Eric Bennett

A Big Enough Lie

Named by the Guardian one of the best books of 2015.

Named by Literary Hub one of the most important books of the last twenty years.

Awaiting a TV talk show appearance, John Townley is quaking with dread. He has published a best-selling memoir about the Iraq War, a page-turner climaxing in atrocity. In a green room beyond the soundstage, he braces himself to confront the charismatic soldier at the violent heart of it. But John has never actually seen the man before—nor served in Iraq, nor the military. Even so, and despite the deception, he knows his fabricated memoir contains stunning truths.

By turns comic, suspenseful, bitingly satirical, and emotionally potent, A Big Enough Lie pits personal mistruths against national ones of life-and-death consequence. Tracking a writer from the wilds of Florida to New York cubicles to Midwestern workshops to the mindscapes of Baghdad—and from love to heartbreak to solitary celebrity—Bennett’s novel probes our endlessly frustrated desire to grab hold of something (or somebody) true.

"... as truthful a book about the Iraq calamity as there is to read. Lacerating and heart-breaking, it’s a tour de force romantic melodrama in the take-no-prisoners style of Pat Conroy’s The Lords of Discipline." —The Rumpus

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Workshops of Empire

Stegner, Engle, and American Creative Writing during the Cold War

During and just after World War II, an influential group of American writers and intellectuals projected a vision for literature that would save the free world. Novels, stories, plays, and poems, they believed, could inoculate weak minds against simplistic totalitarian ideologies, heal the spiritual wounds of global catastrophe, and just maybe prevent the like from happening again. As the Cold War began, high-minded and well-intentioned scholars, critics, and writers from across the political spectrum argued that human values remained crucial to civilization and that such values stood in dire need of formulation and affirmation. They believed that the complexity of literature—of ideas bound to concrete images, of ideologies leavened with experiences—enshrined such values as no other medium could.

Creative writing emerged as a graduate discipline in the United States amid this astonishing swirl of grand conceptions. The early workshops were formed not only at the time of, but in the image of, and under the tremendous urgency of, the postwar imperatives for the humanities. Vivid renderings of personal experience would preserve the liberal democratic soul—a soul menaced by the gathering leftwing totalitarianism of the USSR and the memory of fascism in Italy and Germany.

Workshops of Empire explores this history via the careers of Paul Engle at the University of Iowa and Wallace Stegner at Stanford. In the story of these founding fathers of the discipline, Eric Bennett discovers the cultural, political, literary, intellectual, and institutional underpinnings of creative writing programs within the university. He shows how the model of literary technique championed by the first writing programs—a model that values the interior and private life of the individual, whose experiences are not determined by any community, ideology, or political system—was born out of this Cold War context and continues to influence the way creative writing is taught, studied, read, and written into the twenty-first century.

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short stories, essays & interviews

 
 

An Almost-Romance, Courtesy of Airbnb

Excerpt from When Love and Travel Meet on the Road: New York Times

The Museum of Northern British Columbia in Prince Rupert is arguably the most elegant structure in that port town of about 12,000 people. It has the lines and structure of a traditional long house and the expansive glass of something modern. You can inhale a cedar scent from its massive beams while surveying a harbor where birds and sea mammals hunt. Those animals’ ancestors, centuries ago, inspired the designs on the blankets and bent cedar boxes that fill the space.

I visited the museum on my third day in town. For a month I had been traveling by train, riding west from Ottawa, stopping in cities and sleeping in Airbnbs. Prince Rupert, near Alaska, was my most remote destination. Soon I would head back to places with traffic and cocktail bars.

Airbnb offers two options: whole homes or shared spaces. The latter are cheaper and come with company. You eat where your hosts eat and shower where they shower. My hosts included a stay-at-home dad in Toronto and a photographer in Winnipeg who orchestrated hootenannies. Here, I was staying with a woman we’ll call Kelli.

