“In a Sister’s Elegies, Proof That the Art of Losing Can Bring Comfort” in The New York Times
My affinity for grief books seems related to my childhood obsession with the survival stories, labeled “Drama in Real Life,” that I read in my grandparents’ Reader’s Digests — tales of people trapped in an avalanche or stranded after a plane crash — and my enduring attraction to addiction memoirs, haunted houses and roller coasters. We seem to enjoy proximity to strong emotions even when they’re negative. In this system, artificial fear feels good. Vicarious misery is almost pleasure, a miserable pleasure. Sobbing through a film, or screaming on a carnival ride, provides catharsis for everything you haven’t sobbed or screamed about in your own life.
“How Poets Use Punctuation as a Superpower and a Secret Weapon” in The New York Times
I’ve always loved when a poet makes a punctuation mark her own — take Emily Dickinson’s dashes, typically standardized as em-dashes in print, though in her handwritten originals, the marks were more ambiguous, some appearing more like sloppy periods or commas, some lines slanted like slashes or even vertical, suggesting an idiosyncratic diacritical system. Alice Fulton invented a punctuation mark, a double equal sign she called “the bride” (a name for the background threads that give structure to lace) or “the sign of immersion.” In a 2010 interview that I’ve returned to many times, Fulton relates these to Dickinson’s dashes (the bride is a “dash to the max”) and to A. R. Ammons’s colons, glyphs that are “both present and silent,” “reticent yet visible.”
“Best Poetry of 2020” in The New York Times
I’m uncomfortable using the word “best” on a list — in part because I am just one person whose tastes are subjective. More so, to me it implies that I’ve read every book that came out in 2020 and can therefore rank them like brands of peanut butter (which seem more finite). I didn’t read them all, or even close — I wish my life made that possible. Still, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to talk about some poetry books that I loved this year. My column gives me limited space, so apart from the books I’ve already had a chance to recommend, here are several collections that I wasn’t able to write about in full or otherwise feel deserve more attention.
“The Year in Self-Googling” in Hazlitt
One Friday this summer, I absent-mindedly opened a tab and started typing my name—it had become the kind of habit that is almost automatic, like adjusting your glasses, which I sometimes try to do when I’ve already taken them off and put in my contacts. It was likely there was nothing to discover, and of course if there was, there was every chance it might ruin my day. I have an exceptionally google-able name. There are not, to my knowledge, any other Elisa Gabberts. Most of my writer friends have to compete with other entities—a poet named Justin Marks, for example, is outranked by a race-car driver. Another poet, Chris Tonelli, has edged out a music theorist of the same name. The most famous Gabbert is Blaine Gabbert, a quarterback. We’re probably distantly related; it’s an uncommon surname, an Ellis Island bastardization of the German Gebhardt. Blaine is the first suggestion if you google just “Gabbert.” On this particular afternoon, an idle curiosity made me pause after typing “Elisa”—I wanted to see who the famous Elisas were.
“The Intolerable, I Guess” (Poetry Foundation)
But Plath also had a vulnerable, defeated side, laid bare in the privacy of her journals. When she lost the 1959 Yale Younger Poets prize to George Starbuck—her former drinking buddy, if the term can apply to martinis at the Ritz—she found the irony awful: the editor said her poems were too “rough,” when she’d worked so hard to break herself of technical perfection, what Plath herself called “archaic cutie tricks,” at the expense of emotional force. She had wanted her poems to be more like Hughes’s. “Will I ever be liked for anything other than the wrong reasons?” she wrote in her diary; “I have no champions.” Of course, she had many, throughout her life. She published poetry, fiction, and criticism regularly in high-profile publications such as The Atlantic and The Observer; she had a coveted first-refusal contract with The New Yorker. But defeat came and went like a mood: the tides of failure. For Plath, success often felt like a failure—like the wrong success, too commercial or obscure; success insignificant, compared to her husband’s; success badly won; success too late.
“Sometimes, the Funny Thing About Poetry Is the Poems” in The New York Times
If the question is not unanswerable, the answer seems to be that the right to tell a “rape joke” belongs to the victim — and there’s subversive power in using the formal properties of the joke to complicate, rather than trivialize, trauma. Humor can be used as a defense mechanism (“The rape joke is you went home like nothing happened, and laughed about it the next day and the day after that, and when you told people you laughed,” Lockwood writes) but it’s also a reclamation of control — a refusal to be told how to feel about your own lived (and relived) experience.
