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The Urban Cyclist

No terrain is impossible for the Urban Cyclist. His powerful legs drive the pedals down in alternation, right, left, right, left, calculating the degree of incline by the strength required of his thigh and calf muscles for each complete revolution of the front sprocket. The soles of his feet and palms of his hands read each vibration transferred from the tires to the handlebars and frame, making microadjustments to his direction and balance at a speed faster than thought. The initial uphill stretch when he first leaves the house is short and serves to lubricate his joints and warm up his muscles. He quickly reaches Reservation Street. Its sloping cobbled lanes are separated by a grassy central reservation. Five blocks to the Strip. Knowing every inch of the way like the back of his hand doesn’t make the challenge any less dangerous for the Urban Cyclist. From one week to the next, so much can change. A resident might decide to have a new driveway put in so they can park their car in the garage more comfortably, and may have to deposit mounds of sand, gravel, and cement in the middle of the sidewalk, an example of the kind of mutant obstacle for which the true Urban Cyclist must be prepared. There are dogs that shoot out like rockets from behind walls to try to snaffle a bit of their favorite food, an unwary cyclist’s shin. Even trees, an apparently peaceful and inoffensive element of the natural world, from one week to the next push out branches and roots, which can obstruct the Cyclist’s path. Weeds sprout from the sidewalk, concealing pebbles, holes, and bricks that can catch one by surprise and cause serious accidents from which only the most skilled, experienced cyclists emerge unscathed.

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Flower Singers

This block was new to me, but its warped cornices, crumbling lintels, and broken, zigzagging fire escapes could have been ripped from my memories. The people seemed familiar, too: the woman in curlers, cigarette dangling from two fingers, leaning out a first-floor window to gossip with a neighbor on the sidewalk, a potbellied mayor holding court on a nearby stoop. Older boys with gleaming biceps who slouched in lawn chairs and played video games on a television hotwired into the streetlight. Teenage girls in suffocatingly tight jeans who caressed the rusting finials of a wrought-iron fence and kept an eye on a horde of children—black and Spanish—who ran screaming through an open hydrant.

I stepped aside as a girl, maybe seven or eight, tore past me with a water balloon. I used to be one of these kids, I thought, oblivious to the crushing heat: exactly what that made me now, forty years later (and acutely aware of the heat), I couldn’t say. Though as much at home here as anywhere else in the city, I viewed the street warily. We shared a history of sorts, but history—my history—was at best a pleasant dream from which I always awoke with an unsettling sense of loss. I had no reason to be nostalgic. As for the future, that too had always been filled with questions, which led me to suspect that, in the hours and days ahead, I would still be chasing ghosts.

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The Post-Apocalypse Gets Weird: Borne by Jeff VanderMeer

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“Mord destroyed and reimagined our broken city for reasons known only to him, yet he also replenished it in his thoughtless way.” So thinks Rachel, the protagonist of Borne, as she climbs the side of Mord, a giant bear, braving his “ropy, dirt-bathed fur, foul with carrion and chemicals” in search of food or biotech treasure that’s stuck to him. Those are the thoughtless replenishments he provides. Instead, she finds a fist-sized organism that resembles a sea anemone. She takes it back to the crumbling apartment building where she lives, deciding on the way home that it’s a he and its name is Borne. Her partner and lover, Wick, is unhappy about Borne’s presence—an outcast biotech scientist, Wick recognizes a threat when he sees one—but he grudgingly allows what he’s powerless to stop. Borne already has a hold on Rachel’s heart. Continue reading

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How I Injured Myself Reading Elif Batuman’s The Idiot

I’m an idiot. I know this. I was even more of an idiot back in college and I don’t like being reminded of this fact. So I admit I was hesitant when I picked up a copy of Elif Batuman’s The Idiot. I feared the narrator Selin and I had too much in common for us to ever get along. Like Selin, I’d fallen for a man via email while in college. Like her, I’d gone on to teach English in another country. Like her, I was trying (“doomed”) to be a writer. Unlike her, I didn’t go to Harvard. We were off to a shaky start.

I wasn’t entirely wrong. In some ways, following a year in the life of Selin was like reliving the prime of my idiocy, the crème de la crème of my naivety.

It’s strange how much I enjoyed it. Continue reading

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Groping for Vines: An Interview with Fiona Maazel

A man wakes up and doesn’t remember the night before. Then he sees photos that show him assaulting a woman. Add the fact that he’s a new father, his job involves experimental surgeries, and his own father has dementia—oh, and he can read minds—and you’ve got Fiona Maazel’s new novel, A Little More Human. Memory, autonomy, and conspiracy theories abound in this complicated, well-crafted book. Maazel has won the Bard Prize for Fiction and was a National Book Award Foundation “5 Under 35” honoree. She was recently awarded a Guggenheim.

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Jaime Herndon: One thing I loved about A Little More Human was the intersecting storylines, especially Dr. Snyder’s memory loss, juxtaposed with his son’s mindreading ability and blackout. How did you come up with the structure/form of the novel?

Fiona Maazel: Thematically, I knew I wanted to be writing about memory, and memory as a way of constructing identity, juxtaposed against how incredibly hard it is to establish an identity when we know so little of what transpires in our own inner lives. I wanted to get at all that, but there was no way to do it from one perspective. I needed a few characters to allow me to approach the topic from multiple angles. Continue reading

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GREAT ARTISTS STEAL: D’Arc by Robert Repino

My novel D’Arc is the third book in the War With No Name series, which tells of a global conflict between humans and sentient animals. Amid the chaos, a cat named Mort(e) searches for his lost love—a dog named Sheba. Along with its apocalyptic themes, the book discusses the failures of political systems, the power of superstition, and the tribal impulse that drives all species. Below are some of the books that helped to inspire and inform D’Arc, separated by theme.

THE END OF THE WORLD

The War With No Name series is firmly set within the postapocalyptic genre. I’m drawn to these kinds of stories not only because of the Mad Max movies I grew up with, but because of the sense of upheaval, the reset, that comes with them. With a clean slate, people have the opportunity to start anew or to recreate the world of the past. But try as they might, they cannot avoid repeating the same mistakes that unraveled the former world.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

If you haven’t been browbeaten into reading this book yet, allow me to join in the bullying. Atwood’s novel captures the frustration and the stunned silence that would accompany a complete overhaul of society. The protagonist Offred has no choice but to adapt, and her ability to do so surprises her. This book was so influential for me that I used this line as the epigraph for the first book. “God is love, they once said, but we reversed that…” And really, that sums everything up. Continue reading

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