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© Lisel Ashlock

© Lisel Ashlock


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The Time Capsule

Excerpt from The New Yorker

Everybody had turned forty or was about to, so, even though the time capsule had been in the ground for only eighteen years, not a significant number, we decided to dig it up. William called that shot. William’s fortieth would be the last, and William had stood at the heart of things back in college. By things, I mean a house on the University of Michigan campus and the people who lived there. The house had no academic affiliation or any athletes attached to it. Only men signed the lease, but women came around, some eventually as girlfriends. The inhabitants called it the International House of Debauchery. By the time everything was over with, the I.H.D. had, to my ear, all the legitimacy of an established acronym.

My mother still recalls in vivid detail the fifteen minutes she spent in the I.H.D., in 1998. For some reason, she had occasion, poor woman, to use the bathroom there. The sink had been clogged for four months and would be clogged for seven more. Anders, hairy, shaved over it each morning. William, Rory, Paul, and Michael brushed their teeth in the bathtub. The bathroom, like the rest of the house, was subject to more addition than subtraction. Dander and urine and hair and fuzz and tissue and spilled beer and spilled sauce and fake blood accumulated on surfaces everywhere.

Other additions to the property were intentional and ostensibly aesthetic. Rory and Paul stuck plastic sconces to the living-room wall in homage to the Middle Ages. Everybody enjoyed saying “sconces.” Anders nailed fifteen hubcaps to the porch in homage to some imagined Appalachia, and curated a sculpture garden in the front yard. It included a birdbath, a guitar neck, and a half-buried television set with a bowling ball dropped through the screen.

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What’s Left of What’s Left

Excerpt from A Public Space Magazine: Issue 20

It was on something more than a whim that Hammond Birdsell first went to Oakwood Cemetery and found himself strolling the plots in quiet confusion and uneasy yearning. He had just come back from an international conference in Germany for librarians in the digital age and wanted to find a local grave to visit each week. Being in Europe stoked his imagination or something deeper than it. As never before, he realized that the centuries were intervals people had actually lived through—and not too long ago! How, as a librarian, had he not grasped this sooner? The bridges and forests, the castles and breweries—life in Upper Bavaria had rolled over and over roughly just like this since the coronation of Charlemagne. The street corners and river views of his ancestral village (his mother’s parents’ birthplace) warmed his blood. Walking the village cheered him and made him feel sad all at once, sort of the way memories of his childhood kitchen in Ohio did. Even the drizzle that fell on the river one afternoon gave rise to a sensation of abiding fullness. Above all, it was the sight of his relatives—three old women, each quaintly crippled in her own small way—keeping fresh the flowers on the graves of his grandparents that transformed him a little. Hammond had never met those grandparents. Until last week, before 115 looking at their headstones, he had not even really believed in them

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© A Public Space Literary Projects, Inc

© A Public Space Literary Projects, Inc


© Scott Seymore

© Scott Seymore

How Iowa Flattened Literature

With CIA help, writers were enlisted to battle both Communism and eggheaded abstraction. The damage to writing lingers.

Excerpt From The Chronicle of Higher Education

Did the CIA fund creative writing in America? The idea seems like the invention of a creative writer. Yet once upon a time (1967, to be exact), Paul Engle received money from the Farfield Foundation to support international writing at the University of Iowa. The Farfield Foundation was not really a foundation; it was a CIA front that supported cultural operations, mostly in Europe, through an organization called the Congress for Cultural Freedom.

Seven years earlier, Engle, then director of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, had approached the Rockefeller Foundation with big fears and grand plans. "I trust you have seen the recent announcement that the Soviet Union is founding a University at Moscow for students coming from outside the country," he wrote. This could mean only that "thousands of young people of intelligence, many of whom could never get University training in their own countries, will receive education … along with the expected ideological indoctrination." Engle denounced rounding up students in "one easily supervised place" as a "typical Soviet tactic." He believed that the United States must "compete with that, hard and by long time planning"—by, well, rounding up foreign students in an easily supervised place called Iowa City. Through the University of Iowa, Engle received $10,000 to travel in Asia and Europe to recruit young writers—left-leaning intellectuals—to send to the United States on fellowship.

