Alden Mudge

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When your subject is the humble but essential toilet, bathroom humor is unavoidable. So expect a few potty jokes in Chelsea Wald’s very interesting Pipe Dreams: The Urgent Global Quest to Transform the Toilet. Late in the book, Wald actually explores why people from many cultures use humor to mask their squeamishness or outright disgust at the thought of human excretions. And then she points out that during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, the news was full of stories about store shelves emptied of toilet paper. We don’t want to think about it, and yet we cannot avoid thinking about it.

So why an urgent quest to transform the toilet? Well, the gold standard of sanitation—a toilet connected to a sewer system connected to a waste treatment plant and then usually to some large body of water to carry away the effluviants—may now be fool’s gold. In our urge to rid ourselves of unpleasant materials, we flush all kinds of inappropriate things down the drain. Because of this, much of our once gleaming sanitation infrastructure is on deferred maintenance, heading for collapse.

Should drought-stricken California make massive repairs to a system that uses fresh water in this way? And what about the Netherlands, where Wald now lives, and where a quarter of the country is underwater and half is merely three feet above sea level? Wald tells us that the average human produces about 100 pounds of solid waste and 140 gallons of urine per year. Put that in your calculator and multiply it by the human population. Meanwhile, roughly half of that population has no access to safe sanitation.

Much of Wald’s book is a sort of travelogue, wherein she talks to innovators in sanitation science and witnesses contemporary and historical attempts to bring best practices to human health. Her view is that, in our wide and varied world, one solution does not fit all, but we all deserve a sanitary environment.

When your subject is the humble but essential toilet, bathroom humor is unavoidable. So expect a few potty jokes in Chelsea Wald’s very interesting Pipe Dreams.
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There is no better time to revisit the legacy of Thaddeus Stevens (1792–1868), one of the foremost opponents of slavery in the United States during the mid-19th century. As chair of the Ways and Means committee in the House of Representatives, he ensured the U.S. military had the funds it needed to fight and win the Civil War. He marched well ahead of public opinion, and of President Lincoln, in advocating for voting rights for Black men, and later for women, too. He saw the Civil War as a second American Revolution that would overturn slavery, disrupt and dispossess wealthy slaveholders of their property and replace a racist elite with social and economic equality. His razor-sharp wit was cherished by his friends and feared by his foes. After the war, he supported Reconstruction and was a leader in the impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson.

He died as the nation tried to heal or at least ignore the wounds of the war. After his death, he was scorned and dismissed as too radical, too obdurate and too doctrinaire—an unpleasant man.

Bruce Levine, a distinguished historian from the University of Illinois, restores Stevens’ reputation and contextualizes his political views in Thaddeus Stevens: Civil War Revolutionary, Fighter for Racial Justice. Levine’s book is not a full biography. We learn very little of Stevens’ personal life; he was born in Vermont, became a successful lawyer and businessman in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and was rumored to be involved with his longtime housekeeper, a biracial woman. Rather, Levine’s purpose is to focus on Stevens’ “role as a public figure,” his fight against slavery and “the postwar struggle to bring racial democracy to the South and the nation at large.”

Levine writes in lucid prose with a great depth of understanding so that we see the evolution and occasional backsliding in Stevens’ thinking about race, slavery and economic and social justice. It’s impossible to read this book without seeing a reflection of our own combustible times. In the 1850s, for example, immigration was a hot-button national issue, though the targeted minorities at that time were German and Irish. Levine quotes liberally from Stevens and his contemporaries, allowing the essence of the man to shine through.

There is no better time to revisit the legacy of Thaddeus Stevens, one of the foremost opponents of slavery in the United States during the mid-19th century.
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“I’m certainly not known as a humorist,” Korean American author Chang-rae Lee says of the origins of his multilayered, wildly comic coming-of-age novel, My Year Abroad. “But my wife thinks I’m quite funny, even if I haven’t been in my books. Every book of mine is a response to the last one. I just get so dead and bored and want to break out. This time I wanted to laugh, and I wanted Tiller to show his personality, so I thought, OK, I’ll just go with it.”

