Growing up in suburban New Jersey during the 1960s, I always thought of Leonard Bernstein as a kind of distant cousin. All Jewish families who had emigrated from Eastern Europe had people evocative of Bernstein — charismatic, larger-than-life talents who seemed to skirt danger.

It’s not entirely clear whether Lenny, as his friends called him (though his grandmother had insisted on calling him Louis, his given name) was a child prodigy, only that he loved music from an early age and was branded a genius when he arrived at Harvard. His genius showed most dramatically in his energy and inventiveness — a restlessness that some saw as a tragic flaw. More… “My Cousin Lenny”

In my real life, I get flashbacks where I’m playing Call of Duty, standing in a silo, hiding from a tank. I have to count the tank’s assaults so I can run out of the silo in between blasts, then sprint close enough to the tank to throw C4 explosive on it, run away, not get shot, and click a button to blow the tank up.

Even if I’m successful, I’ll still die soon, when some rival soldier hits me with a shotgun blast, or sniper bullet, or knife to the face.

But this is an online multiplayer, so my death lasts only a second or two. I respawn back to life, on some different part of the battle map, where I have to run back to the silo, to help my team, or to revenge-kill an annoyingly talented gamer who keeps putting holes in me. More… “Withdrawal of Duty”

Every literary season deserves at least one unexpected pleasure. For the fall of 2016, this pleasure appeared with the discovery and publication of a long-lost novel by Claude McKay. Known as the “rebel sojourner” of the Harlem Renaissance, McKay enjoys more than his fair share of supporters and detractors. His sense of rebellion persisted throughout his unsettled life, as compulsive and widespread as his travels. The newly discovered novel, with the suitably prickly title of Amiable With Big Teeth, won’t likely alter or settle McKay’s reputation conclusively, but it will complicate it, and in a good sense. Most striking, perhaps, is that the book has a deft plot, rather unlike his earlier narratives (recall that Banjo is subtitled A Story Without a Plot). Some issues and concerns recur from the previous fictions, but they often appear to be over-shadowed by the political questions of race and color. Amiable certainly continues in that vein, but adds to it a smoother sense of conflict and development, complete with revelatory surprises and a range of tonal situations, from romantic innocence to farce to grim burlesque. More… “Amiable with Big Teeth”

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”