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A Dream of Toasted Cheese

June 25, 2014 | by

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An early drawing by Beatrix Potter. Image via Retronaut.

Sir Henry Enfield Roscoe was a prominent nineteenth-century chemist—a pioneer in photography and the first to obtain the element vanadium in its pure form. He was also, incidentally, Beatrix Potter’s uncle. In 1906, he wrote,

I also wrote a First Step in Chemistry which has had a large sale. With reference to this little book, I here insert a reproduction of a coloured drawing by my niece, Miss Beatrix Potter, as original as it is humorous, which was presented to me by the artist on publication of the work.

Although by 1906 Potter was already the successful author of Peter Rabbit, The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin, and The Tailor of Gloucester, she would’ve been a girl when First Step in Chemistry was published. The image, however, is interesting not merely because of its accomplished style—the precocious Potter received childhood art lessons—but because it recalls her interest in science. While she’s well known now as a conservationist and animal artist, her early scientific interests were broad: she studied archeology and entomology and made a serious study of mycology. Indeed, in 1897 she had a male friend submit her paper “On the Germination of the Spores of the Agaricinea” to the Linnean Society.

Roscoe supported her in these endeavors: using his university connections, he arranged meetings for Beatrix with prominent botanists and officials at Kew Gardens. The congratulatory picture is a testament to their affectionate relationship. Nevertheless, the image, while fantastic, is peculiar: the mice seem to have taken over the lab by night to conduct risky cheese-toasting experiments with terrifyingly large Bunsen burners. And while the bespectacled lead mouse seems scholarly enough, behind him, the scene is anarchic: the effect is more that of Ratatouille than of a well-organized laboratory. And let’s face it, the resulting treat is less than tempting. The mice are sort of like scientific Tailors of Gloucester—albeit less organized, and less altruistic.

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Rules of Civility

June 24, 2014 | by

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Detail from Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s Two Girls Reading, ca. 1890.

Over the weekend, someone asked me how I’d argue for the survival of the print book. I was taken aback; it felt like being asked to defend food against Soylent Green, or sex against the exclusive domain of artificial insemination. But I considered the question carefully, and aside from the obvious arguments, here’s one way I like to think of it.

When I was younger, I used to think setting people up would be sort of like recommending a book you loved: whether or not it worked out, a friend would know you’d tried in good faith to match her tastes and interests, and not hold it against you if you’d gotten it wrong. At best, her life would be enriched; at worst, she’d still be able to recognize what you saw in the other person. In any event, once you’d made the introduction, the arrangement ceased to have anything to do with you.

Instead, I discovered that setting people up is more like recommending a movie—specifically, a comedy. And if a friend doesn’t enjoy—doesn’t get—a comedy you like, somehow both of you feel betrayed, and some small part of you thinks less of the other. And there is the horrible knowledge that the person who dislikes always has the advantage. Read More »

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The Vestigial Clown

June 23, 2014 | by

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Detail from Hans Breinlinger’s The Clown, 1948.

Yesterday, a friend and I entered into a great debate. It started with my question:

“Does the clown exist who could make you laugh?”

He said yes; he thought that clown who does the act with snow off Union Square would make him laugh. (The show is lauded for its masterful clown-craft and its evocation of childlike wonder.)

“Okay,” I said, “has a clown ever made you laugh?”

“Of course not,” he said.

Does anyone expect to be amused by clowns in this day and age? We all know that clowns are creepy, clowns are scary, clowns are lame—but that understanding has always been predicated on the understanding that, like dolls, clowns are supposed to be happy, fun, innocent. Thus, when a clown goes psychotic, it is doubly terrifying. Or it was thirty years ago, at least. Now, in a world of John Wayne Gacy and It and Insane Clown Posse and Diddy’s coulrophobia-driven “no clowns” rider, we expect clowns to be sinister.

Take this recent survey of kids in children’s hospitals, a historical clown stronghold:

More than 250 children aged between four and sixteen were asked for their opinions—and every single one said they disliked clowns as part of hospital decor.

Even some of the older children said they found clowns scary, Nursing Standard magazine reported.

The youngsters were questioned by the University of Sheffield for the Space to Care study aimed at improving hospital design for children.

