Bernardine Evaristo’s Path to Success

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At The New Yorker, Anna Russell speaks with Bernardine Evaristo about her new memoir, Manifesto: On Never Giving Up. Evaristo reflects on early days of literary experimenting and writing “fusion fiction;” her leaving and reentering the heterosexual dating scene and eventually meeting her husband on a dating app; and her many years of living paycheck to paycheck.

When asked why she thought it had taken so long for her to find a wide readership, Evaristo was diplomatic, pointing out that though it had been a long wait for her, some women of color had risen faster. “There are always exceptions,” Evaristo says.

Emma Paterson, Evaristo’s agent, adds that, “there’s a myth in British publishing, which is overwhelmingly white, that books about Black British characters—Black British women—don’t sell, and that Evaristo has, “had to work her way through glass walls.”

Can You Crack the Dickens Code?

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At The Guardian, Simon Osbourne examines the Dickens Code, a project in which a group of decoders teamed up to decipher the shorthand hieroglyphics Charles Dickens used in his letters and documents. More recently, the project sent out a call for amateur sleuths to enter a competition to transcribe one of 10 documents written in the Victorian author’s maddening scrawl, with the winner being awarded a monetary prize. This particular document is a mystery letter that has been kept for more than a century in a New York library. The sleuths helped figure out it is the “Tavistock Letter,” which reveals a troubled period in Dickens’s life, one where a “once canny businessman reached a fraught juncture in his love life and literary career, and is now leaning on his connections and the courts for help.” The £300 prize was awarded to Shane Baggs, a Californian IT worker and code enthusiast, who solved the most symbols.

Image credit: Wikipedia

What Does It Take to Be a Competitive Scrabble Player?

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At Literary Hub, Oliver Roeder talks about his passion for the classic word game and his stint as a competitive player. He discusses his childhood love of the game, the fun of anagramming, and the best practices used in preparation for competitions. “Scrabble’s top players are people who can memorize coded information and quickly turn it into ordered meaning,” Roeder says. “Most players study with the help of a computer program; Zyzzyva (“The Last Word in Word Study”) is the most popular. These digital flash cards display letters in alphabetical order—​that is, as an alphagram. During gameplay one does the same with the letters on the rack, tightening the connection to earlier study. For example, the program might display AAEFLMOT. Your job, then, is to try to mentally rearrange those letters into the word MEATLOAF. Or if it displayed AAGKNOOR, you’d try to find KANGAROO. AEIKRSTW becomes WATERSKI, ADELOPT becomes TADPOLE, DGMOPRU becomes GUMDROP, ABINORW becomes RAINBOW, and so on.”

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

An Archive of Artist Deaths at the Met

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At Literary Hub, Jim Moske, an archivist at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, writes a fascinating piece on the scrapbooks of Arturo B. de St. M. D’Hervilly, who was hired by The Met in 1894 as an office clerk. D’Hervilly’s macabre archive tells of the deaths of painters, photographers and other artists in the 20th century via a collection of faded ink and scraps of paper in various stages of decay.

“Some are formal obituaries of art world luminaries whose names remain familiar today, such as Auguste Rodin. Others describe the passing away of artists revered in their own time, but whose work has since fallen from fashion and is today little known,” he writes. “Hundreds more of the clippings, though, recount more gruesome stories: the demise of artists obscure at the time and now utterly forgotten, many of them suicides, or victims of bizarre accidents, murders, or disease. These grim fragments retrieved from the past reveal disturbing themes and motifs once prevalent in mass media portrayals of creative people.”

Image Credit: Pixabay.

Our Love for Libraries Told in Photographs

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At The Marginalian, Maria Popova features Robert Dawson’s The Public Library: A Photographic Essay, a visual love letter to libraries and a testament to the power of reading. The book is full of evocative imagery of different libraries across the nation, plus essays, letters, and poetry by some of America’s most celebrated writers, including Bill Moyers, Ann Patchett, Anne Lamott, Amy Tan, Barbara Kingsolver, and more. The Public Library is perfect for book lovers and anyone with a love for learning. Popova says it is, “absolutely wonderful in its entirety, at once an ode to the glory of our most democratic institutions and a culturally necessary prompt to defend them like we would defend our freedom to live, learn, and be—a freedom to which the library is our highest celebration.”

