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'State of Paradise' effortlessly blends the commonplace and the extraordinary

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'State of Paradise' effortlessly blends the commonplace and the extraordinary

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Laura van den Berg’s State of Paradise is a wonderful, enigmatic novel that effortlessly blends the commonplace and the extraordinary. A true-to-life narrative about a woman learning to navigate the world after a strange pandemic, dealing with her work as a ghostwriter, and experiencing a devastating storm in her native Florida, this novel is also a surreal exploration of memory and the lingering effects of trauma seasoned with elements of mystery as well as science fiction.

A nameless woman and her husband are living with the woman’s mother in a small Florida town in the aftermath of a strange pandemic that left some people with odd dreams — and changed the color of the woman’s sister. The woman worries about her work as a ghostwriter for a bestselling author as well as about sinkholes and the way people are going missing. Meanwhile, her husband works on a nonfiction book about pilgrimages, and runs a lot, becoming a bit of a celebrity in the small town.

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But these concerns aren’t the only ones that occupy the woman’s thoughts. There is much more right under the surface: an eerie virtual reality headset given out by the government that has people hooked and ignoring the real world, her mother’s secrets, the haunting memories of her time spent in a psychiatric hospital, and her belly button, which is getting deeper and deeper every day. To make matters worse, the woman’s sister goes missing during a bad storm. When she finally reappears, she speaks of a different dimension. The virtual reality headset, her sister’s behavior, the changes in her ghostwriting work, and people going missing might be related, and the woman will do her best to try to figure out how.

State of Paradise is an intricate, bizarre novel that’s much more than the sum of its parts. Van den Berg is always in control, but readers will often feel a little lost in the best way possible. This is an unpredictable story, and not knowing what will come next is part of its charm. Every unexceptional event feels more important because it could be the start of something unexpected, something perhaps a little unsettling. For example, there’s a scene in which a man asks the woman if she has some ChapStick. Instead of digging into her pocket or her purse, she slides two fingers into her belly button and pulls a stick of it she’s been keeping there. Strange and maybe a little funny, sure, but also a stark reminder that sometimes strange things are brewing right underneath the surface of whatever we think reality is.

“We are all existing in the cradle of a great narrative design.” That’s a line the woman learned ghostwriting novels, but it’s also a line that shows van den Berg is aware of narrative design, and that she’s purposefully blurring the imaginary lines between genres. State of Paradise exists in the blurry space, constantly jumping between something as normal as cats lounging on the grass to the possibility of the woman’s dead father contacting her sister while she’s using the virtual reality equipment. The list of things like that is long, and every single one of those things helps make this novel more engaging, more interesting, more immersive and mysterious.

Van den Berg doesn’t shy away from politics, but she also pays attention to the things that make Florida the weird place it is — the weather, the heat, the sinkholes. Her witty observations are more than enough to carry the novel, but they are far from being the only thing this playful narrative has to offer. The woman’s 10-month stint in a psychiatric hospital is a great example of the story’s richness. Tales of suicide attempts, struggles with alcoholism, and the treatment she received while in “the Institution” contrast with the woman’s current life but, while things are much better, they are still strange and the ghosts of the past are never too far away. Also, those mental health struggles aren’t presented for shock value; they offer an honest glimpse into what many people go through in a way that grants the novel a sense of authenticity while also increasing representation in fiction for all of those who have struggled with the same things.

With exquisite prose, smart lines on every page, a building sense of growing strangeness tinged with dread, and surprises all the way to the end, State of Paradise might be van den Berg’s best novel so far — and that’s saying a lot. A narrative that constantly feels like its dancing on the border between fiction and nonfiction despite all the weirdness it contains, this book is at once an adventure and a treat, a deep study of Florida’s psychogeography and a creepy story about ghosts, missing people, cults, and technology. Don’t miss it.

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Gabino Iglesias is an author, book reviewer and professor living in Austin, Texas. Find him on X, formerly Twitter, at @Gabino_Iglesias.

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A stegosaurus fossil could fetch $6 million at Sotheby's. Should they be auctioned?

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A stegosaurus fossil could fetch $6 million at Sotheby's. Should they be auctioned?

A 150 million-year-old fossil of a stegosaurus specimen is shown at Sotheby’s in New York. The fossil, dubbed “Apex” by the paleontologist who discovered it, is expected to fetch $4 million to $6 million at auction, making it one of the most expensive fossils ever sold.

