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Original Essays | August 18, 2014

Ian Leslie: IMG Empathic Curiosity

Today, we wonder anxiously if digital media is changing our brains. But if there's any time in history when our mental operations changed... Continue »
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The Powell's Playlist | August 6, 2014

Graham Joyce: IMG The Powell’s Playlist: Graham Joyce

The Ghost in the Electric Blue Suit is set on the English coast in the hot summer of 1976, so the music in this playlist is pretty much all from the... Continue »
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Powell's Q&A

Nathan Englander

Describe your latest book.
The Ministry of Special Cases is a novel set in Buenos Aires in 1976. There are countless things that inspired the book, not least of which was a trip to Argentina fifteen years ago. I spent a few weeks in Buenos Aires and discovered a city obsessed with appearance — with notions of youthfulness and beauty, and also, at the same time, obsessed with its dead. It was the juxtaposition of a polite, elegant country with a dark and terrible legacy that stayed with me; I kept focusing on the balance between Argentina's reverence for its buried heroes and all those nameless graves.

The novel focuses on the Poznan family. The father, Kaddish, makes his living defacing gravestones in a forgotten cemetery. The mother, Lillian, works in insurance in a time when nothing is safe. Their son, Pato, is simply trying to navigate his way into adulthood during complex times. The Poznans soon find themselves thrust into the heart of the Dirty War and the nightmare of the disappeared children. Seeking help, they turn to the Ministry of Special Cases.

What's the strangest or most interesting job you've ever had?
I spent a summer picking garbage at Jones Beach in New York when I was in college. What made it so strange was the unreality of it. We'd get there at some ungodly hour and pick garbage — all the weird and horrible and sometimes amazing things that wash up. We'd transform this place (picking up plastic and plastic and plastic) and then people would show up after sunrise, to walk a clean, peaceful beach — as if this was what daylight had brought. It's a shocking illusion.

How do you relax?
I've created a form of reverse meta-relaxation that appears to the observer as if I'm in a constant state of extreme anxiety and despair. That and yoga.

How did the last good book you read end up in your hands and why did you read it?
A friend was reading Philip Gourevitch's We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families. I wanted to see it, and knocked it to the floor. I picked the book up and never let go. My friend went to a store around the corner. He got a second copy right then.

Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage?
I think I've made countless. Of all different sorts. From the youthful drinking-in-bars-where-drunken-writers-drank, to being excited just to walk down Lambs Conduit Street in London (a street that reminds me both of Charles Dickens and Peter Carey's Jack Maggs). Also, this isn't exactly a pilgrimage, but when I lived in Jerusalem, I had my table at my coffee shop and Yehuda Amichai had his wing-backed chair right behind. It was always nice when he came in. When he died, they draped the chair with crepe and no one was allowed to sit there for the week of mourning.

Describe the best breakfast of your life.
I was just in Buenos Aires (sort of a tour of imagined places from my novel) and I had an asparagus omelet at a venerable old café outside the gates of Recoleta while sitting in the shade of a giant two-hundred-year-old tree. It was a very excellent omelet, and a very excellent cup of coffee, and whoever comes over to my apartment for breakfast next is going to get my pitiful attempt to recreate it.

Dogs, cats, budgies, or turtles?
The horrors! This is an evil question. Because I'm desperate for a dog. And I want to say, dogs. But growing up I always had a parakeet, God help me. And I loved those birds. And the only thing harder to hug is a fish.

In the For-All-Eternity category, what will be your final thought?
Does my hair look funny?

Recommend five or more books on a single subject of personal interest or expertise.
Five Great Books About Being Trapped:

Blindness by José Saramago
The Trial by Franz Kafka
The Plague by Albert Camus
The Fixer by Bernard Malamud
1984 by George Orwell spacer

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