Heather Havrilesky

  • The People’s Princess

    Americans love their nostalgic cultural icons more than God and country. As our faith in every cherished institution from religion to the free press to science to democracy erodes before our eyes, our belief in The Force grows stronger by the day. "Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter!" we remind each other in yoga classes and Cineplexes and Comic-Con lines and also, probably, in bed. But why wouldn't we prefer a devil-may-care space smuggler and a sassy princess to the citizens of the real world—preachers and teachers and scientists and diplomats and journalists? Who wouldn't choose

  • Less Than Hero

    Every day we should be improving. Our productivity and happiness should be on the rise. We should be making more friends. Our spouses should love us more and our children should be happier and increasingly confident about their positions in the world. And if we are not improving, inching closer and closer to our best lives, then we are failing ourselves and everyone around us.

    The burden of this pervasive cultural lie, that life should be a relentless victory march, asserts itself on every page of Maria Semple's new novel, Today Will Be Different (Little, Brown, $27). Like Bernadette Fox, the

  • Uncertain Women

    There is a moment of reckoning in every married woman’s life when she looks around and says to herself, “This support position was falsely advertised as an exciting leadership opportunity.” Someone in HR sold her a bill of goods. Happily ever after, she now realizes, is a trick they play on you, to turn your life into a blur of breast pumps and dirty laundry.

    No wonder the 2002 marital-angst anthology The Bitch in the House was a best seller. Edited by journalist and novelist Cathi Hanauer and featuring seasoned writers such as Vivian Gornick and Daphne Merkin, the collection zeroed in on the

  • All the Little Live Things

    If the world is made of magic, then maybe magic is made of microbes. After all, microbes are everywhere. They live in the oceans, in rocks, ice, and clouds. They predate us, they outnumber us, and they make up 90 percent of our body weight. They coexist with us, aid us, and hurt us in many mysterious and mostly invisible ways. Without them, we wouldn’t have enough oxygen to breathe. They help form our organs, they regulate our immune systems, and they might even determine how energetic or happy or calm we are. They can take over the DNA and hijack the basic functioning of insects and even

  • Hoop Dreams

    Sports books have the unfortunate tendency to treat local pockets of fanaticism as if they were universal. That may be unavoidable; when it comes to the suspenseful movement of balls, titillation is almost always in the eye of the beholder.

    John Feinstein, author of A Season on the Brink, A Good Walk Spoiled, and several other best-selling sports tomes, doesn’t work around the inherent provincialism of his latest subject so much as lean into it—way in. The title of his new book, The Legends Club (Doubleday, $28), might seem to suggest some globally recognized triumvirate of superpowers—Churchill,

  • The Flowers of Romance

    There are a few ironclad rules in any world created by Nicholas Sparks. If you’re a man, you have square shoulders and muscles that reflect your belief in a hard day’s work. If you’re a woman, you have striking emerald eyes and blond hair, or hazel eyes to offset your high cheekbones. If you own a farm, a harmonica-playing black man full of hard-earned wisdom lives next door. If you’re Mexican, your parents own a restaurant and struggled to give you a better life. If you’re a warehouse, you’re located in a run-down neighborhood on the outskirts of town. If you’re a thunderstorm, you roll up

  • Male-Order Brides

    Some books serve a clear purpose. Other books serve no purpose at all. Still other books serve a clear purpose but not the one indicated in the book’s title. Because Tucker Max’s first book, I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell, was a compendium of comedic anecdotes about blind-drunk sex and repugnant hijinks that inadvertently became a kind of how-to lifestyle manual for aggressively unlikable douche bags everywhere, it follows that the author would come to pen an actual how-to lifestyle manual for aggressively unlikable douche bags that seems inadvertently poised to take the comedy world by storm.

  • True Stories

    Teaching writers to record their life stories involves no small amount of hand-holding—and for good reason. Even after years of journaling or jotting down passing thoughts, the act of sharing your first-person stories with the world can feel like a kind of perversion, like sweating all over someone’s couch or coughing into the clam dip at a cocktail party. On the wrong day, even popular writers’ rallying cries—such as Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird or Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones—feel like gorgeously embossed invitations to spread your germs far and wide.

    Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir

  • End of Days

    Facing the inescapable reality of death is not, generally speaking, good for the economy. The consumer frenzy of capitalism depends on our delaying our big moment of reckoning for as long as possible; once we start to view our property and possessions, our fashions and vehicles and even face-lifts, as temporary investments that won’t hold much value past the grave, a shift in priorities becomes necessary. And thanks to the modern tendency to extend adolescence well into middle age, many of us are only beginning to savor the more lavish spoils of the American dream when orthopedic shoes,

  • The Ersatz Life, Examined

    Authenticity is something we can only imagine these days. In the midst of some deep-relaxation exercise, we might picture small children playing with wooden toys or humble peasants toiling in the fields, but even our inward set pieces feel a little fake. The wooden toys are actually replicas of plastic toys that are, in turn, replicas of cartoon characters featured in blockbuster movies. The humble peasants are really actors imitating what they think hard labor looks like, based on a mix of children’s books about John Henry, Sam Cooke lyrics, and online porn.

