The bracelet’s ownership is an important thread that runs through the book: there are those who wear the bracelet, those who hold it, and those who leave it behind.
Writing is, Didion says, “an aggressive, even a hostile act. ... It is the tactic of a secret bully, an invasion, the imposition of the writer’s sensibility on the reader’s most private space.” The writer is always saying “I, I, I.” How bracing and strange it is to find that the young Didion, whose collage-like style leaves so much space for the reader’s imagination, should question her right to impose.
What is striking about these dozen stories is how MacLaverty, 78, deals with the theme of encroaching mortality. Virtually every one features death and decay in some form, whether implicitly or explicitly, giving a profundity to tales that might otherwise feel less weighty than some of his earlier work.
It’s truly hard to provide a short description of “Out on a Limb,” Andrew Sullivan’s newest book. Yes, it’s a collection of his essays, stretching through 32 confused and contentious years of American history. But because it’s Sullivan, and Sullivan was and is a unique and always controversial presence in American politics and culture, to call the book a mere “collection of essays” is to do it a grave injustice. Perhaps it’s better to call it a series of journeys.
Philosophers’ lives are, of course, irresistible. They tend to be bestrewn with dysfunction. Something about the gulf between the life of the mind and the life of the person leaves us marveling at the cost of luminescent thinking (or of practical drudgery, depending on your side). Nietzsche was lonely, spurned, star-crossed. Schopenhauer feuded with elderly women, comforted only by his poodles. Heidegger … well. But Arendt, while “a magnificent stage diva,” (McCarthy’s words) when compared to the theorists and scholars of the Frankfurt School, was extraordinarily disciplined. She was charmingly self-aware. “She was too reverential about the great thinkers to claim ‘originality’ in philosophy itself,” wrote Alfred Kazin, also her friend. “Her distinctive procedure, which she must have learned in German seminars, was to circle round and round the great names, performing a ‘critique’ in their name when she disowned a traditional position.”
When the world is on fire, I turn to historical thrillers. When my personal world is full of fear and anger, I find comfort in Nazi henchmen and Communist spies. When I was pregnant during Australia’s Black Summer bushfires, I read Bernie Gunther like he might save me from inhaling smoke. I read Alan Furst’s gentlemen spies of eve-of-war Europe in hospital, with a newborn, in the first fearful days of the pandemic. I write this as Sydney goes through another lockdown. After a week inside, I dropped what I was reading and picked up the next Maisie Dobbs crime novel, set in the first days of World War Two.
This is not merely a preference; it is a necessity. But the only way I can tell you why is through the books themselves. I want to look at three authors and series—Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series, Alan Furst’s pre-war Europe spy novels, and John le Carré’s Cold War novels—and through them, hope to explain how and why historical thrillers are the perfect books for the end of the world.
Goldberg, the Sydney-based founding member of the Monday Morning Cooking Club, a not-for-profit dedicated to curating and documenting recipes from Jewish kitchens across Australia and the world, doesn’t want her children to have the same “recipe regret”: the particular kind of sadness you feel when you’ve lost your chance to record a recipe and can’t get it back.
Lupus est tibi visus, Pliny the Elder wrote in his Natural History. “You have seen a wolf; therefore you are silent.” The loss of language in the wake of such encounters underlies much of Charlotte McConaghy’s blazing new novel, “Once There Were Wolves.”
Marburg’s clear, spare style allows her to engage the reader with complex, human, sympathetic characters in just 10 pages each.
The day I open the first book in Ali Smith’s Seasonal Quartet, smoke from the wildfires ravaging the West Coast reach Chicago. It feels like a decidedly Smith-ian touch, both absurd and sad, that some of the damage is traced to a device set off at a gender reveal party. It’s been that kind of year. Autumn begins with both of its main characters in limbo, which has some uncanny resonances with our pandemic present: Daniel, a centenarian, finds himself in a literal nightmare while Elisabeth, a 32-year-old adjunct, is trapped by the more bureaucratic snags of the Post Office. Even though this one isn’t run by Louis DeJoy, its service is still sub-optimal.
Then I realised that the fact that life is short might work the other way around, too: if you know you enjoy something, or somewhere, immensely, then why not return? It makes sense when we have finite amounts of time.
Alderton brings her British wit and fresh writing to online dating and all its ups and downs. Marrieds vs. singles. The unfairness of online dating for women stressed about the tick of the biological clock. Add to it the difficulties of becoming a caregiver, and what you have is a book that is a reality check for many and a solace to those who feel like they’re constantly swiping right without meeting Mr. or Ms. Right.