“On Miranda Popkey’s Topics of Conversation” in The White Review
Alcohol plays a large role in this book, in these characters’ lives – they are always sipping something, sipping and shrugging, lighting cigarettes and exhaling. Wielding their props, they feel a little like props themselves; after being processed by the narrator’s memory, they exist solely in service to the narrative. At first it feels like an authorial tic, a lapse of control, but as the novel progresses, it comes to feel more like an excess of control, as though the narrator, or author, or both, were moving them around like marionettes. If some of the characters, these wounded women, are similar to each other, it may be because they’re all facets of the narrator’s mind, like the cast of a dream. They are doubly fictional. There’s a Freudian streak in this novel: multiple characters are either psychoanalysts or seeing psychoanalysts. This is conversation as talk therapy – or, as Adam Phillips might say, the narrator is ‘redescribing’ people from her past both to figure out a problem and to make her life more interesting. If the therapist isn’t there, she has become more interesting to herself. An unreliable narrator is a brain in a vat – a novelist is too.
“Safe” in The Yale Review
Since early March, when the country began to shut down in various degrees, I’ve often thought about how much of “normal life” I took for granted. If I needed something, or simply wanted it, I could just go and get it. I had never appreciated that my routines, in my largely white and middle-class neighborhood, weren’t dangerous. I know this thought is not original—in fact it strikes me as profoundly unoriginal. In fact it seems like most people I know have been having all the same feelings in the same order. First, I feared my parents wouldn’t take the risk of the virus seriously enough. I started talking to them almost every day—pressuring my father, an internist, to close his office—and after a few weeks, a little less often, when we ran out of things to say. Nothing new was happening. I watched a movie on my laptop, hyperaware of how often the characters touched their own faces. I had an anxiety dream that I’d forgotten about social distancing and accidentally gone to a party. I had a wish-fulfillment dream about grocery shopping, filling my cart with specialty meats and good olives at the deli. I went on a walk and felt like I was playing a live-action video game, trying to stay six feet away from other walkers and joggers at all times, while also trying not to get hit by a car. When I told my friends these things, or shared any recent observation or impression, they always said, Me too! or Exact same. We were all struggling to focus on reading and on work—our mostly inessential work which we were still allowed to do, on the internet at home. We were having the same dreams.
“For 3 Poets Who Embrace Excess, the Mess Is the Message” in The New York Times
This rather dazzling six-page poem operates like a run-on sentence, free-associating and changing its mind (“but actually ~ no ~ / no to wanting someone else / to do the work for us”), trailing off conversationally (“I don’t know man … was I wrong / to assume I was straight?”), throwing shade at a viral Paris Review essay (“did someone with this level of professional achievement / actually agonize for three weeks / over watching that scene in Annie Hall”). The poem is pissed off (“the more I talk about my pain / the more white people literally profit”) and its speaker feels trapped (“I hate this reality but neither / will I just die”). It’s as though career success is a capitulation to capitalism, hence a kind of failure — hence this book must hate itself. Zhang’s messiness is defiance: a refusal of standards (in America, necessarily white standards) of “beauty” and “quality” and even evidence of effort, a refusal of the burdensome standard of the “model minority.” It feels important that some of these poems are extraneous. One, called “jenny’s trying,” is just one line: “why hide?” Cutting “My Baby First Birthday” down to a typical 70-ish pages would work against its project, an assertion of the overflowing self and a denial of containment.
“Sick Sad World” (an excerpt from The Unreality of Memory) in Harper’s
Viruses and bacteria hijack our minds; they make us act weird. For example, Toxoplasma gondii, a parasite found in cat feces, makes mice less afraid of cats; this is an evolutionary strategy, making it easier for the parasite to get from the mouse to the cat. When it spreads to humans, it may increase their risk-taking. One study found that people with toxoplasmosis, the infection caused by the parasite, “are more likely to major in business.” An NBC News story suggested optimistically that the parasite “may give people the courage they need to become entrepreneurs.”
“Poems from the Storm: On Climate Poetry” in the New York Review of Books
Twenty years ago or so, when I first encountered the poems of Charles Wright, I noticed how often they begin with a description of the sky, of clouds or the moon or what the birds are doing and in which trees—he is always observing the firmament from his porch and then having profound thoughts about time. There was still a sense, back then, that the sky was the sky—ever-changing and yet changeless. Now the sky in a poem must be “terrifying,” a symbol of impending doom. Storms—weather—come from the sky. Weather is the prototypical boring conversation topic; climate too will become boring.
“Hoarding Instincts” in Real Life
Since early March, when a number of basic household necessities — along with small luxuries I’m accustomed to, which seem suddenly necessary — have become difficult to obtain or outright unavailable, I’m feeling the tug of a hoarding instinct. I don’t want the luxuries that feel normal to change. I don’t want what feels normal to change any faster than it already is, especially at home, where I’m safe as long as I never leave.
Entry for “Pandemic Journal” in the NYR Daily
Cooking is the only time I feel normal. I made a curry with the halibut, and topped it with the last of a bunch of fresh mint we had in the fridge. The next night I made pork chops, grits, and kale, and the following night I made a hash with the leftover pork. There’s something pleasurably game-like about figuring out what to cook every night, starting with whatever’s most perishable, limiting what I take from the freezer or pantry, incorporating scraps or a bit of sauce from previous meals, recursively. We’ve been eating well, so far, at least.
