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Brilliant, Mysterious Penelope

Jillian Edelstein/ Camera Press/ Redux

Before she died, she was hailed as England’s greatest living writer, but she had a hard road getting there—at one point she even lived on a freezing, leaky barge.

“If a story begins with finding, it must end with searching,” says the epigraph of Hermione Lee’s biography of the English writer Penelope Fitzgerald.  The line is one of Fitzgerald’s: she attributes it to the German Romantic poet and philosopher Novalis in her last novel, The Blue Flower, which re-imagines his early life. But Hermione Lee—an Oxford professor of English, who has also written biographies of Virginia Woolf and Edith Wharton—thought it was a “very telling and moving remark” about biography in general: “You think you know why you are doing it and you think you know roughly what the person is like, but as you embark on the story you find more mysteries,” she said when I spoke to her on the phone.


Fix America in Six Easy Steps!

Todd Heisler/The New York Times, Redux

From campaign finance to political gerrymandering, the retired Supreme Court justice skips hard arguments in his new book in favor of unrealistic, poorly drafted solutions.

Reading retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens’s new book, Six Amendments: How and Why We Should Change the Constitution, I was reminded of an old Steve Martin routine from his standup days. “First, get a million dollars,” Martin explains in “You Can Be a Millionaire and Never Pay Taxes.” Then if the tax collector comes to your door asking why you didn’t pay taxes on your million dollars, just say, “I forgot.” Just like Martin, Justice Stevens wants to skip all the tough stuff, using his slim volume to offer overly simplistic solutions to some of the country’s most pressing problems, from political gerrymandering to Second Amendment gun rights and campaign finance.

Tasty Reads

Food from Your Favorite Books

Dinah Fried

Not content with just reading the vivid food descriptions in her favorite novels, Photographer Dinah Fried decided to cook and style the iconic dishes, served with a side of literature.

History Lesson

Was There Really An Empty Tomb?


What makes Jesus different from the prophets of the world’s other great religions? The claim that he rose from the dead and left behind an empty tomb. But how much do we know about that?

The discovery of the empty tomb presupposes that there was a tomb in the first place, and that it was known, and of course that it was discovered. But if serious doubt is cast on whether there ever was a tomb, then the accounts of its discovery are similarly thrown into doubt. Christian apologists often argue that the discovery of the empty tomb is one of the most secure historical data from the history of the early Christian movement. I used to think so myself.


The Cheerleader Murders


For five long and very strange years, death haunted tiny Dryden, NY, a town near the Finger Lakes where a plague of car accidents, suicides, and even grisly murders involving two popular cheerleaders just kept mounting up.

At the end of Fargo, Frances McDormand’s police chief, Marge Gunderson, captures the psycho played by Peter Stormare. He’s in the backseat of her police cruiser and she talks to him as she drives. We see that she cannot fathom the evil she’s just seen.“And here ya are,” she says, “and it’s a beautiful day. Well, I just don’t understand it.” It’s as true a piece of acting as you’ll find—Marge really doesn’t comprehend a certain kind of human darkness.

Born Skeptical

Ehrenreich Gives God a Going Over


Social critic, scientist, muckraking journalist, Barbara Ehrenreich has never been one to take things on faith. In her new book she takes a hard look at everything from religion to science.

When she was a teenager, the prospect of the eradication of the human species did not strike the future social critic and activist Barbara Ehrenreich as particularly troubling. Humans were generally overrated. “I have known people who are duller than trees, as well as individual trees that surpassed most people in complexity and character,” she writes in her new book, Living With a Wild God: A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth About Everything.


The Week’s Best Longreads

From the hunt for musicians who disappeared without a trace to a baseball player’s secret escape from Cuba, the Daily Beast picks the best journalism from around the web this week.

The Ballad of Geeshie and Elvie John Jeremiah Sullivan, The New York Times Magazine On the trail of the phantom women who changed American music and then vanished without a trace.Yasiel Puig’s Untold Journey to the Dodgers Jesse Katz, Los Angeles The shocking saga of Major League Baseball’s most controversial player.Capitalism Unbound Timothy Shenk, The Nation Thomas Piketty and the new millennial Marxists on the scourge of inequality.

Polished Act

Mark Twain, Writing Coach


Young writers besotted by the image of a swaggering, confident Twain should take heart: Underneath that white suit lurked an author as insecure and neurotic as those who idolize him.

At twenty-five, I started to write a book about Mark Twain at twenty-five. His life was more exciting than mine. By that age he’d piloted steamboats on the Mississippi, witnessed the start of the Civil War, and fled his native Missouri for the faraway frontier of Nevada. There he met outlaws, hustlers, hunters, and homesteaders, and dodged bullets and bowie knives. His world was alive with incident and intrigue.My life, on the other hand, consisted of long hours at the New York Public Library, and choosing what kind of sandwich to buy for lunch.


An Edward Hopper Novel?

Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; Gift of the T.B. Walker Foundation, Gilbert M. Walker Fund

Two authors inspired by a Hopper painting are writing a serial story and posting new additions online throughout the month of April.

Have you ever found yourself staring at a painting, building in your mind a world of people, events, and emotions captured in that moment?All this month two authors have been taking that daydreaming tendency to a new new level by serially publishing an online novella inspired by Edward Hopper’s painting “Office at Night.”The novella, by Kate Bernheimer and Laird Hart, is in conjunction with the exhibition Hopper Drawing: A Painter’s Process organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art and on exhibit at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis through June 20.