    The more unreal the world becomes,

  • Mother Country

    The truth is out there. You can’t miss it, in fact—it’s everywhere. But even as we embrace the twenty-four-hour confession cycle of social media, the popularity, and subsequent disparagement, of the memoir reveals our (true) mixed feelings about true stories. We might be lured into tales of harrowing childhoods or devastating divorces, but our internal machinery will monitor the narratives based on the same arbitrary rubrics that guard our own personal revelations (or lack thereof): Is the author honest about his motives? Are her experiences exotic enough to teach us something new? Does he

  • Mansplanation Nation

    THERE'S SOMETHING endearing about people who loudly proclaim their love of books. Forget the suspicions kicked up by trumpeting something as universal as “books” as one’s true love (also loves: baby animals, pizza, oxygen); forget the anachronism of loving physical objects in space and not some “long read” floating in the ether; forget the self-congratulatory tone that hints at a closetful of book-festival tote bags emblazoned with Shakespeare’s face. Proudly championing books still counts as a true act of courage, a way of raging against the dying of the page.

    In embracing the book as an

  • Fly Me Up, Tie Me Down

    These days, comic-book enthusiasts are often portrayed as somber scholars, and feminists get caricatured as obsessive eccentrics—so it’s natural to wonder when, exactly, the world went topsy-turvy. A mere glance at photos of suffragettes marching proudly in the streets in 1917 can incite a feeling of liberation vertigo: Where did the last century go? Women’s rights entered a swirling comics-style time tunnel and emerged looking more like a fanatical hobby. Meanwhile, creating superheroes was transformed from a down-market, and definitely obsessive, side project into a handsomely rewarded higher

  • Humble Pie

    Proclaiming oneself “truly humbled” often signals that one could use much more humbling, preferably via a knuckle sandwich. Yet self-serving announcements of humility have become the posturing trend of the moment among celebrities. Leo DiCaprio is “deeply humbled” by his Oscar nomination. Kanye West is humbled by the love of his fans. Ridley Scott is “truly humbled” by his recent knighting. In modern parlance, humility is the natural outcome of a crowdsourced tongue bath.

    C. S. Lewis wrote that “humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less.” Try telling that to

  • What News?

    Recently, my daughter asked me to rewind the car radio so we could hear a song again. I was forced to explain the rudimentary technology known as broadcast, which doesn’t obey your commands so much as spray out an ignorant blast of waves in every direction. Her confusion at this ludicrously antiquated format led me to describe a battery of outmoded gadgets, like stationary telephones and bulky, blurry TV sets.

    As strange as it felt to ramble on about the bad old days, it was striking how vividly the major technological shifts of recent years could be encapsulated in the little inconveniences

  • The Parent Traps

    A young author recently confessed to me that she probably won’t have kids, since doing so would require giving up her career. I assured her that, thanks to a great local day care staffed by attentive teachers, I was able to write a book and keep my full-time job as a TV critic after I had two kids. “No, I could never be that kind of mother. I never do anything half-assed,” she replied. “I would have to give my children everything.”

    When even childless women preemptively claim the title of ideal mother, you know that there’s a strong current moving through the culture—one strong enough to knock

  • Slouching Toward Neck Trouble

    Aspiring essayists tend to worship at the altar of Joan Didion. Her lyrical prose—with its rhythmic repetitions, its dramatic expressions of regret and longing caught in lockstep with the failings and farces of our culture—lures readers into a state of deeply romantic woe. “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Didion writes in The White Album—a not-so-subtle suggestion to young writers that it isn’t merely important for them to spin their angst into dense, poetic passages; it’s necessary for their survival. In Didion’s hands, we are exquisitely aware of every tragic molecule that makes

  • Gunning for the Zeitgeist

    Years ago, a friend of mine attended a reggae concert where the lead singer asked the crowd, “Who wants to hear a song about Rodney King?” The crowd screamed “Yeah!” but the singer wasn’t satisfied. “I can’t hear you! Who wants to hear a song about Rodney King?” More yells, shouts, enthusiasm, but not enough. This went on for several minutes. Finally, when the crowd was going wild, the singer began: “R-r-r-rodney King, Rodney King, Rodney King, Rodney King!” Those were the lyrics to the entire song.

    That story came to mind often as I was reading Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings (Riverhead, $

  • Learned Helplessness

    It’s no coincidence that growing alarm over America’s decreasing global influence corresponds with a growing hysteria over our child-rearing practices. Believing that “the children are our future,” as Whitney Houston so helpfully put it, is not all that different from believing in, say, stock futures. The monitors of stock and early-developmental portfolios certainly face the same basic question: How big a chunk are you willing to lop off your bank account, your sanity, and your soul in order to ensure that the future looks half as shiny and promising as you expect it to?


  • White-Scholar Crime

    Academics might be forgiven for losing sight of just how pampered they are. Their young audiences, bullied into alertness by strict grading systems and the knowledge that their parents have forked over vast sums to secure for them the privilege of listening to digressive theorizing on a given subject, rarely make for what’s known as a “tough crowd.” Students are expected to stifle their boos and eye rolls in the face of the most excruciatingly dull lectures, and to refrain from questioning the strange assumption that convoluted academic analysis always presents the best opportunities to solve