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This Week's Reading

Staff Picks: Connoisseurs, Contact, Cats

April 17, 2015 | by

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From the cover of the Spring 2015 issue of The Normal School.

9780300149425Like many gifted people, connoisseurs are often bad at explaining what they do. At the turn of the last century, Bernard Berenson was the most influential and successful connoisseur of Italian Renaissance art. With a superhuman visual memory, an old-fashioned belief in beauty for its own sake, and rapacious personal charm, this son of working-class Jewish immigrants climbed to the top of robber-baron society. Yet Berenson considered himself a failure as an art theorist, and he went out of his way to sully his hands with shady business deals, blurring the line between worldly success and self-abasement. This is the story Rachel Cohen tells in her engrossing capsule biography Bernard Berenson: A Life in the Picture Trade, a sympathetic portrait of a self-seeking but passionate lover of art. —Lorin Stein

I’ve been exploring Periscope, a new app in which users live stream video and interact with their audience in real time. Its uses are variously creepy (“If I get 300 viewers, my wife takes her tits out”), frivolous (“Driving thru the car wash, check it!!”), and fascinating (“Watch me feed my ten-foot python”)—but at its best it seems to bring a new intimacy to social media. “The Future of Loneliness,” Olivia Laing’s new essay in the Guardian, speaks to the fragility of that intimacy, and asks what networked life is doing to our ability to connect. I know: it’s familiar territory. But Laing avoids both the alarmism and Pollyannaism that so often mark essays about technology. She identifies the unique double-bind of life online, which affords us unprecedented control over our image while making us ever more vulnerable. “We aren’t as solid as we once thought,” she writes. “We are embodied but we are also networks, living on inside machines and in other people’s heads; memories and data streams. We are being watched and we do not have control. We long for contact and it makes us afraid. But as long as we are still capable of feeling and expressing vulnerability, intimacy stands a chance.” —Dan Piepenbring

It would be hard for any book-lover to imagine a more idyllic scene: thirty-two thousand books housed among a slew of renovated buildings on an 1,800-acre ranch in the foothills of Mount Silverheels. Lucky for us, it’s a scene that’s soon to become a reality. Ann Martin and Jeff Lee are the two Denver-based booksellers behind the Rocky Mountain Land Library, an immensely ambitious project some twenty years in the making. The duo was profiled this week in the New York Times after having found a home, in 2013, for their ever-growing Western-themed collection. As far as this reader is concerned, the only thing that might sweeten the deal would be a Paris Review residency ... —Stephen Andrew Hiltner

Having finally recovered from AWP, I’m reading all the great lit mags I picked up there, one of which, The Normal School, is my second favorite of all time. (You can guess which comes first.) The latest issue’s first essay, “Pig, Sea,” by Timothy Denevi, begins on the shore of Galilee, where we promptly witness more than two thousand pigs—“enormous and low, the light shinning in a pink translucence through their ears”—dive from a cliff into the freshwater lake after being possessed by demons only recently exorcised from a local madman. Waterlogged swine corpses aside, the new issue also contains “Marriage in the Movies,” an essay by Phillip Lopate, who explains why he wasn’t convinced by the marriage in Gone Girl by comparing it with more than twenty other marriages in film; and two poems by the late poet laureate Philip Levine, a longtime friend of the magazine. —Jeffery Gleaves

Website_large_catsA cat might be “just a cat,” as “Life of Cats” curator Miwako Tezuka quips—but her new exhibition of cat-related ukiyo-e (Japanese wood-block paintings) at the Japan Society in Midtown will have you thinking otherwise. Long before Hello Kitty and cute cat clips went viral on YouTube, cats were already substantial players in the Japanese daily routine. They infiltrated every area of life, assuming diverse roles and purposes, appearing everywhere from the patterns of warriors’ kimonos to theatrical masks. There are anthropomorphized cat monsters and, yes, the lucky beckoning cat, Maneki-neko, found in Japanese restaurants around the world. With its colorful paintings, “Life of Cats” provides an accessible entry point, encouraging visitors to investigate the oddities of Japanese culture through the eyes of their most enduring, discreet witnesses.  —Charlotte Groult

Our Daily Correspondent

Mental Vacation

April 17, 2015 | by

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Photo: Olivia Alcock

Early in Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, the Sea, the narrator, Charles Arrowby, explains why he never learned to drive and prefers to be a passenger. “Why keep bitches and bark yourself?” he asks, with impeachable logic. 

In the course of the novel, his veneer of self-assurance crumbles. Arrowby discovers the limits of control, even in isolation. But he also begins to see the lengths we go to in seeking that most elusive pleasure: an escape from ourselves.

For the overthinkers of the world, there’s maybe no greater luxury than shutting off your mind. It happens so rarely that you tend to notice it, if you notice it at all, more as a state of absence than anything else. It can happen during a movie, or listening to music, or, perhaps, in the presence of a great cook. And most especially when reading. Read More »

Look

Tales from the Void

April 17, 2015 | by

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A drawing by Le Gun to commemorate “Tales from the Void.” Click to enlarge; see below for a list of references.

The art collective Le Gun (Steph von Reiswitz, Neal Fox, Chris Bianchi, and Robert Greene) has mounted “Tales from the Void,” a stealthy takeover of the Shakespeare and Company bookstore, that Parisian mainstay. Their installation comprises hand-drawn “sculptural books”—many with fake but disarmingly plausible titles like Encyclopedia of Beatnikism and The Minotaur of Montmartre—hidden among the shop’s shelves. You’ll find some favorites below.