Tale Spinner

García Márquez’s Real Magic

Graziano AriciGraziano Arici/eyevine/Redux

Gabriel García Márquez, dead at 87, wrote a lot of great fiction, but nothing greater than One Hundred Years of Solitude. Maybe nothing is.

If we were to rank the first lines of every novel ever written, the opening of One Hundred Years of Solitude would still be hard to beat.“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”If, after reading that sentence, you’re not at least a little curious about what comes next, you should check your pulse.Gabriel García Márquez, the Nobel Prize-winning Colombian novelist who died Thursday at 87, wrote a shelf full of excellent novels and stories.


How to Be Popular, ’50s Style

When 15-year-old Maya Van Wagenen had trouble fitting in at middle school, she looked to a popularity guide from 1951 for answers. Read an excerpt from her hilarious and brave journey.

In 1951, model Betty Cornell penned a self-help book for young women struggling socially: Betty Cornell’s Teen-Age Popularity Guide. Cornell provided insight on everything from wearing white pearls and girdles to the proper ways to fix one’s “figure problems.” Before entering the eighth grade, then-14-year-old Maya Van Wagenen discovered Cornell’s tome in her father’s office. Van Wagenen, who had been having difficulties fitting in at middle school, decided to follow Cornell’s advice and embark on the new school year with a 1950s mentality.


Dead and Beautiful

Joanna Ebenstein and Pat Morris

Rats, squirrels, and dead kittens in their Sunday best… A new book explores the fantastic anthropomorphic world of Walter Potter, one of the pre-eminent taxidermists of Victorian Britain.

Yes, those really are stuffed kittens dressed in finely detailed Victorian garb at a wedding, and that really is a squirrel at the club playing cribbage with a cigar hanging out of his mouth.Welcome to the weird and strange tableaux by the once well-known taxidermist Walter Potter, the subject a delightful new book, Walter Potter’s Curious World of Taxidermy, by Dr. Pat Morris and Joanna Ebenstein.The book details Potter’s work as one of the more prominent taxidermists of the Victorian Era, whose work became the foundation for a museum of oddities visited by millions during its existence, including the Bloomsbury Set and Queen Mary, and was covered by media outlets from as far afield as China.


Connecting TB and Sherlock Holmes

Spencer Platt/Getty

Tuberculosis was once a death sentence. Doctors could do little to treat it, and almost nothing was known of its spread. Two physicians—Robert Koch and Arthur Conan Doyle—changed that.

In his new book, The Remedy, Thomas Goetz explores the history of tuberculosis—once a death sentence that claimed 2 percent of U.S. and U.K. populations each year. The Remedy follows the paths of two key players, both physicians—Robert Koch and Arthur Conan Doyle (yes, the Sherlock Holmes Conan Doyle)—and the quest for a cure.Koch, a spirited country doctor, was a leader in early microbiology and the modern scientific method, and discovered the TB/germ connection.

In Brief

This Week’s Hot Reads: April 14, 2014

A 15th century slave’s monologue, a sheepherder’s confrontation with mysterious violence, and a clear-eyed look at the Mormon Church’s fraught origins.

The Expedition to the Baobab Tree By Wilma StockenströmEvery few years, a book comes along that I read only a few pages at a time, lingering over exceptionally well-crafted prose. In 2012, Colm Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary, a searing monologue delivered by Jesus’s mother as you’ve never before encountered her, was one such novel. Now another monologue, also spoken by a woman who has experienced more than most can fathom, has left me entranced and devastated.

Scenic Routes

Crazy Cartography

Maps of places you’ve never been, maps of paper routes, maps of desktops: artists and writers conjure directions for heretofore uncharted Xanadus.

Maps are their own narratives of space. Who draws them, and who names them, holds immense power to determine not just Where You Are, but How Things Are. Subjective or empirical experience in conflict with the map’s own assertions can leave you nowhere, or somewhere unknown, as anyone who has tried to navigate, say, Venice by map will know. Have they purposefully drawn it up to bear no resemblance to its actual layout in order to confuse visitors into spending more money on alcohol and sequined masks?In 1957, Guy Debord created a psychogeographic map of Paris that countered the “official” maps of the city, its arrondissements spiraling neatly outwards from the center.

Detours of Delight

Maps to Get Lost In

Commission maps by imaginative people, and you can guarantee that not only will they send you on the scenic route but that they will redefine the scenic route while they’re at it. That’s what happened when a publisher asked 16 artists and writers to design a boxful of maps.

Son of Parkyakarkus

Albert Brooks, the Early Years

Paramount Pictures/Everett Collection

The comedian and filmmaker has been the smartest and funniest person in the room since he was in high school (maybe even earlier). Here he's profiled just after making his first film.

Albert Brooks’ second album, A Star is Bought, is the best comedy record most of you have probably never heart. It was never released on CD and it’s not available on ITunes. And that’s a shame because the record—which was made in collaboration with Harry Shearer—is one of the finest comedy albums ever made. Never mind that it was nominated for a Grammy or that it was in many ways a precursor to faux-documentary style of This Is Spinal Tap, it Albert in top form.

How I Write