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They come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Some of them are slim and easily recognizable as such, they can look clumsy or elegant, others are shaped like a flying saucer. In our advanced age, some of them even have a brain and — almost — a life of their own. Although at some point they also need a human hand, so they can start work: vacuum cleaners.

The food of vacuum cleaners is dust which, as any electronic microscope reveals, also comes in a variety of shapes and sizes, both organic and inorganic: dead skin cells, paper fibers, dust mites, synthetic fibers, grains and pollen, and in some cases coal dust, asbestos or other harmful particles. The best way to see airborne dust is to observe a room flooded with light. It’s more fashionable these days to talk about microbes that live all over our bodies, bombard us with their genes and are even a part of dust. This is where scientists are on the front lines of discovery. But let’s stay with plain, classic dust for a minute or two. More… “Dust Never Sleeps”

Bernd Brunner writes books and essays. His most recent book is Birdmania: A Particular Passion for Birds. His writing has appeared in Lapham’s Quarterly, The Paris Review Daily, AEON, TLS, Wall Street Journal Speakeasy, Cabinet, Huffington Post, and Best American Travel Writing. Follow him on twitter at @BrunnerBernd.

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The opening of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire begins with a ship waiting in the middle of the night. It is dark, foggy, unsettling. Another boat approaches and they begin shifting boxes of whiskey from one ship to the other. A nameless character asks them to hurry, “I’m a sitting duck out here,” while another refers to the whiskey as “liquid gold.” The show about prohibition begins with the risks taken by rum and whiskey runners to import booze into the United States throughout the 1920s. Like other facets of popular culture that represent this period, the majority of show dwells on the criminality: the gangsters, the corrupt politicians, the members of law enforcement/IRS/Post Office that are attempting to hunt the “bad guys.” Scarface, Some Like it Hot, Robin and the 7 Hoods, The Untouchables, Lawless to Boardwalk Empire focus their efforts on the sordid, seedy, and sexy details of breaking the law. Hugh Ambrose’s posthumously published Liberated Spirits, takes a different tack. More… “Kindred Spirits”

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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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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Busy, busy, busy. So much to do, so many traitors to be shot. You’d think a victorious tyrant would have his hands plenty full in the aftermath of Spain’s murderous 1936-39 civil war. It turns out, though, that Generalissimo Francisco Franco had long nursed a secret desire, one he was uniquely in a position to satisfy at the outset of his nearly four decades in power. But where in the world did he find the time to write the screenplay for a feature-length film? Never mind that the end product is as artistically shoddy and morally repugnant as anything that ever defiled celluloid, it still gives a fascinating peek through the thick velvet curtains that lead to the lobby of a dictator’s mind.

Film-buff Franco didn’t often go to the movies. The movies came to him. On engagement-free Saturday evenings a projectionist would be admitted to the head of state’s residence on the outskirts of Madrid where a screening room had been installed. Ministers on urgent business would be roped into attendance. It went on like that until old age began gnawing at his attention span, decades down the road. Hitler, too, was acutely conscious of the cinema’s potential for manipulating the masses, but left the hands-on part to his deputy, Goebbels. And Mussolini certainly praised the carbon-arc projector as “the world’s most effective weapon.” But his movie producer son, Vittorio, revealed that Il Duce could scarcely make it through 15 minutes of virtually any film you could think of without dozing off. More… “General Franco Jumps the Shark”

Robert Latona is a journalist based in Madrid, Spain.

