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Say It with Shoes, and Other News

October 5, 2016 | by

A mark of distinction, and maybe also love.

  • If you’re having trouble focusing, and meditation hasn’t helped, and Adderall hasn’t helped, and whispering “focus, focus, focusssss…” to yourself hasn’t helped, you might try standing in the nude before a group of strangers. It worked for Tom McCarthy, who enjoyed its literary benefits above all else: “Every morning, I’d turn up, strip off, and stand on a small podium while they drew me. If it was a sculpture class, the podium would turn, like a lazy Susan, as the students’ clay figures rotated atop their easels … Nothing I’ve ever done, before or since, has afforded me such a state of concentration—intense, extended, charged. I would run whole passages of text—Baudelaire, Rilke, Ponge, whomever I’d been reading, even my own small works in progress—through my head, forward, backward, taking apart each image, amplifying each meter and sub-rhythm in the loaded silence. I probably learned more about literature in the six months I spent on the podium than in the three previous years of study.”
  • Advice for young lovers: treat your amour to a fine, sturdy pair of brogues. Nothing says “I love you” like English footwear. When Marina Warner’s mother moved to England, she’d never left Italy before, and her husband-to-be knew what must be done. Warner writes, “My forty-two-year-old father took her—perhaps as a present for her twenty-third birthday—to be fitted for a pair of shoes at Peal & Co, a family firm famous for its clientele: Humphrey Bogart! Marlene Dietrich! Fred Astaire! The Duke of Windsor and Mrs. Simpson! Each customer was measured, and the findings entered in a series of ledgers known as the ‘Feet Books’; the bespoke shoemakers then modeled wooden lasts to be used to make the shoes; these effigies were labeled with the client’s personal number—my mother’s was 289643—to be kept in the firm’s store for use when the next pair was ordered. The Peal dynasty of cobblers—which stretched back at least to 1791 or even, some claimed, to 1565, and showed at both the Great Exhibition of 1851 and the Festival of Britain a century later—only stopped making shoes in 1965.” 

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Discovering Your Sonic Brand, and Other News

October 4, 2016 | by

That’s your own personal sound, man.

  • I’ve spent thirty painstaking years building my personal brand from the ground up: a signature blend of synthetic microfibers and dried-out pipe tobacco, shot through with the bashfulness of the Coppertone girl. But I forgot the sounds. Whether you’re a corporation, an individual, or just an abstraction, you’ve got to brand yourself aurally to stand out, Jack Hitt writes: “Sonic branding involves stand-alone sounds, like NBC’s three-note signature or United Airlines’ use of the most familiar measures of ‘Rhapsody in Blue.’ These distilled riffs are meant to build an aural association with a product to create a Pavlovian sense of loyalty and expectation … Fajitas, [Joel] Beckerman writes, were merely a decent-selling dish that went supernova as a middle-class entrée after Chili’s focused its presentation on the loud sizzle of the dish emerging from the kitchen, a sound that figured into all its key advertising. Spend enough time pondering the nuances of sonic branding, and you come to appreciate the pure genius of the letter z in the word Prozac.”
  • Hey, gang, there’s a new restaurant in London called Bronte! They left the umlaut off, but still, you’d be forgiven for assuming there’s something literary about it. No such luck, though. Tanya Gold paid the place a visit, and: “I hoped that Bronte would be filled with Victorian writers licking ink off their fingers and bitching about Mrs. Gaskell being a third-rate hack; but it is not to be … It is named for Horatio Nelson, the Duke of Bronte … So Bronte is named for a man no one calls Bronte. It could have been called Nelson, decorated with eye patches and plastic parrots, like a Padshow hell shack; or it could have been called Gaskell, an angry and flouncy tearoom that wrote bad novels and one marvelous, vicious and dishonest biography called The Life of Charlotte Brontë; or it could have been called—and this is my wish—Brunty: Pens, Sex and Potatoes.” 

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That Was Not a Very Nice Thing to Do, and Other News

October 3, 2016 | by

From the cover of My Brilliant Friend.

