A day late again, but oh well. Some really good stuff this week.
Photos: The National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest from The Atlantic’s In Focus blog.
No surprise here, but there are some really astonishing photos in this competition. My personal favorite is below, but it was a tough call, and I am glad I don’t have to be one of the judges.
Album: Field of Reeds by These New Puritans
They don’t seem to be letting people embed this, which I suppose makes sense. I posted the first single from These New Puritans’ forthcoming album a few weeks ago, and now you can stream the whole thing from the Guardian music blog. It’s weird, and hard, after a single listen, to pin down; the heavy percussion from the last record (which was one of the things that appealed to me) is pretty much gone, as is, in general, anything approaching regular pop song structures. Woodwinds once again play a prominent role, as does piano; there are long sections without vocals, and nothing resembling the kind of chants that characterized Hidden. The arrangements are often really beautiful. I honestly can’t say what I think about it yet, but I can say that I will be listening to it again— probably many times.
Article: “Online Classes Can Be Enlightening, Edifying, and Engaging— but They’re Not College” by Maria Bustillos
I have been working, in a desultory way, on an essay about MOOCs for a couple of months now. I haven’t finished it because I don’t quite know how I feel about them. This is one of the best critical pieces I’ve read; Bustillos not only tries one of the classes, she also interviews the instructor, who readily acknowledges the shortcomings of what he is doing. She also manages to find what seems to me like the intelligent middle ground, pointing out that it is possible to really get something out of one of these classes— just not all of the things we hope that someone will get out of going to college. She’s written about this subject before, mostly on The Awl, but this is her best take.
Book: Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell
Russell’s last book, and first novel, Swamplandia, has been on a kind of mental “Oh yeah, I should read that some time” shelf. Something about an interview I’d heard with her about this new short story collection drew my interest more definitively, and I now I am very glad for the interview (on the New York Times Book Review podcast, in case you’re interested). I felt for a while that contemporary short fiction suffers from a kind of tonal similarity— a aphoristic, elegiac spareness clearly influenced by Raymond Carver but, too often, lacking his punch. There seems to be a kind of consensus, by no means universal but too widespread, on the way to write a short story. I have come to think of this, probably unfairly, as “the MFA style.” Anyway, my point here is really that Russell’s style is not like that at all. The prose is polished and never overwrought, but it doesn’t have that sense about it that subtraction in itself is the greatest virtue in fiction writing. She has a style that never calls attention to itself but remains totally compelling; each of these feels like a story. Maybe even more important, to me personally: she can be really funny— a quality which many writers of short fiction today seem utterly to lack. While I of course liked some of the stories here more than others, this is a great collection from beginning to end.