“Jacket Required: On Phil Collins’ Yuppie Rock” in the March Badness tournament
There’s a scene in the 1984 action/romance movie Romancing the Stone where Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner take shelter in a wrecked cargo plane in the jungles of Colombia. The plane was transporting weed, a kilo of which he proceeds to throw into the campfire. Stoned, they get to chatting, while the Douglas character (“Jack T. Colton”) idly flips through an old issue of Rolling Stone he finds in the plane. He sits up and cries out, “Aw, goddamn it man, the Doobie Brothers broke up.” (I found this line hilarious as a child, though I could not possibly have understood almost anything about it—who the Doobie Brothers were, when they broke up, what “doobie” means or the effects of marijuana—I think we must appreciate the formal properties of jokes before we understand their content.) I bring this up because the movie ends with Jack buying a boat—paid for by selling the giant emerald that was eaten by an alligator they had confronted in Cartagena—so they can literally sail away together. The fantasy of boat life was fundamental to the yuppie dreams of the 80s, and at least as important as the fantasy of sailing itself was the fantasy of being able to afford a boat.
“In Defense of Poetic Nonsense” (On Alice Notley’s For the Ride) in The New York Times
A lot of recent books fall into this microgenre: climate-aware, speculative poetry, mixing the fantastical with what you might call dystopian realism. These books take place in hell on earth and are nostalgic for the present. There’s a sameness to them. It’s no one’s fault; you don’t know you’re writing the zeitgeist when you’re in it, and then it’s too late — like all those people in the ’70s who named their daughters Jennifer. My best friend is a Jennifer, and I often think of her mother explaining how novel it sounded at the time, and how regal, a variation on “Guinevere.” When she said that, for a flash I heard the beauty in the name.
“Nostalgia for a Less Innocent Time: On the Glory and Depravity of Hair Metal” in the Paris Review Daily
Gene Simmons might think fame is the best, but I’m much more interested in the banality of fame, its emptiness. In my favorite hair metal videos, fame is exhausting, lonely, and boring. (Vince Neil said that he understood why rock stars have such big egos when he first played for a giant stadium crowd: “From the stage, the world is just one faceless, shirtless, obedient mass, as far as the eye can see.”) The banality of fame is best captured by the tour montage, an especially popular choice to showcase a power ballad. Take Bon Jovi’s perfect video for “Wanted Dead or Alive,” which has it all, in slow-motion—the grainy black & white footage of hands holding up lighters and flashing the sign of the horns; the women in the audience screaming and sobbing and lip-synching, one clutching a single drumstick; the band dragging themselves on and off different modes of transportation, gazing contemplatively out the windows of planes and buses; Jon finally collapsing after the show, dripping with sweat, on a sofa backstage. It’s exhaustion pornography—exhaustion as a trophy of excess.
“A Death-Haunted Poetry Book Mulls Life’s Reversals of Fortune” in The New York Times (on Mary Ruefle’s Dunce)
In “Dunce,” her latest poetry collection, Ruefle confronts the extraordinary yet banal fact that all of us die. How do we reconcile the boringness of death-in-general with the shock of our own, specific death? “I am walking in the general direction / of things,” she writes; “I was nothing / and shall be nothing again.” To live is to walk in death’s general direction. Death is our destiny, the Hollywood ending for each of us — what could be more predictable? And yet. (My favorite Issa haiku: “The world of dew / is the world of dew. / And yet, and yet—”)
“The Uncanny Child” in the Paris Review Daily
Horror movies are full of silent, glaring children—the demonic little blondes in Village of the Damned; the twins at the end of the hallway in The Shining; tiny telekinetic Drew Barrymore in Firestarter. Part of the creep factor of the silent child is that we don’t know what they’re thinking. Are they judging us? Scheming? A truly silent child stares like a doll. In his definitive essay on the uncanny, Sigmund Freud mentions a woman patient who “even at the age of eight” was still convinced that “her dolls would be certain to come to life if she were to look at them in a particular way, with as concentrated a gaze as possible.” What’s uncanny about a living doll or a doll-like child is not the realization of a childhood fear, Freud argues “the child had no fear of its doll coming to life, it may even have desired it.” Rather the doll reminds us of “an infantile wish,” the wish to make something true just by thinking it—desire as a power in itself.
