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Travel ‘Works to Shake Things Up,’ Says the Novelist Emily Henry



Over the last three years, the novelist Emily Henry has established a solid beachhead on summertime best seller lists with a series of travel-related rom-coms, starting with“Beach Read” in 2020, and followed by last summer’s “People We Meet on Vacation” and this year’s “Book Lovers.” All three novels currently share space on The Times’s combined Print and E-book fiction list.

In her books, a youngish woman — a writer or writer-adjacent — at a crisis point in her life, lights out for new territory where (not to give any spoilers), she finds her true calling — and her true love.

In “Beach Read,” dueling novelists occupy neighboring houses on a lake in Michigan, sparring until, of course, they stop. In “People We Meet on Vacation,” the travel writer Poppy Wright spends part of each summer taking a trip with her best friend from college, Alex Nilsen, who, dear reader, you know from the get-go is Mr. Right, even as the two of them hide from the inevitable. In “Book Lovers,” it is the hard-driving literary agent Nora Stephens who travels to the small North Carolina town of Sunshine Falls, only to encounter her nemesis from the Manhattan book scene, the editor Charlie Lastra.

Another theme in her books is the pull of family. Ms. Henry, 31, grew up in Cincinnati with two older brothers, and she, her husband and their dog live there now, near her parents. She fondly remembers their family trips, even if they did sometimes end up fighting “like a too-many-headed beast,” she said.

“We all still try to semi-regularly take trips together, which obviously can be complete chaos, but I just have so much nostalgia for that,” said Ms. Henry, who is at work on next summer’s novel. “I can’t talk about that yet,” she said of the project. “But I can say that it is travel-related.”

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

A book is already built to be a kind of vacation — even if it’s not an escapist book, even if it’s a very heavy literary novel, it’s still this trip that is packaged for you in a very specific way. And I think with travel-focused books you’re just amping that up even more.

On a trip there’s this feeling of possibility that you don’t necessarily have in your normal life because you’re going to be around all new people and all new things, and you don’t know what could happen and who you might meet. Everything just feels exciting. From a story perspective, it lends itself to this big transformation because characters are already on this sort of uneven ground. Travel works the same way that it works for us in real life: to just shake things up.

I think as a reader, it lends itself to that as well, because we’re already trying to go new places and meet new people when we’re reading. We’re craving something, some new experience that we want to bring into ourselves.

I do think that there’s something, yeah, transformative and you get to know yourself more deeply in a new environment.

And it’s the things that you don’t know about yourself, like the surprises, the risks that you take, that you wouldn’t expect, or the new foods you try, that you didn’t think that you would like or anything small like that. It’s also just seeing your regular life through new eyes.

Because I think there are places you go where you think like, oh, I can imagine my life here, and there are other places you go where you realize you’re just excited to get home. That’s one of the things I love so much about travel, too, is that you can get so complacent or unappreciative of your life, your real life, there really is nothing like that feeling of getting home.

I haven’t done a lot of international travel yet, but I grew up in a family that took road trips and so that is how I’ve seen most of the United States. It was pretty common to take a 14-hour road trip to Florida. We’d leave in the middle of the night so we wouldn’t have to pay for that one extra night and we would sleep in the back of the minivan and wake up and be there.

Now I find that every few months I feel this restlessness and urge to just be somewhere different and see new things and eat food that isn’t available to me. That is this rhythm that my family set up for me. You have new experiences to carry you through the mundanity of real life.

A lot of that really was just research and there are Facebook groups for that kind of thing, but I haven’t really used those. I am a huge fan of Airbnb, like much of my generation is. It’s just been such a game changer for travel, especially for extended travel. But also I think being raised by parents who were really good at that kind of thing helps. They would take the tours of resorts to get steeply discounted Disney World tickets. That really came into a lot of the writing of Poppy’s approach to travel.

Yeah, I’ve had a few. I don’t think of myself as the cleanest person, but now I am very thorough about checking the reviews for how clean the place is. I’ve definitely had some that are just kind of gross. There’s always artful photography. There was one that listed an additional bedroom and we got there and realized it was in an unfinished basement, and there also was like a hole in the wall to this other kind of storage room that seemed like a peephole. That was unsettling.

