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Raphael Magarik (contributing writer): I recently reread A.G. Mojtabai’s Blessèd Assurance, a mid-eighties journalistic account of Amarillo, Texas, home of the Pantex nuclear-weapon assembly plant. Mojtabai interviews local clergymen to understand how they have come to feel, as her subtitle has it, “at home with the bomb.” One might expect conservative pastors to argue that America is godly enough to be trusted with such terrifying violence, but in fact they mostly say the opposite. It would be not just folly, but heresy, they say, for America to apply Christian pacifism to our secular fallen world; such idealism belongs to a redeemed future, divided from our present by an apocalyptic chasm. Ironically, the fundamental Protestants end up having a more sophisticated, “realistic” view of secular politics than their liberal, non-believing Jewish interviewer.

Only the local Catholic bishop preaches against the Pantex plant, since he understands that the promises of Revelation cannot be held apart from our present-day world. His diocese bears a heavy price when it is financially cut off by the local combined charities, but the bishop’s dissent has little practical effect. When he earmarks a small pot of money for Pantex workers who voluntarily leave their jobs, nobody ever claims the money.

Mojtabai is an assured writer with a fine eye for scene and detail; an evangelical dentist’s instant pivot from praying over her to drilling, for instance, epitomizes the town’s odd mixture of fervent religiosity and mechanical capitalism. But I was drawn back to Blessèd Assurance for its rich account of the psychic life of the military-industrial complex. Mojtabai’s haunting book poses the ever-relevant questions of how religious congregations make their peace with militarism, and what spiritual resources nourish those few who resist.

Josh Lambert (contributor): Amy Kurzweil’s first graphic memoir Flying Couch (2016), was an intimate chronicle of the lives and relationships of three generations of women: Amy herself, her mother Sonya, and her grandmother Lily. Drawing extensively from Lily’s 1994 Holocaust testimony, Kurzweil explored the tension between her trepidation of representing her grandmother’s traumas and the imperative to preserve the stories of survivors.

Her new book, Artificial: A Love Story, turns to the paternal side of her family, and goes deeper into the ethical problems of reconstructing these voices from the past. Her father, who scarcely appeared in Flying Couch, turns out to be Ray Kurzweil, the author, futurist, and quite possibly the party responsible for my children’s occasional nightmares about the singularity. The book depicts Amy helping him to develop a generative-AI trained on his own father’s journals and letters, a literal “Dadbot.” The book sidesteps the quotidian questions that Chat GPT3 has brought into public discourse (should we ban it from classes? will it replace all the writers in Hollywood?) and heads straight for more philosophical ones: Will Amy ever be able to know her grandfather, the composer Frederic Kurzweil, who died long before she was born? What does it mean to know a person, anyhow? Or to love them? Kurzweil’s gorgeous, meticulous comics pages of course can’t answer all the questions raised by the rise of machine intelligence, but the insight she lands on by the end of the book works for me: “None of us are fully knowable. But with time and attention, with close looking, we are all lovable.”

Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): In this space I have written often of my distaste for the upbeat, the positive, and the whimsical in literature and film. (It was with a certain glee that I saw that NYRB Classics—the publisher of my recent translation of Claude Anet’s novel Ariane, A Russian Girl—was offering it as part of their “anti-Valentine’s Day” sale.) And yet here I am recommending the upbeat, positive, and whimsical Amélie, Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s 2001 hit, which was re-released in theaters this week on Valentine’s Day.

The film follows an unfailingly cheerful young French woman from the provinces who moves to Paris, where she works in a café and sets out to find love, while also intervening in others’ lives. Amélie, played by the winsome Audrey Tautou, is the opposite of the typical anomic city-dweller. Rather than merely observing the sorrows of those around her, she takes it upon herself to right the wrongs she sees, injecting love (or simply happiness) wherever she can, by whatever roundabout route presents itself. Her plotting is carried out with what I would normally consider an odious joie de vivre, but Jeunet and Tautou—who takes the character’s adorableness right up to the border of unbearableness, knowing just when to pull back—make it all irresistible.

Among those whose happiness Amélie strives to secure is her long-widowed father, who never travels or does anything for amusement. Her plan to rescue him is particularly odd—and oddly based in reality. She steals a lawn gnome that sits atop her mother’s grave and has a stewardess who regularly visits her café take it on her travels, sending postcards to Amélie’s father, thus encouraging him to go abroad himself. At the time the film was made, France and Belgium were in the grips of the attacks of the Front de libération des Nains de Jardin (the Lawn Gnome Liberation Front), a group that stole these plaster gnomes in Phrygian caps from people’s lawns, assembling hundreds of them in forest clearings, or taking the unfettered ornaments on trips and posting their photos on the then-novel internet. Amélie is a delightful ode to just these sorts of diverting hijinx, and a relic from another era.