“I Want to Ride a Dragon” in the London Review of Books (on Andrea Lawlor’s Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl)
As Polly, Paul does things Paul wouldn’t do; he cries easily, for example. He feels things Paul wouldn’t feel: ‘A flutter of shyness … girl-feelings. Weird.’ Midway through Orlando, Woolf writes that her protagonist ‘was becoming a little more modest, as women are, of her brains, and a little more vain, as women are, of her person’. This can partly be attributed to fashion: ‘Vain trifles as they seem, clothes have, they say, more important offices than merely to keep us warm. They change our view of the world and the world’s view of us.’ Polly’s clothes and altered body do the same kind of work, femming him inside and out, just as calling himself Polly casts a spell. (The novel’s epigraph is from Gertrude Stein: ‘Call anybody Paul and they get to be a Paul.’) During this stretch of the book, we may start to think, as Paul does, that he’s really, ‘like, chemically or something’, a woman – that he’ll settle in a true, final state. He follows Diane to Provincetown but she breaks his heart (‘You want to be everything, all the time … I just want a girlfriend’), and he goes back to being a guy and moves to San Francisco. The novel keeps changing just as Paul keeps changing, trying one form and then another, on a quest for narrative experience that mirrors his quest for sexual experience, for sex as novelty (‘What was sex but newness?’). Pleasure is important in this world – Paul’s world, Lawlor’s world, our world – pleasure as a radical end in itself. But Paul seeks love too, or if not love in a traditional form, then the transformative connection that suspends our native loneliness.
“Proust and the Joy of Suffering” in the Paris Review Daily
I am always struck by depictions of happiness in wartime, in the darkest conditions—in Chernobyl, in concentration camps. In Family Lexicon, a memoir of life under fascism in Mussolini’s Italy, Natalia Ginzburg writes: “Lola used to remember with great longing the time she spent in prison. ‘When I was in jail,’ she’d often say. She would recount how in jail she finally felt tremendously at ease, finally at home and at peace with herself.” She considered it the “noblest time of her life.” Ginzburg’s father, during bombings, “wouldn’t go down into the shelters … Under the roar and whistle of planes, he ran hugging the walls with his head down, happy to be in danger because danger was something he loved.” When his father returns from a stint in prison, he seems “happy” to have been there. The people in her life treasure their worst experiences; the worst is the best. It’s a form of resistance, to refuse to have pleasure taken away from you. But I think, too, there’s something fundamentally life-affirming about proximity to death. We grow nostalgic for our pain, once it’s safely in the past, because pain’s intensity makes regular life look banal.
“In ‘The Octopus Museum,’ Brenda Shaughnessy Sees a Cephalopod Future” in the New York Times
At times this book almost wallows in guilt, in the performance of self-flagellation. “Tell myself the weather ruined my plans, though it’s me ruined the weather’s,” Shaughnessy writes in one poem, and, in another, “I’m ashamed of us all.” In “Sel de la Terre, Sel de Mer,” the speaker addresses an octopod or a jellyfish: “Oh funny, runny little god who lived in the sea we cut to ribbons! Tell us the big story with your infected mouth. Tell us the big story is so far beyond us we can’t possibly ruin it.” “Here,” another speaker tells her hungry, bored daughter, handing her a pencil, “chew on this. … It’s all yours, darling.” It feels like a challenge to the reader: Chew on this, chumps. We made this hell and now we have to sleep in it; it’s “well-deserved.” Are these poems preachy? Do we deserve a poetry that isn’t preachy? And what’s the alternative? Raboteau writes, of her own children, “It’s pointless to question whether or not it was ethical to have them in the first place since, in any case, they are here.” That doesn’t feel quite right either. It’s a feature of apocalyptic living: There’s no right way to be.
“The Stupid Classics Book Club” in the Paris Review Daily
“You think you know, but you have no idea.” That’s the catchphrase for an MTV show called Diary that I’ve seen exactly once. In that episode, we follow Lindsay Lohan around for a day to see what her life is supposedly really like. Every time it cuts back from commercial, we hear Lohan saying the catchphrase. I think it should be the catchphrase for Stupid Classics Book Club too. I thought I knew, but I had no idea. It was trendy for a while to publish lists of classics that “you don’t have to read.” In 2018, GQ named twenty-one books, including The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Gulliver’s Travels, and the Bible, that “you don’t have to read,” with suggestions for what you should read instead. Lit Hub published a list of “10 Books to Read By Living Women (Instead of These 10 By Dead Men).” Since when is it poor form to die? I find these lists incredibly tiresome. Of course, you don’t have to read anything. Some books will be triggering or make you deeply unhappy; there just isn’t enough time. But if you want to speak or write knowledgably about them, you really do have to read them. You can’t just assume you know what they’re like. I’m glad I read Fahrenheit 451 even though I despised it. Now I know exactly how it’s bad, and I can hate it for the right reasons.
“On Classic Party Fiction” in the Paris Review Daily
In Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, the element of unreality is achieved by the tableaux vivants, elaborate live reenactments of Botticelli’s Primavera and Tiepolo’s Banquet of Cleopatra. With their “happy disposal of lights and the delusive interposition of layers of gauze,” the tableaux “give magic glimpses of the boundary world between fact and imagination.” Lily Bart appears as Mrs. Lloyd, the subject of a Sir Joshua Reynolds painting—the guests are titillated and a little shocked (“Deuced bold thing to show herself in that get-up”), so I always pictured something more typically male-gaze-y than the actual portrait, not a woman reclining but standing up, fully dressed, and carving her husband’s name in a tree. In any case, it casts the necessary spell to carry Lily and Mr. Lawrence Selden away from the party, “against the tide which was setting thither,” past faces that “flowed by like the streaming images of sleep,” so they can kiss and whisper of love. Classic parties often have a watery quality. Nick Carraway is surrounded by “swirls and eddies of people” he doesn’t know. It’s the wet, blurry view through the bottom of a glass.