My favorite trip is to fly into San Francisco and drive up through Muir Woods and Muir Beach and then to see wine country. And then I have family up in Oregon. I love that drive. I love that you can see the ocean, the bay, the mountains, wine country, the redwoods, all within just this few hour span.

Seeing a place as a visitor is so different than being a local and I think that’s why Elin Hilderbrand’s books are so good, because she really knows Nantucket and she puts you right there. The places I’m writing about I’m only familiar with as a guest and it’s a different experience. It’s a really magical experience, but it’s not the same things that a local would pick out about their town.

I think if I lived in a more vacationy spot, I would probably commit to one place too, but I can’t see writing a bunch of books about Cincinnati. I’m sure I’ll have an outright Cincinnati book, but that’s not innately summery.

Oh my gosh. Not summer.

Amy Virshup is the editor of the Travel section.


An American Life in a Million Glances



In COMING AND GOING (Mack Books, paperback, $85), the Connecticut-born photographer Jim Goldberg pieces together the chapters of his life in a million glances. In 1985, Goldberg published “Rich and Poor,” capturing in words and images both sides of the economic divide in pre-internet San Francisco. A decade later he released “Raised by Wolves,” which documented runaway teenagers across California, again alongside their own handwritten commentary.

Here Goldberg turns the lens onto himself, showing us fragments of his own life from 1980 on in collages of photos overlaid with other ephemera: a typed letter he wrote to his dad, locks of hair, his daughter’s toothbrushes, unidentified photo cutouts and his own contact sheets.

Together these form a deeply personal visual memoir: the orange tree his dad planted in Florida in 1980; and that same tree years later, now just a broken stump standing behind his older parents in a photo framed by so many others of the couple throughout their life together. Goldberg shows us his own marriage too: a Polaroid of a young woman in a black bathing suit on which he’s written, “THIS IS THE MOMENT I FELL IN LOVE”; the birth of his daughter; her first days at school. We watch the generations age over the course of the book; we see the heartbreak of his divorce and the grief over his mother’s cancer diagnosis and death. In the images he’s amassed over a lifetime, Goldberg shows the beauty and sorrow of everyday existence.

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Whatever Happened to Local Comedy Scenes?



Paris in the 1920s. Hollywood in the ’70s. Chicago in the ’90s?

It’s long been my after-midnight-at-the-bar theory that when it comes to urban cultural vanguards, the Michael Jordan era belongs in the pantheon. Full disclosure: I was there and missed it all.

Despite living in Chicago when young improvisers like Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert and Adam McKay were killing in front of live crowds, I never saw any perform. I don’t have a story of bumping into the legendary comedy teacher Del Close or catching Kanye West’s original rap group. I missed Liz Phair as well as the indie-rock renaissance pushed by labels like Drag City and Touch and Go Records.

Just when I thought the cultural obliviousness of my college years couldn’t be greater, a new book, “The Perfect Amount of Wrong: The Rise of Alt Comedy on Chicago’s North Side,” opens another avenue of regret. Its author, the comic Mike Bridenstine, makes a persuasive case that Chicago in the late ’90s and aughts was one of the great incubators of modern stand-up. Bridenstine was part of it, but his account, catnip for comedy nerds, benefits from detailed reporting, tracking the careers of, among others, Kumail Nanjiani, Kyle Kinane, Pete Holmes, Hannibal Buress, Beth Stelling and Cameron Esposito.

Packed with fabled stand-ups who never made it big and their intimate shows, his punchy chapters are perfect for those who argue about comedy the way Stephen A. Smith does about sports. Was the Lyon’s Den (where Holmes and Nanjiani started the same week) the greatest comedy open mic in history? Did T.J. Miller revolutionize crowd work? Does Matt Braunger deserve to be compared to Robin Williams and Will Ferrell? This book should start some fights.

But there’s also a challenging broader argument buried here, about the conditions that make for great art, one that hints at a pessimistic outlook about local scenes in the age of social media.

Chicago has long been known as a place for artists to get good, not famous. It’s far enough from the coasts to keep industry executives at bay. This has produced many eccentric artists and chips on shoulders. For stand-ups, the fact that it was renowned as an improv town was one chip; the second was that the only major club, Zanies, did not book many local acts.

