The Daily

On the Shelf

Punks Behind the Iron Curtain, and Other News

April 7, 2015 | by

Survival-Instruction-performs-at-Tyumen-festival-in-1988--from-Artur-Strukov-s-archives

Survival Instruction, a Siberian punk band, in 1988. Photo by Artur Strukov, via Noisey

  • Richard Price talks to David Simon about crime, television, crime on television, and his father as a less-than-ideal reader: “I ran into him about three months after [my first novel] came out. It was one o’clock in the afternoon and he said, ‘Come on, let’s get a Tequila Sunrise’—you know, it’s 1974—or a Harvey Wallbanger or something. He said, ‘Yeah, I got the book, I read it, you know, it wasn’t like a good book or anything.’ I said, ‘Oh … ’ ”
  • James Wood, literary evangelical, defends books as a religion: “By fixing on humdrum domestic details, novels, [Wood] says, redeem life and rescue it from its sad ephemerality; a book is not solitary, like the person who reads it, but dispenses ‘proximity, fellow-feeling, compassion, communion … I am taking a religious view of a form that’s very earthly, and there’s some tension between my approach and that worldliness.’ ”
  • Punk music has thrived in plenty of unlikely places, but Siberia embraced its ethos as nowhere else could, providing “the perfect incubator for nurturing the creative malice punk requires … Lacking any official rock clubs in Siberia, punks colonized cafeterias, apartments, libraries and local ‘Houses of Culture’—the Soviet equivalent to VFW halls. Dorm rooms hosted entire rock festivals.” (But the bands couldn’t put on the punk uniform: “In Siberia, if you looked like that on the street, you wouldn’t be able to walk more than 100 meters. After that, someone would just take you around the corner and beat the shit out of you.”)
  • “In a photograph, a person’s history is buried as if under a layer of snow,” Siegfried Kracauer, “the Frankfurt School’s freelance intellectual par excellence,” once wrote. A new book of his family snapshots captures his “desire to reproduce reality at its most transient.”
  • Umberto Eco’s How to Write a Thesis, first published in 1977, has at last arrived in English. It’s about “what the thesis represents: a magical process of self-realization, a kind of careful, curious engagement with the world that need not end in one’s early twenties.”

Let Us Go to the Fitness Temple, and Other News

April 6, 2015 | by

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Sascha Schneider, Athlete in Basic Position, 1907.

  • Charles Simic uses reading, as so many of us have, to cure insomnia: “I read only a passage or two, and at the most a page, because if I read more than that, I’m in danger of staying up half a night. All I require, to use a culinary term, is an amuse-bouche that leaves a pleasant aftertaste. Have you ever tried poetry, buster? The reader may be wondering. As a snooze-inducer, nothing comes close. Thanks to it, millions have slept like newborn babies over the centuries.”
  • Hanging around at the Barbara Pym Society’s annual North American conference: “Tom Sopko, the conference organizer, read aloud quotations from her novels and, table by table, we guessed the character they related to … The rest of the weekend was spent alternating talks about this year’s featured book … with suitably Pym-ish activities: a sherry party, a dramatized reading, and Evensong back at the Church of the Advent.”
  • A new history of the gym sees it as a “quasi-religious space,” as it’s been since Ancient Greece: “Freeborn male citizens would go there to train their bodies in the pursuit of arete—moral, physical and intellectual excellence. At the gym they would also enjoy same-sex erotic relationships, the beginning of a symbiosis between homosexuality and the gymnasium that continues to the present day.”
  • Salman Rushdie got a Goodreads account—and promptly began to assign unflattering ratings to novels by his peers. Money? Three stars. To Kill a Mockingbird? Three stars. Lucky Jim? One star. “I’m so clumsy in this new world of social media sometimes,” Rushdie told the Independent, claiming he had no idea his ratings were visible to the public. “Stupid me.”
  • Finally, some socially conscious citizen has done what man has long dreamed of: remove all the gluten from iconic works of art.

Poor Judas, and Other News

April 3, 2015 | by

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Giovanni Canavesio, The Remorse of Judas (detail), 1491.

