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Writing Worth Reading

Young Adult Cancer Story

An adult reads The Fault In Our Stars while helping care for a friend who, like Fault’s central character, has incurable Stage 4 cancer. “This is what three-Kleenex films can do at their best, and what Young Adult fiction can do when it works: open your veins or your tear ducts, and then staunch the flow with something in between what you want and what you have — more drama but no answers; more love but no miracles” (2,960 words)

Hrabalesque: A Guide to Rambling On

Review of Rambling On, a newly re-edited and translated collection of short stories by Bohumil Hrabal, the Czech writer best known for his novel Closely Observed Trains. “In Hrabal’s fiction, the men are always drunk and the women are always objects of desire. But despite the frequency of some problematic motifs, Hrabal’s lyrical prose is beautiful and charming, with elements of Surrealism and Magical Realism” (3,670 words)

The Difficult Bequest: A History Of The Smithsonian

America’s national museum was “foisted on the country” in 1826 by “an obscure British mineralogist” called James Smithson who had never set foot in America nor shown any particular liking for the country. He was “a wealthy apolitical dandy” who saw a new museum as his chance for immortality. John Quincy Adams, who argued for accepting the bequest, “concurred that James Smithson was probably insane” (4,300 words)

Surviving The Black Sea

Eight hundred Jewish refugees flee Nazi-occupied Romania by ship across the Black Sea towards Palestine. The engines fail off Istanbul. The Turks refuse permission to land. The British refuse permission to proceed. The passengers almost starve. After a month the ship is towed out and cut loose. A Soviet submarine mistakes it for a German boat and sinks it. One man survives. He died last month in Oregon. This is his story (2,560 words)

The Things We Wrote About

Conversation with Phil Klay, ex-marine whose volume of short stories, “Redeployment”, has been acclaimed as the best fiction yet to come out of past decade’s American wars. “Fiction is ideal for trying to get at the unique stresses of counter-insurgency. The difficulty of telling civilian from insurgent, the threat of IEDs, the bizarre feeling of returning to American society — you need to get inside people’s heads to really get at that” (2,100 words)

The Los Angeles Review Of Cups

Review of the short stories printed on Chipotle cups and bags following an intervention by Jonathan Safran Foer, who thought customers would enjoy something interesting to read. The best: “Two-Minute Note To The Future”, by George Saunders — “A ravishingly beautiful miniature speculative fiction short story. It is 388 perfect words long and pretty much makes me want to throw in the towel on this whole writing thing” (1,660 words)

Bach Psychology: Gothic, Sublime, Or Just Human?

Bach is “the official center of gravity that binds together the musical universe”. John Eliot Gardiner’s recordings are models of “sleekness, clarity, momentum, almost superhuman precision”. But Gardiner’s new book, Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven, is a “messy concoction of the spiritual and the psychological”. The composer emerges as an “orphaned, death-obsessed, outlaw, non-conformist, sullen misfit” (6,920 words)

Bob Fosse And The Bejeweling of Horror

Sam Wasson’s “fast-paced, fascinating” biography, Fosse, follows the dancer, film director and choreographer through his “excruciating physical struggle in the pursuit of art”. Fosse “had the jazzman’s crush on burning out”. He “lived his life as if he were constantly and intentionally pirouetting himself to death — with the help of Dexedrine, Seconal, alcohol, overwork, and an endless chain of cigarettes and women” (2,025 words)

The Hamlet Doctrine

In Stay, Illusion!, Simon Critchley and Jamieson Webster offer a “kinetic, sometimes frenetic, always penetrating study” of great critics’ readings of Hamlet. Rotating through Hegel, Nietzsche, Freud, Melville, Marx, Schmitt, Benjamin, Joyce, Müller and Lacan, “they pursue each interpretation just far enough for us to grasp it, then let it remain suspended in the back of our heads as we move off in a different direction” (2,820 words)

Mourning Tongues: Auden’s Enduring Eulogy

W.H. Auden’s In Memory of W. B. Yeats, written in January 1939, became a touchstone among poets. Joseph Brodsky’s eulogy for T.S. Eliot, composed in a labour camp in 1965, “aped from Auden’s structure”. When Auden died in 1973, Brodsky persuaded Derek Walcott to write a eulogy echoing Auden’s masterpiece. And when Brodsky died in 1996, his eulogy was written by Seamus Heaney — again inspired by Auden (3,071 words)

Strange Allegory: JM Coetzee’s Childhood of Jesus

Coetzee’s new work of fiction is “stranger than any reader could wish or anticipate, a compelling and confounding work of political philosophy wrapped in a less compelling, even seemingly intentionally flat, work of fiction”. Without Coetzee’s name attached it would probably never have found a publisher. It contains no character called Jesus, though it may be “a distant and obfuscated Christian allegory”. (3,200 words)

The Plum in the Golden Vase

At last, a full English translation of the Chinese classic Chin Ping Mei, “a mean-spirited page-turner, built for cruel speed. The plot concerns Hsi-men Ch’ing, a corrupt merchant who, through a series of sexual and political intrigues, develops and indulges stranger and stranger tastes until he dies of sexual excess at the age of 33. The book is most famous for being pornographic, but the sex is by no means the most interesting part” (1,000 words)