Tiller is the novel’s one-of-a-kind narrator, a 20-something college student who’s more unformed than his years. His mother left the family when he was little, and he has, as Lee says, “mommy issues.” And though Tiller’s father is “a good guy,” Tiller thinks of himself as an orphan.

Lonely and disaffected, Tiller plans to spend a year studying abroad in Italy, but the summer before his trip, while working as a fill-in golf caddy in a New Jersey suburb near his home, he meets Pong Lou, an entrepreneurial Chinese immigrant, an energetic deal-maker and a force of nature. Pong takes Tiller not to Europe but to Asia on the trip of his life.

Pong, Lee says, was the original protagonist of the story. His character is based on an acquaintance Lee made during his years spent living and teaching at Princeton University. “This guy embodied a certain energy we older immigrants have lost,” Lee says. “I was fascinated by him. I was so taken with his courage for doing deals and his curiosity about everything high, low and in between. He had this hunger for life. I was really into a character who is in command of such things.”

“I wanted to throw everything at him . . . to make the book less realistic and more wild.”

But while Lee was in the early stages of writing the novel, he debated how to tell the tale, and he eventually realized that another, younger perspective was needed. My Year Abroad interweaves Tiller’s crazy adventures in Asia with his life a year later, as he struggles to take responsibility for both himself and the lives of his troubled partner, Val, and her 8-year-old son, whom Tiller has come to love.

Lee says this novel, his sixth, took longer to write than his previous books, partly because in 2016 he left Princeton to take a position in Stanford University’s writing program. Lee now lives in San Francisco with his wife, a retired architect and talented ceramicist. During this COVID-19 moment, Lee’s daughters are also at home, one studying in her second year of college and the other working remotely for her job in Austin, Texas. “I feel there’s more balance in my life here,” he says. “I grew up in an Asian American family on the East Coast. I have a whole network of friends there. But the West Coast is definitely more Asian American-inflected. Personally, culturally, artistically, there’s a draw here that’s different than on the East Coast. There’s a whole new added layer here that I enjoy.”


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of My Year Abroad.


The move to America’s left coast does seem to have had a liberating effect. Part of Tiller’s worldly education involves over-the-top, taboo-bursting sex. The sex is more implied than graphic, but it’s enough of a departure from earlier novels that Lee’s wife, his first reader, said to him, “ ‘Um, is this what you’re into?’ She thought maybe I had a secret life,” Lee says, laughing. “Tiller is a person who doesn’t know what he likes and dislikes. I wanted to throw everything at him and of course, for comic effect, to make the book less realistic and more wild and surreal. The whole thing is about extremes. Extremity in service of trying to figure out how you are alive.”

Lee says his daughters have not yet read the book, but he credits them and his young writing students with helping him figure out Tiller’s thoughtful, comic, youthful voice. “The slang, the tonality—I hear that all the time. I’ve traveled extensively through Asia. I’ve been to Shenzhen, Macao, Hong Kong, Hawaii, the places [I write about]. Either through nature or practice or both, I’ve always been a good observer and listener.”

Observation and learning form the beating heart of the novel, which is dedicated to the author’s own teachers. “So much of the book, the relationship between Tiller and Pong, is about mentorship,” Lee says. “I think back to particular librarians when I was in elementary and middle school. My parents were immigrants, and my mother didn’t really speak English. Basically, I was raised in the library. Those librarians and a few teachers in high school and college and even graduate school gave me not just knowledge but also encouragement and, sometimes, a reality check.”

 

Author photo by Michelle Branca Lee

“I’m certainly not known as a humorist,” author Chang-rae Lee says of the origins of his multilayered, wildly comic coming-of-age novel, My Year Abroad. “But my wife thinks I’m quite funny.”
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In Chang-rae Lee’s wildly inventive comic novel, My Year Abroad, Tiller Boardman spends the summer in his New Jersey hometown waiting to start his college junior year abroad in Italy. His mother left the family years ago. His father is sweet and supportive but entirely hands-off. Tiller thinks of himself as an orphan. He is more unformed than his years, rudderless, waiting for something to jump-start his life.