The Iowa Writers’ Workshop emerged in the 1930s and powerfully influenced the creative-writing programs that followed. More than half of the second-wave programs, about 50 of which appeared by 1970, were founded by Iowa graduates. Third- and fourth- and fifth-wave programs, also Iowa scions, have kept coming ever since. So the conventional wisdom that Iowa kicked off the boom in M.F.A. programs is true enough.

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The First Casualty of War

Story in the Public Square: Eric Bennett

Hosts Jim Ludes and G. Wayne Miller are joined by a remarkably talented scholar and novelist whose work, whether for academic or popular audiences, traces the role of both narrative and truth in public life. Eric Bennett is the author of Workshops of Empire: Stegner, Engle, and American Creative Writing during the Cold War, and the novel A Big Enough Lie.


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When Everyone is Lying, Fiction Tells the Truth

By Justin Goodman for Boston Accent Lit

Justin Goodman: I'm going to start from an unusual place because A Big Enough Lieis, I think, so conceptually diverse that it'll probably take much of the time for itself. Plus, I find the best way to learn about someone is to consider their future orientation. So, in that vein, you said in a Q&A with Deborah Kalb last December that the next novel you were working on was called Everybody Can't Be Naked, which you described as a novel with "tales of actors, photographers, musicians, and writers in a gothic city on the East Coast." Foremost, I want to ask how that project's coming along. Has there been much progress over the months? 

But I also noted that you described the project as “tales” (suggesting concrete divisions), while also calling it a novel. It made me think of something like Rachel Kushner's The Flamethrowers. An urbane, multi-layered world engaged in constant fiction while invoking Theory and Aesthetics to defend their commodity fetishism and conspicuous consumption. I know you have a similar perspective regarding a style of MFA student. The Greater Than X boys from A Big Enough Lie, for example, or your descriptions of former Iowa Writing Workshop director Paul Engle as something like a writerly power broker. With that in mind, do you see Everybody Can't Be Naked as a continuation of this criticism of the (anti-)politics of the American art world?

Hopefully that wasn't too much at once. Sorry, if so. I'm trying to hold back as much as possible to start.

Eric Bennett: Since Deborah's interview last year, Everybody Can't Be Naked has come more and more to resemble a novel proper. An international Chinese artist creates an installation in the ruins of nineteenth-century mill buildings in a city in Rhode Island. The installation—a work of art—is a full scale replica of a factory you'd find in the Pearl River Delta in southern China—the kind of place that makes 80% of everything we own and wear. The “factory workers” are rich girls, the daughters of Communist Party higher-ups, playing labor as Marie Antoinette is said to have played milkmaid. American artists are hired to build out the “factory” itself—to do the wiring and hang the sheetrock. They think they're really building a factory. And they live fatly on the good wages from the Beijing arts council, or they do at least until the money runs dry. Much of the novel concerns the dreams, hopes, loves, and empty bank accounts of these American artists (the old “tales” that I mentioned). But thematic continuities with A Big Enough Lie and Workshops of Empire will probably be clear to anybody who's kind enough to read the three books. Our material reality depends on industrial activity we barely ever even think about, let alone see. That's a truth that belongs to the realm of economics and politics and ethics, or at best to memoir or journalism, and not in a lush, vivid, plausible novel. But could a lush, vivid, plausible novel contain it? We'll see.

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Author Eric Bennett Answers One Question about ‘A Big Enough Lie’

by Matt Gillick for Booktrib

These days, aspiring writers have a number of tools at their disposal. Whether that’s a specific software, a submission manager or something as simple as an Internet connection, people today have more tools than ever before to write quality work. But can all of those advantages work against them and actually distract the writer from what’s most important in their writing? Maybe the real problem is there’s just too much help available and not enough creativity.

As part of our ‘One Question and Answer’ series, we asked Eric Bennett, a Providence College professor and author of his debut novel, A Big Enough Lie, a question about what is most important when trying to create a solid piece of writing. Here’s what he told us:

Question: What is the most important asset a writer must nurture to achieve success?