  • Poor Judas. He just can’t seem to catch a break—his is perhaps the most reviled name in history, even though he’s the only one of the apostles who has any identifiable human qualities. “At the ancient French Catholic shrine of Notre-Dame des Fontaines, Giovanni Canavesio’s 1490s fresco was undoubtedly the most horrifying depiction of the traitor I came across … Judas hangs from a rope, looking deranged, eyes flashing madly, half in fear, half in threat, his hair a spiky mop … As he breathes his last, a stream of sweet-potato-like entrails spills out of his open stomach, as well as (with Christianity’s usual scant regard for science) a miniature adult. A golden-winged demon is on hand to catch the newborn, with the implication that it will continue to sow the seeds of Judas’s treacherous legacy into future generations.”
  • A refutation of yesterday’s claim that thrillers are conservative and crime novels leftist: “Consider the supreme master of the spy thriller, John le Carré. His cold war novels stood against the mindless jingoism of the period, resisting the Manichean equation of east-west with evil-good … that kind of fury is typical of the fuel that burns through many thrillers. This is a genre whose most frequent theme is injustice: the urge to right a wrong.”
  • “Lewis Carroll, like many other Victorian ‘innocents’, was obsessed by the beauty and incorruptibility of young girls. The camera was a fairly recent invention. He used it to make images of girls dressed as princesses or beggars or—the clearest image of innocence—naked … Carroll’s maneuvers were awkward on the edge of innocence. In 1880 he mistakenly kissed the daughter of one of his Christ Church colleagues who turned out to be seventeen years old. His amusing ‘apology’ to her mother was ill-received, and not long after that he gave up taking photographs.”
  • Mark McGurl on Tom McCarthy and the convergence of avant-garde fiction and lyrical realism: “To produce genre effects is to send up a flare to distracted readers, reminding them of fiction’s capacity to produce its version of the richly artificial pleasures on offer everywhere else in contemporary mass culture. It is to show off the sheer power of fiction to alter the real, to brighten, re-order and re-color it, as in a children’s book. Ironically, this is especially true of the ubiquitous postapocalyptic variant, which imagines profoundly awful, even starkly depopulated worlds … It turns out to be easy for a novelist to kill off almost everyone. This clears the way for the apparently much harder task of rebuilding the social world in terms other than straggling, incipiently fascist authoritarianism. In this mode, every novel is epic again.”
  • Adventures in surreal estate: talking to the developer of a new luxury condo building in Canarsie, at the far end of Brooklyn. “We call it Loft 87 because it’s a little bit more contemporary-sounding … It’s obviously a regular apartment … I’m bringing everything you would see in Bushwick for half the price.”

Strandelion, and Other News

April 2, 2015 | by

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From a 1960 German postage stamp.

  • The politics of genre fiction: “the current preoccupations of the crime novel, the roman noir, the krimi lean to the left. It’s critical of the status quo, sometimes overtly, sometimes more subtly. It often gives a voice to characters who are not comfortably established in the world … The thriller, on the other hand, tends towards the conservative, probably because the threat implicit in the thriller is the world turned upside down.”
  • Mark Strand’s final interview takes a fittingly existentialist turn: “I don’t know why I was born ... here I am: a sentient being, talking about life. I had the luck to be born a human being who can speak. I might have been a dandelion or a goldfinch. I might have been a buffalo in the zoo. A fly! I don’t know why I’m here.”
  • Philip Pullman has a transcendently simple (and hyperrealist) way of working through writer’s block: “If you’re stuck, if you’re really desperate—dialogue: ‘Hello.’ ‘Oh hello.’ ‘How are you?’ ‘Not too bad, thanks. How are you?’ ‘Not too bad.’ Half a page already.”
  • Anita Loos’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes “was one of the only books that James Joyce, his eyesight fading, allowed himself to read while taking breaks from Finnegans Wake.” (Other admirers: Edith Wharton, William Faulkner, E. B. White, Sherwood Anderson, William Empson, and Rose Macaulay.)
  • Before he decamped for England and a lifetime of Anglophilia, T. S. Eliot “spent his formative childhood summers in a wood-shingled, seven-bedroom seaside house on Gloucester’s Eastern Point, built for his family in 1896.” The T. S. Eliot Foundation plans to turn the house into a writers’ retreat.

“Grammatico-political Monstrosities,” and Other News

March 31, 2015 | by

Survival_of_the_Fittest

From Puck Magazine, 1900.

