Arts and Culture

In the 19th century, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in his essay Nature: "A man is a god in ruins."

Ever since people contemplated the existence of a divine dimension — and this belief must go back to the very early stages of Homo Sapiens or even earlier — with Neanderthals, a split occurred between the human condition and the eternal.

As humans, it is our curse and our blessing to be aware of our own mortality — and to suffer with the loss of our close ones — and, in a broader sense, with the predicament of others.

Ali Smith is flat-out brilliant, and she's on fire these days. Writing in the heat of outrage following England's divisive Brexit vote, she opened a seasonal quartet of novels last year with Autumn, a moving requiem for an unusual friendship between two unlikely kindred spirits, a young art historian and her singularly cultivated old neighbor, whose waning days coincide with an alarming erosion of civility and compassion in the not-so-United Kingdom. Deservedly, Autumn landed on the Booker Prize shortlist.

Lea Berman and Jeremy Bernard have organized state dinners and congressional picnics, each serving as White House social secretary for different administrations. Bernard worked for President Obama; Berman for President George W. Bush. And they've collaborated on a new book that uses their White House experiences to draw out lessons in how to handle crises, defuse awkward moments and manage expectations. It's called Treating People Well: The Extraordinary Power Of Civility At Work And In Life.

Dozens of powerful men, including two at NPR, have lost their jobs and reputations in the cultural reckoning that is the #MeToo movement. Clearly, there's tremendous momentum behind it, but where does it go from here? Do those men have a shot at redemption?

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Denis Johnson's posthumous short story collection, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, is full of last calls to his readers signaling, "Hurry up please, it's time." Take these eerie sentences spoken by the narrator of a story called "Triumph Over the Grave":

It's plain to you that at the time I write this, I'm not dead. But maybe by the time you read it.

Patrice Banks is now a mechanic, and the owner of a successful auto clinic, but there was a time when she avoided taking her own car in for routine maintenance.

"I was afraid I was going to be taken advantage of," she says. "I was tired of feeling helpless and having to go talk to a guy."

Banks, who was working as an engineer at DuPont at the time, thought she'd feel more comfortable with a female technician. There was only one problem: "I couldn't find a female mechanic," she says, "so I had to learn it [myself]."

On New York's Lower East Side in 1969, a fortune teller has set up shop in a tenement on Hester Street. With long brown hair that "hangs in two slender braids," and lips that are "puckered like a drawstring purse," she attracts the young Gold children, who seek an audience with the crone as a respite from their summertime blues. These four — Simon, Klara, Daniel and Varya Gold — comprise the central quartet in The Immortalists, the second novel from Chloe Benjamin.

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