They’ve also completed the large-scale drawing above, a sprawling tribute to the history and culture of the bookshop that depicts various writer personages, including—count them all—George Whitman, Michael Smith, Ezra Pound, Gregory Corso, Olympia,
 Lawrence Ferlinghetti, James Joyce, Paul Auster, Frank Sinatra, Colette the Dog, Martin Amis, Henry Miller, Aaron Budnik, Richard Wright, Sylvia Whitman, Lawrence Durrell, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, James Baldwin, Sylvia Beach, Ray Bradbury, William Burroughs, Dionysus, James Jones, Zadie Smith, the “generic spirit of Beatnikism,” Anaïs Nin, and Kitty, the shop’s resident cat. Read More »

On the Shelf

Snows of Paper, and Other News

April 17, 2015 | by

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From Paul Cocksedge’s Bourrasque. Via My Modern Met

  • Though thousands of tweeting bibliophiles would have you believe there’s no such thing as too many books, there may be, in fact, a book surfeit: “It’s hard not to feel that we are in an era of massive overproduction. Just when we were already overwhelmed with paper books, often setting them aside after only a few pages in anxious search of something more satisfying, along came the Internet and the e-book … The idea is hardly new. In the Dunciad, 1742, responding to what he already saw as a deafening chorus of incompetent poets, Alexander Pope spoke of ‘snows of paper’ providing space for the ever more widespread publication of the ‘uncreating word.’ ”
  • Elizabeth Bishop and Thom Gunn were fast friends—“I’ve met some of the poets—and the only one I still really like is Thom Gunn,” she wrote in a letter to Robert Lowell—but their first meeting was inauspicious. “I answered the phone one day and there was a very nice man I didn’t know … who asked me to come and have drinks with him and Elizabeth Bishop,” Gunn wrote. “Elizabeth had just moved to San Francisco. So I went over and … Elizabeth was drunk out of her mind. We made polite conversation all evening while Elizabeth occasionally grunted out a monosyllable.”
  • On “the syntax and scansion of insanity” in King Lear: “This horrible, tragic figure is built up from a series of syllables set on the page … his rage and sorrow change dramatically from the first act to the last. The character is the language, and what we see over the course of the play is the utter destruction of that character.”
  • On the poet Nathaniel Mackey’s pursuit of “the long song,” an antidote to the age of brevity: “Mackey seeks moments that defy ordinary time. He admires jazz improvisers who stretch a song’s boundaries as they perform … He happily remembers a John Coltrane show that consisted of one long song … ‘The long song, whether in music or in poetry, increasingly appeals to me … it creates what I call fugitive time—time that really is a flight away from the ordinary, from quotidian time, profane time.’ ”
  • Ariana Reines talks to a beautiful old woman. Ariana Reines goes through a Charles Bowden phase. Ariana Reines is afraid: “For a week I’ve been wondering, how will I write for The Poetry Foundation, I said I would write for The Poetry Foundation, & with all that I do write the thought of putting anything on the internet ever again still fills my mouth with ash.  I’ve lost all desire to publish & even more, all desire to perform.”

Look

Headshrinker

April 16, 2015 | by

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Steve DiBenedetto, Reverse Epiphany, 2015, oil on linen, 20" x 18".

If Thomas Pynchon writes systems novels, Steve DiBenedetto makes systems paintings—paranoid, erratic, vaguely interconnected. His latest exhibition, “Mile High Psychiatry,” up through Saturday at Derek Eller Gallery, has an air of zany premonition to it that put me in mind of Pynchon’s Tyrone Slothrop, who in Gravity’s Rainbow predicts rocket attacks with his erections: a carnal dowsing rod. There’s some of that rollicking terror in DiBenedetto’s paintings. You better figure this shit out, they seem to taunt, before your head explodes. (Fittingly, one of the more splattered numbers is called We Blew It.)

DiBenedetto’s earlier work was fixed on helicopters, Ferris wheels, and especially octopi. Those figures are still here, but abstracted, sometimes almost runic, surrounded by formidable blasts of texture and noise. Take the Cannolis and Good Mystic vs. Bad Mystic vs. Tom Carvel conjure brains on the brink of meltdown. Sam Chinita and Biodynamic Radiation have lurid pustules of color, thick enough almost to be popped, like zits. Much of the time you can talk about these paintings as you’d talk about something half buried in your backyard: they seem not just encrusted but mulched in paint and grime. Even the gallery’s release speaks of “scraps and globs and stabs and billows,” to say nothing of “prelinguistic slime.” That release, which I suspect DiBenedetto wrote himself with some relish, is weird enough to quote at length. He says of one painting: Read More »

Our Daily Correspondent

Cookie Summit 2015

April 16, 2015 | by

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Macaroon vs Macaron. Photos: Roxana Salceda, Alpha

Today I witnessed something special: a rare meeting of macaron and macaroon. Appropriately enough, the summit took place over international waters, between Paris and New York. The tension on the plane was palpable.

The macaron was raspberry; it carried with it centuries of culture. Looking at that deceptively simple puff of almond and air, one could detect pride in its ancient pedigree, an easy elegance borne of endless refinement. Its palette was subdued, its flavor subtle, but its presence powerful. Read More »