“Afterparties” is a deeply personal, frankly funny, illuminating portrait of furtive, meddling aunties, sweaty, bored adolescents and the plaintive search for survival that connects them. Its nine stories sketch a world of hidden histories, of longings past and present, and of a culture carving its way out of historical trauma.
That afternoon at the Red Hook Terminal, Orff, in a long black jacket and sneakers with fluorescent yellow laces, was inspecting a mollusk setting tank belonging to the Billion Oyster Project, a nonprofit that aims to reintroduce the bivalve, in vast quantities, to the waterways of New York City—oysters being a critical part of her coastal-infrastructure plans. Correctly deployed, oysters can form dense reefs that slow the movement of water and mitigate the impact of storm surges. The Red Hook terminal is situated where the East River feeds into the Upper Bay, which was once a prime habitat for oysters; they could grow to weigh more than a pound apiece and fill an entire dinner plate. But, in the past century and a half, extensive river excavation, industrial pollution, and overharvesting have destroyed nearly every oyster colony in the New York Harbor region.
The Billion Oyster Project has retrofitted four beige nine-thousand-gallon shipping containers into oyster tanks. They look a little like back-yard aboveground swimming pools, complete with blue plastic interiors, and are connected to the harbor through PVC hoses and powerful water pumps. On Governors Island, several hundred yards away, project staffers and volunteers build wire cages, or gabions, filled with cleaned oyster shells. Then, in a cavernous warehouse at the Red Hook Terminal, the gabions are loaded into the salt-water-filled tanks. Next, oyster larvae are released into each tank, starting a process called “setting.” After about a week, the shell-anchored larvae, or “spat,” are transported to the restoration site and placed underwater, where they will spend their adult lives.
Good news: the embarrassment rarely lasts long. What’s left when it fades is just a useful term.
The first time in someone else’s home is the hardest. The scents are always different. I never know where to step. And of course the bathroom’s hardly ever in the same place, but if this virus has shown us nothing else it’s that people can get used to anything. The first few months, I didn’t know to ask for head counts. Or masks. Or any of the other things I check in on now. Didn’t even prod about test results, and of course we were months away from a vaccine — I just assumed that my customers weren’t sick because they always made sure I wasn’t either. And these were the money Zip Codes: River Oaks, West U, Montrose.
Among the many remarkable things about Stephen King is that he has yet to run out of ideas. Or put another way: He’s very good at finding new ways to explore themes that have interested him his entire career.
When Hill first goes blind, he has to listen to books one at a time on a heavy, clunky tape player. By the end of his memoir, he can put every book he owns — and all his music, too — into a device the size of a deck of cards. His world got bigger as it got smaller. And as he says goodbye, despite all his flaws, you root for him to hold on to the little bit of joy he’s found — the colors in his life, for once, sharp and bright.
I want to ask Jia
Tolentino to ask
me to ask her
Writing about the death of loved ones must be about as old as writing itself, and yet the inclination to do it instantly ties me up in knots. I am appalled that I am thinking of taking notes, ashamed as I take notes, disappointed in myself as I revise notes. What makes matters emotionally turbulent is the fact that my father is a famous person. Beneath the need to write may lurk the temptation to advance one’s own fame in the age of vulgarity. Perhaps it might be better to resist the call and to stay humble. Humility is, after all, my favorite form of vanity. But as with most writing, the subject matter chooses you, and so resistance could be futile.
Perhaps the most surreal aspect of returning to the office was confronting the magazine wall—the mag wall, as we call it. The surface is humble: a roughly 20-by-9-foot horizontal slab of dark cork affixed to drywall. It was the place where we pinned up printouts of the issue as we designed it; the plane where we scrutinized sketches for illustrations and early layout ideas and compared typographic experiments and photographic references. It was a living, breathing version of the magazine that would eventually enter the world.
Never mind the physics and the biology and the chemistry. Forget all about the rods and cones and the mysterious workings of the cerebral cortex. Colour, says James Fox, is primarily a cultural construct, ‘a pigment of our imaginations that we paint all over the world’. The Tiv people of West Africa get by perfectly happily with just three basic colour terms: black, white and red. Mursi cattle farmers in Ethiopia have eleven colour terms for cows, but they have none for anything else. At the other end of the spectrum, the Optical Society of America lists 2,755 primary colours, while paint manufacturers now offer more than 40,000 dyes and pigments, so many, says Fox, that they have run out of sensible names for them. ‘Dead Salmon’ and ‘Churlish Green’ are two of the more outlandish mentioned in his entertaining new book.
