In his 1967 classic The Sense of an Ending, the scholar Frank Kermode argued that literature helps humans make sense of a chaotic reality—a message that might feel even more urgent in a world threatened by climate change and political division. Happy endings, when they come, can offer a sense of peace and redemption, as exemplified in John Cheever’s short story “The Housebreaker of Shady Hill.” Other endings are more fraught: Patrick Radden Keefe’s new book about an unsolved murder in Northern Ireland adds insight to the complex forces that brought the country’s long conflict, the Troubles, to a close.
Then again, the end of a story isn’t always final. Lesley Nneka Arimah’s short stories explore human perseverance in post-apocalyptic worlds as well as in the present, while Anton Chekhov’s “The Lady With the Dog” exemplifies how the end of each struggle in a person’s life marks the beginning of a new challenge.
Each week in the Books Briefing, we thread together Atlantic stories on books that share similar ideas, and ask you for recommendations of what our list left out.
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What We’re Reading
A detective story that examines the cost of achieving peace
“While the murder appalls, [the victim] herself seems to vanish before the reader’s eyes … Though Keefe notes how her disappearance wreaked havoc on her children’s lives, that’s not his focus. Instead, Say Nothing is about how conflicts end, and who can end them.”
Apocalypse is now a chronic condition
“Eschatological thinking, Kermode suggested, is inscribed into art’s present understanding of the world. Which is also to say that all fiction is, in some sense, the literature of apocalypse.”
📚 Welcome to the Anthropocene, by Alice Major
How to write a believable happy ending
“Through the music of that language, and perhaps the repetition of certain images from earlier in the story, [John Cheever is] able to conjure in me a convincing experience of something that is about as abstract and fuzzy as you can get: a man being set free of his conscience.”
📚 “The Housebreaker of Shady Hill,” by John Cheever
The powerful pessimism of What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky
“The best stories in the book plumb the depths of human desire and delusions without magic … [They] reveal that it doesn’t take an apocalypse—even if readers these days apparently expect one—to make us face up to darkness within and without.”
The Chekhov sentence that contains almost all of life
“Instead of leaving us with a happily ever after or a neat breakup, Chekhov leaves us with something much more complicated: this sense that the relationship will continue, but that we’ve only seen the very beginning of a much longer, sadder, and more complicated tale.”
📚 “The Lady With the Dog,” by Anton Chekhov
The Reference Desk
(Photo: Nigita / Shutterstock)
Are you struggling with writing your first novel, getting the perfect book for your bibliophile friend’s birthday, or finding poetry that speaks to you? Write to the Books Briefing team at firstname.lastname@example.org or reply directly to this email with any of your writing- or reading-related dilemmas. We’ll feature one of your questions in a future edition of the Books Briefing and offer a few books or related Atlantic pieces that might help you out.
Last week, we asked you to recommend your favorite sports-related reads. Steve Dahlgren, of Alexandria, Virginia, writes that Robert Andrew Powell’s “fabulously vivid writing … captures the power of fans” in This Love Is Not for Cowards: Salvation and Soccer in Ciudad Juárez. Another reader, Amanda Lewis, describes Alex Hutchinson’s Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance as “research based and readable at the same time, with so many fascinating nuggets of information.”
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