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An Exciting Career in Forensic Sculpting, and Other News

January 21, 2015 | by

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Paul Cézanne, Still Life with Skull, ca. 1900.

  • “They lost their identity … We’re going to give it back to them.” In which the New York City medical examiner’s office teams up with fine art students in a last-ditch effort to ID crime victims: “Each student was given a skull—a replica made by the medical examiner’s office of each victim—and a block of clay to sculpt a face. The students were told to incorporate whatever information investigators recorded in finding and examining the skeleton, including estimates of the victim’s age and height, maybe a hair type or style, and possible clothing sizes.” (Listen to the sound of hundreds of television executives thinking, Could this be our next big crime series?)
  • Leslie Jamison on the enigma of natural beauty in Whitman’s Specimen Days: “Part of our pleasure in reading his book … is not just feeling close to his sensory perceptions, but feeling invited more deeply into our own—to feel the world more fully in all its snorting ice and malachite cabbages and whirling locusts and wriggling worms.”
  • In the thirties, a Grade A swinging-dick asshole named Harry Anslinger took over the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, then on the verge of being dissolved. So he set himself a reasonable goal: lock away Billie Holiday for drug abuse. Jazz to him sounded “like the jungles in the dead of night.” His agents wrote that “many among the jazzmen think they are playing magnificently when under the influence of marihuana but they are actually becoming hopelessly confused and playing horribly.”
  • In sci-fi, where exactly do the science and fiction collide? “Science writing isn’t the same as fiction writing. Sometimes people who read popular science about scientific theories like loop quantum gravity say ‘it’s like reading science fiction.’ But no, it isn’t.”
  • Painting and boozing in Belgium: Two years after Waterloo, J. M. W. Turner “visited the Belgian battlefield where the Brits, Prussians, Dutch and Belgians finally put paid to Napoleon’s dreams of empire. The resulting painting, an unnerving clash between dark, roiling clouds and corpses illuminated by the torches of the bereaved, is no paean to victory … What does a thirsty man—which Turner was, by all accounts—drink after a day sketching carnage?”

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He Was Always Right, and Other News

January 20, 2015 | by

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James Rosenquist, Floating to the Top, 1964. Courtesy VAGA New York and Paul Kasmin Gallery.

  • Merriam-Webster has undertaken a daunting project: they’re publishing a new edition of their unabridged dictionary, which hasn’t seen a major overhaul since 1961. Their employees are already hard at work: “Emily Brewster has produced anywhere from five to twenty-five definitions a week. Twerking is ready, she tells me in December. Nutjob (which dates to 1959) and minorly are good to go. Jeggings is, too. The new sense of trolling looks promising, she says, ‘but first I have to finish hot mess.’ Brewster is very excited about hot mess. Thanks to Google Books, she found it in a machinists union trade journal from 1899: ‘If the newspaper says the sky is painted with green chalk that is what goes. Verily, I say unto you, the public is a hot mess.’ ”
  • In 1969, the curator Henry Geldzahler convinced the Met to host “New York Painting and Sculpture: 1940–1970,” a show so vast and intensely contemporary that it remains a watershed—so why not just do the whole thing again? “Henry had a fantastic eye. He wasn’t wrong about anything. He was always right.”
  • A mother from an affluent Texas town would strongly prefer her children to read Ayn Rand in school, not The Working Poor, David K. Shipler’s book about poverty. In other news, Oxfam announced yesterday that 1 percent of the global population holds half the world’s wealth.
  • George Steinmetz traveled by helicopter to take these aerial photographs of New York in winter. He and his pilot “frequently flew so low that they passed in between buildings, with Steinmetz and his camera hanging out of the open door.”
  • Remembering Alice K. Turner, who was Playboy’s fiction editor for two decades. “Fiction is kind of a nuisance,” she once said. “The ad sales guys don’t see the point. They would cut it out if they could, except for the fact that it adds a certain respectability … Playboy stories have beginnings, middles, and ends. They have a kind of general appeal. They are not experimental. They are not terribly modern or forward-reaching but they have real quality, or so I hope.”

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Chaucer’s Bachelor Pad, and Other News

January 19, 2015 | by

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From Portrait and Life of Chaucer, sixteenth century.