Eric Bennett: It’s possible for me to imagine a writer writing excellent stuff without a laptop, a Moleskine, an Internet connection, a smartphone, a fountain pen, a subscription to Poets & Writers magazine, a writing group, some Scrivener software, an MFA, a college degree, or a high school diploma. It’s even possible for me to imagine a writer writing excellent stuff without a bed, a futon, a furnace, a stove, a yoga teacher, some health insurance, multiple pairs of shoes, or amber spirits distilled south of the Mason Dixon line. But it’s impossible for me to imagine a writer writing well without reading other people’s books.

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Meet the Author: Eric Bennett

Eric Bennett is a novelist and Associate Professor of English at Providence College. A graduate of the University of Iowa Writer's Workshop, Bennett's most recent book is titled Workshops of Empire: Stegner, Engle, and American Creative Writing during the Cold War (2015). Other publications include Creative Writing and the Cold War University (2013) and Ernest Hemingway & the Discipline of Creative Writing, or, Shark Liver Oil (2010). 

Why is Workshops of Empire: Stegner, Engle, and American Creative Writing during the Cold War crucial reading for students of cultural diplomacy?

In contrast to the Soviet Union, the United States depended on private citizens to foster cultural exchange and export national values during the Cold War. Yet Washington often tipped the scales by funding do-it-yourself cold warriors, sometimes with the awareness and complicity of those recipients, sometimes not. Paul Engle, promoting international literary activity in Iowa City throughout the 1950s and 1960s, lived these tensions, subterfuges, and contradictions. His story itself is gripping. And the chapters that contextualize his remarkable life should be useful to those making a wider study of the period.

What major works of creative fiction emerged from the Cold War-era university programs that readers today might be surprised to learn had their roots in an anti-communist political ideology?

Richard E. Kim’s The Martyred, a bestseller in the spring of 1964, emerged from the nexus of philanthropic funding, Paul Engle’s hustling, and Philip Roth’s teaching at Iowa. It became Engle’s calling card at the State Department and is an easy title to point to, not to mention still a good book.

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Book Q&As with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Eric Bennett

Eric Bennett is the author of the new book Workshops of Empire: Stegner, Engle, and American Creative Writing During the Cold War. He also has written the recent novel A Big Enough Lie. His work has appeared in a variety of publications, including VQR and A Public Space, and he is an associate professor of English at Providence College.

Q: You write, “To understand creative writing in America, even today, requires tracing its origins back to the apocalyptic fears and redemptive hopes that galvanized the postwar atmosphere.” What impact did the ideas of that post-World War II period have on creative writing?

A: Individualism of one sort or another has been a defining feature of the American experience since the beginning—Alexis de Tocqueville testified to its significance almost two centuries ago. 

But my research suggests that in the 1950s, personal accounts of minor experiences gained a new political urgency, and that that urgency found expression in creative writing programs, which were just emerging. 

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Handling the Truth: Our Q&A with Eric Bennett

by Laura LaVelle for Newswhistle

Although it is not safe to assume that a novel is autobiographical in nature (particularly when the novel in question, A Big Enough Lie, is about the creation of a fraudulent war memoir), nevertheless, I thought that its author, Eric Bennett, would be a fun person to meet for a drink. (He certainly writes bar scenes well, for what that’s worth.) It was not to be, however, as, when we were setting up this Q&A over email, he informed me that he was on sabbatical from his academic job as an English professor at Providence College, and would be catching a plane out of the country imminently.   The telephone, therefore, would have to do. Fortunately, I found him a friendly and engaging conversationalist, which was a very good thing, as I was predisposed to like him: his debut novel is excellent.

Your novel creates an Oprah Winfrey-like television host, Winnie Wilson, and uses the on air interviews she conducts with two of your other characters, both writers, as a framing device. It’s a rather satisfying structure to explore your themes about truthfulness and falsehood and authorship. Of course, it now makes it hard for me to think of intelligent questions because I don’t want to ask the obvious ones that Winnie would ask! Clearly, this is not an autobiographical novel (except maybe the drinking part). But it does seem like you have something to say about memoirs and their popularity these days…are you criticizing memoirs as a form? Or are you criticizing popular taste and our culture’s fetishizing of authenticity? Or are you trying to blur the distinction we make between novels and memoirs?

