I am obsessed with books about people who, for unclear reasons, ruin their own lives. In Freudian terms, it’s Thanatos, the death drive. The classic example is that fear you feel on a rooftop or near the edge of a cliff, a fear not so much that you’ll fall but that you’ll throw yourself over, into the void. My own version of this fear: When I pull out my phone to take a photo of the vista from a bridge or a precipice, I’m afraid I’ll drop the phone and automatically go after it.

But this isn’t the death drive, not directly; it’s irrational fear of some latent suicidal tendency that may not exist. The characters I’m thinking of don’t throw themselves off literal cliffs. It’s slower, and stranger, like sleepwalking into the sea.

More… “The Self-Destruct Button”

Elisa Gabbert is the author of L’Heure Bleue, or the Judy Poems (Black Ocean), The Self Unstable (Black Ocean) and The French Exit (Birds LLC). Follow her on Twitter at @egabbert.

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”

Charles Molesworth has published a number of books on modern literature. His most recent book is The Capitalist and the Critic: J.P. Morgan, Roger Fry and the Metropolitan Museum of Art (U. of Texas).

My hero is fearless, proud, resolute, farseeing, self-sacrificing, and profoundly engaged in the struggle against tyranny and oppression. He’s also several hundred feet tall (when he wants to be), does celestial cartwheels when flying between the earth and sun, can turn into a cormorant when occasion arises, and despite his onerous responsibilities as a leader of men, manages to be pretty good family man, though his spouse is Sin and his offspring is Death. He speaks some of the most beautiful English ever composed, even when just muttering to himself. He’s John Milton’s Satan. More… “My Hero, Satan”

Stephen Akey is the author of two memoirs, College and Library, and of essays in The New Republic, Open Letters Monthly, and The Millions.

People in Chicago were stunned by the announcement that their city was out of the running for the 2016 Olympics after just the first round of voting. Everyone had expected a positive result, particularly after Chicago son Barack Obama got involved. Was it Chicago’s reputation for corruption and strong-arm tactics? If Chicago had been announced as the victor, it may have looked as though the committee bowed to pressure. Or maybe it was the fact that the world does not seem to know what to make of modern-day Chicago. The Olympics were going to be Richard Daley’s legacy: the reintroduction of Chicago to the international community.

Chicago: A Biography by Dominic A. Pacyga. 472 pages. University of Chicago. $35.

Any recognizable narrative of Chicago ended around the second World War, when the population of the city started to drop. The industries… More…

If you’re not overly familiar with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s literary output, you might deduce that it’s perfectly natural for a Fitzgerald story to give rise to a positively Gump-ian movie like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Thanks to its box office haul, critical idolatry, and stash of Oscar nominations, the film has become one of those Fitzgerald touchstones that double as a kind of authorial typecasting when we think of his legacy.


People commonly view Fitzgerald through the myths that grew up around his life and work. Like The Great Gatsby, a book everyone reads in high school as The Great American Novel, in 10th-grade teacher speak; and maybe This Side of Paradise, which tends to get written up as the purest novelistic distillation of the college experience. Then there’s the biographical tales of drink and excess,… More…

Picture this: Several hundred people, many in Empire gowns, buttoned boots, and bonnets pirouetting in a stately line across a large ballroom. Women are partnering women for the most part, though here and there one sees a male specimen in knee breeches, long coat, and curled wig sashaying happily amid the beribboned throng.

The event is the Regency Ball of the Jane Austen Society of North America annual general meeting, held at the Westin Hotel in Chicago in October, culminating in two days of total immersion in Austeniana. Preceding the ball was a gala banquet and costume parade down Chicago’s Magnificent Mile. When the dancing ended, interested parties retired for games of whist at the little tables set up for the purpose in the lobby of the Westin.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA), and the annual meeting featured a full… More…


How Fiction Works isn’t actually about how fiction works. To be obsessed with the mechanics of words and sentences, to see literature as essentially an enclosed system with internal rules, is to be a formalist, and James Wood, for all his formality, isn’t a formalist. He admits as much. In the Preface to How Fiction Works Wood writes, “when I talk about free indirect style I am really talking about point of view, and when I am talking about point of view I am really talking about character, and when I am talking about character I am really talking about the real, which is at the bottom of my inquiries.” For James Wood, fiction is about the world, not about itself.

Wood calls his book How Fiction Works for two reasons. The first is that he’s a cocky… More…