“Weird Time in Frankenstein” in the Paris Review Daily
Because of this nonlinear storytelling, we’re left to puzzle out just what Victor was up to during his monster’s intellectual coming of age. It’s tricky in part because the emotional texture of their experiences was different. The monster’s years feel richer, thus longer, to the reader; they held more joy. But from inside the experience, Victor’s years full of fear and regret would surely have felt longer than the monster’s happy ones; pain elongates time. On the other (other) hand, these were the first two years of the monster’s existence; time is elongated in childhood in part because each day accounts for such a large proportion of one’s lifetime so far. (There’s also a theory that because children’s hearts beat faster, “their body clocks ‘cover’ more time within the space of 24 hours than ours do as adults.” Would this apply to Frankenstein’s monster? Maybe, if his love for the cottagers quickened his pulse.) Can there be true simultaneity in fiction? In what sense do narratives that unspool at different times “happen” at the same time? Some of Shakespeare’s plays seem to operate on two contradictory time scales, a phenomenon critics have dubbed “double time.” But then, there’s no true simultaneity in the real world, either. Here’s Wikipedia’s enchanting ur-voice on the relativity of simultaneity: “According to Einstein’s special theory of relativity, it is impossible to say in an absolute sense that two distinct events occur at the same time if those events are separated in space.” (At one point, the monster quotes from Percy Shelley’s poem “Mutability,” which makes no sense at all, since the narrative takes place before the poem was written.)
“Against Completism” in the Paris Review Daily
I’ve always thought of some writers as “hot” and others as “cold,” my classic example being Plath versus Anne Sexton, Plath the controlled ice queen and Sexton the sexy, messy one. But it’s only Plath’s poetry that’s chilly; her journals and letters are lusty and overabundant with feeling, with overabundance. (In a funny but mean review of her recently published volume of letters, Jeffrey Meyers describes the “awkward” size and binding of the “massive volume,” just one of two, the second of which will appear “to stupefied readers next fall.”) It’s hard to square Plath’s prose with her poetry, the way its hard to square her image in photographs—the beaming, teacher’s-pet cuteness—with her deep, resonant voice on those spell-binding BBC recordings, where she sounds absolutely merciless, a dark sorceress. But her icy poetry is still intense, still burns to the touch—“black and glittering,” as she writes in “Burning the Letters,” from Ariel; “My veins glow like trees.” In comparison, “Mary Ventura” feels lifeless, lukewarm.
“On Writerly Jealousy” in the Paris Review Daily
In “For Me Alone to Read” (2007), Marías writes of the irritation of finding that your favorite art or artists have other fans. After naively believing “we were the only people who knew them, or at least the ones who best or most truly understood them,” we learn that “many other readers, viewers or listeners are familiar with these books and have perhaps felt the same, and then you cannot help see these others as ‘usurpers’ or ‘copycats.’ ” I’ve had a slightly different worry, that once someone more famous than me has written about “my” subject, everyone will think that I’m the copycat. For Marías—who I guess doesn’t have to worry about writers more famous than him—this having-to-share is worse when the others are “people we don’t like, or whom we detest or despise, or who strike us as arrant fools.” Again, I feel differently; the pain of sharing is more poignant when I see the writer who got there first was at least as interesting on the subject as I might have been.
“That Formal Feeling” in the New York Review of Books
The late American poet Bill Knott, who used to teach a class on poetic forms at Emerson College in Boston, knew an exercise, or perhaps you could call it a trick, by which you could turn any poem into a sonnet. Choose a poem (your own or someone else’s) of about one hundred words, then locate all the rhyming words and write them in a column. You’ll find that any unrhymed poem (take “Leaving the Atocha Station,” by John Ashbery) is likely to contain some rhymes (bats/rats, scarecrow/window) and slant rhymes (prayer/hair, amnesiac/enthusiastic). Next, try to arrange the pairs into the rhyme scheme of either a Petrarchan or an Elizabethan sonnet, and rewrite and reorder the lines accordingly, using synonyms as necessary to fill in the missing rhymes. Finally, nudge the syllabics, so that the lines are about ten syllables each—extra points if you can make the feet iambic. You’ve created a sonnet, or something like it.
At 36, my relationship to time is complex. I’ve always been hyperaware of it, but when I was younger, I so often wanted time to move faster. I dreaded boredom more than anything. Now there is something exquisite about boredom, the slowed passage of time. In my 20s I loved to sleep late on the weekends — till 11 was ideal. Now I’d much prefer to wake up early to read on the couch for several hours, with coffee, before making breakfast. It makes the day (and hence the life) feel longer. There is even an element of pleasure to insomnia, a break in that stretch of unconsciousness. Only in waking can I appreciate the pleasure of having slept. Would a bigger bed, and deeper sleep, make me happier, or just more content? Contentment isn’t happiness.
