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This Week's Reading

What We’re Loving: Adventures in Silhouette; Red Sauce, Whiskey, and Snow; the Narcissistic Hypocrisy at the Center of Human Nature

January 3, 2014 | by

Lotte Reiniger Adventures of Prince Achmed

I’m embarrassed to admit that I barely touched a book over the holidays (besides 84, Charing Cross Road, which I’m in the habit of rereading most years around Christmastime), but I did see a spectacular movie whose imagery I can’t get out of my head. In 1923, a talented artist named Lotte Reiniger was approached by a banker looking to make an investment. He suggested that Reiniger parlay her particular skill—cutting delicate silhouette art—into making a feature-length animated film. Three years and over 250,000 hand-cut images later, The Adventures of Prince Achmed premiered in Berlin. The story is a mélange of tales from the Thousand and One Nights, but good luck paying attention to the plot; the visuals are so arresting that they’ll keep you from focusing on more than one character or bit of pattern during any given scene. The original print of Prince Achmed is lost—a casualty of the Battle of Berlin, in 1945—but thanks to a restoration project completed a little over ten years ago, a fully colorized (and scored!) version is available on DVD from Milestone Films. —Clare Fentress

I’m a sucker for culinary memoirs by authors who aren’t primarily considered “food writers”—a genre that includes work by such varied names as A. J. Liebling, Laurie Colwin, and Jim Harrison. (The Pat Conroy Cookbook and The Roald Dahl Cookbook, respectively, also deserve honorable mentions.) Jason Epstein is best known as a publisher and cofounder of The New York Review of Books, but he’s also an accomplished cook and gourmet. Eating, the 2009 collection of Epstein’s food essays, covers family recipes, his days working as a professional cook, and, of course, the memorable meals he has shared with various literary luminaries. Although Eating is by no means gossipy or indiscreet (the only one who comes under the knife is Roy Cohn, with whom Epstein once lunched at 21), it’s filled with terrific vignettes; one could do worse than lunch, on a ship, with Edmund Wilson and Buster Keaton—“lobster over linguine with a bottle of Chablis beneath a perfect sky.” —Sadie O. Stein

Not long ago—but long enough that I’ve forgotten how it happened—I asked you to explain why exactly the rediscovery of Aristotle, from Arabic sources, mattered so much to medieval theologians. You recommended Étienne Gilson’s 1938 classic primer Reason and Revelation in the Middle Ages. Over the vacation a copy arrived at my house from a used bookstore, without any note. I’ve read Gilson’s lectures with great pleasure, and a keen sense of intellectual relief, but I can’t think who you are. Who are you? —Lorin Stein

Having thrilled to a certain louche Scorsese film (starts with W, ends with olf of Wall Street), I decided to watch After Hours, his 1985 comedy, set in a Soho lousy with neon and ne’er-do-wells. Griffin Dunne stars as Paul Hackett, a word processor (!) whose odd first date crumbles into a delirious picaresque. As the night wears on, Paul encounters more denizens of the old downtown—no Dean & DeLuca here—and the dream logic turns nightmarish; a plaster of Paris bagel and cream cheese is employed to chilling effect. Of the film’s unanimously strong ensemble, pay special attention to Rosanna Arquette, as a tragic naïf whose husband has a Wizard of Oz fetish. “When he came, he would scream out, ‘Surrender Dorothy!’ That’s all. Just ‘Surrender Dorothy!’” —Dan Piepenbring

Just before the holidays I went to see the terrific Twelfth Night now on Broadway. The production comes from the Globe in London, and they’re doing things the old-fashioned way: period costumes, live music, and males playing all the parts (which means, in the case of Viola, that you have a boy playing a girl playing a boy and saying “I swear, I am not that I play”). To mimic conditions at the Globe, they also have some seating on stage. The night I went, during the first scene between Viola and Olivia, an elderly gentlemen in one of these seats fell off his chair in an apparent faint. It was a scary moment. Several members of the audience clambered on stage and the man was taken to an ambulance (we later learned that all was well). Mark Rylance, who played the funniest Olivia I’ve ever seen, was motionless during the entire emergency. When it was over he turned to the house and observed, still in female falsetto, how lucky we were to have so many fine doctors in Illyria; then he proposed a short break. The rest of the performance was wonderful, but I’ll chiefly remember that moment of grace and professionalism under pressure. —Robyn Creswell