Some of my favorite things to read lately are memoirs, and maybe even more, books that blur the line between fiction and memoir. My issue might be more a matter of market share than an absolute critique. There’s a widespread preoccupation with biography mapping on to authorship and I’m curious about what it says about us as a culture. Of course the romanticization of the author is an old tendency, at least 200 years old, going back to Byron and beyond, but more and more it’s become the center of gravity in American literature.

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Rhode Island Cultural Anchor: Eric Bennett

by Mollie Flanagan for RISCA

Eric Bennett is a Providence based writer and Associate Professor of English at Providence College. He is this year’s fiction fellowship recipient, for his novel Make Yourself Decent.

We asked him a few questions about his life and art making in Rhode Island for our new series, Rhode Island Cultural Anchors.

RISCA: Give us a brief overview of your day yesterday – what did you do in both your personal and professional life.

EB: After dinner I polished a 250-word endorsement of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man for the student newspaper at Providence College; googled clips of the Chinese internet celebrity HoneyCC; read about Meitu apps that transform Shanghai selfies into universal fantasies of perfection and drive the booming business in plastic surgery in Chengdu; kept trying to record a MIDI part for “Broke My Heart on You” for the forthcoming Hopper album, Hopperesque; and typed up some notes on William F. Buckley’s God and Man at Yale.

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Reviews

 

Dear Humanities Profs: We Are the Problem

By Eric Bennett for Chronicle of Higher Education
13 Apr 2018

Dismayed about American politics? Look in the mirror

Can the average humanities professor be blamed if she rises in the morning, checks the headlines, shivers, looks in the mirror, and beholds a countenance of righteous and powerless innocence? Whatever has happened politically to the United States, it’s happened in stark opposition to the values so many philosophers and English professors, historians and art historians, creative writers and interdisciplinary scholars of race, class, and gender hold dear.

We are, after all, the ones to include diverse voices on the syllabus, use inclusive language in the classroom, teach stories of minority triumph, and, in our conference papers, articles, and monographs, lay bare the ideological mechanisms that move the cranks and offices of a neoliberal economy. Since the Reagan era our classrooms have mustered their might against thoughtless bigotry, taught critical thinking, framed the plight and extolled the humanity of the disadvantaged, and denounced all patriotism that curdles into chauvinism.

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1922: The Year That Transformed English Literature

By Eric Bennett for The New York Times Book Review
09 Aug 2017

THE WORLD BROKE IN TWO 
Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot, D.H. Lawrence, E.M. Forster, and the Year That Changed Literature 
By Bill Goldstein 

World War I wounded or killed almost 40 million people, upended the balance of power that had prevailed in Europe for a century, heralded a new age of mechanized warfare and redrew borders around the globe. It also transformed literature. Since the days of the Black Death, writers in English had fashioned books from other books. Chaucer plundered Boccaccio to good effect. Shakespeare filched parts of “Hamlet” from Thomas Kyd’s “The Spanish Tragedy.” Milton retooled Virgil for English Protestants. And such theft and fealty persisted well into the era of internal combustion. Dickens worked lines of Sir Philip Sidney into the 59 chapters of “Great Expectations.”

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American Storyteller

By Eric Bennett for Public Books
26 June 2017

The Best American Short Stories 2016, plus collections
by Ottessa Moshfegh, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Roxane Gay, and Chanelle Benz, Public Books.

What makes American life meaningful? Apple products? Cat videos? Torrential pornography? The prospect of a lavish retirement? The senior prom? Forestalling your plunge into poverty? Prescription narcotics? Not so long ago the answers might have included: God, manifest destiny, gentleman farming, transmuting hardship into blues and jazz, abstract expressionism, white picket fences, the great American novel, T. S. Eliot’s broken heart, being a Communist, being an anarchist, not being Soviet, viable entrepreneurialism, plausible feminism, NASA, loving nature, transmuting privilege into psychedelic rock, recognizing ourselves in those who are different from us, and, in general, striving together to form a more perfect union.