“The Great Mortality” in Real Life
Whenever a story on the threat of an “extinction-level event,” like an asteroid or comet headed for Earth, is making the rounds, people quote-tweet it to add, “Finally, some good news!” In this age of horrible news all the time, we get it instantly: Ironic suicidal ideation. But there’s something kind of real behind it — the fantasy of the swift death, the instinct to just get it over with. Of course, the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs didn’t kill them instantly, unless they were at ground zero. It wasn’t “IPU annihilation,” to use philosopher Galen Strawson’s term: instant, painless, unexperienced. It took tens of thousands, possibly even hundreds of thousands of years of living on a sick and barren planet before they all finally went extinct. This makes the prospect of death by asteroid much less merciful.
“Letter of Recommendation: Recently Returned Books” in the New York Times Magazine
So much of what we encounter each day is designed to influence our decisions and purchases, but the books on this shelf have no agenda. They are not being pushed by the publishing industry. There is no marketing budget behind them. They’re not trending on my social-media feeds or selected by a recommendation algorithm. They were not chosen to signal anyone’s intellect or righteousness or in-the-know-ness. They are often old and very often ugly. I’ve come to think of this shelf as an escape from hype, a kind of anti-curation.
“Is compassion fatigue inevitable in an age of 24-hour news?” in The Guardian Long Read (also available as a podcast)
If you have ever cared for a sick parent, or child, you might recognise the symptoms of increased stress: the bad sleep, bad moods, bad stomach. I have experienced compassion fatigue as a caregiver myself. My husband has a chronic illness, and when he started getting ill, several years ago, we didn’t know what was wrong. He would be struck with sudden vertigo and trapped on the couch, panicked, for hours. On other days, he was too dizzy to drive, or too unsteady to walk without a cane. Even more worryingly, his hearing started fluctuating, the levels changing from day to day, sometimes better in one ear and worse in the other. This made his work particularly difficult – he was teaching at a university at the time. Throughout it all, he had roaring tinnitus, which he compared to hair dryers, vacuum cleaners, jet engines, sirens, and on one occasion, a UFO landing. Some days he could barely hear anything, and it seemed that any day, he might wake up with no hearing at all, unable to work or communicate, even with me. John was in his 30s.
“Big & Slow” in Real Life
It’s hard to know — and easier not to think about — the effects that all the nuclear materials on the planet could have on people, other organisms, and the environment over the course of hundreds of thousands of years. This kind of time-delayed destruction is what the writer Rob Nixon calls “slow violence,” a violence “that occurs gradually and out of sight … dispersed across time and space.” Nixon’s book Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor explores how processes like toxic drift, global distillation (also known as the grasshopper effect, which causes pollutants to accrue at the poles), and the acidification of the oceans unfold so slowly they “can hinder our efforts to mobilize and act decisively.” The emphasis here is on action — not the object per se but the work it does. An idea as large and amorphous as global warming blurs the distinction between object and process: To look at the moving object we have to pause it, which renders it inert, allowing us to contemplate it passively.
“Crash Course” in the New York Times Magazine
The explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in 1986 has often been described as the worst nuclear disaster in history. But there are records of several larger and more destructive catastrophes. In “The Age of Radiance,” a history of the nuclear era, Craig Nelson cites a 1957 plutonium-plant accident in the Ural Mountains that irradiated an area 14 times as large as the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. There are other examples, too, but these accidents weren’t publicized, because they took place in the U.S.S.R. during the secretive era before glasnost. So what makes Chernobyl history’s worst? It’s the fact that we all know about it.
In other words, our collective reckoning of what is or isn’t a disaster entails publicity. Disasters are news because they are news.
“Doomsday Pattern” in Real Life
When Chernobyl exploded, workers at the plant and in the nearby town of Pripyat experienced something very like the Trinity test: a purple and pink glow in the sky; a fresh, clean smell like ozone. “It was pretty,” one witness said. They went out and watched it from their balconies like it was an L.A. sunset. If they were quite close, they tasted something metallic. You see this over and over in reports of radiation exposure — a taste of metal, like tinfoil, or in one case, “a combination of metal and chocolate.” Cancer patients receiving radiotherapy describe the same sensation. It’s not the flavor of waves or particles but a phantom taste — a sign of nerve damage.
“True Crime” in Real Life
For years, I’ve believed there are two kinds of happiness. On the one hand there’s the happiness of stability: a good job, a loving family; dependable American-dream prosperity. On the other, there’s the happiness of intense experience: dizzying highs and crushing lows in quick succession. My theory is that when we’re young, we prefer the second kind of happiness; we take a lot of risks because the lows improve the highs. As we get older, as the pressures of conformity increase and the lows take their toll, we strive for the first kind of happiness. But we continue to prefer our painful memories — stable life may be happier, but unstable life is more interesting. It’s almost as though being happy day to day doesn’t make us happy overall.
