The Literazzi, or, How David Foster Wallace Broke My Heart

hemingwayThere are few things to do in Anacostia, Maryland, besides visit the home of Frederick Douglass. It’s an estate called Cedar Hill, a large, white, red-gabled colonial with the type of rocking chair-laden porch that begs you to sit down with an iced tea and a bowl of strawberries. The tour guide looks like a cross between a university librarian and a park ranger; he has sinewy but muscular arms and Frederick Douglass-era glasses, shiny round lenses that hover about his face like flat moons. He is, or at least pretends to be, thoroughly excited about the rug on which Douglass gave his grandchildren piggyback rides, and the cabinet in which his servants storied pies. Continue reading

The Real Meaning of Comfort Food

image-4There are times when only a big box of ribs will do. Usually those times come after days already full of excess. Country fair and fried Twinkie kinds of days. Emotionally laden kinds of days—days in response to which doctors exhort patients to “not eat their feelings”. Yeah, right. People have been eating their feelings since Eve took a bite of that nice apple.

So I make a quick check of Yelp—these ribs better be quality ribs—and run out to the recommended rib joint on River Street named “Coast Cafe” and make my purchase: three whole pork BBQ ribs with a side of collard greens and string beans (to be healthy). When my order comes, it comes nestled in a styrofoam box, embraced by two pieces of aluminum foil. The heat sweats through the box and the plastic happy face’d bag. Continue reading

Now You See Him: Richard Linklater’s Boyhood

Image courtesy of

Image courtesy of

Imagine that you have a superpower for accelerating time at whim, for making decades pass in the span of hours. Imagine now that your superpower is actually just extreme diligence, and that you are the director Richard Linklater. The product of this is Boyhood, a languorous dip into the formative years of a young boy in suburban Texas and a feat of filmmaking stamina. Its innovation was to film the same cast for a few days out of every year for twelve years, and for a time after seeing it I wondered whether its power rests solely in its gimmick. After all, The Boston Globe had gone so far as to declare that it “may be why the movies were invented.” And yet, what it has to say about boyhood, or parenthood, or generalized personhood, resides squarely in the banal. It is the opposite of Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life, which situates its portrait of Texas boyhood in the context of nothing less than the incipient universe and the beginning of life on Earth. That film opens with a quotation from Job 38:4, 7 (“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? …”) set to John Tavener’s “Funeral Canticle,” and ends with a surrealistic beachscape of the dead. Boyhood opens on a little boy cloud-watching to the strains of Coldplay’s “Yellow,” and ends with him, twelve years later, getting stoned in a national park.

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Those Beautiful Delhi Boys


The devotees sit crosslegged in the tomb not eating the food laid before them, plates glossy pink and turmeric yellow with papaya and daal. The tile is khichri-slippery, and I have forgotten it is Ramadan. The Dargah of Sufi saint Nizaamuddin Auliya, a labrynthine complex open to the sky, shivers with a crowd: disciplined worshippers at a feast uneaten, as though laid out for ghosts. But they are vibrantly fleshy, minding babies and gesticulating as they wait for the siren signalling iftar to tumble down. I snake into a bulging queue with a combination of elbows and sweet talk, half propelled by the crowd and half propelling, until I am spat out, salty and sweating, at the tomb of Amir Khusrau.

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Catch a Fire

slaverevenge“Slave driver, the table is turned; Catch a fire, so you can get burned.” – Bob Marley

I am crouched on the edge of Port-au-Prince rooftop, a hooded figure with a blunderbuss and a rusty machete strapped to my back. A throng of white men in frock coats and silk stockings bustles by below, some on their way to a nearby slave auction. There, a line of shackled men stands on a platform, under posters reading “Nègres À Vendre”—“Blacks For Sale.” It’s broad daylight, and my rooftop ledge stands only a few feet off the ground. Yet the men below don’t seem frightened. It’s possible they can’t believe their eyes: Black assassins aren’t quite commonplace in colonial Saint-Domingue. Whatever the reason, their loss is our gain. Continue reading

The Emergence of the Archive

“To be human means above all to bury.”

- Robert Pogue Harrison, The Dominion of the Dead

Three articles this July have underlined a growing concern about the function of the archive in contemporary society. Previously relegated to the dark, climate-controlled labyrinths below universities, federal buildings and private collections, the archive has emerged into daylight. The repositories of the everyday now interact directly with the everyday, to unusual effect. Continue reading

Should You Buy It?: American Innovations by Rivka Galchen

American Innovations is a concept book, which makes it a good gift. The person opens the wrapping paper and says, excitedly, “Oh, what’s this?” And you say: “It’s a collection that reimagines famous stories from the perspective of female characters.” And then, to give it a little weight, to prove its not merely a gimmick, you give a quick list of Rivka Galchen’s accomplishments: One novel, Atmospheric Disturbances (2008), excellent reviews; professorship at Columbia; one of the New Yorker’s 20 under 40 (2010). Et voila: the gift-receiver is thrilled about their new book. Continue reading