The Daily

On the Shelf

Getting High in the Führerbunker, and Other News

September 26, 2016 | by

The official amphetamine of the Third Reich.

  • Let’s start the day by insulting some dead writers, one of the finer pastimes at our disposal. The famed editor Robert Gottlieb’s new memoir, Avid Reader, is chockablock with gossip about deceased luminaries, Alexandra Alter writes: “A highlight reel of Mr. Gottlieb’s juiciest revelations includes swipes at the Nobel laureate V. S. Naipaul (a narcissist and ‘a snob’), the historian Barbara Tuchman (‘her sense of entitlement was sometimes hard to deal with’), William Gaddis (‘unrelentingly disgruntled’), John Updike (‘I was disturbed that he wouldn’t accept advances’) and Roald Dahl (an ‘erratic and churlish’ author who made ‘immoderate and provocative financial demands’ and anti-Semitic remarks).”
  • While we’re at it, I’m always looking for new and novel ways to denigrate the Nazis. Norman Ohler, a German writer, has hit the mother lode—he discovered that they were all hopped up on amphetamines during the war. His book Blitzed tells a deliriously druggy tale of the Third Reich: “The Führer, by Ohler’s account, was an absolute junkie with ruined veins by the time he retreated to the last of his bunkers … At a company called Temmler in Berlin, Dr. Fritz Hauschild, its head chemist, inspired by the successful use of the American amphetamine Benzedrine at the 1936 Olympic Games, began trying to develop his own wonder drug—and a year later, he patented the first German methyl-amphetamine. Pervitin, as it was known, quickly became a sensation, used as a confidence booster and performance enhancer by everyone from secretaries to actors to train drivers … It even made its way into confectionery. ‘Hildebrand chocolates are always a delight,’ went the slogan. Women were recommended to eat two or three, after which they would be able to get through their housework in no time at all.”
  • But you don’t need amphetamines to keep your edge. You can just do what Eileen Myles does and sleep on the street from time to time. It really gets the blood flowing. She did it last week for a few nights and it sounds fun enough: “I’ve been compelled by the image of the begging monk, the hobo, the traveling anything for as long as I’ve been alive. I wanted to run away when I was a kid. I know we all did. But it’s still a very sweet part inside me. When I tour I love that I’m alone on a strange street, in a train station. So this retreat seemed a way to be out there—with a modicum of safety and to feel that free fall … When I was drinking, because my life was so unmanageable, I was afraid of not having a home. The fear of losing my apartment was visceral and haunting and persuasive. But of course, like when you lose something, there’s a moment when it’s great that it’s gone. You love the hole it left.”
  • Gideon Lewis-Kraus on the central contradiction of travel photography: “We are not much closer to resolving the fundamental paradox of travel, which is just one version of the fundamental paradox of late-­capitalist life. On the one hand, we have been encouraged to believe that we are no longer the sum of our products (as we were when we were still an industrial economy) but the sum of our experiences. On the other, we lack the ritual structures that once served to organize, integrate and preserve the stream of these experiences, so they inevitably feel both scattershot and evanescent. We worry that photographs or journal entries keep us at a remove from life, but we also worry that without an inventory of these documents—a collection of snow globes for the mantel—we’ll disintegrate. Furthermore, that inventory has to fulfill two slightly different functions: It must define us as at once part of a tribe (‘people who go to Paris’) and independent of it (‘people who go to Paris and don’t photograph the Eiffel Tower’).”
  • Admirers of short fiction tend to nod with vague approval at the name John O’Hara, but few go on to read him. Charles McGrath is hoping to change that—O’Hara was, he writes, peerless in the attention he paid to social class: “Because he was Irish and Catholic, O’Hara felt himself to be an outsider, and all his life, even after he had become wealthy and famous, he retained an outsider’s neediness and sullen defensiveness. His face was pressed against a glass that sometimes wasn’t there. But, the way outsiders do, he also became an uncanny observer of the world around him … spending marathon hours in speakeasies and working at a series of small-town newspapers. He became, among other things, one of the great listeners of American fiction, able to write dialogue that sounded the way people really talk, and he also learned the eavesdropper’s secret—how often people leave unsaid what is really on their minds.”