Believing this scares me, as much as the news scares me. I worry that, despite the wages of stress on my body — my blood pressure is higher, my gums are receding — I’ll look back on this whole awful year with nostalgia. Nostalgia, etymologically, means “homesickness” or “return-home pain” — again, there’s the significance of place. But I also find that the “pain” part of the word (algos, as in fibromyalgia), the longing part, bleeds over into the “return home” part — I’m not just nostalgic for my past, I’m nostalgic for my pain. My own past suffering can be a great source of comfort. Why is that? Because it’s over? Or because it’s a badge of honor?
“On the Pleasures of Front Matter” in the Paris Review Daily
Good introductions are full of these grand, seemingly unprovable (and undisprovable) proclamations: a near aphorism acts as a self-dare to the author, whose challenge is to back it up with the book. I like to collect them as theories, like perfect lines of poetry that require no evidence other than themselves.
You notice it here, and in her audition tapes, which are also on YouTube, and of course in later parts of the show when Anne has aged and come into her own, that Follows is very pretty, even beautiful. I used to think it was a remarkable stroke of luck that they managed to cast a homely adolescent who would turn out to be beautiful, just like in the books. How foolish of me! Now I can see she has the same face and the same body from scene to scene. So much of beauty is a social construction—smarten up your clothes and do your hair the right way and everyone starts to agree that you are pretty. When the people on screen remark on Anne’s improved looks, we the viewers see it too.
“In Our Midst” in Real Life
As the injustices pile up, and reserves run low, the question of where we should focus our moral attention becomes critical — when exposed to more evils than we can possibly attend to, most of us feel helpless. And what, more than helplessness, excuses apathy and inaction? Rather than confront global suffering, we may cull our feeds, or stop watching the news. Or, worse, we may make of the suffering other an enemy, turning apathy to antipathy. These unspoken algorithms by which we manage our empathy — they are almost innocent, almost “self-care.” (We’re not committing atrocities, just refusing to witness them.) But layered together, they have the shade of evil.
“Picture Yourself Happy” in Real Life
Photos confirm that we were really there, but more so (or less?), they confirm that we were: Being took place. In On Photography, Susan Sontag writes that a portrait, in the days before photography, was meant to confer and confirm status, thus the owner needed only one. With photographic portraits it’s different: “What the photographic record confirms is, more modestly, simply that the subject exists; therefore, one can never have too many.” Photos extend our existence, since they can live on after our deaths like poems or mummy masks. Of course we take selfies, when the barrier to create them is so low. But we don’t just paint self-portraits or take selfies to prove to others we exist. Seeing a photo of myself reinforces my sometimes shaky belief that I exist. Is my existence as it seems? Am I a Boltzmann brain, a character in a simulation, a two-dimensional hologram? Even taking for granted that I’m real and of my time and that other people also exist, do people see me and think of me as I think of myself?
“The Little Room, or the Unreality of Memory” in Pacific Standard
I could not remember the room at all until my mother said it was where the placemats were stored. Then I had a flash of going in there as a child, pulling out the drawer that held the table linens, so I could set the table for some family dinner. I saw myself there in the little room, not from the first person, but as though watching a girl from a kind of bird’s eye view or hidden camera, out somewhere near the ceiling in the den. Yes, finally, I could picture the blond color of the wood and the way the drawer would often stick. But the memory was flimsy, like a memory of a dream. My father still could not picture the room; perhaps he had never been in there. What do you imagine on that wall? my mother asked. Just wall, we both said, a continuation of the wallpaper. I had no fond memories of that room, and in all my years of visiting the museum of my grandmother’s house since it sold, had never seen it there; my mind simply wallpapered over it. And now I doubt the specificity of the rest of my museum — am I sure where the floor lamp was, of the color of the brocade?
“Earth Is Not Vengeful, Just Indifferent” in Pacific Standard
Like an asteroid impact, a supervolcano can cause global cooling, forming an ash cloud that blocks the sun and leads to widespread famine. At this moment in history, when we’re breaking new heat records every month and the permafrost is melting, global cooling doesn’t sound so bad. But we don’t know what the baseline will be when it happens. What if some other disaster has already altered the global climate? A “mini ice age” in the 1300s has been tied to both volcanic and earthquake activity in Europe and the bubonic plague — there is debate over whether famine led to weakened immune systems, making populations more vulnerable to the plague, or whether mass deaths from the plague led to reforestation and subsequent global cooling.