  • In which Tom McCarthy, Rachel Kushner, Paul Muldoon, and other writers are photographed in their offices: “Helicopters, the L.A.P.D.’s crazy hobby, thunder overhead, chasing some guy who stole a Honda Element,” Kushner writes of her home office in LA. “The whoop-whoop of sirens comes next. I sit at my desk, less than a mile from the criminal courts and the jail, structures of human sacrifice, where people’s lives get wrecked.”
  • “I talked about the times he had slapped me and the times he had locked me in the cellar, and the point of these stories was always the same: his fury was always triggered by some petty detail, some utter triviality, and as such was actually comical. At any rate we laughed when we told the stories. Once I had left a pair of gloves on the bus and he slapped me in the face when he found out. I had leaned against the wobbly table in the hall and sent it flying and he came over and hit me. It was absolutely absurd!” A new excerpt from the long-awaited fourth volume of Knausgaard’s My Struggle.
  • A strain of occultism runs through Yeats’s poetry—“do-it-yourself religion,” as Seamus Heaney called it—and sure enough, “as a young man, according to the scholar Kathleen Raine, Yeats had a pack of Tarot cards among his ‘few and treasured possessions.’ In London, in 1887, he was initiated into the Hermetic Society of the Golden Dawn, one of those secret societies that tend, as Raine remarks, ‘to relate everything with everything—letters with numbers, with cycles of months, years, and the signs of the zodiac, with parts of the body, celestial and infernal hierarchies of angels, with minerals, metals, plants, and animals.’ ”
  • On Obadiah Slope, the “calculating curate” at the center of Trollope’s Barchester Towers: “Isn’t Slope just a man seeking a better job and, into the bargain, a wife with a comfortable income? What exactly does he do, and why is he so disturbing? Ruthlessly fawning, constantly trying to wriggle his way into favor with the rich and powerful, and in the process tread on the heads of others, Slope is a particularly poisonous example of the kind of creep that haunts almost any organization or social group.”
  • Reports by the World Bank are torturing the English language like never before—these “grammatico-political monstrosities” amount to a new form of expression, “Bankspeak.” “In the world of ‘management’, people have goals and agendas; faced with opportunities, challenges and critical situations, they elaborate strategies. To appreciate the novelty, let’s recall that, in the 1950s–60s, issues were studied by experts who surveyed and conducted missions, published reports, assisted, advised and suggested programs.”

Dickens’s Desk Is the People’s Desk, and Other News

March 30, 2015 | by

Samuel_Luke_Fildes_-_The_Empty_Chair_(The_Graphic,_1870)

Dickens’s desk. Samuel Luke Fildes, The Empty Chair, 1870.

  • What accounts for Jane Austen’s unprecedented posthumous success? “Tolstoy, Dickens and Proust are all remembered, and still read, but they do not have countless fans throughout the world who reread their books each year, who eagerly await the latest television or movie adaptation, who attend conventions in period costume, and who no doubt dream about the heroes and heroines of their novels.”
  • Today, in the furniture of the greats: Charles Dickens’s desk (and chair) have been preserved for posterity. Having been “hidden away” for a hundred and fifty years, during which many people who were not Charles Dickens had the audacity to use them, they’ll soon assume their rightful place at London’s Dickens Museum, where they’ve been “secured for the benefit of all our visitors.”
  • The many faces of Terrance Hayes: “When college students read Hayes, they talk about the underlying seriousness of poems about lynchings, fistfights or rape. But when poets talk about Hayes, they tend to address his invented forms: poems based on anagrams, on the Japanese slide shows called pechakucha and on puzzles.”
  • Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time, a 1951 mystery novel, renewed interest in Richard III, that most maligned of monarchs: “The novel was immediately popular when it first appeared … Tey’s dissection of received history prompted readers to question … everything they had been taught. This could feel like an awakening.”
  • Robert Moses is the subject of a new graphic biography—from France. “No New Yorker would mistake the book for a native product. There are editing glitches. Randalls Island becomes ‘Randall Island,’ Staten Island is rendered ‘State Island’ … Lines of dialogue like ‘You’ll stay for the dinner I’ve organized with some people from the municipality’ were probably not uttered quite like that.”