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Returning to the States after two years in Poland – during which I had married, taught English, and witnessed the rise of Solidarity and the imposition of martial law – I suggested to my wife that we live in Philadelphia.

I had always liked the city, not least because I owed my existence to it. Somewhere in its folds in 1941, my father, a student at Penn Law School, met my mother, a nurse at the Children’s Hospital. As parents, upriver in New Jersey, they introduced my brothers and me to the zoo, the Franklin Institute, Connie Mack Stadium, Elfreth’s Alley. Years later, as a student at Villanova, I took the Paoli Local in to watch Big Five basketball at the Palestra and, one memorable evening, strippers at the Trocadero Theater. In my junior year I bought my first pair of round tortoiseshell glasses – the same style I wear today – at Limeburner Opticians on Chestnut Street. More… “Out of Philadelphia”

Thomas Swick is the author of three books, the most recent being The Joys of Travel: And Stories That Illuminate Them. His work has appeared in numerous national magazines and literary quarterlies, and in six editions of The Best American Travel Writing.

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It began in the 11th grade in Dr. Hannum’s class on the 19th-century British novel. I was already a Dickens fan. I had read David Copperfield in the tenth grade and liked it so much that I spent the summer between tenth and 11th grades reading Great Expectations, Oliver Twist, and A Tale of Two Cities. But it was Thomas Hardy’s Return of the Native that tipped the scales. I had bought the book for the course so that particular copy I already owned. By the time we had finished reading it, I wanted to own other books like it. Trollope, Thackeray, Austen, Meredith, the Brontës, all the great British novelists who wrote those tomes with complicated, melodramatic plots and dozens of idiosyncratic characters. Whenever I needed a refuge from 20th-century agnst, I would step back into Jane Austen’s Netherfield Park where men wore frock coats and pursued vaporous women, to Anthony Trollope’s Barchester Towers where determined clerics and their ambitious wives maneuvered for power and influence in a rural English diocese, or I would join Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson as they tracked their arch enemy Professor Moriarty through London’s fogbound streets. I wanted those books. I needed those books. More… “A Not-So-Curious Fascination”

John Capista is a reader who loves to write and a writer who loves to read. He reads, writes and resides in Drexel Hill, PA.

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Sylvia Plath has a way of showing up in everything I do. I find her in the essays I write, the things I say, the movies I watch — even the clothing I choose to wear. She is ever-present, ever-changing, working her way into my writing and conversations. I spoke with Emily Van Duyne, a writer, scholar, and feminist, who has also been heavily influenced and shaped by Plath, an American writer and poet best known for her novel The Bell Jar and poetry collections such as Ariel and The Colossus and Other Poems. Emily Van Duyne is an assistant professor of writing at Stockton University in New Jersey, where she is also affiliated with faculty in Women’s, Gender, & Sexuality Studies. Her work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Harvard Review, Women’s Studies Quarterly, Meridian, and Literary Hub, among others. She has written many essays about Plath and is currently at work on a critical memoir called Loving Sylvia Plath. You can tweet her @emilyvanduyne.

More… “Pondering Plath”

Camille DiBenedetto is a staff writer for The Smart Set and an English major at Drexel University. In her free time, you can find her watching romantic comedies, listening to slam poetry, or rereading The Summer I Turned Pretty for the 27th time.

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Within the past few years I have succumbed to a period of feminist ennui. It’s not that I no longer think the principles of equality are no longer important, but it seems as if the word and movement, “feminism,” has lost meaning. It has been co-opted, lazily applied, and devalued. I’ve become frustrated by so-called feminists whose actions betray their rhetoric and popular culture texts and figures who think just saying words like “feminist” and “intersectional” is enough. Just the idea that there is such an idea of bare minimum – that feminism is as simple as wearing a t-shirt, watching the female reboot of Ghostbusters, or reposting a quote from Gloria Steinem on her birthday. This is not to say that those things are not important, but that there is a sense that these instances have become more like rituals – they are to be done to reassert a sense of identity, but have lost meaning.

