Sarah Kerr, a longtime contributor to The New York Review, lives near Washington, D.C. (November 2014)

Beauty Disturbed: Almodóvar’s Broken Embraces

In the summer of 1989, I spent several weeks in Madrid. It was my first time out of the United States, and I was overwhelmed by the shock of difference: the life-giving daily approach to time; the ghost dregs of imperial supremacy; the post-Franco traces of bleak limbo that were thankfully almost done eroding; the particular charisma, not quite the same as what I had absorbed from so far away, in books and movies, as “European charm.” There was a pop soundtrack to that summer, an album that had come out months earlier but was still at its viral peak. One addictive song especially spilled out of windows onto plazas, with a stately beat and a girlish voice recalling (from the male point of view) an affair with a woman described as half-finished, with the body of a gypsy and “an eye here, a tooth there.”

The Triumph of Roberto Bolaño

Well beyond his sometimes nomadic life, Roberto Bolaño was an exemplary literary rebel. To drag fiction toward the unknown he had to go there himself, and then invent a method with which to represent it. Since the unknown place was reality, the results of his work are multi-dimensional, in a …

Displaced Passions

Jhumpa Lahiri is, and is not, an old-fashioned writer. She is too natural to be anyone’s imitator. Yet the kind of relationship she invites readers into can feel familiar from some of the books we were drawn into long ago, when we were first learning about the good company reading …

Nathan, Farewell

So the Zuckerman saga has ended, with no soaring chords of elegy and not a single consoling hint that though our hero looks set to fade away, his legacy will carry on. It’s no surprise that Philip Roth would take such care not to be sentimental, at least not in …

In the Terror House of Mirrors

Certain oft-heard criticisms of President Bush’s policies seem rich, too, with potential implications for literature. There is the call, after seven years of awful decisions based on faith, to reembrace realism. There is the frustrated insistence that words and how precisely and intentionally we use them matter: see the War …

The Unclosed Circle

Suppose, then, we imagine a mind always thinking of what it has just done and never of what it is doing, like a song which lags behind its accompaniment. Let us try to picture to ourselves a certain inborn lack of elasticity of both senses and intelligence, which brings it …

The Girl in the Woods

In March 2003, the young American novelist Heidi Julavits wrote a long, wandering essay for the first issue of The Believer, the new literary magazine of which she was a founding editor (with backing from Dave Eggers, the memoirist, novelist, admirable philanthropist, and canny literary entrepreneur behind the McSweeney’s imprint).

Burdens of Inheritance

It amuses and repels Peter Carey, but above all stirs his angry empathy, to remember that his country was founded in a cruel experiment. The first citizens of what came to be known as Australia were mainly convicts and paupers, tossed from Britain starting in the late eighteenth century, shipped …

Memories of Underdevelopment

In the epilogue to her new memoir, Dancing with Cuba, Alma Guillermoprieto notes that she became a journalist “more or less by accident” in the 1970s, when she was living in Nicaragua, and Sandinista rebels took up arms against the dictator Anastasio Somoza. The discovery of her true vocation is …

Small Expectations

Lucy Ellmann is a frustrating writer. Her prose style can be annoying, since it’s the written equivalent of a high-pitched whine by someone in love with her own misery. At times, her showy despair calls to mind a child in art class, drawing apocalyptic horrors that send the teacher running …

Working Girl

Since the theme of Evita is fame, it’s worth noting that during the early Thirties, when Eva Duarte was a skinny, sickly young outcast living on the Argentine pampas, the two consolations in her life were reciting florid poems about death and buying a fan magazine for the glamorous stills …

Tender Buttons

This story of a beloved TV star’s repressed youth, rise to the top, subsequent vodka-laced despair, rescue by a sane young doctor husband, and late redemptive discovery of a fondness for Palomino horses has been excerpted in People, and its revelations of familial and addictive dysfunction have been autopsied in …

The Confidence Men

“Cecily, you will read your Political Economy in my absence. The chapter on the Fall of the Rupee you may omit. It is somewhat too sensational.” —Miss Prism in The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde Poor Cecily, condemned by her governess to study a tedious textbook, is …

Rain Man

To go back to the beginning, Quentin Tarantino’s first movie, Reservoir Dogs, revived an old-chestnut plot: six misfits plan a heist, but their scheme breaks down and fate rushes them to an early violent death. This premise had been worked up a dozen times before in French and American film …

The Mystery of Mexican Politics

One night shortly before the Mexican elections in August, El Fisgon, a cartoonist for the left-wing daily La Jornada, one of the few credible sources in Mexico for news, tried to sketch for me what the events of 1994 had revealed to be the true condition of his country. It …

Shoot the Piano Player

Several reviewers of her latest film have called Jane Campion a fourth Brontë sister. Campion, too, has dropped hints that this is where she got her inspiration. Attached to the book version of her screenplay, there is an appendix entitled “The Making of The Piano” in which she is quoted …

A Tale of Two Cities

Last June in California the Great University Rebellion that began three decades ago with marches and sitins for civil rights finally seemed to exhaust itself. The occasion, a hunger strike on the UCLA campus, when nine people stopped eating for two weeks, was the climax of demonstrations throughout the spring …

Made in America

The latest census counted 22.4 million Latinos living in the United States—approximately 9 percent of all Americans. They are of twenty-one different nationalities and of mixed Indian, European, African, and sometimes even Asian descent. About 9 million of them were born outside the country. About 63 percent of them are …

Shock Treatment

After the death of General Franco, King Juan Carlos appointed the novelist Camilo José Cela to Spain’s Parliament and asked him to help oversee the literary style of the new democratic constitution. Cela remembers a Senate vote in which he managed to avoid taking a position with the same steadfast, …