To structure is to survive. If you want your work to have even the tiniest chance of lasting — this is a dream hope; a stage of adolescence; your writing will not last, but it may hang around for a year or two — it must be well structured. If your ideas are flimsy, your characters boring, your scenes flat, your sentences dull, face it: your work is on the way out; however, even worse is the story or novel that is stillborn. It needs backbone and oxygen. It needs clarity. It needs everything you can do to save it. In other words, it needs structure.

More… “What You Make, Make To Last”

Many across the political spectrum assert that the American Dream is endangered. No American politician would dare to question that the American Dream must be preserved. But what exactly is the American Dream?

In his 1931 book The Epic of America, the historian James Truslow Adams popularized the term, defining the American Dream as “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.” In the two clauses of his sentence, Adams combines two different, and not necessarily compatible definitions of the American Dream. More… “Which American Dream?”

Scholars have been laboring for more than a century to transform Emily Dickinson’s faint pencil jottings on envelopes, letters, and sewn sheets into accurate and readable editions of some or all of her 1,800 poems. Recently, there has been a counter movement to return Dickinson’s verse to something like the textual fluidity of its original state, which in practice is rather like returning nonspecialists to the state of dazed incomprehension experienced by the small circle of her earliest readers. The online Emily Dickinson Archive, which reproduces the manuscripts with all their wayward calligraphy and unresolved word choices, is a necessary and laudable enterprise, but the last thing it does is make her poetry more accessible. You thought it was hard reading Emily Dickinson before? It just got harder.

More… “Reading Emily Dickinson”

Book-ended by two heavy-hitting true crime series, The Jinx and Making a Murderer, 2015 (and ’16) saw a lot of journalists grappling with the draw of these programs and true crime as a genre. These documentaries were cinematic, following those accused of crimes but with hazy details that either led to them being imprisoned possibly wrongly (Steven Avery) or free (Robert Durst). There is an ambiguity with these real-life narratives that allows filmmakers to create engaging documentaries that grapple with inconsistencies, problematic ideologies, and injustices. Both series quickly became rulers for filmmakers as more highbrow-aesthetic true crime films are showing up on Netflix and HBO. More… “TV Departed”

On the surface, it looks a lot like your typical Sunday School. There are children gathered at the feet of the woman teaching the class. They are singing Christmas carols, listening to stories about how we as people came to be on this earth, making arts and crafts. It could be taking place in any church basement across America.

Until you start to listen to the words of this particular version of “Silent Night.”

Silent night, holy night

all is calm, all is bright

planets gracefully circle the Sun

Stardust cycles through everyone

Life abounds upon Earth

Life abounds upon Earth

They begin another song, this one without the familiar melody.

In the beginning

was the Great Radiance

14 billion years ago

out of the fireball

came simple hydrogen

and helium from that great glow

The children gather now to make what look like rosaries, and the instructor spreads out a large selection of beads. Only, rather than using them to count prayers, the beads are there to help the children contemplate the stages of life development. The first bead represents the Big Bang, next the formation of the stars, then the birth of the planets, the beginning of life on Earth, and so on. More… “Earthly Intervention”

Ask someone who doesn’t normally listen to classical music to name a work from the genre, and it’s a reasonable bet they’ll cite Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. They’re apt to even hum a few bars of the “Ode to Joy” passage — a veritable vocal wellspring of the human spirit — and there’s a decent chance they’ve heard it performed live at some point. After all, few symphonies are aired more frequently than Beethoven’s last. More… “Playing Ninth”

Kay Redfield Jamison is the Dalio Family Professor of Mood Disorders and a professor of psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. In addition to academic work including the standard textbook on manic depression, she is the author of An Unquiet Mind about her own struggles with the disorder. Her latest, Robert Lowell: Setting the River on Fire, applies her expertise to the life of one of the last century’s major poets. Offering new insights into his life, Jamison brings fresh energy to interpreting Lowell’s poems from “Skunk Hour” to his later poetry. This interview was conducted by phone and edited for length and clarity.

More… “Keeping a Lowell Profile”

If German visitors to the United States shop at a supermarket, they will probably notice beer cans on the shelves bearing familiar-sounding names like Pabst, Schlitz, or Anheuser-Busch. But if they ask Americans unfamiliar with modern-day Germany what it means to be German, the answers might surprise them. For many Americans, “typically German” things include Christmas traditions and baked goods, classical music, or brass bands and marches, and they may know a few terms like Kindergarten or Gemütlichkeit. Often, these traces of Germany are just regionally specific cultural leftovers that have managed to survive — in distorted form — into the present.

No other country has exerted such a powerful, centuries-long fascination over German emigrants than the United States. And the German-speaking countries are second only to Great Britain as a continual source of new inhabitants of America. This emigration began with isolated groups in the 17th century and continued in bursts for more than a hundred years, when a wave of mass emigration began. Until this tipping point, however, the number of relocated Germans was never more than a few hundred thousand. In his novel, Wilhelm Meister’s Journeyman Years, the famous German author Johann Wolfgang Goethe wrote of the “lively impetus toward America in the beginning of the 18th century” that was “encouraged by the desirable possessions which could be obtained.” In the 19th century, immigration patterns reflected the larger transition from an agricultural society to an industrial one. Between 1815 and 1914, about 40 million people came to America from Europe, including approximately seven million Germans. More… “Destination Amerika”

Schadenfreude: joy in the misfortune or shame of others. When someone of high station or great accomplishment falls or fails we can feel assuaged in our relative obscurity by knowing that we suffer in less dramatic and public ways. So many joys in life are comparative — and this is one of them.

Schadenfreude is a sophisticated emotion — a combination of jealousy and revenge refracted through the lens of voyeurism. Part of the appeal of schadenfreude is that it takes no effort and involves no responsibility. We experience it like rubberneckers at an accident. In this regard, it is an innocent sin, one that ought not to evoke guilt — or so I tell myself. More… “Schadenfreude TV”

Jimmy Yee cannot kill himself.

It’s certainly not for a lack of effort. Hanging doesn’t work. Slitting his wrists is useless. Shooting himself in the head, overdosing on pills . . . nothing he tries gives him the exit into oblivion he so clearly craves. Each time he succumbs, he witnesses a glowing ring of light, then awakens once again in his motel room. At least it seems like his motel room. What is going on? Maybe if he throws himself in front of a truck . . .

That’s the opening sequence to Demon, Jason Shiga’s bloody brilliant (or brilliantly bloody) action comic, a no-holds-barred assault on good taste and timidity that proves to be as hilarious and captivating as it is incredibly violent and profane. Originally serialized both online and via print pamphlets by the author, Demon is now being “officially” published as a four-volume series of books by First Second. The first volume was released late last year, the second just last month — volumes three and four will be coming out by the end of 2017. More… Demon am I”