March 15, 2013

A Servant of One’s Own: On Virginia Woolf, Domestics, and Downton Abbey 8


The 18 years Nellie Boxall served as cook to Virginia Woolf were a far more fraught affair than the coupling of Lady Mary Grantham and Matthew Crawley ever was, full of emotional blackmail and power struggles. Boxall and Woolf had staged battle royals that left both parties smarting.

March 14, 2013

Dominique Morisseau’s 20/20 Vision of Detroit 1


The city’s problems — and the historical sources of those problems — are being addressed in a clear-eyed fashion by a new generation of writers who are able to see beyond the tired cliches, beyond ruin porn and rosy optimism, beyond the finger-pointing and the exhausted racial-political rhetoric.

March 14, 2013

Uncle Charlie Newman and the Impossible Novel 6


“It’s the great un-American novel,” he’d say, or “It’s a novel pretending to be a memoir that’s really a history.” Sometimes he’d simply say, “Nothing like it has ever been written.” The more he spoke, though, the more I worried, because the book sounded not just indescribable but unwriteable.

March 13, 2013

Jasper Johns as Michael Crichton Knew Him 4


Crichton climbs Kilimanjaro; swims with sharks; beholds the pyramids; directs Sean Connery in Ireland in The Great Train Robbery; deep-sea dives for a wreckage in Bonaire (and nearly dies); goes hiking in Baltistan (and nearly dies); encounters gorillas in Africa (and nearly dies).

March 12, 2013

Zadie y Julio, or Ignorance is Bliss 5


If the life of the writer — for whom writing offers the only solace from vicissitudes of life — is so miserable, how is Zadie Smith so happy?

March 6, 2013

Hot Milk Sponge Cake: On the Stories Recipes Remember 4


Recipes themselves appeal to me because they are small and finite: little works. You set yourself a goal, pursue and finish it, it doesn’t take very long. That’s the opposite of what I spend my time doing. The longest, most complicated recipe I ever made took me a day. A novel takes years.

March 4, 2013

God-born Devil’s S**t: Unleashing the Essence of Self-Help Books in Three Simple Steps 4


Christian self-help is a sub-genre so ubiquitous that when I entered a Christian bookstore and asked for the self-help section, one employee looked at me quizzically and said, “Well, that’s pretty much everything in here, unless you’re looking for a Bible.”

March 1, 2013

Writing with a Burning Quill: On Pakistani Fiction 2


Pakistani fiction writers are working at making sense of Pakistan, with subtlety, nuance, and colorful tales far beyond the reach of the foreign correspondent.

February 26, 2013

Collision Courses and Castration Anxiety: Rereading John Irving 10


I wondered if I was just too old for John Irving. Or maybe I’d been getting my nineteenth-century novel fix from soapy serials like Mad Men and Downton Abbey. Or maybe John Irving’s books just weren’t as good as they used to be. I decided to find out.

February 25, 2013

The Debased Art of Coining Words: A Glossary 8


It’s hard to say if there was ever a golden age for word coinages. Maybe Elizabethan England – when news items were tidings, a thief was a cutpurse, and a prostitute was a jade or a bawd. While it may be impossible to pinpoint a golden age, I’m convinced we’re living in an age when the art of coining words has been criminally debased.