“The best thing that ever happened to comedy in Chicago was Zanies saying you can’t perform here,” Bridenstine, 44, told me in a recent phone interview. Rejection fueled comics to start their own shows, presenting bills in restaurant back rooms, bars and scrappy festivals. The isolation of these shows, their lack of publicity, meant that crowds were locals not tourists, die-hards not casual fans. Originality mattered as much as killing. “There was pressure, in a really good way, to be different and weird,” the comic Brooke Van Poppelen says in the book.

This resulted in comics like the wry political observer Dwayne Kennedy, who inspired considerable awe and gushing among peers. “The fact Dwayne Kennedy is not a household name is insanity,” Sarah Silverman has said. One possible explanation might be found from a producer, who says that to book him, you needed to fax his dad.

An early provocateur, Bill O’Donnell was famous for incorporating vomiting into his act. There were guys with nicknames like Tommy Mayo, and others like Nick Vatterott, who refused to do the same joke twice in a week and performed a bit as a ventriloquist’s dummy that required him to sit inside a box for two hours. He delivered a hilarious set on “The Tonight Show” years ago that hinged on him pretending to forget a joke. “Nick Vatterott is my evidence that comedy is not a meritocracy,” Bridenstine said. “I don’t know anybody funnier than him. And I know a lot of people more famous and successful.”

Along with stories of the famous and forgotten, the book leans on the journalism of Allan Johnson, a critic for The Chicago Tribune who died at 46 in 2006. He was an early champion of Bernie Mac, probably the greatest comic to emerge from Chicago that decade and the book’s most glaring omission. (In the 1990s, comedy was more segregated than today, and there is scant coverage here of predominantly Black rooms.) The attention Johnson lavished on local shows, in praise and criticism, was an important spotlight, drawing audiences and creating conversation. His coverage is also an integral source for this book. Considering the depleted state of newspapers, in Chicago and elsewhere, one wonders about the local comedy coverage future authors will draw upon.

The more significant contrast with comedy today is the minor role of the internet. It’s not merely that there wasn’t the push to turn your jokes into videos. Comics were less aware of their peers in other cities in the 1990s, and thus there wasn’t the same anxiety of influence. One Chicago comic, John Roy, describes the sense of wanting to embrace alt comedy on the coasts, but only vaguely knowing about it from reading about Patton Oswalt or seeing Janeane Garofalo on HBO. “We’re trying to reverse engineer this idea of alternative comedy from a couple articles in Rolling Stone and a special,” Roy says in the book. “You don’t really know what it is. But you subsequently get a lot of creativity because people start going: ‘Well, I got to be weird.’”

The internet — with social media and sites like YouTube — diminished the distance between scenes and put all comics in the same digital room. This has advantages. Comedy is bigger than ever, and it’s easier to find quality jokes. Bridenstine argued that while there are more good stand-up shows in Chicago today, the scene isn’t producing “Kinanes, Kumails, Beths or Hannibals.”

Is this merely nostalgia? Perhaps a bit, but it’s fair to ask a troubling question: Is the internet killing off distinct local comedy scenes?

There is a long history of cities producing their own comedic aesthetics. Boston is blustery and blue collar (think Bill Burr), while San Francisco is wild and experimental (see Robin Williams). Washington, D.C., and Portland, Ore., have their own styles, too. These are all simplifications, but they matter. When everyone can see everyone else online, parallel thinking in jokes increases, and comics move to New York and Los Angeles quickly after viral fame, making coherent local identities harder to maintain.

Who you are around as a young artist is tremendously important. Now we are all, to some degree, around the same people. To be sure, “you had to be there” is a real thing, especially with live comedy, and the internet is full of niches where subcultures can flourish, but whether they will be closely associated with cities is an open question.

Bridenstine sounded skeptical. “City scenes don’t exist in isolation like they used to,” he said, adding a note of optimism while tossing one more chip on his shoulder. “I think new styles will evolve and people will decide to be new and different whenever this current way of arena rock comedy gets old.”

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The Most Novelistic Part That Patrick Stewart Ever Played



“I acted Macbeth for exactly 365 days,” says the actor, whose new memoir is “Making It So.” “The role got into me so deeply it dominated my life at the time and caused me to drink too much alcohol after the performance was over. No other role I have played has affected me so profoundly.”

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