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This Week's Reading

What We’re Loving: Russian Doubts, Family Ties, and the Letters Q, T, and X

November 22, 2013 | by

From-Russia-With-Doubt-Paris-Review

Kazimir Malevich. Or not.

Where do letters come from? Why do they change? What are they, really? What makes a q a q, and what quiddity does it share with Q? These are questions that most kids outgrow around the time they learn how to read. Ewan Clayton has written a book for the rest of us. In The Golden Thread: The Story of Writing, he leads us through the formation of the Roman alphabet, the development of medieval scripts, the evolution of Renaissance and modern typefaces, the rise of cursive, the twentieth-century invention of “print” handwriting as a progressive educational tool, the unexpected success of e-mail, and into the future of data storage. A calligrapher (and former monk) who helped Apple create its onscreen fonts, Clayton is as interested in a digital Gill sans as he is in uncials written with a quill. Although different readers may warm to different chapters of his book, my galleys are dog-eared throughout. Whether his topic is Roman inscriptions, the bookkeeping traditions of the East India Company, the first admission of handwriting as evidence in a court of law, the pitfalls of the paperless office, or the experience of copying sacred texts, Clayton writes with ingenuous charm and contagious enthusiasm, often illustrating his points with “calligraphic studies” of his own. I only wish there were more of these—more illustrations in general—because he turns a line of type into an object of contemplation and makes it okay to be curious, all over again, about the ancient symbols we all spent so long learning to use, and to ignore. —Lorin Stein

Nell Dunn’s 1963 short story collection Up the Junction ain’t for the faint of heart—think bleak birth and mundane death, impersonal sex, pub patrons whose breasts evoke “two cheeses in a gauze bag.” As a young woman Dunn forsook her posh West End upbringing (she’s the daughter of late businessman Sir Philip Dunn) to move to Battersea, South London, where she found work in a sweets factory. At 127 pages it’s an all-out romp, capturing a particular cultural moment and inspiring several more: eponymous works by Ken Loach (a 1965 BBC Wednesday Play), Peter Collinson (a 1968 feature film) and “Squeeze” (a 1979 #2 UK single) all owe their debt to Dunn. —Abby Gibbon

In 2004, amateur art collectors Ron and Roger Pollard discovered a cache of unknown Russian avant-garde paintings on eBay by an unknown seller in Aachen, Germany. Were they real, or simply clever fakes? In From Russia with Doubt, MCA Denver director Adam Lerner explores the brothers’ years-long quest to acquire and authenticate the paintings. The book reads like a great thriller as the brothers travel to science labs and museums all over the world, conduct secret exchanges in foreign rail stations, and even meet with FBI agents. It’s also a beautiful meditation on what defines the authenticity of art. —Justin Alvarez

After fact-checking Jenny Offill’s short story for The Paris Review’s upcoming Winter issue, I tracked down her 1999 debut novel, Last Things, and haven’t put it down since. Told from the perspective of the perspicacious eight-year-old Grace Davitt, this story is an elegant portrait of a child caught in the middle of her parents’ temperamental differences. Her father plays a character called Mr. Science in a children’s television show, while her mother spends the novel on the brink of insanity while feeding Grace the legends of African mythology. It’s science versus myth, fact versus fiction. Yet what I love most about this book is that I find myself wanting to enter into Mrs. Davitt’s madness: to believe that darkness escaped from the basket of a bat on its way to the moon, that God visited earth as an astronaut and invented agriculture, that monsters live at the bottoms of lakes. “My mother said that stones were last things and would be around long after people were gone. Other last things were oceans, metal, and crows. I thought that if I filled a birdbath with seawater and dropped a coin in it, I might glimpse the end of the world.” —Caitlin Youngquist

“You spoiled Scandinavian! Do you have any idea how much it costs to have a child—even just one—in New York?” This week, Daily contributor Sophie Pinkham turns a materialist eye on the great, gloomy Karl Ove Knausgård—whose experimental novel My Struggle has sold one copy for every ten Norwegian citizens—and on Victor Serge, the Soviet novelist and memoirist whose writings have become a touchstone of the new Russian Left. —L.S.

“Poor fellow! I think he is in love with you.”

“I am not aware of it. And to me it is one of the most odious things in a girl’s life, that there must always be some supposition of falling in love coming between her and any man who is kind to her … I have no ground for the nonsensical vanity of fancying everybody who comes near me is in love with me.”

Rebecca Mead is right. Reread Middlemarch. Just do it. —Sadie Stein

 

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