In this week’s Sunday Book Review, Zoë Heller and Adam Kirsch weigh the importance of an author’s intended meaning versus a reader’s interpretation of the text. Which is more important, they ask. “If a text can mean anything the reader wants it to mean, then why read it in the first place?” Kirsch argues. “Isn’t literature supposed to help us achieve contact with other minds, rather than trapping us in a hall of mirrors, in which we can see only our own distorted reflections? Surely there must be limits to a text’s interpretability.” I instantly thought of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man—the 1952 epic that confronts America’s twisted legacy of identity politics, race, black nationalism, and class disillusionment. “I am an invisible man,” it begins. And depending on the reader, the ensuing 500 pages present a multitude of revelations, answers, or questions (or a mix of the three). Yet, no matter which way you interpret the book, its true essence is found, time and again, in the first sentence—all conclusions root back to Ellison’s opening line. “Great works of literature are like stars,” Kirsch concludes, “they stay put, even as we draw them into new constellations.”
“Why Did This Movie Starring Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper Go Straight to Video?” by Adam Sternbergh
Spoiler: Serena is not an interesting or particularly enjoyable movie, and I cannot in good conscience recommend that you watch it. But it is a useful object lesson in moviemaking in the 21st century — and an improbable tale of how something can go terribly wrong even when everything seems to be going wonderfully right. Set during the Depression in the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina, Serena is the tale of an ambitious timber baron named George Pemberton (Cooper), his troubled and ruthless rise to power, and his even more troubled and ruthless marriage to a difficult and remarkable woman named Serena (Lawrence), who emerges as a kind of backwoods Lady Macbeth. You can easily imagine the elevator pitch: It’sWinter’s Bone meets There Will Be Blood, with a dash of Cold Mountain and meaty dramatic roles for both leads. Sounds good, right? Who wouldn’t green-light that?
“How Do You Say ‘Kosciuszko?’ Updating the MTA Announcements” by Mike Sheffield
Hopkins has been the subject of a recent surge of public interest after profiles by The New York Times, NPR, and CBS. She’s the female voice of New York City’s subway system, guiding you from station to station, borough to borough, with her friendly announcements. Working out of a home studio in Hampden, Maine, Hopkins recites travel information for a number of public transportation departments, from the Paris Metro to the Incheon in South Korea. How did she get this international gig? “Right place, right time,” Hopkins told Hopes&Fears. “I was working in Louisville, Kentucky as a writer/producer for an audio/video production company when the sister company next door, Innovative Electronic Designs, invented computer-controlled announcement systems. I could do the voice that they wanted and… since 1984 I have been doing the female English voice at airports and subways like NY’s MTA and Chicago’s CTA.”
“Was Selma Worth It?” by Amy K. Nelson
What is your identity when a large part of your life is defined by someone being murdered during one of the most important and infamous civil rights moments in history? How do you measure that loss today, in 2015, when the movement around it seems to have stalled? What, for that matter, do you do with your life after history has claimed someone close to you?
“Mirror, Mirror: The Costume Designer Behind Cookie” by Elizabeth Wellington
Those furs Cookie dons? They belong to McGhee’s mother-in-law, Janet Bailey - first wife of Philip Bailey, Earth, Wind & Fire’s lead singer. (How is that for authentic 1970s, trending hot on the runway right now?) Other notable pieces - namely, the Christian Louboutin shoes and black-and-silver Balmain evening dress - are from the personal collection of Monique Mosley, the wife of the show’s executive music producer, Timbaland.
“Meet the Hardest Working Man in Porn” by Paige Ferrari
Japanese porn, more often referred to here as AV (adult video), and there is essentially nothing he won’t do or hasn’t done while getting busy with more than 7,500 different female costars, including a former teen pop singer, Hungarian exchange students, and a pair of 72-year-old twins. In 18 years and more than 7,000 films, Shimiken has refused only one scenario: having sex with an actress after she had sex with a dog. (He agreed to a rewrite in which the dog merely licked butter off the woman before their scene.)
“Barack and Me” by Rembert Browne
Still tinkering more than an hour into the flight, we were alerted that we would be taken to a conference room in two minutes, and that we should get ready. The chase was back on. For a moment, I’d gotten so comfortable that I’d forgotten what the stakes were. I was just hanging out with my new friends. But just like that, we were walking through the cabin and into a conference room, and there was the president, ready to shake our hands. Once we sat down to talk, I was positioned at President Obama’s four o’clock, set to ask the third question, with Jarrett right over my shoulder. I stared at my question, wondering if I should have worn a tie, desperately trying to figure out what to do with my elbows. Leaning on the table feels sloppy, but I need to lean in to listen and the table really helps with that. But what do I do with my hands? And is my mustache curling into my mouth?
“Why America’s Internet Is So Shitty and Slow” by Adam Clark Estes
In the US, the last mile of internet infrastructure is an enormous problem. There are two reasons for this: technical restraints holding back the bandwidth needed to support modern-day internet traffic, and a lack of competition between the major carriers selling internet service to the end user.
Most of America’s telecommunications infrastructure relies on outdated technology, and it runs over the same copper cables invented by Alexander Graham Bell over 100 years ago. This copper infrastructure—made up of “twisted pair” and coaxial cables—was originally designed to carry telephone and video services. The internet wasn’t built to handle streaming video or audio.
“Ultimate Breaks & Beats: An Oral History” by Robbie Ettleson
Between 1986 and 1991, 25 volumes of the Ultimate Breaks & Beats series were distributed worldwide, providing producers and DJs the sonic tools that served as the foundation for countless rap and dance tracks. Eventually this production style migrated from hip-hop to other genres, and the songs featured on UBB were incorporated into some of the biggest pop hits on theBillboard charts, including work by Prince, George Michael, Mick Jagger, Mariah Carey, Ariana Grande, Linkin Park, TLC, Justin Bieber, Calvin Harris, Katy Perry and many more (see details below). Even smooth jazz saxophonist Kenny G sampled a piece of Ultimate Breaks & Beats.
This story is a few weeks old, and it slipped under my radar somehow, but when veteran journalist Tom Robbins writes something, you read it.
“Attica’s Ghosts” by Tom Robbins
Unlike Rikers Island, the huge New York City jail complex that has been roiled by scandals over the mistreatment of inmates in the past year, what occurs in the toughest state prisons has garnered little public notice. One reason is that most violent encounters between inmates and guards are handled internally. Charges are filed against the offender, a hearing is held and then a sentence is imposed, usually a hefty term in the Box. Inmates are invariably convicted. Of the 228 cases at Attica in which inmates were accused of assaulting corrections employees between 2010 and 2013, only one prisoner was found not guilty of all charges. Everyone else was sent to the Box for periods ranging from two to 16 months, records show.
[Image via Getty]