Recent events in Egypt have raised the question of whether the tradeoff General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has offered the Egyptian public—keeping them safe in exchange for an authoritarian state and far-reaching restrictions on civil society—is working.
As a cartoonist myself, I am dismayed that there’s little of Saul Steinberg’s that I can steal, the crossover in the Venn diagram of the image-as-itself versus as-what-it-represents being depressingly slim. I am painfully aware that in comics, stories generally kill the image. But Steinberg’s images grow and even live on the page; somewhere in the viewing of a Steinberg drawing the reader follows not only his line, but also his line of thought.
The widely applauded decision to name a special counsel won’t resolve some momentous matters raised by the Russia affair. Robert Mueller’s investigation is limited to considering criminal acts. His purview doesn’t include determining whether Trump should be held to account for serious noncriminal misdeeds he or his associates may have committed with regard to his election, or violations of his constitutional duties as president. The point that largely got lost in the excitement over the appointment is that there are presidential actions that aren’t crimes but that can constitute impeachable offenses, which the Constitution defines as “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.”
When you pick up the phone to talk with Neil deGrasse Tyson, it’s hard not to feel a little nervous. The director of the American Museum of Natural History’s Hayden Planetarium is not only the author of multiple books that address the vast terrain of astrophysics (Welcome to the Universe: An Astrophysical Tour, Death by Black Hole: And Other Cosmic Quandaries, Origins: Fourteen Billion Years of Cosmic Evolution, among others), he’s also taken up the mantle of none other than Carl Sagan, helming the revamped version of Cosmos, the television program used to bring the sense of the grandeur of science and the marvels of the universe to ordinary viewers.
It’s a mission that Tyson has taken up with enthusiasm and authority, and in his latest book, Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, he’s assigned himself what may be his most subtly challenging task yet: a condensation of the essential insights of 21st-century astrophysics — and the astonishing history of science that led to them — into a book just over 200 pages long.
Given, all that, perhaps I can be forgiven a few butterflies when I dialed up the scientist, author and educator to talk about dark matter, the strange and stunning discovery of microwave radiation, and how a writer approaches what the first chapter of his new book calls “The Greatest Story Ever Told.” Fortunately, the genial and friendly Tyson managed to dispel any sense that I was being going to be graded on my performance in Astrophysics 101. Nevertheless, I did take a few notes. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation. — Bill Tipper
The Barnes & Noble Review: This is not your first attempt to distill some of the biggest thinking in science for ordinary readers. When you put together Astrophysics for People In A Hurry, what was different about this as a book and as a project?
Neil deGrasse Tyson: There are many people who carry with them fragments of cosmic knowledge brought to them by snippets of a documentary they may have channel-surfed past, or a headline that they saw, because the face of the universe, when there’s an interesting discovery, it typically makes headlines. Like a new exo-planet, a black hole, something new about the Big Bang—this sort of thing.
NTD: Sorry. I left that out. Pluto rears its head, its cute little head every couple of years. So it occurred to me that people might not have time to read fuller, fleshier books. The readers will — readers want the big book. But how about the people who like to read, but simply don’t have time to read?
So I distilled what, in my judgment, is the most interesting, important astrophysics into a small volume that does not pull punches. Right?
BNR: No, not at all.
NTD: So no one will accuse it of being dumbed down. The next question people ask me is, “Oh, was Astrophysics For Dummies taken?” No. I just come right at you. But it’s framed in such a way that I’d like to believe that by the end of the book, you are conversant with anything important that comes down the pike, in terms of headlines and what people are talking about at the water cooler. I think of it kind of as a consummation of your relationship with the cosmos.
BNR: You begin in the book from an idea that is challenging for a lot of us to get our heads around. You say: “In the beginning, nearly 14 billion years ago, all the space and all the matter and all the energy of the known universe was contained in a volume less than one-trillionth the size of the period that ends this sentence.” That’s a scale that’s mind-bending: Even given that very concrete image, it’s very challenging for the imagination to accommodate. Is that something that you have grown used to over the course of a career in astrophysics? Is it something they teach?
NTD: Well, first, I don’t think it’s mind-bending. I think it’s mind-blowing. Mind-bending would be, “Oh, how can that happen? That’s kind of interesting.” But what you quote is a completely mind-blowing statement. And it is for that reason that my opening comment of the book is “The universe is under no obligation to make sense to you.” I am just prepping you that it is no longer valid for you to invoke common sense to judge what is and is not true.