That something turns out to be Pong Lou, a middle-aged Chinese immigrant, a chemist and a serial entrepreneur. Tiller meets him while working as a fill-in caddy at a local golf course. Pong and his golfing buddies are an unruly bunch of immigrants who are not quite the right fit for this traditional club. Pong is one of the most intriguing figures in recent fiction. He is generous, curious and full of energy and ideas, a kind of life force. We learn later, in one of the book’s most moving chapters, that Pong’s parents were prominent Chinese artists and university professors whose lives were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. Pong, whose takeaway from the hardships of his childhood is to seek from life “a quantum of sweetness,” convinces Tiller to skip the grand tour of Europe and go with him to Asia.

Tiller’s travels with Pong are filled with wild, eye-opening, often hilarious adventures. In a wonderful scene in a karaoke bar, Pong urges the tuneless Tiller to sing, and Tiller discovers the singing voice he didn’t know he had. Later, Tiller also discovers that taboo sex is not for him, despite the allure of his partner. Not everything works out quite as he’d hoped, but for Tiller it is a life-altering journey of self-discovery.

A second strand of the novel follows Tiller in his life a year later, as he struggles to take to heart all he has learned about himself and assume responsibility for his own life and for those close to him. He has ended up in a drab, middle-American town, hiding out with a troubled 30-something woman and her difficult 8-year-old son, both of whom are in the witness protection program because her former husband is a gangster. Tiller’s wild year abroad is the memory of a lifetime, but during this following year is when he creates his real life with this makeshift family.

In My Year Abroad, Chang-rae Lee has written a surprising, spirited, keenly observed novel, full of the crazy and the profound.

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Chang-rae Lee discusses the wildness and comedy of My Year Abroad.

In Chang-rae Lee’s wildly inventive comic novel, My Year Abroad, Tiller Boardman spends the summer in his New Jersey hometown waiting to start his college junior year abroad in Italy. His mother left the family years ago. His father is sweet and supportive but entirely hands-off. Tiller thinks of himself as an orphan. He is more unformed than his years, rudderless, waiting for something to jump-start his life.

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Given the recent increase in extreme weather events, the battle over the scientific fact of climate change is essentially over, Michael E. Mann asserts in his punchy and illuminating new book, The New Climate War. What remains of the opposition has retreated to a new do-nothing battleground he calls “inactivism,” a position that will not save us from the severe consequences of climate change for human life on the planet.

Mann, a world-renowned climate scientist who teaches at Penn State University, uses both peer-reviewed climate science research and combative wit to expose the strategies of people and industries bent on deflecting responsibility and limiting the systemic change necessary to move the world away from dependence on planet-destroying fossil fuel. He also calls out those on the extreme opposite side, the “doomers” who proclaim it is simply too late to act.

In examining the deflective arguments of those most responsible for climate change, Mann notes that their stalling tactics have focused on convincing us that this is an issue of individual responsibility—personal recycling, eating less meat, driving less and flying a lot less. Yes, he says, these are certainly helpful practices, but they cannot solely address the scale of the problem or enact the vast changes needed worldwide from business, industry and government to save the planet. At the same time, he promotes an optimistic view. We are not yet on the precipice of doom, he says. We have agency and can act—but we do need to act immediately.

Mann clearly has skin in this game. Both his professional and personal reputations have been viciously attacked in response to his work. Here he fights back, settles some scores and argues for the necessity and possibility of aggressive, systemic changes. It’s a bracing read—both eye-opening and even fun.

In The New Climate War, Michael E. Mann argues for the necessity and possibility of aggressive, systemic changes. It’s a bracing read—both eye-opening and even fun.

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Ed Caesar’s irresistible book The Moth and the Mountain tells two essential stories. Its primary story is an account of Maurice Wilson’s ill-fated 1934 attempt to be the first solo climber to summit Mt. Everest. Wilson is barely a footnote in Everest climbing history, usually derided as a grandiose dilettante whose widely publicized ambitions were not only absurd but fatal. And yet, as he promised, the traumatized, highly decorated World War I officer did learn to fly, did elude British colonial authorities seeking to ground his efforts at every turn, did pilot a biplane to India (despite an absurdly wrongheaded takeoff), did sneak across the border into Tibet dressed in the elaborate garb of a suspiciously tall holy man and did climb to substantial heights on Mt. Everest.