The new essay collection, Can We All Be Feminists? addresses the complications and hardwork of being a feminist who is intersectional, meaning understanding the ways in which feminism can and does intersect with race, disability, immigration, labor, and sexuality (to name a handful). The range of essays, edited by June Eric-Udorie, covers a lot of ground and at times seems like nothing holds them together, until you come back to the anchoring point that feminism and feminists have to diversify their portfolios. To end sexism, examining immigration policies, as Wei Ming Kam does in “The Machinery of Disbelief,” is as necessary as Hollywood’s recent interest in wage equality. And within the rhetoric of equal pay activism, the continued reiteration that “women get paid less” must further be broken down by these other intersecting points: white women are typically paid less than their male counterparts, women of color are often paid less than that, and women with disabilities even less. “Women” cannot be an umbrella term and nor can “feminist.” We have to become more discerning. More… “At the Crossroads”

Melinda Lewis has a PhD in American Culture Studies. She knows more celebrity gossip than basic math and watches too much television.

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I think about shame a lot. I wonder when and why I began to care so much about stuff — my body, my face, my intellectual ability. Did it start when I was bullied on the bus in kindergarten? Was it some sort of pseudo-consciousness mind trick passed down from my parents? Was it because I picked up a Seventeen magazine when I was 11? For whatever reason, I remember a lot of low and high-key shame moments from my younger years. I didn’t want to wear shorts as a preteen, because I was starting to sprout leg hair and was too embarrassed I hadn’t started to shave. Clothes shopping in high school was never fun because I couldn’t find anything to adequately fit my body. I’d enter a dressing room with a pile and leave with nothing, because (what I imagined to be) my grotesque body wouldn’t cooperate. And while I was feeling so dejected and ashamed, I rarely vocalized. For years, I assumed everybody else had figured the body out. More… “For Shame”

Melinda Lewis has a PhD in American Culture Studies. She knows more celebrity gossip than basic math and watches too much television.

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Michael Andreasen’s first book, The Sea Beast Takes a Lover, is one part Twilight Zone, a hint of Twin Peaks, with a dash of Booshian surrealism. Anchoring his short stories is one of my favorite sensibilities in film and literature: the extraordinary in the ordinary, whether that is making the banal fantastic or normalcy perverse. Below, Andreasen, graciously addresses some of the questions I had about Sea Beast, gearing up for his first book, and his inspiration.

More… “Sailing with Michael Andreasen”

Melinda Lewis has a PhD in American Culture Studies. She knows more celebrity gossip than basic math and watches too much television.

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“Hey,” I say, and pause for a moment, slinging my tennis bag over my shoulder and closing the car door. I start down the grassy slope toward the tennis court. It is my opponent I have called out to, inside the fence. I swing the gate open and let it clang behind me. Now, I shuffle a little on the court, to hear the clay beneath my shoes. The court waits for us, swept of any previous play. We are ready to begin.

The way I imagine it, we are at the Highland courts, a short drive from my home. The Highland courts are a set of four natural red clay courts at the edge of a forested town park, right next to a somewhat secluded neighborhood of Victorian houses from the town’s factory heyday. We are alone, he and I, perhaps in the early morning. He has something of a blank look on his face, dressed not a little uncomfortably in a set of what looks like Wimbledon whites, except not so bright, rumpled even. But he has on his trademark head rag, tying back his hair.

Maybe there is small talk, as we unpack our bags. The weather, or when was the last time each of us played. Does he want to warm up short, standing on the service line and trading easy half volleys? In the kind of tennis I play, the adult recreational kind, there is a certain unease to begin, a mix of friendly get-to-know-you banter with an overlay of the what-sort-of-opponent-will-you-be subtle interrogation. Perhaps this is not unlike sizing up a new book, or maybe even moreso for a book whose reputation, at this point, certainly precedes it. More… “The Other Side of the Net”

Andrew Varnon lives in Greenfield, Massachusetts, with his wife Lynette and two children. A winner of the 92nd St. Y/The Nation “Discovery” award in poetry, Varnon teaches a course called “Beer, Baseball & the Bible” at Western New England University and coaches high school tennis at Greenfield High School. You can find him on Twitter at @SachemHead.