Apart from that — It’s mind-blowing to me, too. It’s completely mind-blowing. You can gain a familiarity with such statements and such calculations. But I don’t know if it ever just sits comfortably within us. Familiarity and comfort are two different things. So the familiarity is from daily exposure, but it still kind of rubs you weirdly. So no, I don’t think you embrace it in the way you might be asking.
It is not there for you to understand. It is there for you to recognize as true. So if you think you understand it, you’re fooling yourself. There is no way to understand a particle popping in and out of existence, becoming matter, transmuting back to energy, tunneling from one place to another. It’s just completely weird stuff. But it is. So what you can do is, if you work at it long enough, you can then develop a calculational insight that could guide discoveries, rather than a common sense insight to what would be discovered from the new ideas.
BNR: You’ve created narrative and metaphor out of decades of scientific work, not only your own, but that of many people. I am struck, for example, how much of the book is kind of a little history of a big part of science.
NTD: Two things about that. One,it’s possible to go off the deep end with metaphors, and then you’re left with just metaphors and you have no idea what was going on. You have to think of the right dose of metaphor, and what word will sit better within you if I use that word instead of another. This is all purposeful: my pedagogical soul is expressed through those tools, those literary tools.
But you made another related point…
BNR: As I read through, I thought, this isn’t only a distillation of these concepts in astrophysics; it’s also telling me about the history of how these concepts were discovered.
NTD: Of course, history is a bottomless pit. So the whole book could have been just history. But I hand-picked the history that I just thought was really cool: You’ve got to know this about what happened! I’m sitting there, writing. I say, “I can’t write this unless I tell you how Herschel found the infrared.”
BNR: That’s the one that leapt out at me as such an amazing story.
NTD: And you get to see how clever he was, how thorough he was, how that story of discovery is shocking today!
BNR: There’s another another moment that you might call a lucky accident, which is the discovery of…that you described the process by which the background microwave radiation in the Universe was first kind of tracked.
NTD: That might be my longest historical side-ramp, now that I think about it. Because there are the characters, and you have to set it up that it’s even in a microwave thing, and then who were they, and it’s all about radiowaves. But my hope is that it was a pleasant excursion, and not weighed down by what is so often the historical protocol of saying, “Well, he was this title at this institution before he was here, and his mother did this, and he was trained here at Cal Tech.” There’s a limit to where the act of being historically complete renders the passage uninteresting.
BNR: What I took away was, again, another kind of paradox, which is that these are scientists who were working with extraordinary rigor — I’m thinking of Herschel back in the 18th century, or these engineers trying to perfect microwave transmission, and discovering this critical piece of data about the evidence of the Big Bang –these are both the results of painstaking and precise science, and yet, at the same time, lucky accidents.
NTD: Yes. Now, of course, as Branch Rickey says, luck is the residue of design. You’ve got to kind of be ready for the luck. When the luck bites you in the ass, you’ve got to know what bit you in the ass. Otherwise, you’re saying, “Oh, that’s uncomfortable; let me stand somewhere else.” It reminds me of a comic who sort of parodied Newton and the Apple, and Newton is sitting under the tree and an apple falls off the tree and hits him in the head. He looks up at the tree, frustrated, and just goes and sits under a different tree! [LAUGHS]
BNR: Do you think that we’re educating people in the ways that we should to develop the capacity for these kinds of lucky accidents, to be in the place where these serendipities can emerge?
NTD: Let me answer a bigger question than that. Just yesterday, I did a Reddit AMA. I’ve done one every couple of years or so. That community is interested in what I do. They’re sort of educated rabid fans instead of just regular rabid fans, so I like intermittently serving that community.
One of the questions was from a student in college who loves science and loves physics, but he’s struggling mightily, and is in fear that maybe science is not for him. In my reply, I took some blame for what’s happening to him. And here is the blame. My public display of science is one of fun, and it’s interesting, and it’s insightful, and you should do it.