The important second story Ed Caesar tells is about his own obsession with solving the mysteries of Maurice Wilson. What gave Wilson his bold determination? Was it his desire to romance Enid Evans, his supposed “soul mate”? Caesar, a terrific writer and a contributor to the New Yorker, introduces us to Enid this way: "Enid was slim, winsome, brown haired, stylish, vivacious, and married. Wilson was cripplingly in love with her, and not just because of her faith in his mission."

Or might it be because of Wilson’s wartime trauma? Wilson, the son of a provincial textile manufacturer, was not of the right class to be a British officer. But the decimation in the trenches of the war led to his elevation to leadership. He performed heroically and, as a result, experienced physical and psychological torments for years. Were these wounds what led him to try to prove himself on the mountain?

The frustrating thing for Caesar and for us is that some of life’s questions are unanswerable. Enid’s letters to Maurice are lost, presumably destroyed by her husband. Caesar discovers a relative of Wilson who reveals some information but says, provocatively, that other bits will go with him to the grave. The Moth and the Mountain has many, many riveting moments of storytelling and insight, and yet, some answers to the mystery of Maurice Wilson remain shrouded in the mists of Mt. Everest.

Ed Caesar’s irresistible book The Moth and the Mountain tells two essential stories. Its primary story is an account of Maurice Wilson’s ill-fated 1934 attempt to be the first solo climber to summit Mt. Everest. Wilson is barely a footnote in Everest climbing history, usually derided as a grandiose dilettante whose widely publicized ambitions were not only absurd but fatal. […]
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It is a brave and ambitious project to write the backstory of Nick Carraway, the narrator of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s American classic, The Great Gatsby, but that is what Michael Farris Smith does in his sixth novel, Nick. One of Smith’s most compelling insights is that many of the high-flying men partying through the Roaring ’20s, as depicted in Fitzgerald’s great novel, had only recently returned from the harrowing trench warfare of the First World War. “Shell shock,” “battle fatigue” and PTSD were poorly understood at that time and often simply dismissed as cowardice. In previous novels, Smith has written eloquently and sometimes in excruciating detail about masculine brutality and trauma. He does so again in Nick.

The novel opens with Nick at a cafe in Paris on leave from the war. When he meets and falls in love with a destitute artist, he debates going AWOL and staying with his beloved, but he is Minnesota born, the son of a small-town hardware store owner and a deeply depressed mother, and he knows where his duty lies. His return to the trenches is vividly depicted: Smith’s descriptions of warfare are cinematic, chilling and unforgettable.

At war’s end, Nick searches Paris for his love but is unable to find her. He is among the last soldiers to return to America, clearly traumatized and unable to go back to Minnesota. Instead he travels to New Orleans and winds up in the city’s notorious red-light district, where a bond with a fellow scarred soldier offers enough redemption for Nick to return home to recover, then travel on to East Egg and his meeting with Gatsby.

This is just an outline of a deeper investigation of war and its consequences. In style and theme, this Nick will remind readers of another Nick: the character Nick Adams of Ernest Hemingway’s best short stories.

It is a brave and ambitious project to write the backstory of Nick Carraway, the narrator of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s American classic, The Great Gatsby, but that is what Michael Farris Smith does in his sixth novel, Nick.
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Attentive readers of Meave Leakey’s masterful memoir, The Sediments of Time: My Lifelong Search for the Past, will learn a few details about her personal life. She was recruited by the great Louis Leakey for paleontological research in Africa in 1965, after sexism prevented her from working as a marine biologist. After completing her Ph.D., she returned to Kenya in 1969 for good. She fell in love with Louis’ son, Richard Leakey, despite his obnoxious reputation and the fact that he was then in an unhappy marriage. They had two daughters, who spent “field season” in remote areas of Kenya hunting fossils with their parents and their collaborators. After Richard was named the head of Kenya’s wildlife conservation department to end a rampage of elephant poaching, Meave became head of the field research operation and spent much of her life apart from him, especially as he became more involved in politics. Years later, long after Richard had lost his legs in a plane crash, she donated a kidney to him. And so on.

