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Date: Thursday, 09 Oct 2014 21:05

The committee in charge of awarding the Nobel Prize in Literature likes to crown its laureates with pronouncements that can seem as incomprehensible as its choice of winner often does. The committee reaches for poetic heights as if in tribute to the accomplishment of the writer it honors; we, the common reader, pore over the announcements like pilgrims who have gone to consult the oracle at Delphi and come away with garbled fortune cookies. J. M. G. Le Clézio, the French novelist who won in 2008, was praised as an “author of new departures, poetic adventure and sensual ecstasy, explorer of a humanity beyond and below the reigning civilization”; J. M. Coetzee, 2003’s laureate, “in innumerable guises portrays the surprising involvement of the outsider”; Harold Pinter, who won in 2005, alliteratively “uncovers the precipice under everyday prattle and forces entry into oppression’s closed rooms.” (It was a relief to learn, last year, that Alice Munro was simply a “master of the contemporary short story.”)

Today, the prize went to the French novelist Patrick Modiano, “for the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the occupation.” Modiano, who is sixty-nine and has been steadily publishing novels since 1968 (his latest, “Pour Que Tu Ne Te Perdes Pas Dans le Quartier,” came out last week), is famous in France, but practically no one here has heard of him. Yale University Press is coming out with a volume of three of his novellas, but the vast bulk of his work remains unavailable in English.


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Author: "Alexandra Schwartz"
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Date: Thursday, 09 Oct 2014 18:32

Biographies, when they matter, can act as a kind of corrective to the subject’s boorishness. All that the star could not achieve in life—tenderness, care, responsibility toward others—doesn’t get vanquished in great studies so much as explained and folded into the grand story of the complicated, arresting self. The British biographer Michael Holroyd’s life of Lytton Strachey, for instance, is a major work about a minor Bloomsbury figure that is fascinating to read because Holroyd recognizes, without admonishing, Strachey’s spectacular selfishness. It’s Holroyd’s witty view of it all that lifts the narrative up and propels the reader forward. John Lahr’s distinctly American sense of humor—it never comes at his subject’s expense—informs “Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh,” his authoritative and felt new biography of the playwright (1911-1983). A great deal that made Williams appear out of order and out of touch during the latter part of his life and career—he called the nineteen-sixties his “stoned age”—grew out of forces that Lahr not only describes but explicates, illuminates, and makes resonate.


See the rest of the story at newyorker.com

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Author: "Hilton Als"
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Date: Wednesday, 08 Oct 2014 20:45

According to Anthony Lane, there are approximately “twenty-one people” who haven’t read Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl.” I’m one of them. This past weekend, when I saw the movie, I liked it so much that I felt sad about missing out on the book when it was published, two years ago. At the same time, “Gone Girl” seemed like one of those experiences to which the “cultural uncertainty principle” applies: you can read the book or you can see the movie, but you can’t fully embrace both versions, because they’ll occupy the same brain-space, obscuring one another. Basically, you have to choose an experience. The upside of my choice is that I enjoyed Fincher’s film on its own terms, in all its abstract, intellectual, postmodern glory.

The book version of “Gone Girl,” so I’ve heard, is a crime novel: an absorbing, ingenious thriller in which, halfway through, a big twist upends everything. (Spoiler alert: I plan to discuss that twist below.) Among the book’s many virtues, I’m told, is its concreteness. It’s not that the book is plausible, exactly, but that it’s full of texture and detail, both forensic and psychological. The events in the book make sense; the voices, thoughts, and actions of Nick and Amy seem like they could belong to real people.


See the rest of the story at newyorker.com

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Author: "Joshua Rothman"
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Date: Tuesday, 07 Oct 2014 20:45

Is Ebola the ISIS of biological agents? Is Ebola the Boko Haram of AIDS? Is Ebola the al-Shabaab of dengue fever? Some say Ebola is the Milosevic of West Nile virus. Others say Ebola is the Ku Klux Klan of paper cuts. It’s obvious that Ebola is the MH370 of MH17. But at some point the question must be asked whether Ebola isn’t also the Narendra Modi of sleeping sickness. And I don’t mean to offend anyone’s sensitivities, but there’s more and more reason to believe that Ebola is the Sani Abacha of having some trouble peeing.
See the rest of the story at newyorker.com

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Author: "Teju Cole"
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Date: Monday, 06 Oct 2014 21:39

The following essay is adapted from the introduction to “Best American Essays 2014,” which will be published this week.

