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On the Shelf

From the Land of Pleasant Living, and Other News

October 3, 2014 | by

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A Baltimore icon slips into Russian hands.

  • Remembering John Berryman, whose centenary is later this month: “Berryman has not been forgotten, but his gnomic revelations have less force than they used to. His drinking and womanizing, his unsoothable anguish, seem less the stuff of heroism than of mutinous neurotransmitters. I can all too easily imagine him today, sitting at a seminar table in Palo Alto or Iowa City, buoyed by a decent dose of Wellbutrin, listening as some regular contributor to the Northwestern Maine Quarterly Review piously instructs impious John to simmer down, center himself, drop the unceasing allusions to Shakespeare, find his voice and tell us how he really feels.”
  • “As well as categorizing novels as well or poorly written, popular or unpopular, one could also, and perhaps more usefully, distinguish those that become part of the conversation, and those that do not. Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections became part of the national conversation; Lydia Davis’s short stories, for all their brilliance, did not … John Updike’s Terrorist was arguably his least talked-about novel … But how does a book enter the conversation today?”
  • A good problem to have: “I am in the slightly embarrassing position where I write poems saying I am about to die and I don’t.”
  • An 1894 map by the New York Tenement-House Committee divides the city by nationality. But you won’t find Scotch, English, Welsh, Scandinavian, and Canadian New Yorkers on the map, because they were, according to its creator, “in small numbers and perhaps less foreign than the others.”
  • The Orioles are in the playoffs, which means Baltimoreans are swilling profligate amounts of Natty Boh, the greatest bad beer in the world and one of the city’s most cherished brands—it dates back to 1885. (At least one Baltimorean would drink a can right now, even though it’s nine-thirty A.M. and he’s in New York.) The only problem? “National Bohemian hasn’t been locally owned since the nineteen-seventies, and it hasn’t been brewed in Maryland in more than a decade … Last month, it was announced that the brand’s owner, Pabst, is being purchased by the Russian beverage company Oasis.” Say it ain’t Boh.

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Oh, Shit, There Are Robots in the Library, and Other News

October 2, 2014 | by

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Nancy and Vincent: Friends or foes? Only time will tell. Photo: Picasa/Aldebaran

  • Soon to appear at the library in Westport, Connecticut: robots, two of them. “Vincent” and “Nancy” “have blinking eyes and an unnerving way of looking quizzically in the direction of whoever is speaking. They walk, dance, and can talk in nineteen different languages … [they] can recognize faces and detect where sound is coming from.” Ostensibly, the pair will help patrons find books and will serve as the centerpiece of a new robotics workshop. But whether these unfeeling golems are here to help or to serve as ruthless, lethal agents of the state remains to be seen. Anyone with late fees is advised to proceed with extreme caution.
  • Speaking of things you’re powerless to stop, however much you may wish to: Crime and Punishment, the Musical. (“I wouldn’t call it a rock-opera as such,” its director said.)
  • Victor Hugo’s The Man Who Laughs “is not an easy read. It was written late in Victor Hugo’s career when he was living in exile on Guernsey, and his contemporaries dismissed it as an inferior work.” And yet it seems to have plenty going for it in the plot department: it’s “the story of a young man who is kidnapped, mutilated and sold to travelling entertainers, yet who retains his integrity and his dignity through the love of his adoptive ‘family,’ the eccentric philosopher Ursus, his pet wolf Homo, and the beautiful blind girl, Dea.” Sold.
  • Merritt Tierce, who was interviewed here last month, used to work at an upscale Dallas steak house, as does the protagonist in her debut novel. On two occasions, Tierce served Rush Limbaugh, who “left her $2,000 tips on modest-size checks, once with twenty $100 bills. ‘That was like blood money to me,’ says Tierce, who does not share Limbaugh’s social views.” So she gave it all to an abortion-rights group.
  • The trend of the “passport professor”: Why are so many Ph.D.s leaving America? (Why aren’t they? you might say.)