An Interview With Chinese Writer Yu Hua

Conversation about Chinese literature and language, opening with a short list of recommended reading. “As for the 20th century, my favorite writer is Lu Xun. Every word he wrote was like a bullet, like a bullet straight to the heart. Lu Xun’s contemporary Guo Moruo is China’s most overrated writer. Shen Congwen used to be the most underrated, but now he’s attained the stature he deserve” (2,150 words)

Bo Xilai: Last Of A Nefarious Trio

Review of Death in the Lucky Holiday Hotel, by Pin Ho and Wenguang Huang, on the rise and fall of Bo Xilai. Useful background about Bo’s policies in Chongqing (he borrowed recklessly to fund public services) and on Wang Lijun, Bo’s brutal police chief, who had his predecessor executed for corruption, panicked when his turn came to be investigated, and denounced Bo’s wife for murdering a British businessman (2,500 words)

Vulgar Modernism: Barney Rosset And The Grove Press

Review of Loren Glass’s Counterculture Colophon, a history of the Grove Press publishing house, which flourished in the 1950s and 1960s at the intersection of modernism, bohemia and pornography. “It’s a world furnished in Scandinavian blond wood, with Paul Klee prints and bullfight posters on the walls, Jacques Barzun and Carl Jung on the cover of Time, Bartók and Ornette on the hi-fi, Mailer on TV, and liquor at lunch” (2,200 words)

A Nation Unhinged

Gripping review of Kill Anything That Moves, Nick Turse’s history of the Vietnam war. “This book is almost guaranteed to reveal something that will drop your jaw. For me, it was the number of American military helicopter sorties flown during the Vietnam War: over 36 million. Filled with such shocking details, Kill Anything That Moves will shake you with a deeper understanding of the serial atrocity that was the US war effort in Vietnam” (2,225 words)

Philosophy Of The Acrobat: On Peter Sloterdijk

Review of You Must Change Your Life, described here as “a tour de force that engages the history of philosophy, religion, and thought, both Western and Eastern, in ways that make you think deeply about the evolution of the human being these past few thousand years”. In brief: religions are not systems of beliefs or truths, but systems of thought and behaviour. Interesting throughout, but heavy going (3,800 words)

John Gray’s Godless Mysticism

Essay on philosopher John Gray, and his new book, Silence of the Animals. “Gray’s most acute loathing is for the idea of progress. He allows that progress in the realm of science is a fact, but faith in progress is a superstition we should do without. We have to abandon the belief in utopia and accept the tragic contingencies of life. There are moral and political dilemmas for which there are simply no solutions” (3,600 words)

Terrence Malick And The Twenty-Year Hiatus

He didn’t drop out, he just kept a low profile. In the 20 years between Days of Wonder and Thin Red Line, he was busy with lots of projects that never went to term: a script for Louis Malle; a Jerry Lee Lewis biopic; adaptations of The Moviegoer, The White Hotel, Brighton Rock; a character drama set in prehistory. And besides, he had other interests. Before turning to film he had taught philosophy at MIT and written for the New Yorker (5,389 words)

Exploding The Phone

On the history and practice of “phone-phreaking” — making free phone calls through the old Bell system by mimicking the control tones used for switching and routing. “The phreaks were connoisseurs of switches, savoring the delicate differences of clicks and line noise, refining their palettes on the terroir of regional system configurations, the specific ka-chunk of a reconfigured circuit, the unique hum of a secret conference line, all navigated by physical sensation” (3,616 words)

The Fluent Medium Of Translation

Interview with Sam Garrett, who translated Herman Koch’s The Dinner from the original Dutch. Interesting throughout, on the pleasures and pitfalls of translation and the specificities of Dutch culture. “The Dutch are less scatological than English or French speakers in their use of bad language. They go in more for hideous, lingering diseases, and for the genitalia” (2,549 words)

Trading Faith For Wonder: On Judaism’s Literary Legacy

Review of “Jews and Words”, by Amos Oz and his daughter, Fania Oz-Salzberger, which locates the essence of Judaism in Jewish literary and intellectual culture. ”Jews are not first and foremost a race or a religion, but a civilization, one linked by the texts they read, the stories they tell, and the history they’ve chronicled”

“Far From The Tree”: On Parenthood, Difference, And Identity

Review of Andrew Solomon’s “sprawling” book about “horizontal identity”, focused on children who differ radically from their parents. Lumps together minorities usually considered individually: “At first browse, the table of contents is off-putting: Deaf, Dwarfs, Down Syndrome, Autism, Schizophrenia, Disability, Prodigies, Rape, Crime, Transgender”

More Interesting Grief: On Andrey Platonov

It’s a hard sell. A short essay on a dead Russian writer you have probably never read. But give it a chance. Lots to enjoy here about politics, literature, and the way the two collided in Stalinist Russia. Arrive at the end with that pleasing feeling of having learned something new

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