But the main and most illuminating parts of The Sediments of Time are about the tedious, painstaking years spent hunting for the fossilized remains of our species’ precursors. Drawing on field notes, interviews and research papers, Meave recounts the work that led to some of her and her team’s greatest discoveries. She demonstrates the astonishing amount of knowledge that can be gained, for example, through meticulous examination of something as seemingly unimportant as a prehistoric baby tooth. She writes of the shoestring budgets paleontologists operate on, the competition for research grants and the need for significant discoveries to maintain funding—and of the collaborative nature of the field’s efforts despite the competition for money. She also hails the positive impact of new communication and digital technologies in the field.

Best of all, Meave and her co-writer, her youngest daughter Samira Leakey, write clearly and compellingly about what these discoveries mean. In a fascinating chapter inspired by the birth of her grandchildren, Meave explores the advantages for our species of having parents who live long beyond childbearing years. Other chapters concern the development of our most distinguishing features: walking on two feet, the amazing mobility of our hands and the size of our brains. Some readers may find this all goes too deep into the sands of time, but many more will find it a thrilling account.

Attentive readers of Meave Leakey’s masterful memoir, The Sediments of Time: My Lifelong Search for the Past, will learn a few details about her personal life. She was recruited by the great Louis Leakey for paleontological research in Africa in 1965, after sexism prevented her from working as a marine biologist. After completing her Ph.D., […]
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Pulitzer Prize-winning author Marilynne Robinson’s beautiful, profound novel Jack will not be for every reader.

First of all, it’s a slow read. It has fewer than 300 pages, and if it had a vigorous plot, you’d rush through it in less than a week. Instead, you’ll find yourself spending much longer in the tangled, contradictory thoughts of John Ames Boughton—the titular Jack. You’ll want to stop and consider the foolish and wise things he thinks. You’ll wonder why he seems so eager to defeat himself. If you allow yourself the time, you could easily spend a month reading and thinking about Jack, about old-time Christian debates regarding grace, redemption and love.

Second, there’s the whole moral problem of Jack. You’ve seen him and felt him in the midst and at the edges of Robinson’s previous novels in the widely hailed Gilead cycle: Gilead, Home and Lila. He is the prodigal son of Reverend Robert Boughton of Gilead, Iowa. Since boyhood, Jack has had a shameful talent and urge for petty theft. Now, much older and out of prison, he flops in a single-occupancy hotel on the white side of segregated St. Louis just after World War II. At the beginning of the novel, he finds himself locked in a whites-only cemetery after hours, where he meets a young Black woman named Della Miles who has come there because Jack once praised the place to her. In the mysterious darkness, they talk about poetry and Hamlet and the coincidence that they are both children of ministers. He is aware of the shame that will result from her being discovered there. He wants to protect her. Yet he tells her he is the Prince of Darkness. You wonder if he is joking or really believes it.

Third is the question of Della. She is young, smart and from a good Christian family. She teaches English at the local Black high school. She is the beloved daughter of an esteemed Baptist bishop in Memphis. The risk to her and her family’s reputation in associating with Jack could be devastating. So why in God’s name would she fall in love with Jack? What does it even mean that she believes she has seen his holy human soul?

These are just a few of the spirit-boggling questions a reader will encounter by dipping into Robinson’s glorious new novel.

If you allow yourself the time, you could easily spend a month reading and thinking about Jack, about old-time Christian debates regarding grace, redemption and love.
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Think of The Sprawl: Reconsidering the Weird American Suburbs as an idiosyncratic road trip through America’s suburbs. Your guide, Jason Diamond, grew up in suburban Chicago but has lived much of his adult life in New York City. A recurring question during this excursion is whether or not Diamond will live in the suburbs again.