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Computer code
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Place a horse head from the Paleolithic paintings of Chauvet Cave beside footage from a Netflix show and compare them. Both are art, in the broadest sense, and both are (primarily) visual, but the similarities end there. In his essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Walter Benjamin already anticipated most of the differences that you’d be able to find between the two: that the cave paintings were likely made for sacred ceremonial purposes and that the show is an economic product. That each of the cave’s images are fixed in both time and place while the television show’s come to us whenever we want, no pilgrimage required. And most importantly, that while the Netflix show is a counterfeit replicated endlessly in the form of code, the images in the cave are each authentic in their uniqueness. This presence of the singular in art, Benjamin called its “aura,” and the annihilation of aura by technology is the foundation of contemporary art.

It might seem counterintuitive to think so, but the popular dissemination of technology is necessary for the electronic image to function as conceptual art. This isn’t necessarily true with any other medium and has much to do with the value that we as postmodern consumers of images and memes place on a removed and ironic perspective. For example, conceptual video art didn’t reach its proper golden age until the 1960s, with the advent of relatively cheap portable recording equipment. There were, of course, films made before the middle of last century that were art, but it was mostly high art — The Battleship Potemkin, Metropolis, etc. — which still retained the heavy grandeur of Benjamin’s aura. The films themselves might have been mechanically reproduced and distributed, but they were experienced as singular events which communicated their own significance as too dense, too substantial, to be seriously considered as simply products for consumption. More… “Conspiracy Theory As Art”

Scott Beauchamp’s writing has appeared in the Dublin Review of Books, The Brooklyn Rail, and the Paris Review Daily. His book Did You Kill Anyone? is forthcoming from Zero Books. He lives in Maine.

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Blue donkey in red bubble, blue house in blue bubble
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In the wake of the 2016 election, journalists and political commentators have been falling all over themselves to report on the plight of the so-called “white working class.” I hate to use the scare quotes, but the term is much less distinctive than it once was. We are all proletarians now: economic instability is keenly felt all over the country, at all levels of society, and not just among white people, either. Recent bestsellers like Arlie Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land and J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy prove that there is a considerable market for books addressing the economic, political, and cultural gaps between city and country, between left and right. The latest of these is Ken Stern’s Republican Like Me: How I Left the Liberal Bubble and Learned to Love the Right.

Stern, the former CEO of NPR and a lifelong Democrat, was inspired to write the book after realizing that while his posh Washington D.C. neighborhood celebrated diversity of all kinds, he didn’t personally know any conservatives or even know anybody who did. He decided to take a year-long trip through red states to better understand the ways of the right. Stern’s approach is well-intentioned but essentially flawed — just because he happens to live in a liberal neighborhood doesn’t mean that he’s the only one living in a bubble. More… “Republican Like Who?”

Matt Hanson lives in Western Mass and writes for The Arts Fuse,  Boston’s online independent arts and culture magazine.  His work has also appeared in The Baffler, The Millions, and 3 Quarks Daily, and other places.  He can usually be found in the nearest available used bookstore.

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A man sitting inside a woman's ovaries, reading a book.
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In the early ’80s, my mother — barely 30, but already divorced — took a children’s lit course at community college. We were living at the time in a rented house next to an old tuberculosis sanatorium that had been turned into a home for the developmentally disabled, and every night, while the old buildings on the hill above us were lit like spaceships, my mother read in a small pool of light, her feet tucked beneath her, occasionally hooking a fallen strand of hair behind her ear. My brother and I read with her: Watership Down and Charlotte’s Web and Where The Wild Things Are. More… “Are You There God? It’s Me, Crenshaw.”

Paul Crenshaw’s essay collection This One Will Hurt You is forthcoming from The Ohio State University Press in spring 2019. Other work has appeared in Best American Essays, Best American Nonrequired Reading, The Pushcart Prize, anthologies by Houghton Mifflin and W.W. Norton, Oxford American, Ecotone, Brevity, North American Review, and Glimmer Train, among others. @PaulCrenstorm

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