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The opening movement of Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others can be described in many ways: bracing, informed, thoroughly engaged with history, disturbing, even profound. I would, however, describe it simply as reassuring. Consider that I’ve just designated the beginning of her text a movement. If I possessed more poetic leanings, I might contend that it functions as a stanza. Its title is measured, artful, a statement that can be read multiple ways — as an opening clause (Regarding the pain of others, comma, here’s what I have to say) or as a commentary on the act of regarding, of viewing, of assessing and appraising human beings in a state of pain and suffering and death. It is in its literary-ness that I find comfort and reassurance, and in its author’s commitment to truly essaying its subject matter (representations of violence) that this volume shines with a lapidary efflorescence. Sontag’s deeper topic, however, is a consciousness of our shared and frangible humanity. More… “Sparing No Pains”

Sean Hooks is originally from New Jersey and presently lives in Los Angeles. He teaches English and Writing at the University of California, Riverside and Fullerton College. Recent publications include Los Angeles Review of Books, Bright Lights Film Journal, Akashic Books, The Manhattanville Review, and Pif Magazine.

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Philadelphia: Finding the Hidden City is a ground-breaking look at American cities in many ways. It takes a deep and richly textured view into places that make up what we call cities and stretches the boundaries of that understanding beyond the often one-dimensional historical, economic, sociological, or political interpretations that try to explain urban environments. The authors do this by re-imagining, recreating, and retelling Philadelphia as a complicated story from the industrial past to the post-industrial present. They view the city through “layers” of the past that both speak to a bygone era, but also the possibilities for the future, seeing Philadelphia in a very nuanced way that challenges all of us to think differently of cities in the American context. On January 19, 2018, I had a chance to sit down with one of the authors, Nathaniel Popkin, to talk about the book and the broader attempt to interpret cities in the 21st century. It was a pleasure to take time to talk about their creative intellectual endeavor. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

More… Philadelphia: Finding the Hidden City

Daniel Dougherty is a political scientist who spends his time teaching, researching, experiencing, pondering, and talking about cities. He is Associate Dean of the Pennoni Honors College and Director of the Honors Program at Drexel University.

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crystal bowl filled with toffee candies
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The star shape cuts into the circular handle that tops the lid of my candy dish. The star is echoed as it expands into the many cut diamonds which multiply as they eclipse over the round shape of the lid. The pattern starts again where the lid meets the bowl, continuing on and on all the way to its base. As the diameter of the bowl’s circular shape increases, so, too, does the size of the diamonds, only to follow the reverse pattern as it decreases in size where the bowl’s shape comes together in a nice gathering of diamonds at the bottom. The pattern seems to be infinite, and yet it is not. It finishes at the base of the bowl.

It is an old bowl, a treasured possession of my Gran’s. It always sat on her coffee table, and it was always full of candy, mostly the soft caramel toffees that she loved so much. As children, we were allowed to have one, but only one, and only after we had eaten the sumptuous feast that Gran had prepared for our visit. She always made our favorites — fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and coleslaw. My mouth waters at the memory of these special recipes.

I make Gran’s chicken for supper. I coat the chicken pieces with cornflake crumbs, salt, and pepper and bake it in the oven. Then I make the coleslaw with her unique combination of cabbage and raisins. I add small, colored marshmallows. The salad dressing, another of Gran’s secret recipes, softens the marshmallows so they melt in your mouth. My kids like the spongy sweetness next to the bitter crunch of the cabbage. I don’t recall if Gran ever added marshmallows to the salad. Perhaps she did. More… “The Crystal Bowl”

Emily-Jane Hills Orford is the author of several books including her novel, Personal Notes, which is her grandmother’s story. Several of her creative nonfiction stories and books have received awards, including The Whistling Bishop, which was named a finalist in the 2009 Next Generation Indie Book Awards; F-Stop: A Life in Pictures, which was named a finalist and received the silver medal in the 2012 Next Generation Indie Book Awards; and To Be a Duke, which was named a finalist and received the silver medal in the 2015 Next Generation Indie Book Awards as well as receiving an honorable mention in the 2015 Readers’ Favorite Book Awards.