It is a curious fact that the word essayist showed up in English before it existed in French. We said it first, for some reason, by not just years but a couple of centuries. France could invent the modern essay, but the notion that someone might seize on the production of these fugitive-seeming pieces as a defining mode was too far-fetched to bear naming. Rabelais had written Pantagruel, after all, and people hadn’t gone around calling themselves Pantagruelists (in fact they had, starting with Rabelais himself, but the word meant someone filled with nonjudgmental joie de vivre). Had a Bordelais born with the name Michel Eyquem titled his books Essais in the 1580s? Fine—Montaigne was Montaigne, a mountain in more than name. One didn’t presume to perpetuate the role. France will cherish his example, but the influence it exerts there is partly one of intimidation. In France the essay constricts after Montaigne. It turns into something less intimate, or at least less confiding, becoming Descartes’s meditations and Pascal’s thoughts. It’s said that even a century and a half after Montaigne’s death, when the marquis d’Argenson subtitled a book with that word, Essays, he was shouted down for impertinence. Not a context in which many people would find themselves tempted to self-identify as “essayists.” When the French do finally start using the word, in the early nineteenth century, it’s solely in reference to English writers who’ve taken up the banner, and more specifically to those who write for magazines and newspapers. “The authors of periodical essays,” wrote a French critic in 1834, “or as they’re commonly known, essayists, represent in English letters a class every bit as distinct as the Novellieri in Italy.” A curiosity, then: the essay is French, but essayists are English. What can it mean?


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Author: "John Jeremiah Sullivan"
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Date: Monday, 06 Oct 2014 12:00

Has any major novelist had a career as lopsided as E. M. Forster’s? Between 1905 and 1910, the year that his masterful study of manners “Howards End” became a best-seller, Forster—who was known to friends as Morgan—produced four highly successful novels and was acclaimed as one of the brightest young literary lights in Britain. He seemed completely in command of his milieu, middle- and upper-middle-class England at the beginning of the twentieth century, and he gently picked apart its sympathies with wit and penetrating insight. Yet by the following year, when he was all of thirty-two years old, he confessed to his diary frustration with his work and a growing sense of impotence. He had grown weary of “the only subject I both can and may treat—the love of men for women & vice versa,” and found that he couldn’t write his way out of his unease. He started but abandoned a novel, “Arctic Summer,” about a suitor who commits suicide over a scandalous love affair, and wrote another, “Maurice,” whose frank treatment of a homosexual relationship impelled him to withhold publication until after his death, in 1970.

It was not until fourteen years later, in 1924, that Forster published another novel, one he’d worked on in fits and starts and revised again and again in the course of the difficult decade. In “A Passage to India,” whose title is borrowed from Whitman, a British schoolmistress’s unsettling encounter with an Indian doctor sparks a criminal case that lays bare the gap between the English imagination and colonial realities. It was Forster’s final novel, his greatest study of the ambiguities of intimacy—and, given its difficult birth, a minor miracle.


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Author: "Eric Banks"
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Date: Monday, 06 Oct 2014 04:00

Your story in this week’s issue, “Scheherazade,” is about a man who is being held in a house that he can’t leave, where he is visited twice a week by a woman who has been hired to bring him food and supplies, and perhaps also to attend to his sexual needs. We never learn, in the story, why Habara can’t leave the house. Do you know?

Sorry, but I don’t know the exact circumstances that brought about the situation, either. Of course, I have a few ideas about what might be the cause, but I expect my readers do as well. I’m not trying to make a big secret out of it—in fact, I think if you took their hypotheses and mine and stacked them on top of each other you’d have an important form of author-reader communication. Because what’s important isn’t what caused Habara’s situation but, rather, how we ourselves would act in similar circumstances.


See the rest of the story at newyorker.com

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Author: "Deborah Treisman"
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Date: Saturday, 04 Oct 2014 22:02

In the September issue of Esquire, John H. Richardson writes “The Abortion Ministry of D. Willie Parker.” Parker is a doctor at Mississippi’s last operating abortion clinic, which legislators in the state have been attempting to shut down. (In July, a federal appeals court ruled against the Mississippi law that would have closed it.) Through Parker’s story, Richardson explores why political debates about abortion are so fraught. Many doctors “will say smugly, We don’t do that here,” which “allows them to present themselves as noble caregivers while they send their most desperate patients out to fend for themselves,” he writes. Parker, instead, finds resolve within his mission. “The protesters say they’re opposed to abortion because they’re Christian,” he tells Richardson. “It’s hard for them to accept that I do abortions because I’m a Christian.”


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Author: "Matthew McKnight"
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Date: Saturday, 04 Oct 2014 14:00

How is the life of a creative person—an artist, a designer, a composer—related to his or her work? This week, we’ve brought together stories from the archive that explore that question. Some, like Janet Malcolm’s Profile of the painter David Salle, speak to the elusiveness of the artist’s “real” self; others, like Peter Schjeldahl’s critical take on Damien Hirst, examine how an artist’s work is shaped by his economic surroundings.


