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Five Fun (Quick) Reads

New articles from English alums on gifs, poems as places, and spontaneous combustion
September 21, 2017

Detail from cover of CAESAR'S LAST BREATH

Detail from cover of CAESAR'S LAST BREATH
Detail from UK cover of Sam Kean's book CAESAR'S LAST BREATH

Every day, it seems, English alums post links to their articles and essays in The New York Times, Salon, Wired, or Tiny Letter. We love to spread the word (because the writing is exemplary, natch) on our UMN English and Creative Writing Program social media accounts (see icons below). So please send links to your recent articles to—or tag us in your own posts on social media. Here, a few short(ish) essays of note drawn from the last couple months. All opinions, of course, are their own.

"The 30-Something's Guide to Real Estate," by Jennine Capó Crucet (MFA 2006), New York Times, August 5. Crucet is the author of the novel Make Your Home Among Strangers and is a Times contributing opinion writer. With this column she explores how a house purchase can change a life. Sample line: "'But that’s not for me,' I argued. Homes are for families. Homes determine everything, from where your kids might go to college to how long your marriage will last. I was sitting in her office in pajama pants and a shirt that said 'TEAM GG' and had sketches of all four 'Golden Girls.'"


"Charles Dickens's belief in spontaneous combustion sparked Victorian London's hottest debate," by Sam Kean (BA 2002), Popular Science, July 18. Kean is the author of four books of nonfiction, including the periodic table bestseller The Disappearing Spoon. This look at the science behind a scene in Dickens' Bleak House is an excerpt from Kean's 2017 book Caesar's Last Breath: Decoding the Secrets of the Air Around Us. Sample line: "[The 18th-century chemists] declared, QED, that breathing must involve a sort of slow combustion inside us—a constant burning, with our own bodies acting as the fuel. And if slow fires burned inside us all the time, why couldn’t they flare up on occasion, especially in alcoholics, whose very organs were dripping with gin or rum?"

Image of mother and son from Laurie Lindeen article in New York Times
Image from the New York Times

"Johnny Goes to College," by Laurie Lindeen (MFA 2004), New York Times, August 25. Lindeen is the author of the memoir Petal Pusher: A Rock and Roll Cinderella Story. Here she enlivens the typical tale of driving the child to college with unexpected humor. Sample line: "At 7:30 the next morning, I get a text from Johnny saying that he has a mandatory meeting at 9 a.m. and can we all meet for breakfast immediately? At IHOP he orders pancakes slathered in whipped cream and strawberries. This kid is clearly too young to be on his own."

"Motion Pictures: Gifs are photography’s revenge on cinema," by Patrick Nathan (BA 2009), Real Life magazine, August 21. Nathan is the author of the forthcoming novel Some Hell. With references from Homer to Rebecca Solnit, this article provides background to the increasingly popular technology. Sample line: "Gifs are among the most advanced unfossilized language metaphors we see every day—a clear way, for those who can read them, to express oneself emotionally and intellectually, and yet still bubbling with energy, with fuel."

"Poems as Maps," by Taiyon J. Coleman (MFA 2003), Places journal, August. Coleman is a poet and 2017 recipient of the McKnight Foundation Artist Fellowship in creative prose; her essay “Disparate Impacts: Living Just Enough for the City,” appears in A Good Time for the Truth: Race in Minnesota. Here she reflects on how poems can situate a reader within contexts of not only geography but history, culture, society. Sample line: "Auntie helped raise me, she loved me, she fed me, and she clothed me. Like her own children, I witnessed parts of her life that would become parts of my life, too. . . . Unfolding the map of auntie’s life, I can plot its points with compassion, respect, and empathy. I get it now."

And one more, published just this month . . .

"Lessons from the Commonplace," by Maureen Vance (BA 2013), Minnesota Alumni magazine. Vance writes about keeping a commonplace book of quotes from her reading. Sample line: "Who can say, really, what gets us to be the people we become? Is it our education? Our experiences? Or is there someone within us who knows who she wants to be, and, once she’s been made aware of it, decides to become herself?"