A master of the American short story, Richard Burgin has, over the years, haunted us with a range of lonely, neurotic, occasionally criminal, yet weirdly sympathetic characters. Now in A Thousand Natural Shocks, we have a collection of Burgin’s greatest hits plus a few new tales, thanks to the astute selections of editor Joseph D. Haske.

Richard Burgin is the author of 20 books. He has received five Pushcart Prizes for his fiction, a distinction accorded outstanding literary work published by small presses. His book The Identity Club: New and Selected Stories and Songs was listed in The Times Literary Supplement as one of the best books of 2006 and noted by The Huffington Post as one of the 40 best books of fiction in the last decade. The title story of that collection, “The Identity Club,” was the lead story in The Best American Mysteries 2005 and appears in The Ecco Anthology of Contemporary American Short Fiction. “The Identity Club,” a tale of fraternity and fatal aestheticism, is also collected here, just one of the many best-of-Burgin stories in A Thousand Natural Shocks. In addition to his own contributions to the short story canon, Burgin is the founding editor of the internationally acclaimed literary journal Boulevard. More… “Prevalent Protagonists”

News out that Henri Bendel, that most elegant, nose-in-the-air store on 5th Avenue in Manhattan will, following the lead of its dowdier but still elegant sister, Lord & Taylor, be shutting its doors this week. These venerable palaces of consumption have been on walkers for awhile — though in my last trip to Manhattan Lord & Taylor was still playing the Star-Spangled Banner as it has each morning since the 1980 hostage crisis, before letting the kitten-heeled and Lululemon-clad hordes maraud through its aisles. All things must come to an end, but this has been a particularly slow and mannerly demise. I mourned the death of the department store over ten years ago in these pages:

More… “Bidding Farewell to Henri Bendel”

There we sat, Mom and I, side by side on the piano bench. A mirror on the panel above the keyboard reflected our fingers, perched to perform. Deadly piano-playing duo? Not quite. You see, I had decided to teach Mom to play the piano. She was in her mid-50s; I was 13.

Perhaps a grade eight history-teaching project had infected me with the teaching bug. More likely it was connected to Dad’s second bout with cancer. At the hospital, the radiation had zapped his tumor. Now he was back home and had returned to work, but Mom and I were left with the aftermath of his life/death ordeal. We needed a diversion to keep us sane in this sudden change to supposedly safe routine. Besides, my music credentials were impeccable — five years of learning Bach, Beethoven, and Chopin on our pink Roxatone-coated piano.

“FACE,” I pointed to the white keys straddling the middle of the keyboard, “That’s middle C.” I followed the methods of my own piano teacher, Miss Garlick.

Every Saturday morning at ten a.m., I walked four and a half blocks to private lessons in Miss Garlick’s basement studio. Despite her name, she exuded sweetness and competence when her fingers flew along the piano keys of her black upright or black baby grand. Her pink puffy cheeks and short grey hair gave her the appearance of everybody’s grandmother. More… “Don’t Look Down”

“Urge and urge and urge,” Whitman intoned. “Always the procreant urge of the world.” These words signal the life instinct, eros, that innate, libidinal drive for pleasure and survival.

Humans are compelled by life, attracted to it and aroused by it. The procreant urge motivates us to act, stimulates our choices and actions, shapes our personal identity. There’s no subjectivity, no consciousness, absent coital awareness. The properties of life — what it means and how it appears to be alive — are conditions for their own perpetuation: to love life is to make it.

We are drawn to life, that inner bloom within the verdant body. We seek intimacy with the animated, energetic fertile parts, the warm, electric, pulsating body that’s flowing with blood, propelled by agency and personality. The sensual qualities of living flesh stir up an intense and unconscious desire for the continuity of our kind. More… “Sex with the Dead”

During an undergraduate English seminar, our professor got frank with us about her multiple miscarriages. It wasn’t completely out of sorts — the seminar was centered around the body and we had spent a lot of time with the concept of madness as elucidated by Elaine Showalter in The Female Malady. After more than 10 years, I don’t remember much about that course, but I do remember our instructor’s confessional moment, what felt like at the time, an incredibly intimate detail in her life. It wasn’t the first time I had come across the concept of miscarriage. At age four, I was told I was going to be a big sister and then not long after, was told I wasn’t. But I was struck by her openness and matter-of-factness. These weren’t situations we were supposed to discuss. It felt almost indecent and out of line at the time. More… Lost Time”


“You can never make that crossing that she made, for such Great Voyages in this world do not any more exist. But every day of your lives the miles that voyage between that place and this one you cross. Every day. You understand me? In you that journey is.”
Angels in America, Millennium Approaches, Act 1, Scene 1