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Author: "Joshua Rothman and Erin Overbey"
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Date: Friday, 03 Oct 2014 15:30

Our family abounded in tall, handsome veterans of the Second World War. My uncle Hal had been an Army photographer—his job was to lie in the belly of U.S. bombers and take pictures of the bombings, to make sure that the targets had been destroyed. My uncle Carl flew planes in the Pacific. My absent father was said to be cut from the same angular, dark-haired, hypermasculine pattern. The war may not actually have been a constant topic of conversation in my childhood, but it seemed to be, at least to me. These men stood up straight, as if still in uniform, spoke in loud voices, as if still giving orders.
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Author: "Jane Smiley"
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Date: Thursday, 02 Oct 2014 23:33

Notes from the book closet on new and forthcoming titles that caught our eye.

“The Vulgar Tongue: Green’s History of Slang” (Oxford University Press), by Jonathon Green, out October 1st. Jonathon Green has been studying slang for more than thirty years and is the author of the three-volume “Green’s Dictionary of Slang,” published in 2010, which collected five hundred years’ worth of non-standard English vocabulary. This new book provides a history of slang, approaching it as “a ‘counter language,’ the language that says no.” “Born in the street,” Green writes, “it resists the niceties of the respectable.” Green identifies the common threads that have run through slang for centuries—the emotions and situations that consistently demand a less buttoned-up form of expression. He also describes how words that were once used only by the socially marginalized made their way into mainstream society, and why they found traction there. “Slang,” he argues, “represents humanity at its most human.”—A.D.
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Author: "Rachel Arons and Andrea DenHoed"
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Date: Wednesday, 01 Oct 2014 21:55

On this month’s fiction podcast, George Saunders reads two short stories from the New Yorker archive: “Love,” by Grace Paley, from 1979, and “The Wretched Seventies,” by Barry Hannah, from 1996. Both are short short stories—each occupied only a single page in the magazine. But although they “seem so casual, and almost just dashed off,” Saunders says, “they’re doing really interesting structural and formal things.” In Paley’s story, a woman presents her husband with a love poem she has written, and he begins to reminisce about his former lovers. Yet, somehow, according to Saunders, the story ends up being “a representation of functionality, an actual working marriage, and the pleasures therein.” In Hannah’s story, a recovering drunk muses about his transformation and tentatively reëngages with neighborhood life. Both pieces, Saunders says, “do everything that a ten-thousand-word story would do, but just do it faster.”


See the rest of the story at newyorker.com

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Author: "The New Yorker"
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Date: Wednesday, 01 Oct 2014 14:36

Last week, during the American Library Association’s Banned Books Week, I found out that a group of parents had recently pressured the public school I attended, in Texas, into “suspending” not just one but seven different books from assigned reading lists. The plain fact of the suspension wasn’t surprising to me. Highland Park High School, situated in perhaps the best school district in the state, serves a conservative community in two small towns that thrive on football and prayer and whose combined population of thirty-one thousand is ninety-one per cent white. During my time there, we had a chaplain for every sports team, creationists on the teaching staff, and a mandatory daily recitation of the Texas State Pledge. But people who live in places like my home town are not necessarily ignorant. People who ban books do sometimes read them. The towns my high school serves, Highland Park and University Park (collectively known as the Park Cities) are the two most educated municipalities in Texas. The Dallas Morning News reported that more than a hundred concerned residents attended a school board meeting to debate the suspension, many armed with “books flagged with sticky notes” from which they argued.
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Author: "Annie Julia Wyman"
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Date: Monday, 29 Sep 2014 12:00

Story, with Bird,” in this week’s issue, features both a bird and a couple whose relationship is fracturing. Which one of those came first when you were thinking about the story—the bird or the couple?

I had that couple and their situation kicking around in my head for a few years before I was ready to write about it. That moment right before the end of a relationship, when you know things aren’t going to end well but you’re not ready to let go yet—that seemed like an interesting and painful thing to write about, but it didn’t really crystallize into a story until I had the other ingredient.

Somebody once described the form of the short story as “a thing and another thing.” I’m sure that’s not every story ever written, but it definitely describes this one. Without that bird, there’s no story. I don’t know why.


See the rest of the story at newyorker.com

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Author: "Cressida Leyshon"
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Date: Saturday, 27 Sep 2014 15:29

Justin Timberlake Has a Cold,” by David Samuels for n+1 (and reprinted by longform.org), is partially an homage to Gay Talese’s similarly titled classic profile of Frank Sinatra. Like Talese, Samuels doesn’t interact directly with the celebrity at the center of his story. Instead, his piece is about the great number of people who contribute to the making of a celebrity—the producers, songwriters, label executives, and fans—and ends up being only obliquely about Timberlake himself. These various roles have shifted in recent years, as the music business has seen the planks drop out from under its longstanding business model. Adapting to these changes has meant adjusting the way hits are written and sold, and what it means to be a star. “Like Italian film stars of the 1960s, or English soccer players of the ’80s,” Samuels writes, “rock stars are a quaintly dated category of celebrated person.”