  • Now, let’s divert our attention to a much less controversial story from the NYRB: Nathaniel Rich on George Plimpton. “The quintessential Plimptonian anecdote comes near the end of Paper Lion when, a year after leaving the team, he wistfully follows his old squad from afar. We find him in Bellagio, on Lake Como, chasing down a box score in a Paris Herald he has found at a waterside café. ‘When I read that the Lions had lost a game,’ he writes, ‘I rose in anguish out of my chair, absolutely stiff with grief, my knee catching the edge of the table as I came up, and toppling it over in a fine cascade of Perrier bottles’ … Philip Roth, in the extended appreciation of Plimpton that appears in Exit Ghost, identified the issue of social class as ‘the deepest inspiration for his writing so singularly about sports’ … But the technique only works because Plimpton hides this knowing quality from his readers. There is never a wink or nod in the direction of the premise’s artifice. A consummate straight man, he emphasizes how seriously he is taking matters.” 

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Live Your Best Pod Life, and Other News

September 30, 2016 | by

Photo: scarletgreen

  • Today in extravagant acts of self-protection: Julian Barnes wasn’t a fan of his first novel, 1980’s Metroland. So he wasn’t surprised when it got a savage notice in an organ called The Daily Sniveler by one “Mack the Knife”—a nom de guerre for Barnes himself. Yes, Barnes trashed his own novel, just so he could be sure he got there first. “In the old days,” he wrote, “the Sensitive Young Man, after producing his novel, would slide back into the obscurity of book-reviewing and hock-and-seltzer; he would in middle age be much taken with writing letters to the newspapers; and in old age, chairbound in his club, he would reveal himself to be the unremitting philistine which his earlier manifestation had sought to conceal. We must wish Mr Barnes well as he sets off on this inevitable journey.”

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The Seedy Splendors of the Love Motel, and Other News

September 29, 2016 | by

Capri, from Jur Oster and Vera van de Sandt’s Love Land Stop Time. Image via Hyperallergic.

  • Herman Melville ended his life as a failure, with no inkling of the posthumous glories to come. It sounds so miserable when you put it that way, doesn’t it? And in many ways it was. But his final years had small pleasures of their own. Mark Beauregard writes, “Having failed commercially as a novelist, he had spent the last twenty-five years of his life out of the public eye, and he had written poetry nearly every day. Mostly, his verse was tortured and cramped, and he often drew his themes from unlikely sources: ancient Greece and Rome, the Holy Land, myths, gods, and temple architecture … Six days a week, he walked west from his apartment at 104 East Twenty-Sixth Street, across lower Manhattan, to the docks along the North River (as the Hudson was then known). His job was to check ships’ cargoes against their bills of lading and write reports, for which he earned four dollars a day (a salary that never changed). He walked back home in the evening, an unwavering routine. After dinner, he wrote poems late into the night.”

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There Will Be No More Birthday Celebrations, and Other News

September 28, 2016 | by

The insignia of a master.

  • Mike Davis was an artist, and the irate company-wide memorandum was his canvas. Few in the history of humankind have recognized the savage beauty of this lowliest of media. But Davis—the erstwhile head of Tiger Oil Company, and now dead at eighty-five—shattered the limits of the form with routine ease, showing us just how big an asshole one man could be to his employees. Consider his memos a spin-off of the Theater of Cruelty: “ ‘There will be no more birthday celebrations, birthday cakes, levity or celebrations of any kind within the office,’ the boss wrote on Feb. 8, 1978. ‘This is a business office. If you have to celebrate, do it after office hours on your own time.’ … ‘Do not speak to me when you see me,’ the man had ordered in a memo the month before. ‘If I want to speak to you, I will do so. I want to save my throat. I don’t want to ruin it by saying hello to all of you.’ ”
  • It’s hard enough to get a human being to pay to read your book. Now robots are refusing to pony up, too. Google has just “fed” some eleven thousand books to its artificial intelligence, hoping to teach it how to talk like a real boy. But even though they’re rolling in the dough, Google didn’t pay any of the authors of these books, Richard Lea writes: “After feeding these books into a neural network, the system was able to generate fluent, natural-sounding sentences. According to a Google spokesman—who didn’t want to be named—products such as the Google app will be ‘much more useful if they can capture the nuance of language better’ … ‘The research in question uses these novels for the exact purpose intended by their authors—to be read,’ [Authors Guild executive director Mary Rasenberger] argues. ‘It shouldn’t matter whether it’s a machine or a human doing the copying and reading, especially when behind the machine stands a multibillion dollar corporation which has time and again bent over backwards devising ways to monetize creative content without compensating the creators of that content.’ ” 

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