“Human nature is such that when we are suddenly taken up by someone whom we consider superior and admirable, we accept his attentions calmly, whereas when we are dropped we cannot rest until we feel we have got to the bottom of the person’s profound irrationality.” In the Freud Archives, Janet Malcolm’s 1983 account of historians at war over the origins of psychoanalysis, finds everyone blinded and betrayed by his own wounded self-love. The Freudian scholar Kurt Eissler overlooks the obvious sleaziness of his disciple Jeffrey Masson; Masson blabs so egregiously to Malcolm that he’d eventually sue her for misquoting him (he lost); even Freud seems to expose a love affair by “hiding” the evidence in a case study. As usual in Malcolm’s work, everyone fights to supply a master narrative, but—again, as usual—Malcolm alone achieves mastery. Her character judgments ring out like ultimate truths. What makes In the Freud Archives so addictive is the thrilling suspicion that Malcolm may have blind spots of her own: her skepticism is contagious, and in her stylish quest for truth she plants the seeds of doubt. —L.S.

When I was in film school, one of the first classes I took was an introduction to sound. I fondly remember making a run to the nearby Morton Williams to pick up a watermelon that my production group quickly destroyed with a chopping knife and mallet to invoke a murder scene in our radio play. Our inspiration was the giallo cinema of the seventies and eighties, gory masterpieces made on the cheap by such directors as Dario Argento and Mario Bava, stockpiled with sex, Satanism, and human sacrifice. Peter Strickland’s fever dream of a film Berberian Sound Studio is a beautiful tribute to this genre as well as to the old-school sound mixers and Foley artists from cinema’s post—dub-craze era. While the film within the film being produced, The Equestrian Vortex, is a gory mess, there is no actual violence or sex in Strickland’s claustrophobic Foley studio, and, like the best work of Ingmar Bergman and David Lynch, the film chooses atmosphere over action while exploring the limits of identity and sanity. —Justin Alvarez

I’m reminded this morning of August Kleinzahler’s poem “Red Sauce, Whiskey, and Snow.” There’s the snug feeling of being home on a snowy day, tucked inside one’s warm kitchen, as Kleinzahler is—the toasty tones of “cinnabar and gold,” the amber light, and the titular sauce’s hearty heat. His nip of whiskey unfastens “a tap of the base of the skull.” That activity—in the warmth of the house, in the back of the brain—contrasts so crisply with the quiet rush of blowing white outside Kleinzahler’s window, and outside mine as well. Snow’s blankness, the nothingness that covers everything, makes indoors feel particularly interior. —Nicole Rudick

Out with the old? That transition is rarely elegant. In my own nebbishy attempt to catch up with an LRB subscription, I ended the year on Joshua Cohen’s November diatribe against Franzen, popularity, and HBO (“No one hates him more”). The piece refers to a panoply of Oedipus complexes (we have Kraus, Heine, Franzen, Wallace … and Cohen). For a less genealogically worrisome Teutonic-themed character assassination, I went to Sebald’s Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, printed by Notting Hill Editions. It’s about Alfred Andersch, an ex–Mouson Lavendel advertising man cum racial hygienist cum writer, who composed his own blurbs and rebranded his politics to get ahead. In one mesmerizing portrait, Aldersch looks cross, and stuck, and desperate for a cry. —Lucie Elven

6 COMMENTS

6 Comments

  1. Adrian Nathan West | January 3, 2014 at 4:56 pm

    Sadie, if you don’t know John Lanchester’s The Debt to Pleasure, it’s a masterpiece. As though Nabokov had written a murder story in the form of a recipe book.

  2. Sadie Stein | January 3, 2014 at 5:05 pm

    @adrian Thank you! Ordering now!

  3. Gary Counsil | January 3, 2014 at 8:34 pm

    I agree entirely with Sadie Stein. I would Ike to add her list Life is Meals by James and Kay Salter.
    Best,
    Gary Counsil

  4. Irene | January 6, 2014 at 7:20 am

    Oh Sadie: If you haven’t read Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Cross Creek Cookbook you have a treat coming. Plain American fare and people long before Foodies were invented.

    Don’t know either the Dahl or the Conroy books but will go to ABEbooks immediately.

  5. Irene | January 6, 2014 at 8:38 am

    It’s Cross Creek Cookery, not Cookbook; I just looked at my 1942 (!) paperback. Remember that Rawlings’ editor at Scribners–though I assume not for this book–was Max Perkins.

  6. Sadie Stein | January 6, 2014 at 9:40 am

    @Irene and Gary Wow! I think you have just averted Seasonal Affective Disorder: what treats I have in store!

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