But I don’t spend enough time communicating how much discipline it takes to become a scientist and to be a scientist. I don’t really spend much time doing that. Because I grab your hands, and we are waltzing through the fun of cosmic discovery and the results of cosmic discovery. So I am reminded that at some time I should take pause with my audience and say: There are times when you’re in the lab and things don’t work, and times you’re in the lab where you kind of neglect personal hygiene because you’re so focused on trying to get something life, and your social life is suffering, because everyone else is in South Padre Island or at the bar where they’ve ended their work. So science, if you are struggling, that IS the thing, that IS what it is. That is not some barrier en route to some place. That IS the place. And you may have one, two perhaps, discoveries in your life that make headlines. In your life. So at some point, you need to learn to embrace the discipline and focus and devotion that becoming a scientist and being a good scientist requires. And the fact that he’s feeling this in college, I said, “He’s right on track.” That’s what I told him!
And built in there with that discipline, of course, is curiosity. The formal manifestation of childhood curiosity is what we call science. I’ve tweeted fragments of that sentence, but that one was sort of better than previous ones. I might tweet that one today.
So then you’re prepared for luck and serendipity.
BNR: As you put this book together, what did you think, “This is what I want people to walk away from this book with?”
NTD: That they can have a coherent understanding of the major challenges and discoveries that undergird modern astrophysics.
BNR: That seems both simple and, from another perspective, that seems incredibly ambitious.
NTD: Yes. I couldn’t have written this book ten years ago or twenty years ago. I wouldn’t have known how to write the book 10 or 20 years ago. I would have been fumbling — this has a certain maturity of vision that I currently have.
BNR: Does that come from years of the writing, or from talking to people and doing things like Cosmos and work like that? Or is it everything?
NTD: Yes, it’s everything, but it’s mostly how many times I’ve been in front of people, attempting to communicate an idea, and monitoring their reaction to me. Are your eyebrows up? Or are you distracted by something else, so I’m not capturing your attention? What is it that I was saying in that moment? What words do I use that excite you? This is the summation of what I have come to learn about what excites people and what keeps them coming back for more.
By the way, in this spirit, as you may know, Alan Alda has a book coming out in a month or so, two months, called If I Understood You, Would I Have this Look On My Face? That’s like the title of the book! That title is a statement of someone being lectured to from someone who is not really paying attention to what might be the tangled mental pathways of thought in their audience.
I am thinking about how you are thinking at all times. And I ask myself: Could they misinterpret this? What baggage are they bringing that I should address that maybe they don’t even know that they’re carrying the baggage, that could interfere with them absorbing this information? Is there some reference that we all are familiar with and comfortable with that I can tap, that can help me communicate this complex idea? Is there some topic that you don’t even know is amazing, but I think is amazing because these other things that you found to be amazing? So surely you’ll think this is amazing—let me present that.
So it is not a syllabus from a formal soup-to-nuts course in astrophysics. No. I have hand-picked topics that have a record of exciting people when they learn about them.
BNR: I want to talk a little bit about the last section of the book, which you call “The Cosmic Perspective.” In it, you gather up so many threads, many of them familiar, but I think in a very specific and interesting way which knits together a kind of humility before the face of the complexity of the Universe, and a deep sense of responsibility and optimism all at the same time. I’m curious to know the process by which you came to some of the thinking that’s in this last stage of the book.
NTD: After the book was in galley, I re-read the chapter and said, “this is a little rambly,” but then I thought, “it’s rambly because that’s how I came to it. Bacteria in our gut—that’s a biological cosmic perspective.” So you get to see all the bits and pieces that I then stapled together to make this larger statement in this chapter.
We’re coming on the 50th anniversary of Apollo-8, launched in 1968, in December. When they published the mission’s photo of “Earth Rise: Lunar Landscape,” we changed on Earth. It was almost like a firmware upgrade in our sense of that which we need to tend on earth. Before then, yes, you cared if your stream was polluted, your river was polluted, or your lake, but nobody thought globally about things. The hippies were not even thinking globally. They just wanted to end the war and make love. There was not an environmental concern by anybody until after that photo was published. In it, you saw Earth not with color-coded countries, as was familiar in a classroom; you saw it as only Nature could show it to you, with ocean and land and clouds.
Of course, in 1969, we would walk on the Moon. In 1970, was the first Earth Day. But why didn’t we have Earth Day in 1960, or 1950, or 1940, or 1980? It happened while we were going to the Moon. Of course, we had plenty of other stuff to worry about. We were still in a hot war, still in a cold war, there was still campus unrest, the civil rights movement was only just barely finishing out the hard work of the ’60s.