To Heaven with Buraq, and Other News

September 23, 2016 | by

Buraq with Taj Mahal, a poster from Delhi. Image: Sandria Freitag personal collection/Public Domain Review.

  • As the Quran has it, Prophet Muhammad took a night trip to heaven aboard a trusty winged pony-horse-mule-ish creature called Buraq. It’s an episode that’s inspired Islamic art ever since, because few artists can resist a theologically sound reason to draw a winged horse. Yasmine Seale writes, “The friction between the historical Prophet and his fantastical mount, between the sacred and the physical, reflects a similar divide within Buraq herself: she has been perceived both as a dream-horse—mythical, sexless, emblematic—and as a creature of flesh. And Buraq as animal, especially in her more sexualized incarnations, in turn raises thorny questions about the body of the Prophet himself. Artists generally elided this problem, or creatively eluded it; early images of the Prophet tend to show him with a veil, and more recently his body has been symbolized by a white cloud, a rose, or a flame.”

Read More »

Hy-Brasil Is Wherever You Want It to Be, and Other News

September 22, 2016 | by

Hy-Brasil in Petrus Plancius’s “Orbis Terrarum Typus de Integro Multis in Locis Emendatus,” Amsterdam, 1594. Image via Mapping Boston Foundation and Hyperallergic

  • Today in cartographical howlers: a new exhibition in Boston, “Hy-Brasil: Mapping a Mythical Island,” chronicles the exciting centuries when no one really knew where anything was and mapmakers had carte blanche to draw whole islands anywhere they damn well pleased: “O Brazil, or Hy-Brasil as it was frequently labeled, had haunted maps since the fourteenth century, first as a mistake, then as a mythological tribute. Its size and shape often morphed, its location wandered from Ireland to North America, and its name varied, but for five centuries it endured in Western cartography … There are all sorts of legends attached to Hy-Brasil, including giant black rabbits that lived with a sorcerer, gods hidden by the mists, lost civilizations, and, more recently, UFOs. However, its greatest connection is to Irish folklore, particularly the belief in the ‘Otherworld’ and its Elysium, a ‘Land of Youth.’ When it first was illustrated on a 1325 map, Hy-Brasil was considered to only be visible once every seven years due to the heavy mists, its land housing an immortal race of people.”
  • Planning your next family vacation? Why not force your loved ones to embark on a literary pilgrimage of Russia? You can tour the places where Dostoyevsky suffered, and where Tolstoy suffered, and then you can bicker among yourselves about which one of them suffered more productively. Jacqueline Carey did it, and she makes it sound more appealing: “We had the chance to visit the place where [The Brothers Karamazov] was written—Dostoyevsky’s last apartment, now a museum … Tea was always kept hot in the samovar, and he thought only he could make it right. When he drank tea made by his wife, he would say, ‘Oh, how wretched I am.’ He died on the couch, gazing at the Bible … In the Tolstoys’ sixteen-room winter house were many objects: books, a chess set, a piano, a tiger skin, a closet of clothes. On the landing an upright stuffed bear held a plate for visiting cards. Tolstoy was a man of obsessive enthusiasms. At the back of the house was a workroom with his cobbler tools, which he used to make shoes, including a pair for his oldest daughter Tatyana’s future husband.” 

Read More »

The Literate Pigeons, and Other News

September 21, 2016 | by

He thinks he’s people!