See the rest of the story at newyorker.com

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Author: "Andrea DenHoed"
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Date: Saturday, 27 Sep 2014 14:43

In Brendan Gill’s 1972 Profile of the actress Tallulah Bankhead, “Making a Noise in the World,” he wrote that her restless talent seemed to catch the world off guard; she was different, and her performances marked her as something new. The same could be said of the actresses featured in this week’s archive collection. In previous months, we’ve highlighted selections of classic New Yorker stories on comediansscientiststheatre, and fashion. Today, we’ve pulled together six of our favorite stories on actresses from the past few decades. Some of these pieces are portraits of the actor and her craft, while others explore the personal highs and lows that so often accompany stardom.


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Author: "Joshua Rothman and Erin Overbey"
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Date: Friday, 26 Sep 2014 18:54

In “Difference Maker,” your piece in this week’s issue, you write about your volunteer work with young people—first as a Big Sister and, more recently, as a foster-child advocate—while also describing your reluctance to have a child of your own. We’re more likely to hear about women who wanted to have children but were unable to than about women who are childless by choice. Was this something that you were aware of as you were writing the essay?

It’s definitely something I’m aware of in my day-to-day existence, but I didn’t see the essay as having a particularly overt message in that regard. I just wanted to tell the story of this period in my life when I was working closely with “Matthew” (as I mention in the essay, I don’t use any of the kids’ real names) while also dealing with these issues in my marriage. I’ve always been pretty clear about not wanting children, though, as I write in the essay, it’s easy (and, I would argue, healthy) to question yourself when you’re in a committed partnership with someone who’s open to having them. One reason I feel it’s important to talk about choosing not to have kids (as opposed to not being able to have them when you want them, which is a whole other story) is that, so often, the discussion is reduced to glib remarks or punch lines like “I’d rather have expensive shoes!” or “Instead of having kids, I bought a Porsche!” That stuff drives me crazy. First of all, it diminishes the serious thought that so many people who make this choice put into their decision. Secondly, it perpetuates the “selfish” chestnut by assuming that people who opt out of parenthood are therefore choosing to live self-absorbed, materialistic lives. As a mentor and an advocate, I’ve seen no end to the ways that childless people can contribute to the lives and well-being of kids—and adults, for that matter. Those stereotypes are tiresome and counterproductive.


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Author: "Cressida Leyshon"
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Date: Thursday, 25 Sep 2014 22:21

A great number of the finest writers living in Paris between the First and Second World Wars were Russians who had fled the Bolshevik Revolution. The French literary world, most of it left wing, looked upon these émigré writers with suspicion, and few were able to win international audiences. During the past thirty years, however, they have begun to emerge from obscurity. Marina Tsvetaeva was the first; other poets and prose writers are now also receiving belated recognition.


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Author: "Robert Chandler"
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Date: Wednesday, 24 Sep 2014 17:28

The poet and translator Alastair Reid, who died on Monday at the age of eighty-eight, had itchy feet. He was famously itinerant and lived all over the world—New York, England, Spain, Switzerland, Mexico, Chile, Argentina—but seldom for more than a year or so in a single place.  In the mid-sixties, he was based on a houseboat moored off Cheyne Walk, in London, ready, as he once said, to cast off at a moment’s notice. For years the closest thing he had to a permanent address was his office at this magazine, where his mail used to pile up in wire baskets until Alastair suddenly swooped in for a few months, like some tall, sandy-haired bird of passage, before just as suddenly departing. You knew he was in residence, even if you hadn’t seen him, by the sound of his exuberant laugh and sometimes by the tendrils of dope smoke seeping from beneath his closed door.


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Author: "Charles McGrath"
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Date: Wednesday, 24 Sep 2014 12:00

As fall begins, I’m remembering my best summer stunt. It was one of those late-summer Sundays when the only thing to do is swim. I had a particular swim in mind. I got the idea for it during the bleakest days of last winter. When things seemed like they couldn’t get worse, I started to think about swimming across Manhattan—about plowing through every pool on the island. I would be like Neddy Merrill, the protagonist of John Cheever’s story “The Swimmer,” who swims across the suburbs, from one back-yard pool to the next. He swims because he’s lost everything—his social status, his home, his family. He’s delusional and drunk. Actually, I wouldn’t really be like him. My predicament wasn’t comparable. My drinking was under control, for the most part. My swim would be investigative, maybe healing. I spent my childhood in pools: they were like a second womb. A day spent swimming in each of Manhattan’s pools seemed like an obvious move.
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Author: "Carolyn Kormann"
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