  • Where did Chaucer get his writing done? In absolute squalor, apparently: “From 1374 till 1386, while employed supervising the collection of wool-duties, Chaucer was billeted in a grace-and-favor bachelor pad in the tower directly above Aldgate … The only natural light would come from ‘two (or at most four) arrow slits’ tapering through the five-foot thickness of these walls … Meanwhile ‘a stench wafted from the open sewer known in its northern extension as Houndsditch that ran (or festered) just outside the city wall’; Houndsditch was so called because of the many dead dogs dumped there. In addition to rotting garbage, dead dogs, and fecal waste from the next-door Holy Trinity Priory, you’d find ‘the occasional human corpse.’ ”
  • A Christian publisher has pulled a best-selling memoir, The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven, after its author, Alex Malarkey, admitted that he made the story up. “I did not die. I did not go to heaven,” Malarkey wrote. “I said I went to heaven because I thought it would get me attention.”
  • When he died in 1989, John Cassavetes left behind a lot of unpublished or unproduced work—novels, plays, screenplays. Now his last project, a play called Begin the Beguine, has finally had its premiere, in Vienna of all places …
  • Michel Houellebecq, Francophobe: “Houellebecq is not merely a satirist but—more unusually—a sincere satirist, genuinely saddened by the absurdities of history and the madnesses of mankind. He doesn’t ‘delight in depicting our follies,’ as reviewers like to say; he’s made miserable by them. French reviews and American previews of Submission might leave one with the impression of a sardonic, teeth-baring polemic about the evils of Islam, the absurdities of feminism, the terrible demoralization of French life. In truth, the tone of the book is melancholic rather than polemical. Life makes Houellebecq blue.”
  • On Arthur Goldhammer, who’s translated more than a hundred books from French to English: “Translation is like forming any kind of human relationship … When you meet a new person you think it might be a friend, you are still sometimes wary, you are not completely familiar with the kinds of exchange you are going to have with this person, so you are more cautious at the beginning. Caution is one of the things a translator has to overcome.”

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Tolstoy’s Insufficient Firmness, and Other News

January 16, 2015 | by

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Tolstoy in 1851, when he just couldn’t seem to do a single damn thing right.

  • Here’s a self-effacing diary entry from March 1851 in which Tolstoy chronicles his flaws, hour by hour—part of a larger project in which he evaluates his own ethics. How many of these peccadilloes have you committed today? “Koloshin (Sergei) came to drink vodka, I did not escort him out (cowardice). At Ozerov’s argued about nothing (habit of arguing) and did not talk about what I should have talked about (cowardice). Did not go to Beklemishev’s (weakness of energy). During gymnastics did not walk the rope (cowardice), and did not do one thing because it hurt (sissiness).—At Gorchakov’s lied (lying). Went to the Novotroitsk tavern (lack of fierté). At home did not study English (insufficient firmness).”
  • Atticus Lish’s Preparation for the Next Life has become an unlikely hit for its publisher, Tyrant Books—but success can come with its own problems. “When the Times review appeared, Ms. Urban [Lish’s agent] asked Mr. DiTrapano [his publisher] how many books were in print. ‘He said 3,500,’ Ms. Urban recalled. ‘I wanted to kill myself.’ ”
  • Art critics—prepare to give notice by the dozens. Now there’s Novice Art Blogger, an algorithm that reviews art and is not altogether terrible at it. “The bot is simply articulating what it interprets; there is something very noble about that, that it is not passing judgment.”
  • Is science fiction our new religion? “We gather in our millions in the darkened cathedrals of multiplex cinemas to silently venerate our superhero gods. All religions have their holy stories, and the immense respect given to SF novels like 1984 and I, Robot by their fans is very close to an act of faith … Let’s not think about L Ron Hubbard.”
  • Paperbacks give publishers a second chance to find an eye-catching cover design, but the results are often confounding. “After spending so much time, effort and money on getting the dust jacket just right, most publishers go back to the drawing board to design the paperback version. That always seems to me like a waste of hard-won brand awareness, but I’m told most books don’t sell well enough to establish any brand awareness.”