Charly Triballeau/AFP via Getty Images


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Charly Triballeau/AFP via Getty Images

During the Jurassic period, a massive, four-legged creature with kite-shaped plates along its back once roamed the Earth. Now, some 150 million years later, the skeletal remains of one of them are up for auction.

On Wednesday, Sotheby’s will hold a live auction of the stegosaurus fossil known as “Apex.” The auction house expects the specimen to sell for $4 million to $6 million, making it one of the most expensive fossils ever sold.

At 11 feet tall and 27 feet long, Apex is also considered one of the most complete skeletal structures of its kind. Paleontologist Cary Woodruff was among the scientists who viewed the specimen at the dig site in Colorado where it was discovered.

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NPR’s Andrew Mambo talked with Woodruff, who is also a curator at the Phillip and Patricia Frost Museum of Science in Miami.

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The “scutes” or bony plates on a 150 million-year-old stegosaurus fossil’s back at Sotheby’s in New York.

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This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Cary Woodruff: The first time I saw the specimen, I was with the individual who had collected it out at the quarry where it was found in Colorado. And the rock was incredibly hard. So, it never is like Jurassic Park, but it wasn’t like some beautiful laid out skeleton and oh my gosh you could see the whole thing clear as day. But at least I remember, you know, peering. There’s part of a stegosaurus here. And again, even for any fossil it’s really kind of magical to see this almost like an ugly duckling, too, for any fossil to see it from this preparation process to the end result. You know, it’s always very special for a scientist.

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Andrew Mambo: So Sotheby’s is auctioning off this stegosaurus fossil on July 17. The auction house estimates it’ll go for somewhere between $4 million and $6 million. How do they put a monetary value on something like a dinosaur fossil?

Woodruff: Speaking as a scientist, fossils have no monetary value. You know, these numbers are largely arbitrary. I mean, every fossil literally is unique. And I’m not just saying that, as the starry-eyed scientist. Like, there are no two of the exact same animals. I don’t think fossils should be allowed to be auctioned. And these auctions really continue to deepen the divide between what we would consider academic and commercial paleontology.

Mambo: I have read about people also donating and having replicas and not having the exact fossil itself. Can you talk a bit about that? Is that a viable way forward?

Woodruff: I think replicas are the best way possible. I mean, how many of us have a copy of a painting at our home or something? You know the real ones that you can see in a museum? And if some wealthy person is adamant they want to buy this dinosaur being auctioned, that they were adamant they wanted to get this specimen and scientifically see it succeed, and they wanted to donate it to, in this example, a museum, we’ll have a cast that we’ll put up in your living room. Then you can literally showcase it and brag to all your friends and say, “Go to the museum and see the real one, and I was able to put it in that museum.”

The skull of the stegosaurus specimen is shown at Sotheby's.

The skull of the stegosaurus specimen is shown at Sotheby’s.

Charly Triballeau/AFP via Getty Images

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NPR reached out to Sotheby’s Senior Vice President and Global Head of Science and Pop Culture Cassandra Hatton to respond to criticism of auctions of fossil specimens.

“Losing scientifically important fossils to a private collection is a concern often mentioned, but in our experience, we have yet to see it materialize,” Hatton said. “We find that clients overwhelmingly purchase specimens either for museums or donate them.”

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Haliey Welch Loans $10k to Save Tenn. Hat Company Selling 'Hawk Tuah' Merch

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Haliey Welch Loans $10k to Save Tenn. Hat Company Selling 'Hawk Tuah' Merch

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'Hawk tuah,' the Zynternet, & the bro-vote; plus, cowboys are having a moment : It's Been a Minute

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'Hawk tuah,' the Zynternet, & the bro-vote; plus, cowboys are having a moment : It's Been a Minute
What did the raunchy joke say to the podcast host? That we might need to pay attention to the “zynternet.” Host Brittany Luse is joined by Slate’s Luke Winkie and sex and culture writer Magdalene Taylor to understand why the “hawk tuah” phenomenon is emblematic of a corner of the internet that’s both culturally and politically powerful. Then, we’re breaking down one of the most potent symbols in America: the cowboy. Brittany revisits her conversation with New York Times culture critic J Wortham, and Museum of Contemporary Art Denver director Nora Burnett Abrams to unpack the history of the symbol and explain why it continues to lasso Americans.
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