Here’s something everyone can agree on. For the occasion of his first book, Afterparties, Anthony Veasna So would have loved it all: the interviews, book tour, readings, attention, praise, pans, mythmaking, the opportunity to opine on the treacly queer writers he hates (or at least shade them) and the insufficiency of Asian American identity. He might talk about how he identified as Cambodian American before Asian American and, for that matter, Californian before American, which would have been a way of making space for himself as well as others. Some writers might be tentative about the limelight, but not him. His parents survived the Khmer Rouge genocide, and he survived Stockton, California, so you can be damned sure he’d make every second count.
One of my least favorite memories from college is my senior thesis reading, during which my roommate and fellow English major stepped behind the lectern to read the 22 interminable pages of my short story. I listened anxiously from the audience, hoping no one would ask me afterward why I hadn’t read it myself. My professors and closest friends knew the reason, but back then it still seemed important, imperative even, to deny what must have been more obvious than I ever let myself believe.
As I chronicle in my memoir, Blind Man’s Bluff, I devoted much of my time and energy to passing for sighted, to downplaying what I couldn’t see in hopes that everyone I knew, from girlfriends to roommates to myself, might forget that I was blind.
The propensity to cry emotional tears is uniquely human. Of all the claims to human exceptionality—consciousness, intelligence, innovation—it is the liquid that falls from our eyes when we are sad, happy, jealous, angry, and grateful, more than anything else, that we can call ours, and ours alone.
And yet the act of emotional crying is poorly understood. There is remarkably little consensus about the purpose of crying, its underlying physiology, and its impact on our moods. “What intrigued me about crying is how few people in the world have been studying it,” said Lauren Bylsma, an assistant professor of psychiatry and psychology at the University of Pittsburgh. “You would think with such a ubiquitous and important behavior, there would be more known about it.”
Anthony Veasna So's debut story collection Afterparties contains multitudes, embodying both the author's Cambodian American heritage and his life-affirming worldview. The title alludes to the aftermath of war, the 1975 Khmer Rouge genocide — but also the idea of getting down with friends and family for a real celebration after some stuffy social event.
So died unexpectedly in December of 2020, but has left us with an indelible posse of "Cambos" from his hometown of Stockton, California. His people are philosophical, queer, angry, bossy, romantic, unfaithful, filial, and defiant survivors who consider the genocide "to be the source of all [their] problems and none of them."
So’s stories allow the past to well up into the present without force or preciousness. “Afterparties” insists on a prismatic understanding of Cambodian American diaspora through stories that burst with as much compassion as comedy, making us laugh just when we’re on the verge of crying.
Unlike that demon-haunted story about a writer-turned-killer, this tale of a killer-turned-writer is haunted only by books — King’s own, but a mass of others too. They aren’t necessarily the ones you would expect — no mention of Poe or Lovecraft or Shirley Jackson (acknowledged influences) — but at some level “Billy Summers” is clearly the work of a writer in retrospective mood: taking stock, paying his dues.
In the summer of 2007, a short story by a young Korean-American writer named David Hoon Kim appeared in the pages of The New Yorker. It was Kim’s first published work of fiction. This auspicious beginning is normally the stuff of literary legend, about as straight-line a course for a book deal as a young writer could hope for, but for Kim, the book itself was a long time coming.
To that end, it can be tempting to read “Paris Is a Party, Paris Is a Ghost” as an immigrant’s tale, a doleful, beautifully written study of the confused yearnings and scars of exile. But the identity crisis here is deeper, roiled by the universal, often doomed impulse to imbue meaning where it no longer exists.
The brushstrokes of plot that kick off “Something New Under the Sun,” the second novel by Alexandra Kleeman, suggest the makings of a mildly satirical novel starring yet another neurotic upper-middle-class family. But that’s just misdirection, and Kleeman excels at it; what follows is muscular, brilliant, bonkers, an incredibly upsetting portrait of not only who we are but what we may yet become.
There are no astonishing twists in “The Husbands”; anyone who’s read “The Stepford Wives” (or watched the movie) will have an idea how this ends. Still, I found myself holding my breath, both hoping and not hoping that Nora would choose differently. It’s a testament to Baker’s talents as a writer that the final scenes of this familiar story are a gut punch nonetheless. She has a gift for depicting flawed, desperate characters who make decisions that are as sympathetic as they are disgusting and selfish.