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They Never Slept, and Other News

January 15, 2015 | by

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  • Mona Simpson (a Paris Review alumna) remembers Robert Stone: “He’s certainly not sentimental about the counterculture, or for that matter about much else … In a sense he’s definitely writing about our confrontation with other cultures and what that does to the souls and psyches of the people who are doing that, who are not necessarily the people who plan to do that.”
  • Whatever became of the Pinkertons? The history of the nineteenth century’s premier “national detective agency”: “During the early 1890s, the Pinkertons, as they were more commonly known, had boasted a force of 2,000 active operatives and some 30,000 reserve officers. By comparison, the United States Army, which for decades had been primarily concerned with fighting Native Americans in the West, had fewer than 30,000 officers and enlisted men assigned to active duty. To their enemies—usually the labor unions—the Pinkertons were a private militia at the beck and call of industrialists, bankers, and other agents of capitalism. The state of Ohio outlawed the Pinkertons for fear that they could form an army outside the purview of the American government.”
  • Cangrande della Scala, an Italian nobleman and patron of Dante, died under mysterious circumstances in 1329; many have wondered if he was poisoned. The key to the mystery: his mummified feces.
  • Francine Prose was reading an e-book edition of Vanity Fair, until she got the news that e-book retailers can see what percentage of your books you’ve finished: “As soon as I get home, I’m putting away my e-book and opening my volume of Thackeray. I will happily bear its weight … I don’t like the feeling that a stranger (electronic or human) is spying on my sojourn in Vanity Fair. Whether or not I finish a book will be a secret between me and my bookmark, and someday my grandchildren may be interested (or not) to see when I quit dog-earing the corners of the pages.”
  • What can political cartoons do beyond messages of solidarity? We might look at how Arab cartoonists have responded to their own local and national conflicts … When Westerners were decapitated in Syria this past August, cartoonists made light of the Islamic State’s campaign of terror … While the world recoiled with revulsion at the executions, cartoonists unveiled imagery that shocked in order to shame the Islamic State jihadis and other extremists. This is offensive. This is also Muslims critiquing Muslims­­. Beheading cartoons are an answer to anti-Muslim chatter, and that vapid intonation of ‘Where are the moderate Muslims?’ They’re drawing.”

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The Bleared White Visage of a Sunless Winter Day, and Other News

January 14, 2015 | by

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Karl Hagemeister, Havelufer mit Kahn im Schneetreiben, 1895.

  • Which Thomas Hardy novel is the bleakest? A data-driven study looks at such criteria as “bleak events” (unrequited love, grinding poverty, animal genitalia-related injury), “bleakest words” (poor, alone, dead), and “bleakest quotes” (“The bleared white visage of a sunless winter day emerged like a dead-born child”).
  • Let’s keep things bleak and remind ourselves that the Internet isn’t killing the culture—it’s always been next to impossible to make a living in the arts. “‘You can make a killing in the theatre, but not a living,’ the playwright Robert Anderson is reported to have said in the mid-1950s—at the height, in other words, of government intervention and middlebrow respect for art.”
  • Bleaker still: “ ‘Brand’ may be an ugly word when applied to an author, literary agent Jonny Geller acknowledged, but it is only a shorthand for a way in which publishers are attempting to hold on to the reading public at a time when sales of print books are flat and electronic gadgets vie for readers’ attention.”
  • Because we’ve got a theme going, let’s investigate the history of influenza. “Some medical historians say that the virus goes back even further than the sixteenth century and into antiquity. They point to a suspiciously flu-like illness mentioned in writings dating as far back as 412 B.C.  Reports of ‘a certain evil and unheard of cough’ spreading through Europe in December 1173 cause some to believe flu pandemics have been around since the Middle Ages.”
  • And just to send it on home, it’s time to learn about anthropodermic bibliopegy, the art of making books from skin. For instance, “Burke and Hare were two serial killers in the early nineteenth century. They killed seventeen people. Essentially they were posing as body snatchers, but actually they were just killing everybody and selling the bodies to anatomists for dissection. So they’re caught, and Hare turns King’s evidence and Burke goes down for the crime. As added punishment, he is publicly dissected … They also took his skin and created all of these objects from it. One of the objects is a pocketbook.”

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