No one thought about garbage thrown out of a window, in any kind of “take care of the Earth” sense until after that photo was published. We would go on to ban leaded gas. We would ban DDT. We would introduce the catalytic converter. The Environmental Protection Agency would be founded, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration would be founded, all while we were going to the Moon. Period. So THAT is a cosmic perspective, uploaded into every citizen of Planet Earth. And you cannot put a price tag on that. You cannot say, “Oh, what was the cost of Apollo and show me the spinoffs of it.” That is not even the way to have that conversation. The cosmic perspective changes you in fundamental ways that, in my judgment, is only for the better, for the greater good of the individual, the state, the community of nations, and the species.
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In a recent stimulating dialogue with Cory Doctorow, Jeff VanderMeer lays out the raison d’être or motivating impulse behind his new novel, Borne, in crystalline, rational fashion: “I’m definitely thinking in terms of fabulist fiction this time around, but I’m also interested in the moral/ethical questions involved with biotech, against a backdrop of a scarcity scenario. I think that’s what’s beginning to play out now in the world, and I wanted to approach the present through the future in a more direct way than I was able to in the Southern Reach books.”
Summaries like this work well as signposts to the author’s intent in the most abstract way, but in the case of a work like Borne, the reader is advised that a guidebook is not a safari. It’s true that Borne addresses all of those issues and more — but they are all exceeded by the organic wonders and mysteries and assorted oddities of this novel as a living, breathing work of art, one whose chief function is to deliver a sense of awe at the strange, terrible grandeur of the human imagination. In Borne, sociopolitical themes and ideas about the future give way to positively mythic dimensions.
Our first-person narrative, a tale delivered in the voice of a woman named Rachel, opens in a nameless day-after-tomorrow city, sparsely populated and composed of wreckage, detritus, abominations, and mortal danger. Rachel is a scavenger, talented, resourceful and wily, prowling the urban ruins to bring back food and barterable goods and raw biotech materials to support her and her partner, Wick, in their makeshift fortress, dubbed Balcony Cliffs. Their city is insanely ruled over — or terrorized — by an improbable creature: a building-sized implacable killer ursine named Mord — who can fly, or levitate, if you will. But from time to time, Mord comes to ground for a rest and falls asleep. At such moments, Rachel is determined to comb through the thick fur of his hill-sized flanks for any stray goodies the bear might have picked up in his depredations.
On the day in question, Rachel finds a unique treasure, like infant Moses among the reeds: the entity who will come to be known as Borne:
[A] hybrid of sea anemone and squid: a sleek vase with rippling colors that strayed from purple toward deep blues and sea greens. Four vertical ridges slid up the sides of its warm and pulsating skin. The texture was as smooth as waterworn stone, if a bit rubbery. It smelled of beach reeds on lazy summer afternoons and, beneath the sea salt, of passionflowers. Much later, I realized it would have smelled different to someone else, might even have appeared in a different form.
Taking the small, seemingly innocent creature (for which she feels an inexplicable attraction) with her back to Balcony Cliffs — where Wick views it with instant suspicion — Rachel begins a long odyssey that will take her and Wick and Borne through harrowing events, culminating in a kind of apotheosis, a Clash of the Titans, and a theurgic climax, the details of which should be reserved for the reader’s full reward.
As we follow Rachel and Wick through their everyday routines, the reader derives the jumbled, incomplete, and enigmatic back-story of their world in snatches that eventually cohere into a solid timeline. First came the Company, a massive biotech concern whose myriad creations were unleashed — either inadvertently or deliberately, or in a mix of both — without much regard for the destruction they would bring in their wake. Wick was a scientist for the Company, until they contentiously parted ways. A surviving woman now known only as the Magician was another. The Company itself is defunct. The Magician and Wick remain rivals, with the Magician ruling a different part of the city and seeking Wick’s cooperation or demise.
Rachel’s back-story is antithetical to the privileged stratum that held Wick and the Magician. An orphan of climate-change-refugee parents, she braced the Darwinian environment head-on and flourished, eventually joining forces with the older Wick. The two are currently lovers, though often bristling because of differing philosophies and goals.
Borne soon becomes the third point of their love triangle. The creature proves able to assimilate nearly anything of an organic nature, and it begins to grow and change — and to exhibit increasing intelligence. It falls to Rachel to educate her adopted child, for whom she experiences a kind of tender affection, a luxury in this savage landscape. Wick, however, remains leery of the creature — “Borne is not your friend,” he insists — suspecting it to be unknown Company tech. And as Borne grows it exhibits new capabilities, not all of them savory, Rachel is forced into a choice of allegiance that will have consequences for not only the three of them but for the fragmented world around them.