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Instagram Meets the Death Wish, and Other News

October 1, 2014 | by

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Richard Prince’s show, “New Portraits.” Photo: the Gagosian Gallery

  • Richard Prince’s latest show: his Instagram feed, ink-jet-printed on canvas. “Is it art? Of course it’s art, though by a well-worn Warholian formula: the subjective objectified and the ephemeral iconized, in forms that appear to insult but actually conserve conventions of fine art … Possible cogent responses to the show include naughty delight and sincere abhorrence. My own was something like a wish to be dead—which, say what you want about it, is the surest defense against assaults of postmodernist attitude.”
  • You can probably guess where Louise Erdrich, who’s just won the Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction, comes down on the controversial logo of a certain NFL franchise: “It’s more than a stereotype, it’s an insult … It’s more of the same disregard for basic human dignity.”
  • Nell Zink sees the sights at the World Science Fiction Convention: “In one room, old folks discussing how society might function if rulers were programmed to be wise (Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels); in the next, young people defiantly setting the conditions under which they will watch TV.”
  • One way (perhaps not the best way) to liven up your history of classical philosophy: fill it with puns. “Once Adamson has spotted a pun in the distance, he will hunt it down and pry it from whatever linguistic comforts it may have once enjoyed … We can never prepare ourselves for ‘like a giraffe, Parmenides seems to be sticking his neck out too far.’ ”
  • “The rooms that hold the Museum of Natural History’s famous dioramas are vast and dimly lit. The dioramas themselves shine like stages in a darkened theater … That hushed public place is the private secret of every child in New York, I think.”

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A Brief History of the GIF, and Other News

September 30, 2014 | by

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Image via Giphy

  • The origins of genius, which is a relatively new concept: “The term genius in its modern sense was first adopted in the eighteenth century and it involved a conflation of two Latin terms: genius, which for the Romans was the god of our conception, imbuing us with particular personality traits but nevertheless a supernatural force external to us, and ingenium, a related noun referring to our internal dispositions and talents, our inborn nature … Why did the moderns need a term like this, in which natural characteristics are fused with supernatural associations?”
  • What is remarkable about Ibsen’s work is that it seems both to reflect the specific, Scandinavian bourgeois milieu that formed the author and to have a universal appeal that allows endless reinterpretation … the issues that Ibsen deals with, of class, of status, of who may speak and who may not, ‘are timeless, especially as we are now moving back to the conditions of the nineteenth century, with a very, very small, wealthy and powerful elite.’”
  • An analysis of the GIF, the Internet’s most divisive image-file format: “Created in 1987 by the digital communications company CompuServe, the GIF was originally designed for speedy transfer across pre–World Wide Web Internet networks … GIFs are chiefly agents of pleasure within a sensibility that predominates online, but one that has yet to be invoked in analyses of the format: that of camp. The web-born incarnation of this attitude goes well beyond historical definitions of camp as (variously) over-the-top sprezzatura, effete affectation, stereotypical homosexual display and its hammy adoption by straight society. In fact, it has a potentially international and transcultural reach as a genderless way of engaging with the modern world.”
  • A British teen novel unwittingly illustrates the wide gulf between senses of humor in America and the UK: “I had to put a glossary of words [my editor] didn’t understand in the back for the American editions. Words like ‘prat’ (someone who plays air guitar at concerts or puts two legs down one knicker leg) etc. Common-or-garden comedy words … But you know how cheerful [Americans] can be. Always wanting you to have a nice day. Perking you up by going up at the end of sentences in case you had nodded off. Bounding over to serve you in restaurants.”
  • Remembering the loudest sound on Earth: the eruption of a volcano in Krakatoa on August 27, 1883. “The ear-drums of over half my crew have been shattered,” the captain of a nearby ship wrote in his log. “My last thoughts are with my dear wife. I am convinced that the Day of Judgement has come.”

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Balzac the Intern, and Other News

September 29, 2014 | by

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A drawing of Balzac attributed to Achille Devéria, ca. 1820.