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In Cave of Forgotten Dreams, the great filmmaker Werner Herzog explores Chauvet, which contains some of the most absorbing cave paintings yet discovered. They also appear to be some of the oldest, dated to 32,000 years before present. Herzog’s camera pans slowly across Chauvet’s bulbous tan walls while his crew moves handheld lights to make the many bumps and angles do a sort of shadow play. The lions, bison, horses, and rhinos outlined in black seem to flex and shift. They nuzzle, sniff, or maybe battle each other. At one point in a voiceover, Herzog says, “The strongest hint of something spiritual, some religious ceremony in the cave, is this bear skull. It has been placed dead center on the rock resembling an altar. The staging seems deliberate. The skull faces the entrance of the cave, and around it fragments of charcoal were found, potentially used as incense.” Amid the flickering beauty in this scene, that monologue got me wondering: How does he know this was a religious situation?

Well. He doesn’t. Nobody will ever know why that skull sits there. While archaeologists agree some prehistoric person did it, the reason why could be anything from a carefully-planned religious rite to a joke. That’s one of the greatest attractions — and the insidious trouble — with cave art. There is no context. Looking at it turns us loose in a wide-open playpen for the imagination where each of us fills the gaps with wishes for what should be there. More… “Cave Artists”

Paul X. Rutz is an artist and freelance writer. His exhibitions include solo shows at Ford Gallery, the Oregon Military Museum, and a forthcoming residency at Purdue University, as well as group shows at Mark Woolley Gallery and the Smithsonian Institution. A former reporter for the Pentagon’s Press Service, he has contributed to HuffPost, Modern Fiction Studies, and Cincinnati Review, among others, and he is a feature writer for Military History and Vietnam magazines.

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History has remembered the Spanish-American conflict as a “splendid little war.” Between April and August 1898, over 72,000 American soldiers, sailors, and Marines steamrolled the larger forces of the decaying Spanish Empire in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. Former Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt, who had given up his position in the McKinley administration in order to create the 1st United States Volunteer Cavalry (better known as the Rough Riders), became an all-American hero after the war. More importantly, America’s victories at San Juan Hill, Santiago, and Manila Bay showed the world that Washington had now entered into the age of empires.

The Spanish-American War is notable because it conclusively proved that the media can concoct a war without much evidence. The “gay ’90s” in America belonged to the press barons, otherwise known as the purveyors of “yellow journalism.” Competitors William Randolph Hearst (later portrayed as the character Charles Foster Kane in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane) and Joseph Pulitzer fed war fever prior to the sinking of the U.S.S. Maine in Havana harbor by writing sanguinary and exaggerated stories about Spanish atrocities against the innocent and helpless Cubans. While thousands of Cubans really did suffer in concentration camps, Hearst and Pulitzer often filled their pages with imaginary Spanish intrigues against the United States and American businessmen in Cuba. As a gross indication of the press’s power, one apocryphal story claims that illustrator Frederic Remington received a telegram from Hearst while covering the Cuban rebellion: “You furnish the pictures and I will furnish the war.” More… “Invasions: Real and Imagined”

Benjamin Welton is a freelance writer based in Boston. He is the author of Hands Dabbled in Blood.

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A hotel is a living organism, a microcosm with a strict hierarchy, an orchestrated timetable of actions and events that unfold according to a particular dramaturgy. Some hotels have even reached the status of living myths — they have succeeded in forming an identity of their own. And in many cases, their status is owed to the writers and actors that have stayed in them. Agatha Christie stayed in room 411 of Istanbul’s neo-Rococo-style Pera Palace Hotel and is said to have written Murder on the Orient Express there. The Park Hyatt Tokyo certainly owes some of its appeal for foreign visitors to Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson, who filmed substantial parts of Lost in Translation there.

More… “If Walls Could Talk”

Bernd Brunner writes books and essays. His most recent book is Birdmania: A Particular Passion for Birds. His writing has appeared in Lapham’s Quarterly, The Paris Review Daily, AEON, TLS, Wall Street Journal Speakeasy, Cabinet, Huffington Post, and Best American Travel Writing. Follow him on twitter at @BrunnerBernd.

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