At the end of Ithaca College’s production of Millennium Approaches in October 2017, the lights flickered and we — the audience and Prior Walter — met the Angel for the first time. As both a reader and an audience member, I have immersed myself in this play countless times over the last 25 years — at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco in 1995, in the Off Broadway revival, during many viewings of the superb HBO production. I look forward to seeing the current Tony-award-winning version of the play, its first Broadway production in the Trump era. When we finally meet the Angel at the end of Millennium, it is a spectacle. In the text and in previous productions, her entrance is preceded by a giant boom that causes part of the bedroom ceiling to crash down to the floor. When she descends and asserts, “The Great Work begins!” it is significant, stunning, and terrifying. In Ithaca College’s otherwise phenomenal production, the Angel entered . . . on roller skates. More… “The Great Work Begins Again”

Sometimes, an idea can be so arresting that, for a time at least, we care more about the fascinating nature of the idea than we do about its feasibility or reality. This was how I felt when I discovered that one man (and a few others before and after him) firmly believed that the Earth is “hollow and habitable within.” The idea of a concave inner world that was as yet unexplored captivated me initially, but in the end, it was the man who believed this theory so doggedly who captured my attention.

John Cleves Symmes Jr. lived 200 years or so ago; I discovered a monument in his honor in a park in Hamilton, Ohio, a small city north of Cincinnati. I first learned of it when I was surfing Atlas Obscura and went to check out the monument.

The monument stands in a really run-down park; the monument itself has been defaced and a forbidding fence has been erected around it to prevent further vandalism. On its top is a bronze model of the “Hollow Earth,” with the openings a little scalloped, like you could easily walk down the slope from the icy areas of Siberia into the lush interior of the Earth. No one in Hamilton really cares about this guy, as far as I can tell; no one really celebrates him, but the monument still hasn’t come down even 150 years later. More… “Hollow Words”

At first glance, Bull Durham doesn’t seem like the kind of movie that would get the Criterion Collection treatment. A cinephile’s delight, Criterion is usually associated with more esoteric films: their staggeringly comprehensive editions of the works of Ingmar Bergman and Josef Von Sternberg are alluring indeed, but not what you’d call mainstream fare. Kudos to Criterion for being open-minded enough to notice how progressive, subversive, and worldly-wise Bull Durham really is. Brilliantly written by former minor leaguer Ron Shelton, the film shows authentic affection and respect for America’s pastime but doesn’t shy away from the deeper questions that go beyond calling balls and strikes. Bull Durham is a thinking person’s sports movie, containing a deep, unapologetically intelligent and mature understanding of the world both inside and outside the ballpark.

We follow the The Durham Bulls, a very minor league baseball team based in North Carolina. Most of the players know that they aren’t destined to be superstars, nor are they meant to be, which is mostly just fine by them. They’re in it purely for the love of the game, enjoying the laid-back camaraderie of athletes, content to horse around beneath the bright lights on warm summer evenings. Choosing to focus on this often-ignored aspect of the sporting life is particularly pointed, since the mid ’80s was a time just before baseball (and sports culture at large) got a metaphorical (and, it must be said, quite literal) shot in the arm, causing salaries and egos to run amok. The amiable Durham Bulls aren’t obsessively driven to be champions, which flips the implicit triumphalism of most sports movies on its head right off the bat, so to speak. More… “All-Star Flirtation”

We started our “best of” practice in 2016, when it struck us that we were all pretty cool people who liked a lot of stuff. Most of our editorial meetings become exchanges of the movies, music, books, articles, podcasts, and tv shows we’re watching and loving. We have had informal office townhalls on Bob Dylan, Roxane Gay, and Beyoncé. We have created lists of the top female vocalists of the 20th century and debated the merits of authorship, discussed the role of fandoms, and every drama — no matter how great or how small — that have arisen in the past three years. The “Best of” post has become one of my most favorite rituals for The Smart Set. First, it allows us to reflect on all the material we’ve come across throughout the year and pluck those texts or people that really struck a chord. Second, it allows us to share that joy. We hope that you find below a few samesies from your personal lists and a couple of new things to binge.

  More… “BEST OF 2018”

Once again it’s time to look at all the “funnybooks” I read over the past 365 days and try to determine which are my most favorite of favorites. Many of the comics I wrote about for this column over the past year – Prism Stalker, Yellow Negroes, Why Art? – would easily make that short list. Not wanting to repeat myself, however, I thought instead I’d focus on some works that I didn’t have time to mention in this space. So here are 10 comics that I think are among some of the best of 2018 that I haven’t talked about here before. More… “Comic Countdown 2018”