  • Our poetry editor, Robyn Creswell, interviewed the Moroccan writer Abdelfattah Kilito: “A writer was a sort of creator, naturally, but I always liked to think of him as a reader as well—a great reader. By way of his writing, I tried to make out, or guess at, what he’d read. A sort of literary voyeurism. And the writer would often show his hand, as though by chance. I felt a wonderful sense of complicity when I was able to recognize a title, or a line of poetry, or an allusion.”
  • Once he’d graduated from the Sorbonne, Balzac took an internship at a Paris law firm. “An intern is to the Civil Service what a choirboy is to the Church, or what an army child is to his Regiment, or what rats and sidekicks are to Theatres: innocent, gullible, and blinded by illusions,” he wrote in 1841’s The Physiology of the Employee.
  • On Scorsese’s new NYRB doc, which debuted this weekend: “Most literary publications, running smoothly, are about as well suited to cinematic narrative as a long-term janitorial project. Scorsese has attempted to pep things up by casting the Review as a front-lines political journal with a rock-star stable of writers. The result is forced, befuddled, and frequently weird. Still, it’s a fine introduction to the long arc of the paper’s history.”
  • The art of recording: John Vanderslice quit his job as a waiter at Chez Panisse to open one of the most innovative recording studios in the country. His mantra: “sloppy hi-fi,” which means “capturing loose, spontaneous performances on the best microphones in the world. It means gritting a pretty song with white noise, pink noise, high-quality distortion (not an oxymoron: ‘It has to be high-quality distortion’), tube amps, and tube compressors, and also by physically distressing and damaging the tape. Basically, Vanderslice wants powers of violence over the loveliest sounds.”
  • Today in highly unforeseen merchandise: “Prufrock”-themed flats. “These flats feature a mix of lines from the poem and theme collage imagery (peaches, mermaids, coffee spoons, etc). The edges and flexible areas of the flats are black for an extra accent.” (Also available: Pride and Prejudice and Catcher in the Rye flats.)

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Ray Bradbury on Your Wall, and Other News

September 26, 2014 | by

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In Ray Bradbury‘s art collection: Ray Bradbury. Photo via io9

  • Ray Bradbury’s art collection is at auction, and it’s full of science-fictional wonders: moonscapes, fabulist spacecraft, fire-belching dragons, robot dinosaurs eating robot men, and Bradbury himself, inter alia.
  • Karl Miller, the founding editor of The London Review of Books, has died at eighty-three. His former colleague Andrew O’Hagan called him “perhaps the last of the great Bloomsbury men … Of course, there are brilliant writers and editors now, but they live in a world where the squeeze on literary values and on books programs, on high culture and carefulness, is fearsome and degrading. Karl Miller worked in spite of the market, and he enriched the intellectual life of the country in a thousand ways.”
  • Rediscovering Alain Robbe-Grillet’s first six films, which are now easier to stream than ever: They’re “psychosexually nutty meta-movies that eat their own tails so lustily they make Godard’s contemporaneous work look orthodox … [They’re] tasteful affairs, gorgeously shot and structured, like his fiction, around narrative ellipses and absences, mysteries that can never be solved, enigmas that defy time and reason. They’re also jam-packed with nude actresses and erotic posturing … ”
  • A salute to Futura, the typeface that’s been to the moon (and in every Wes Anderson film): “Futura represents the rational utopia of progress, where everything not only works well, but looks good doing it … Futura was the future we dreamt of in the past, and, in part, the future we achieved.”
  • On the celebrity of the Mitford sisters: Were these “beautiful, wayward young women”—the youngest of whom died yesterday—the Kardashians of their day? “Although it’s a stretch to imagine any of the Mitford sisters making a sex tape or promoting an ice cream called Va-Va-Va-Nilla, the nature of their fame is similar. Born from a fascination with the rich and beautiful, and the ability we are granted through newspapers or internet to live vicariously through these people, to share their adventures, and be scandalized by their mistakes, the fascination with which we view the Mitfords and Kardashians is one and the same.”

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