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Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups is an astute observation, a reflection, and commentary that contemplates our contemporary urban islands. The film’s most consistent motif is inversion, a collapsing of the boundaries between the internal and the external, a conflation of self and society featuring a kinetic and nearly constant obsession with the surface vs. substance quandary that has confounded philosophers, artists, and poets for millennia. As I mused in the afterglow of the film, I found myself wondering why, in his recent transition away from the historical and towards the contemporary, Malick selected Los Angeles as his cosmopolis of choice. It took some thinking, but I realized that the last picture to capture L.A. and inscribe it this perfectly was released in 1969, and it wasn’t a film, it wasn’t a novel, it wasn’t an essay: it was an album, Joni Mitchell’s Clouds.

More… “Terrence and Joni Redeem L.A.”

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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James Forman Jr. is an academic who studies the criminal justice system, which is not unusual for a former clerk to a Supreme Court justice. But Forman also worked for years as a public defender in Washington, D. C. This gives him profound first-hand experience of the system that is less common among legal scholars. In Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America, Forman calls on both his experiences and the latest scholarship to tell a story that complicates our understanding of mass incarceration in the United States. While in Philadelphia earlier this month for a reading, Forman came by the offices of The Smart Set to discuss his book. A passionate critic of the system, despite the often depressing tale he tells, Forman comes across as an optimist who believes, even in the face of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, that we can continue with widespread criminal justice reform.

More… “Forman for Reform”

Richard Abowitz is the editor of The Smart Set. Get in touch at rabowitz@drexel.edu.
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At the end of the 18th century, a Frenchman by the name of Xavier de Maistre had to undergo house arrest for dueling. He made the best of it and traveled about his room. He was inspired by the paintings, the books on the shelf, his servant, his dog, his lover. And he wrote a book about it. Voyage Around My Room is a stroll across a room where in fact nothing really happens. Nevertheless, he developed a real taste for it. Among the praise of his “voyage” was the following (for the infirm, in this case): “They need not fear the inclemency of the elements or the seasons. As for the faint of heart, they will be safe from bandits, and need not fear encountering any precipices or holes in the road. Thousands of people who, before me, had never dared to travel, and others who had been unable, and still others who had never dreamed of it, will now, after my example, undertake to do so.”

More… “Between Everywhere and Nowhere”

Bernd Brunner writes books and essays. His latest book (in German) is When Winters Were Still Winters: The History of a Season. His book Birdmania: Remarkable Lives with Birds will be published by Greystone Books in 2017. He is a fellow and nonfiction resident of the Carey Institute for Global Good in Rensselaerville, New York. His writing has appeared in Lapham’s Quarterly, The Paris Review Daily, AEON, TLS, Wall Street Journal Speakeasy, Cabinet, Huffington Post, Best American Travel Writing, and various German-language newspapers. Follow him on twitter at @BrunnerBernd.
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Undoubtedly, the skills you learn as a child never leave you. When I quit my day job to focus on writing, my biggest concern was how I was going to pay my bills. My boyfriend and I had just moved into two rooms in a large house in D.C. and were sharing living expenses. Nevertheless, by the end of our first month as new renters, we were already coming up short. Desperate to find the last $100 he needed to meet our $800 rent, my boyfriend decided to go online and try to sell his winter coat. It sold immediately . . . for $100. We made the rent.

Seeing the potential of online vending, we immediately began selling anything we could get our hands on. I saw an escape route from the daily grind of going to a job of inputting data and I took it. Online vending became my “new hustle.” We opened an online store selling gently used clothing. Immediately, I had become an entrepreneur. Since then, my goal each month has been to sell enough clothing online to pay my bills and therefore afford myself the time to write. My new hustle, however, was not really all that new to me. In fact, when I thought about it, I realized that it was actually the culmination of the person I had started to become between the ages of nine and ten. More… “The Hustle”

Kesia Alexandra is a freelance creative writer from Washington, DC. She can be found on Twitter @kesialexandra and Instagram @kesia_alexandra.
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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”

Paula Marantz Cohen is Dean of the Pennoni Honors College and a Distinguished Professor of English at Drexel University. She is the host of  The Drexel InterView, a unit of the Pennoni Honors College. The Drexel InterView features a half-hour conversation with a nationally known or emerging talent in the arts, culture, science, or business. She is author of five nonfiction books and six bestselling novels, including Jane Austen in Boca and Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death, and the SATs. Her essays and stories have appeared in The Yale ReviewThe American Scholar, The Times Literary Supplement, and other publications. Her latest novels are Suzanne Davis Gets a Life and her YA novel, Beatrice Bunson’s Guide to Romeo and Juliet.
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Like the namesake of his most recent novels, J. M. Coetzee speaks to us in parables. The Childhood of Jesus and The Schooldays of Jesus, like Disgrace and Summertime before them, give us politically charged stories seemingly without side. This encourages the Nobel laureate’s reviewers to become Coetzeeologists, attempting to parse out whether the book before them sets opposing tensions in play for art’s sake alone, or whether we can discern a clear moral leaning beneath the tensions. We assume Coetzee came to the story with an open mind but did he leave with one too? What’s he trying to say?