“As adults we make assumptions about what works for children,” said Penny Curtis, a senior lecturer in research at the university.

“We found that clowns are universally disliked by children. Some found them frightening and unknowable.” 

Read More »

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Don’t Hold Back

June 20, 2014 | by

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Dan Dailey, Romance, 1987

Each member of my family has quirks and foibles. I stomp my foot like a cartoon furious person when I lose my temper, and I once humiliated myself the one time I attempted the road test by waiting ten minutes to turn at an intersection, panicking, and nearly hitting an oncoming car. My brother pulls a weird, unconscious face whenever he passes a mirror; he will never live down the years he spent, as late as the first grade, refusing to wear clothing. My dad is mocked regularly for getting ketchup all over his face and for insisting on down jackets in seventy-degree weather. And then there’s my mom’s thing. It’s probably very unwise of me to write what I am about to write while I am staying with my parents. But I am, like pope emeritus Benedict XVI, a Servant of the Truth.

Although she’s an excellent cook and great company, my mom is a nervous hostess. She finds the demands of guests and meal-planning onerous—terrifying, even. By the time dinner is served, she has generally worked herself into an anxious frenzy. I’m sure most people at the table can’t tell; to her family, the signs are unmistakable.

At some point in the meal, a wild look will come into her eyes. Her hands will clench. It is as though she is possessed. A conversation may be in progress; someone may be mid-anecdote. It matters not. As though powerless to prevent the words, she will suddenly declaim:

“DON’T HOLD BACK. THERE’S MORE OF EVERYTHING!” Read More »

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Over There

June 19, 2014 | by

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R. Ferro, Cupidity - Greed

Lately I’ve been listening to the excellent BBC documentary World War I, which you can download and then listen to, incongruously, while waiting on line at the grocery store. The series presents the listener with a multifaceted portrait of the Great War, but—for obvious reasons, given the topic—it’s not exactly a laugh a minute.

That’s part of what makes the British Library’s new exhibition, “Enduring War: Grit, Grief, and Humour,” so surprising. Of course, people have always laughed and joked and made the best of awful situations—resilience is a marvelous thing. But the lighter side of World War I hasn’t come in for much scrutiny.

The exhibition is multifaceted: there are propaganda posters, excerpts from Rupert Brooke’s war journals, harrowing accounts of gassings and shell-shock, and horrifying casualty numbers. But along with this, the curators have made a point of highlighting soldiers’ darkly humorous letters and joke postcards; photos of servicemen goofing off; and satirical excerpts from the morale-boosting publication Honk! The voice of the benzine lancers. Read More »

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The Whys and Wherefores

June 18, 2014 | by

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Jeanette MacDonald in an Argentinean Magazine, February 1934

I remember the moment clearly: it was a late winter afternoon, and I was sitting on the radiator in my bedroom, reading Michelle Phillips’s memoir California Dreamin instead of doing my ninth-grade English homework. The author described moving into the mansion where the 1930s movie star Jeanette MacDonald had once lived. The Mamas and the Papas—then at the height of their fame—gutted the place, in the process ripping out the built-in wardrobes, whose enormous drawers had been designed to hold entire gowns, laid flat. And I made the conscious decision not to tell my grandmother about it. I thought it would distress her.

Back when the world was simpler and videotapes were physical objects, my grandmother and I used to set aside an afternoon when we’d settle ourselves on the couch with the milk shakes she made from homemade ice cream and gorge on Jeanette MacDonald–Nelson Eddy films. Why my grandparents had them all on cassette I don’t know; maybe my grandpa had picked up the lot at a tag sale. Those operettas became the soundtrack to my summers; to this day, I can’t hear the “Indian Love Call” without a Proustian rush of nostalgia. Of course, since one never hears the “Indian Love Call,” said rush has yet to happen.

There was a time when everyone knew MacDonald and Eddy. Films like Rose-Marie and Maytime made the handsome singers household names, and made hits of their scores. The films were corny and soapy, and even eighty years ago the music was nostalgic. Eddy’s acting—especially in their early collaborations—was wooden. (Check out the clinch in Naughty Marietta for proof.) But my grandmother loved them when she was a little girl, and at the same age, I adored them. A few plot synopses will illustrate why. Read More »

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