The psychoanalyst Adam Phillips once observed that people don’t strive to be what they already are. It’s an elegantly obvious point, but it’s also terrifying in its implications. After all, for the “aspiring self,” the ambition to be something else—someone else—reveals that life is marked by a yawning void. That is: life hurts. I suspect nobody intuitively grasps this reality better than an adolescent. It makes you wonder: how do these tender creatures ever survive? Continue reading
Almost all the arts of life are enhanced when performed with unselfconscious spontaneity — think shooting hoops, playing a complicated musical passage, dining with friends. The moment we try not to try is often the moment performance collapses in a counterproductive muddle. This “paradox of wu-wei,” as Edward Slingerland calls it, can be explained as the goal of trying not to try. This ambitious book reprises much of the author’s previous work on classical Chinese philosophical cultivation of wu-wei (see his 2003 book, Effortless action) and broadens the scope of his previous engagement with cognitive science, particularly notions of embodied mind. Slingerland seeks to address a popular audience that is both fascinated and frustrated by the paradox of wu-wei, and thus far the book has received good press here, here, and here. Continue reading
Photo: Scene from American Dreams in China
By Austin Dean
In a speech at the 35th anniversary of academic exchanges between the United States and China earlier this summer, David Moser, a linguist and Academic Director of Beijing’s CET study abroad program who is one of the doyens of the expat community in Beijing, recounted a recent conversation with a friend. He asked his Chinese classmate which word best summed up the 1980s in Beijing. The classmate, without hesitation, responded: romantic. As Moser reflected on his days exploring Beijing and studying Chinese, showing pictures of his old bicycle and mounds of cabbage piled high in preparation for winter, he decided his classmate was correct. For the duration of Moser’s speech, the next speaker, Shi Yigong, who is now a professor at Tsinghua University and was a student at the institution from 1985 to 1989, smiled and nodded his head. Moser was right. Continue reading
Photo: Patrick McLaw
Editor’s Note: Patrick McLaw, a language arts teacher at Mace’s Lane Middle School in Maryland, was recently placed on administrative leave from teaching after it was discovered that he had published two novels. One of the novels, “The Insurrectionist”, is about two school shootings and takes place far into the future. McLaw was taken in for an emergency medical evaluation and the police swept the school for bombs and guns, coming up empty.
We have the privilege of publishing here a letter from Nalo Hopkinson, a professor at UC Riverside and a science fiction author, to the Dorchester County Board of Education. Continue reading
By M.J. Dinius
Last night on Facebook, my friend explicitly linked the two stories dominating my social media feed: The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge and the events in Ferguson, Missouri. My friend asked, “How many buckets of ice would I have to pour over my head to get people to care about black lives?” Likely meant to be more provocative than substantive—especially when compared to the real and deep connections confirmed between Ferguson and the Middle East — the question might be seen as an opportunistic, if well-meant, politicization of a charity fundraiser. Or more confrontationally, it might be challenged for implicitly setting up a false choice between caring about African Americans and people suffering from a terminal, incurable disease.
For me, the post struck a still-quick nerve, compelling me to take seriously the question of what moves people to care about others these days, to question what it means to “care.” And it made me think again about the relationship of two concepts that are strange traveling partners: care, and cure. Continue reading
Photo: William T. Vollmann
By LARB AV
Author Tom Bissell is a longtime admirer and friend to William T. Vollmann. On the eve of Vollmann’s reading at Skylight Books earlier this month, Bissell, who’d just published a profile of Vollmann in The New Republic, dropped by and gave us a quick anecdote about the connection between the two authors.
Bissell, an insanely talented and prolific writer himself, was once working as an editor at Henry Holt when he was tasked with publishing Vollmann’s now-infamous treatise on violence, Rising Up and Rising Down. He tried to convince Vollmann to cut 1,000 pages, he failed, and of course then McSweeney’s took over and published a 7-volume, 3,300-page version. Watch the video to hear the rest of the story, which offers a rare glimpse into how the publishing world copes with Vollmann’s gargantuan output.
One of the best works of fiction I’ve read in recent months is The Dog: Stories by Jack Livings, who taught English in China in the 1990s and sets all of the short stories in his collection in that country. The book’s longest story, “Crystal Sarcophagus,” is set in the immediate wake of Mao’s death and follows the lives of people set the seemingly impossible task of producing, in record time, a glass coffin for the Chairman’s corpse that would be superior to those already occupied by deceased Communist leaders in Moscow and Hanoi. Several other stories deal with politically charged issues as well, such as tensions between Han and Uighur residents of Beijing, but some focus on totally different things, such as a day and a night in the life of a friendless and not especially likable American exchange student. The Dog has been been getting enviable reviews, such as one by Michiko Kakutani that begins by calling it a “stunning debut” collection and later praises Livings for his ability to evoke the “predicaments” of varied kinds of individuals “with an emotional precision that is both unsparing and oddly forgiving.” In interviewing Livings, I steered clear of “why set these stories in China when you’re an American who lives in the U.S.” sorts of questions, in part because he’d answered these well in earlier interviews for the China Real Time blog, for which Brittany Hite asked the questions, and for The Nervous Breakdown blog, where the person quizzing him was, well, Jack Livings. Continue reading
Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho is one of the most popular writers in the world. His
best known novel is The Alchemist published in 1988. Since then, Coelho seems to
have churned out a book every year or so. His books have been translated into 80
languages and have sold more than 165 million copies in more than 170 countries,
according to his publisher. He’s venerated by his fans and reviled by his critics, one of whom called Coelho’s previous novel Manuscript Found in Accra a “volume of ponderous clichés.” Continue reading
By Alec Ash
Xia’er, a 22-year-old music graduate from Hunan Province, is short, with a boyish complexion and no steady job. He is an average catch.
Cirl, professional Pick Up Artist, has a ripped body, the confidence of a god, wears sparkling jewelry, and does magic. He is a ladykiller.
Cirl exists in Xia’er’s mind, also known as Studtown. If you let Xia’er keep talking, you might make the same mistake of thinking he is Cirl. If you let him do his magic tricks on you, and have two X chromosomes, watch out, you’ll be another notch on his wall the next morning. If you’re a guy, it’s OK. He will teach you. Continue reading
Today’s post, a review of Rick Perlstein’s The Invisible Bridge, was originally published by LARB Channel Boom.
By Thad Kousser
When the immigrant refugees were first transported, in huddled mass after huddled mass, into federal facilities spread across the country, local reactions were visceral and virulent. Residents signed petitions to let them know they weren’t welcome, talk radio fanned the flames, and a San Diego congressman reported that his constituents saw the ostensible refugees as nothing but “diseased job seekers.” While the president preached that “we can afford to be generous to refugees” as “a matter of principle,” Governor Jerry Brown urged that any bill passed by Congress to aid the immigrants should be amended with a “jobs for America first” pledge. Continue reading