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When Pushkin Came to Shove: How Nabokov and Edmund Wilson Fell Out Over a Poem

By Eric Bennett for The New York Times Book Review
09 Dec 2016

THE FEUD
Vladimir Nabokov, Edmund Wilson, and the End of a Beautiful Friendship
By Alex Beam

In 1964, Vladimir Nabokov published an English translation of Pushkin’s “Eugene Onegin,” regarded by many as the supreme treasure of Russian poetry, in an edition that spanned four volumes. The poem took up a fraction of their 1,895 pages. From the bowels of his dictionary, Nabokov dislodged words that might as well have been invented. If you’re looking for “mollitude,” “ancientry,” “shandrydans,” “agrestic,” “muzzlet” and “scrab,” all in one poem, your search is over. Yet, for some reason, to translate Pushkin’s robust Russian word for “friend,” Nabokov reached for “pal.” The volumes were also heavy on extras — sermons on prosody, disquisitions on usage, vitriolic reproofs of all the strained translations of Pushkin out there.

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‘The Brazen Age,’ by David Reid

By Eric Bennett for The New York Times Book Review
29 Apr 2016

THE BRAZEN AGE
New York City and the American Empire: Politics, Art, and Bohemia
By David Reid

Between the end of World War II and the start of the Korean War, bracing uncertainty defined American lives. Only time would answer the dire questions that loomed. Would the labor market absorb millions of demobilized soldiers as military production ground to a halt? (It would.) Would the fate of humankind after Hiroshima hang on world governance, as its strident advocates insisted? (It would not.) Could Communists remain Communists? (Hardly.) How quickly and easily would things improve for African-­Americans? (Alas.) Might the feminist triumphs of Greenwich Village endure and spread? (Not if Marlon Brando and Norman Mailer had anything to do with it.) Would Ernest Hemingway write another masterpiece? (The jury remains out to this day.)

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Smut and Art, Then and Now

By Eric Bennett for Oxford Academic; Essays in Criticism
10 Apr 2015

A Publisher's Paradise: Expatriate Literary Culture in Paris, 1890-1960. By COLETTE COLLIGAN
The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce's ‘Ulysses’. By KEVIN BIRMINGHAM

These days the forbidden is so accessible and so profitable and the avant-garde so commercialised that they go together like anything else online or at the mall. A century ago, forbidden meant forbidden, and revolutionary forays into the brave frontiers of aesthetic consciousness didn't use algorithmic marketing tools. The climate made strange bedfellows of people who, for various reasons, wanted to sell images and stories of bedfellows. Writers and pornographers found common cause, and their collaborations appear triumphant only in retrospect. At the time, the resistance was stiff.

In the United Kingdom, starting with the Obscene Publications Act of 1857, the government cracked down on dirty books and pictures. New legislation in the 1870s and 1880s criminalised importing pornography, advertising it, and shipping it domestically. In the United States, Antony Comstock, the head of the New York Society...

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© Raina Belleau

© Raina Belleau

ERIC BENNETT grew up in Michigan. His lower education lacked funding and his higher education hemorrhaged it. His preferences include cashmere, French fries, countries that pay waiters a living wage, mid-period Henry James, certain cats, Farewell Transmission by Jason Molina, the unapologetic and astonishing ambition of literary critics between 1930 and 1965, the flora of Coconut Grove, the Arthurian Romances of Chrétien de Troyes, Gene Kelly’s dancing, Curtis Sittenfeld’s indestructible vibe, precious journals bound in Florence and almost too nice to write in, Meijer Thrifty Acres, the already stale trend in camouflage, German candor, Midwestern circumspection, Evan Osnos’s journalism, tacos garnished with lime, the freshman class of the 116thCongress, limericks, Ralph Ellison, Lydia Davis, and Dolly Parton.      

 
 

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