“NASA’s Overlooked Duty to Look Inward” in the New Yorker
Mike Massimino, in his memoir, “Spaceman,” reports having spent almost a full day staring out a window of the Space Shuttle Columbia, watching sunrises and lightning storms (“like a form of communication, like a sequence, like the clouds are alien creatures speaking to each other in code”). On his second spacewalk, Massimino told me recently, he had a spare moment to “take in the view.” He recalls being struck not only by Earth’s incredible beauty—“We are living in a paradise”—but also by its fragility. From out there, he said, especially during night passes, “you can see the thinness of the atmosphere,” a bluish-green line. This sudden perception of Earth as a delicate, intricate system is so common among astronauts that the writer Frank White coined a term for it: the overview effect.
“Magnificent Desolation” in Real Life
When I think of the jumpers, I think of two things. I think of images of women covering their mouths — a pure expression of horror. They were caught on film, watching the towers from the streets of Manhattan. I do this sometimes — hand up, mouth open — when I see or read something horrible, even when alone. What is it for? I think, too, of the documentary about Philippe Petit, who tightrope-walked between the tops of the towers in 1974. At the time they were the second tallest buildings in the world, having just been surpassed by the Sears Tower in Chicago. It was an exceptionally windy day (it is always windy at 1,300 feet) and when a policeman threatened him from the roof of one building, Petit danced and pranced along the rope, to taunt him. This still seems to me like the most unthinkable thing a man has ever willingly done. The jumpers did what he did, but worse. Death was not a risk but a certainty; they jumped without thinking. It’s more horrible to contemplate than many of the other deaths because we know the jumpers were tortured. Death is fathomable, but not torture.
“Vanity Project” in Real Life
On the other hand, there are phantom limbs. Amputees frequently continue to feel the presence of their missing limb and even feel pain in it, suggesting that the mental self-model can be so persistent and strongly ingrained that changes to the physical body are difficult to incorporate into a new mental model — that the mind is not as plastic as the body. Or perhaps it’s that the sense of self expands more readily than it retracts, that the mind is resistant to reducing the scope of the self. I am reminded of the poet Anne Boyer remarking on Twitter that she did not identify with recent photos of herself because her hair was missing, following treatment for breast cancer. Of course, I thought: phantom hair.
“Can Ideas Withstand Shifts in Language?” in Guernica
For every translator, there must come a moment of reckoning, of wondering, What precisely am I translating? Flaubert was famously a stylist, who believed “a good sentence in prose should be like a good line in poetry, unchangeable.” (If unchangeable, then untranslatable.) Odd, then, Davis writes, that “many of the translations do not try to reproduce that style, but simply tell this engrossing story in their own preferred manner.” She cites the “lush, loquacious” 1948 translation by Gerard Hopkins (nephew of the poet), which “added material in almost every sentence.” A text is only made of language, and yet the language seems to generate some other, ineffable, epiphenomenal essence—a spectral text that survives when all the language changes. Infinite translations, infinite texts.
“Personal Data: Notes on Keeping a Notebook” in Catapult
A few weeks ago, cleaning out my grandmother’s room, my mother and I found a plastic bag of personal effects, brittle and delicate, that had belonged to her father, my grandmother’s first husband, who died in 1956. My mother was six at the time and barely remembers him. A black wallet, containing cards and photos (one of my uncle, her older brother, but none of her). Some old receipts and documents, folded and worn soft. A flat, round object we eventually identified as a bottle opener, rusted shut. What meaning was there? He’s part of my blood, but I don’t think of him as related to me. My mother had never seen any of these things.
“Variations on Crying” in The Butter
I have noticed that there’s something about speech that can trigger tears. I’ll hear a story, and know intellectually that the story is sad, but I won’t actually cry until I tell it to someone else. Is it the speech act itself, or the presence of an audience? In college, I learned that a girl from my high school, someone I knew but hadn’t kept in touch with, had been in a bad car accident; her right arm was severed off. I was shocked when I heard it, but not sad, exactly. Later, I repeated the story to my mother; I remember we were driving at the time, and I was in the passenger seat, as the girl would have been. I started crying when I said the word “severed,” which had not seemed quite so brutal in my head as it did it my mouth. It’s not often we have cause to say the word “severed.” Several years ago, my friend Kevin’s wife Katie was almost crushed when a gallery wall fell on top of her; her pelvis was shattered. She has said she didn’t recognize the animal scream that came out of her. When Kevin called their families to tell them what had happened, he couldn’t get it out; he’d try to speak and start sobbing. More than once, mentioning this story offhand to someone else, I’ve gotten unexpectedly choked up, like I can only realize how close she came to being killed or paralyzed when I’m vocalizing it.
“Dream Logic” in The Butter
Years ago, a friend told me that she dreams in the third person, watching herself. At the time, I found this improbable—why wouldn’t you dream as you live?—until I noticed that I often fantasize in the third person. I don’t just mean sexual fantasies, but any time I project forward into an imagined future, and sometimes I replay memories as though I’m watching them from outside the scene. In dreams, though, I embody my body, only seeing myself when I look in the mirror, in which case my reflection is often grotesque or distorted in some way. I once heard that you shouldn’t look in the mirror while on LSD; perhaps the same is true of dreams.