  • I used to take such pride in my literacy. “Look at me!” I would shout, running down the street in my I’M LITERATE T-shirt. “I can read!” But now the pep is out of my step, because apparently even pigeons can learn to read: “Through gradual training, the birds moved from learning to eat from a food hopper, to recognizing shapes, to learning words … After narrowing down to the four brightest birds out eighteen, over eight months of training, the advanced-class pigeons were taught to distinguish four-letter words from nonwords. They were even able to tell the difference between correctly spelled words and those with transposed characters, like ‘very’ and ‘vrey,’ or words with different letters included to make them completely misspelled.”
  • And that means it’s only a matter of time until the pigeons will be texting, too, because that’s what everyone does now. What do you think the pigeons are gonna do, use the telephone? The phone call is dead. Don’t even bother making a friendly call, unless you’re a needy loser. Timothy Noah tells us, “The phone call died, according to Nielsen, in the autumn of 2007. During the final three months of that year the average monthly number of texts sent on mobile phones (218) exceeded, for the first time in recorded history, the average monthly number of phone calls (213). A frontier had been crossed. The primary purpose of most people’s primary telephones was no longer to engage in audible speech … Calling somebody on the phone used to be a perfectly ordinary thing to do. You called people you knew well, not so well, or not at all, and never gave it a second thought. But after the Great Texting Shift of 2007, a phone call became a claim of intimacy. Today if I want to phone someone just to chat, I first have to consider whether the call will be viewed as intrusive. My method is to ask myself, ‘Have I ever seen this person in the nude?’ ” 

Read More »

The Internet Keeps Regurgitating You, and Other News

September 20, 2016 | by

Just another day online!

  • On a similar note, Francine Prose responds with aplomb to what I can only describe as Shrivergate (or Literary Sombrerogate?): “It’s not the responsibility of art to make us better people, but some works of art can (if only temporarily) increase our compassion, sympathy, and tolerance … Even if we acknowledge (as Shriver does not) that we live in a society in serious need of repair, it’s still possible to ask whether the protest against cultural appropriation constitutes the most useful and effective form of political activism, whether it addresses our most critical and pressing problems. We could insure that not a single rock star or runway model ever again wears corn rows or dreadlocks—and not remotely change the fact that a black person with the same hairstyle might have trouble finding a job … We could prohibit writers from inventing characters whose backgrounds differ from their own without preventing even one young black man from being shot by the police.” 

Read More »

I Would Like to Be Paid to Write, and Other News

September 19, 2016 | by

This could be you, writer!

  • Ottessa Moshfegh wrote her novel Eileen with a plan: to get fucking rich. As a fiction writer, she thought, there’s only one way to do that—give the people the formulaic drivel that they want. In a profile for the Guardian, Moshfegh explains that “she didn’t want to ‘keep her head down’ and ‘wait thirty years to be discovered … so I thought I’m going to do something bold. Because there are all these morons making millions of dollars, so why not me? I’m smart and talented and motivated and disciplined and … talented: did I say that already?,’ she laughs. ‘I said: fuck it. Which was also: fuck them. I was pretty hostile. I thought: I’ll show you how easy this is … So … it started out as a fuck-you joke, also I’m broke, also I want to be famous. It was that kind of a gesture.’ ”
  • But let’s not get carried away. Writing doesn’t really make anyone rich. Ask Merritt Tierce, whose debut, Love Me Back, came out two years ago to “wide acclaim”—she was interviewed here on the Daily, even. Now she’s broke, because that’s how this industry works: “I haven’t been able to write since the moment I started thinking I could or should be making money as a writer. I haven’t produced a Second Book … For over a year after Love Me Back came out I woke up every day with this loop in my head: I should write. But I need money. If I write something I can sell it and I'll have money. But I need money now. If I had money now, I could calm down and write something. I don’t have money now, so I’m probably not going to be able to calm down and write something. To have money now, I need a job. I should get a job … Because no matter how you do it, no one is paying you to write. They may pay you for something you wrote, or promise to pay you for something you have promised to write. They may pay your room and board for a month or two at a residency. They may pay you to teach, or to edit something someone else has written. They may pay you to come to a university and talk to people about writing. None of this is the same as being paid to write. I would like to be paid to write.” 

Read More »