Since about The Master of Petersburg, most of Coetzee’s novels have used oppositional ideas to power their dynamos. The reader’s changing sympathies fall into a sort of dance with the story itself: Each revelation shifts our allegiances, tilting the axis of the book. It’s like watching a courtroom drama where the very ideas by which we live our lives are put on trial, and we’re not yet certain whodunit. In Disgrace, a college professor in Coetzee’s native South Africa takes sexual advantage of a student and then is himself savagely victimized — in what measure has justice been served? In the underrated Elizabeth Costello, the eponymous fictional novelist accuses a fictionalized version of the real novelist Paul West of depicting the horrors of the Holocaust in a way that effectively exploits them; as we watch her argument unfold, we find ourselves first cheering her on, then recoiling. This is fiction at its best. More… “The Dancer Upstairs”

John Cotter’s first novel Under the Small Lights appeared in 2010 from Miami University Press. A founding editor at the review site Open Letters Monthly, John’s published critical work in Sculpture, Bookforum, and The The Poetry Foundation. Say hi at John [at] JohnCotter [dot] net.
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All is completed, I said. You can rest and take delight in your accomplishment, I said. Except.

Except now you have to do it all over again.

Maybe not all of you. Maybe only most of you. There are, after all, those painstaking writers who meticulously go over each sentence as it appears and polish it until it has just the right glossiness and hint of darkness. When it is as smooth as a milkshake. When it dances or sings or claps.

But make no mistake: Almost all of us have to do all of it all over again.

You may start by running a spelling and grammar search on the file in your computer. The search will clean up a few typos. Which helps, but, sadly, not all that much. After all, this is simply housecleaning, and like housecleaning, you need to do it repeatedly, i.e., every time you add to or alter your piece. You must also read, reread, reread again, and then reread some more. Some readers suggest reading backwards from the last page, especially when what you have written is poetry. What are you looking for? The tiniest things imaginable: reversed quotation marks, for example, and words that lack needed power, or a comma that should be a semicolon, a question mark that should be a period. Check spellings for capitals and hyphens. Check military abbreviations. Check all other abbreviations. This, unfortunately, is not fun. This is tedious. And you may find yourself nearly hysterical with anxiety.
More… “Revise Until You Drop”

Kelly Cherry‘s new poetry book is Quartet for J. Robert Oppenheimer. Her book of flash fiction titled Temporium is forthcoming later this year.
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The election of 2016 revealed an American electorate more deeply divided than at any time in history — or did it? In reality, there were far deeper divisions among blacks and whites, Protestants and Catholics, Northerners and Southerners, and other groups in the U.S. in 1950 or 1900 or 1850 than there are today. The inflammatory language and hot-button issues that characterize today’s national politics result largely from the conscious strategy of Republican and Democratic politicians and consultants to mobilize a new and invasive species in the American electorate: the partisan zombie.

A partisan zombie is someone who uncritically adopts, as a personal credo, the current platform of the Democratic or Republican Party in its entirety. Partisan zombies come in two types: checklist conservatives and litmus-test liberals. Wherever on the political spectrum they are found, partisan zombies have to sacrifice intellectual consistency to partisanship. Ordinary zombies eat the brains of other people. Partisan zombies eat their own brains. More… “Attack of the Partisan Zombies”

Michael Lind is a contributing writer of The Smart Set, a fellow at New America in Washington, D.C., and author of Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States.
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I could die. Me. Personally. Could. Die. Well, I sort of always knew this, but remotely, so remotely, in the manner that we acknowledge, and with the same measure of anxiety, that someday the sun will flame out. But now — revelation! — I suddenly realized I actually could die — like at any moment.

This knowledge is what has propelled me into engaging simultaneously in two genres that I fundamentally loathe: the memoir and the medical essay. Along with my traditional reporter’s disdain for employing the anorexic pronoun, I believe that unless a memoir is written by an extraordinary individual — Augustine, Springsteen — I see no point in inflicting a memoir on readers. And I surely do not number myself among the extraordinary. Indeed, one of the things that drove me out of academia was when my English Department introduced a course on writing memoirs; the notion of 18-year-olds doing so is worse than cringe-worthy. Read the story of someone who has lived an exceptional life? Sure. Read stories of the pimpled masses who have not lived any lives whatsoever? Better to read the conditions you must accept before installing your latest app. More… “I Could Die”

Matt Nesvisky lives, for the time being, in Philadelphia.
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The other day I was working at the kitchen table. It was a sunny afternoon, the autumn air cool and crisp. As I often do when the weather is so agreeable, I raised a couple of the kitchen windows and delighted in the fresh air, and the sounds of the breeze whistling through the trees in my backyard. More… “Oh, Give Me a Home . . .”

John Gifford is a writer and naturalist from Oklahoma.
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