He tells us he has recently read everything he could find about suburbia. This includes fiction by John Cheever, who shaped our experience of suburban New York, and work by Shirley Jackson, Ray Bradbury and Celeste Ng. And let’s not forget William Gibson, the speculative-fiction writer who founded the cyberpunk genre and grew up in suburban Charlottesville, North Carolina, which he once described as “like living on Mars.”

There are movies, music and TV here, too. Who could forget Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Sixteen Candle or "Leave It to Beaver"?  Or the work of David Lynch, whom Diamond credits with darkening our simple notions of the suburbs with a haunting idea that “there’s darkness hiding in the corner of the [suburban] room or standing on the nice lawn.” Music? Yes! We park for a time along grassy streets to listen to garage bands rouse the neighbors. We imagine other garages where teens tinker toward new technologies.

“I like to seek out places connected to movies and shows I love,” Diamond writes. Thus we travel to Seaside, the real-life location of Seahaven Island from Jim Carey’s The Truman Show. More out of curiosity than love, we visit Celebration, Florida, Disney’s planned community, which Diamond says is pretty creepy in its near-perfection. We’ve already visited ur-suburbs like Zion, Illinois, and Llewellyn Park, New Jersey, would-be Edens founded by confused or saintly hucksters to escape the evils of city life without actually going back to hunting and gathering. And of course there is Levittown, New York, the very image of suburban regimentation. Finally, we pause in a cul-de-sac to briefly consider the changing demographics of suburbs in the age of movements like Black Lives Matter.

Like all road trips, The Sprawl has its lolling moments. Diamond’s suburbs are lonely and boring places in need of a sense of community or at least a trip to the mall. Our attention wanders, and we focus on what Diamond reveals about himself, his boyhood bouncing from suburb to suburb to be with one or another of his divorced parents. But then a thought rouses us: The very blandness of these burbs is at the root of an ongoing restless, creative explosion. Diamond, as promised, lets us see “just how much the suburbs have influenced our culture.”

Think of The Sprawl: Reconsidering the Weird American Suburbs as an idiosyncratic road trip through America’s suburbs. Your guide, Jason Diamond, grew up in suburban Chicago but has lived much of his adult life in New York City. A recurring question during this excursion is whether or not Diamond will live in the suburbs again. He tells […]
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Any story told quickly, without the chill or warmth of accumulated details, becomes a cliche. For example: After 30 or so years of a relatively happy marriage, a woman wakes to find her husband dead beside her. Her grief is nearly unbearable until, at his memorial, she discovers he had been having an affair. She becomes angry. What then? We’ve heard this tale a couple of times, and that is one way to summarize the story Sue Miller tells in her 11th novel, Monogamy. The best approach to this unbelievably good novel, however, is to avoid summary altogether and simply urge readers to read—and reread—the book itself.

Here is a taste of what a reader will find: The long marriage of Annie and Graham is a second marriage for both. Each has a past that captured and shaped them. Graham, who co-owns a bookstore in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is a passionate, needy, generous man who clasps his past—his ex-wife, for example—more closely than Annie does hers. It’s not irrelevant that Annie, a thoughtful person and a good-not-great photographer, views the world through her own lens and keeps any boisterous turbulence at a bit of a distance. Annie and Graham really do love one another. But the past is always up for reevaluation. So is our understanding of ourselves and others.

Miller is excellent at conveying and illuminating the inner lives of her characters, and she remains one of the best writers at depicting the day-to-day normality of sexual desire. Events occur in this novel—normal sorts of things—and Miller’s attention, her descriptions and the tempo at which she reveals them help us feel these events truly and deeply. She has found in Monogamy probably the best expression of her longtime interest in sociograms, an exercise to demonstrate how lives intersect and influence each other. Among the relationships of the characters in Monogamy, there are reverberations upon reverberations.

How great is Monogamy? If this is not Miller’s best novel, it is surely among her very best. One measure of that is how the experience of it deepens with each reading.

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Sue Miller on our ever-changing perceptions of ourselves and each other.