The Segway also reminds me of my fallibility. To this day, thinking about it fills me with dread. That’s because in 2001, I was a young literary agent—and Dean Kamen’s book was my first-ever big deal. The cascading series of miscues that tanked the Segway began with that book proposal, its leak, and the ensuing hype. And I’ve always had a sick sense that the leak was somehow my fault. So I set out to report the story, to wade back into the mess I made when I got in way over my head, and to figure out once and for all the answer to a question that’s eaten at me for 20 years: Did I kill the Segway?
It is not uncommon for people to misspell an unfamiliar name—yet 99 times out of 100 people misspell mine as “Milton.” That is the name that shows up on everything from my university gym card to emails from colleagues.
It might seem trivial, yet this misspelling actually illustrates a key feature of how cultural practices emerge and stabilize.
Before she became a vegan, Molinaro was fairly new to cooking. She’d never made some of her favorite comfort foods, like kimchi jjigae or jjajangmyun. She started going through traditional Korean recipes, consulting both food blogs and her home-cook mother, finding substitutions for meat and dairy as she went along. Far from weakening her connection to Korean food and culture, veganism, she says, has brought her Koreanness into focus. She even makes her own kimchi, a labor-intensive practice many of our second-generation cohort seems happy to leave to our parents.
Here we have a work where the life and calling of the protagonist, our titular Agatha, young Catholic sister living in and running a sobriety home with her three companions in the church, is perfectly reflected in the coherent plot, denuded prose, and empathetic morality of the novel she inhabits.
When the poet Kaveh Akbar was a young child, his father taught him to recite Muslim prayers in Arabic, a language Akbar didn’t understand, and which his family spoke only during worship. Mimicking those incantatory sounds, he briefly embodied a foreign tongue. He could inhabit the lyric beauty of the words, he discovered, even without grasping their meaning. Akbar, who was born in Iran, arrived in the United States when he was two, a transition that imparted another lesson in linguistic gain and loss: while he picked up English, Farsi began to fade. In a poem called “Do You Speak Persian?,” Akbar writes, “I have been so careless with the words I already have. / / I don’t remember how to say home / in my first language, or , or light.”
Poetry requires the opposite of such carelessness, and Akbar is exquisitely sensitive to how language can function as both presence and absence.
When you connect powerfully to a story, you’re actually connecting to your deepest truth. Your ancestors want to connect with you as much as you want to connect with them. Your emotions are your sacred guides. Follow them down to the muddy bottom of your ocean. The alien beings who live here are only frightening because we don’t know them yet. Lie in your grief, swallowed by darkness so profound it makes no difference if your eyes are closed or open. Anger walks stiff-legged like a spider crab, a swarm of crabs scrabbling over you from one feeding ground to the next. In this dream, you can breathe the frigid water. The weight of the ocean flattens you. A jellyfish glows firefly-yellow, pulsing above you.
You will rise when you’re ready.
Japan is in a state of emergency. Coronavirus cases are on the rise. Unleashing thousands of foreigners like me, an American journalist covering the Games, into a city — to its restaurants and bars and stores — would be imprudent. But we do need to eat.
Enter the saving grace of these Olympics, the glue holding the whole thing together: Tokyo’s 24-hour convenience stores, or conbini, as they are known in Japan. They have quickly become a primary source of sustenance — and, more surprisingly, culinary enjoyment — for many visitors navigating one of the strangest Games in history.
In times of distress, many of us tend to search for a universal truth. Knowing that there's a way out, a way through can help us make sense of the world when it seems completely out of our control. And for more than a year now, the distress of social distancing, lockdown, and a rapidly mutating virus has overshadowed our public lives. In her new collection Goldenrod, Pushcart-Prize winning poet Maggie Smith responds to this destabilization by turning inward and asking — is the universal truth what we think it is?
“You’ve never seen true longing until you’ve seen a theater of young girls gaze upon the opening moments of The Nutcracker.” That line comes toward the very end of Megan Abbott’s latest novel, “The Turnout,” but it could as easily have been the first. Desire and ballet are entwined in a smoldering pas de deux throughout this tightly choreographed thriller.
Far too little of the ink spilled on the ethics of food production has come from those who are closest to the subject: farmers themselves. Thank the gods of agriculture for James Rebanks, whose new book, “Pastoral Song: A Farmer’s Journey,” tackles the confounding problem of how to make money from land without wrecking it.
Three nudes crudely drawn. One crouching,
back turned, right hand feeding the turtle