Sofi Thanhauser’s Sweeping History of Getting Dressed

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At The Guardian, Kathryn Hughes reviews Sofi Thanhauser’s Worn, a wide-ranging exploration of the materials our clothes are made of and how they impact our daily lives and the planet. Thanhauser takes readers on a trip around the world—from the luxurious courts of Louis Quatorze to the original silk route to modern-day textile factories in southern India— shedding light on how clothes were first used to stimulate the economy and conjure illusions of power and prestige, while also revealing the industry’s harsh consequences: environmental destruction and the exploitation of workers. Thanhauser also illuminates small groups of tailors around the world who utilize ancestral and ethical methods for making what we wear.”Worn,” Hughes writes, “consists of much more than a string of entertaining anecdotes about people raiding the dressing-up box and embarrassing themselves in the process. Its starting point is the terrible state of our current clothing industry, which, as Thanhauser describes it, exists in a nightmare wasteland of overproduction, toxic waste, choked rivers, child labour and collapsing factories. Following five threads—linen, cotton, silk, rayon and wool—she sets out to chart a deft course through material history, arguing that “there is scarcely a part of the human experience, historic or current, that the story of clothes does not touch.”

Sheila Heti Transforms Her Diaries Into Autofiction

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At Literary Hub, Walker Kaplan takes a look at Sheila Heti’s new autofictional, alphabetical newsletter, available exclusively to New York Times subscribers. This started out as Heti’s “procrastination project,” which took her decades to create and involved importing her diaries into Excel, sorting sentences in alphabetical order, and searching for patterns and repetitions. “I always enjoy working with writing that I didn’t initially intend to be read,” Heti says, “because writing that is written without an audience in mind has a kind of freshness, an honesty or purity; an unselfconsciousness.” In the first installment of the newsletter, A to C, Heti proves unsparingly honest, with lines like, “All the faith you had in art, you can have in this man”; “All the really great things that have been created in art have been created by adults”; and “Although what if living honestly doesn’t get you where you want to go?”

Image Credit: Publishers Weekly.

Jessamine Chan’s Debut Calls Modern-Day Parenting Into Question

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At Electric Literature, Diane Cooke speaks to Jessamine Chan about The School for Good Mothers, Chan’s incisive debut novel that revolves around how a young mother’s error lands her in a government reform program and at risk of losing custody of her child. They discuss one of Chan’s main inspirations for the book, a Rachel Aviv article in The New Yorker called “Where Is Your Mother?”, the need for more complex and messy Asian American protagonists, the challenges of being an art mom, and the purpose of satire in her novel in spotlighting how Western culture in particular reinforces restrictive ideas about how mothers should behave.

“The satire was my way of processing my thoughts, feelings, and anxiety about a generally upper-middle-class and white American parenting culture and all the pressure. I found, and still find, the sheer number of instructions about any parenting task or decision to be overwhelming, so part of the satire was taking the idea of instruction and making it insane” Chan says. “Through satire and using speculative elements, I wanted to call into question who is making those rules and whether it’s possible to ever have a set of universal standards that’s separate from the influence of race, class, and culture. How can the teaching of parenting ever be truly objective?”

An Examination of the Trauma Plot

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At The New Yorker, Parul Sehgal reflects on the trauma plot and how it has come to dominate stories both on the page and on screen. Sehgal argues that “The trauma plot flattens, distorts, reduces character to symptom, and, in turn, instructs and insists upon its moral authority. The solace of its simplicity comes at no little cost. It disregards what we know and asks that we forget it, too—forget about the pleasures of not knowing, about the unscripted dimensions of suffering, about the odd angularities of personality, and, above all, about the allure and necessity of a well-placed sea urchin.” She explores how the ways we write about trauma have evolved over time, and poses the question, “In a world infatuated with victimhood, has trauma emerged as a passport to status—our red badge of courage?” 

Raven Leilani on Writing Complex and Contradictory Black Women Protagonists

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At The Guardian, Hephzibah Anderson interviews Raven Leilani, author of the award-winning novel Luster. Now published in paperback, Leilani’s sexy and blisteringly honest debut follows Edie, a 23-year-old black woman and aspiring painter trying to stay afloat in New York City. But after being fired from her publishing job, she finds herself moving in with her married white lover and his family.

Leilani discusses her own connection to painting, books currently on her bedside table, literary characters that played a part in the creation of Edie, and her choice to write a scene in which Edie fantasizes about being hit and permits her older white boyfriend to actually strike her—a moment that incited a lot of reactions from readers. “It’s a deeply tricky thing to write about a black woman who is inviting this kind of violence,” Leilani says. “I wanted her to be a character who has the freedom to find pleasure where she finds it, but it is, too, still quite intertwined with the fact that because she is a black woman, she experiences these loud and soft violences in her public life, and choosing it in her private life is a way to exert that control that she doesn’t have elsewhere.”