How great is Monogamy? If this is not Miller’s best novel, it is surely among her very best. One measure of that is how the experience of it deepens with each reading.
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In 2014, award-winning essayist William Deresiewicz roiled the placid ponds of academia with his controversial attack on American elite education in his book Excellent Sheep. Prepare yourself, because he’s back. His wide-ranging, vividly written new book focuses on how big tech and big money—the new economy—are devastating artists and the arts.

In The Death of the Artist: How Creators Are Struggling to Survive in the Age of Billionaires and Big Tech, one of Deresiewicz’s key points—and the object of much of his diatribe—is that it isn’t necessarily a good thing that the internet allows unmediated access to audiences and artists. Sure, there are benefits, but it also “starves professional production [and] fosters the amateur kind.” Big tech has also convinced us that we can all be artists and has given us the tools (but not the talent) to believe it, with questionable results. He writes, “Have you seen your cousin’s improv troupe? Is that the only kind of art you want to have available, not only for the rest of your life but for the rest of the foreseeable future?”

William Deresiewicz’s wide-ranging, vividly written new book focuses on how big tech and big money—the new economy—are devastating artists and the arts.

How and why we may be on the verge of this eventuality—in music, writing, visual arts, film and television—is the thrust of his inquiry. In his research, Deresiewicz interviews roughly 140 artists, most of whom we might call midlevel, midcareer artists, who make up the broad ecosystem from which great work arises, and the very people likely to disappear in a new economy that favors the few. “Bestselling books have gotten bestier; blockbuster movies have gotten bustier,” Deresiewicz pointedly observes.

In the end, he argues that a new economic paradigm has arisen, and artists must respond to it. Some of his recommendations are oddly old school. For one, artists who are now asked to work for free to build an online audience, a following, must demand to be paid. “I cannot think of another field in which people feel guilty about being paid for their work—and even guiltier for wanting to be paid,” he writes. “Arts and artists must be in the market but not of it,” which is of course easier said than done these days.

But Deresiewicz’s most profound recommendations—a breakup of tech monopolies and the end to extreme inequality—are revolutionary and perhaps impossible to achieve. So there is much to think about and even more to argue with in The Death of the Artist. And that is its point.

In 2014, award-winning essayist William Deresiewicz roiled the placid ponds of academia with his controversial attack on American elite education in his book Excellent Sheep. Prepare yourself, because he’s back. His wide-ranging, vividly written new book focuses on how big tech and big money—the new economy—are devastating artists and the arts. In The Death of […]
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In Akwaeke Emezi’s brief, remarkable second novel for adults, the reader knows from the start that the central character, Vivek Oji, is dead. After riots in the marketplace of their Nigerian town, Vivek’s mother discovers his naked body placed “like a parcel, like a gift” at the family’s doorstep. Why was he killed? Who killed him? Who was he? Answers emerge incompletely, surprisingly and in fragments as the novel progresses and casts its spell.

“I’m not what anyone thinks I am. I never was,” Vivek says from somewhere outside life. “Every day it was difficult, walking around and knowing that people saw me one way, knowing that they were wrong, so completely wrong, that the real me was invisible to them.”

One of the brilliant aspects of this novel is how Emezi makes a person’s invisibility visible. As a child, Vivek is bright, beautiful and by turns violently angry and girlishly shy. He is often beset by fugue states during which his body is present and his consciousness vanishes. Vivek’s family is loving but unable to comprehend him. His extended family is populated by “Nigerwives,” women from India, the Philippines or Sweden who are married to Nigerian men. Outdated sexual traditions and identities—multiple wives for Nigerian men and a sanctified horror of gay people, for example—still prevail in these families. After being forced to leave university, Vivek spends more and more time with the daughters of his extended family. These daughters are of a new generation and seem to understand and protect him.

Yes, it takes a village to raise a child. But, Emezi implies, it takes a culture and its mythologies to erase a child. The Death of Vivek Oji is a profound exploration of the boundaries of personal, sexual and cultural transition.

Yes, it takes a village to raise a child. But, Emezi implies, it takes a culture and its mythologies to erase a child. The Death of Vivek Oji is a profound exploration of the boundaries of personal, sexual and cultural transition.

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