From the very first pages, VanderMeer indicates that his book is going to operate along several fruitfully interlooping axes. Mord is an impossible, surreal object in the vein of Ballard’s “The Drowned Giant.” At the same time, Mord is totally in the kaiju line, stomping across the city like Godzilla. But then, as in Richard Adams’s Shardik, VanderMeer manages to infuse Mord with the totemic power that bears have always exhibited in fable and legend. This multivalent approach — postmodern, pop-cultural, and archetypical — is sustained throughout the whole book, rendering it much richer than a text with only a univalent approach.
Borne himself harks back to the tradition of horror and body horror, from the campiness of the Blob to more shuddery modern creations. He is a kind of Lovecraftian shoggoth monster: his many eyes, studded over his amorphous body, testify to that kinship.
As for the hardcore science-fictional tropes that VanderMeer chooses deftly to employ, the lineages go deep and broad. In terms of a world shattered by Faustian biotech, one need only look to Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake cycle, or Kathleen Ann Goonan’s Nanotech Quartet for resonant futures. And Rachel resembles Jack Kirby’s Kamandi as a beacon of normality in a world where normal is the minority status. The surreal aspects of the organic tech — healer worms, memory-altering earwigs — call to mind classic examples like Jeff Noon’s Vurt and China Miéville’s Bas-Lag universe. Besides the other literary ancestors cited for Borne’s makeup, one might adduce the great SF story by Damon Knight, “Four in One,” in which humans ingested by an alien continue to experience a new way of life, and Greg Bear’s Blood Music, in which a totipotent variety of protoplasm conquers all. When at one point Rachel is entirely surrounded by a protective Borne (without being assimilated), I hear a riff on the living sentient space suit symbiotes found in John Varley’s Eight Worlds cycle.
But beneath this hybrid of postmodern and hard SF narrative lies a foundation of eternal human concerns, most vibrantly the motif of family and parenting. Rachel admits that Borne is like a child to her, and she experiences all the frustrations and rewards that parenting has always brought. The rift that Borne engenders between Rachel and Wick is typical of the way marriages change when the first child is introduced. These aspects of the tale rival in magnitude any of the professed and accurate intellectual concerns that VanderMeer puts upfront in his interview.
There are other dichotomies that are richly laid out. The role of mentor (Wick the Magician) versus the role of student or protégé (Rachel, Borne). Natural versus artificial; civilization versus savagery; altruism versus selfishness; introversion versus exploratory tendencies; elder wisdom versus youthful naiveté. VanderMeer juggles these essential oppositions throughout with great zeal and flair, often using taut dialogue to make his arguments. Borne’s unique thought processes and way of speaking are a great feature of the novel.
As for the setting, VanderMeer conjures up a kind of Ballardian landscape where the tangible debris comes to represent psychical states. As a lover of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast, VanderMeer envisions a similar vast redoubt — albeit underpopulated by contrast — in the form of Balcony Cliffs. More to the point might be a comparison to an overlooked cult novel publicly admired by the author: Edward Carey’s Observatory Mansions, about an allied urban structure of menace and decay.
And all of this is conveyed in language that at times evokes a fairytale ambiance.
In the middle distance, the dead plain and across it, the bear closing in and then the living blot marks of bobbing, lumbering bears that had been drawn to Borne, stragglers who were still behind him in his disguise, but not very far. Some would succumb to the last of the buried biotech that had risen; those defenses appeared like smoke, like emerald-and-azure dust with purpose. Shimmering displays that disappeared into the wind at a thin angle, then reappeared as sheets of undulating microorganisms. We had seen a bear caught in that net buckle and fall, spasmodic, jaws spread wide, as if it could not breathe. But then the net broke, the bear rose, the old defenses revealed as ghosts, the Company without dominion.
In this emotional, primal, monitory fable, which demands visual accompaniment from an artist like Jim Woodring, Jeff VanderMeer has succeeded in creating a kind of love story-cum-odyssey that shows us the power of parental love and spousal commitment when all else has come undone.
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Tracing some of the histories of the idea of civil war, and showing how definitions and understandings of this mode of conflict have always been volatile and contested, is the purpose of this latest book by David Armitage. Like all his work, Civil Wars: A History in Ideas is concise, wonderfully lucid, highly intelligent, and based on a confident command of a wide range of printed sources. It is also ambitious. But as he admits, it is hardly comprehensive. This is not simply because of the scale of his subject matter, but also because of his chosen methodologies.
Modern society, as a whole, tends toward a sort of institutional optimism, espousing Hegelian notions of history as progress and encouraging us to believe happiness is at least potentially available for all, if only we would pull together in a reasonable manner. Hence the kind of truth pessimists tell us will always be a subversive truth.
“My favorite novels blend comedy and tragedy. That was my goal for The Reminders — to write a book that was fun and playful but also weighty and introspective. Not all of the books listed below strike that balance, but each informed how I ultimately settled on the right emotional timbre for my novel.” — Val Emmich
The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet
By Reif Larsen
“Beautifully intricate illustrations fill the margins of nearly every page of this one-of-a-kind novel about a twelve-year-old cartographer on his way to claim an award from the Smithsonian Institution. Larsen’s ambition is only slightly less impressive than his execution. For all its whimsy, the book has real heart. Stephen King called it a ‘treasure.’”
A Single Man
By Christopher Isherwood
“Lyrical and heartrending. Isherwood masterfully captures the zombie-like existence that is life after loss. The memories arriving unbidden. The effort required to seem okay for the benefit of others. The daily shock upon waking to find that the person you built your life around is truly gone and the path ahead is no longer certain, ‘as though the track had disappeared down a landslide.’”
This Is Where I Leave You
By Jonathan Tropper
“Tropper’s novel begins with the line ‘Dad’s dead.’ The first line in my book is ‘Dad forgot me.’ That was an accident. Or was it? This book is a joy to read, and a joyful reading experience is something I cherish more and more as I get older. Hanging with the Foxmans is like spending time with my own dysfunctional family — only here, after all the laughs, I get to walk away with no hard feelings.”
All the Birds, Singing
By Evie Wyld
“I remember turning to my wife while reading this book and saying, ‘This is insane.’ I was referring both to the story on the page and the achievement of writing it. It has the energy and drama of a thriller, but it’s more nuanced than that, and ultimately more devastating. Wyld brings her protagonist Jake’s past to life in a way that makes us truly believe she can’t get out from under it.”
About a Boy
By Nick Hornby
“I learned a lot watching how Hornby juggled this dual narrative of an adult and a child. Two drastically different characters come together with hysterically awkward results. But then we realize, Oh, this guy and this kid aren’t that different after all. Actually, we can’t even tell which one is the grown-up and which is the boy. Hornby makes all of this look easy. It’s not.”
By James Baldwin
“Reading this book while writing mine was probably a mistake. I can never hope to write half as movingly as Baldwin does here (or anywhere). But it was something to aspire to. Particularly how Baldwin viscerally captures feelings of longing, regret, and desire. As everyone already knows, this novel is a classic.”
Where’d You Go, Bernadette
By Maria Semple
“For all the attention Where’d You Go, Bernadette gets for its hilarity (and it really is hilarious; one of the rare times ‘laugh-out-loud’ holds true), the book is unexpectedly moving. Part of that has to with its inspired formatting (told through emails, faxes, hospital reports, live-blog transcripts). By sorting through the modern detritus they’ve left behind, we somehow know these characters more intimately than we could even if allowed inside their minds.”
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
By Jonathan Safran Foer
“This is the best example on the list of a novel that can do both: make you laugh and cry. It’s also a detective story and a moving exploration of grief. I admire Foer’s bravery and audacity as a writer. With all its typographical quirks (photographs, full-color pages, text that keeps decreasing in size until it’s too tiny to read), this is a book you want to own a physical copy of. And don’t watch the movie.”
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The master referred to as the Berlin Painter, who lived in Athens in the early fifth century BC, was an artist whose name, nationality, and even gender remain unknown, but whose distinctive and confident illustration in the red-figure style stands out as clearly as any signature. The first phase of the Berlin Painter’s career coincided with the birth of democracy in Athens, and the early works—which portray ordinary people caught in simple moments of daily life in much the same way that other vase painters treated gods and heroes—demonstrate the humanism of that political evolution.
The story Diane Arbus told with her camera was about shape-shifting: in order to understand difference one had to not only not dismiss it, but try to become it. “I don’t like to arrange things,” she once said. “If I stand in front of something, instead of arranging it, I arrange myself.”