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This Week’s Reading

What We’re Loving: Good Friday Riffs, Your New White Hair

April 18, 2014 | by

Samuel Johnson’s portrait by James Barry

Samuel Johnson’s portrait by James Barry.

It took me twenty-five years to read Jane Eyre. The first twenty-four and three quarters were tough going—I almost never made it past the death of the annoying Christian schoolmate. Rochester drove me up the wall; so did passive-aggressive Jane. Then a couple of months ago a friend gave me a beat-up old pocketbook edition. This time it took. When I realized a couple of pages were missing, I read them on my phone. When the paperback got lost in the coatroom at Café Loup, I started taking my iPad to bed (a reluctant first). When the same friend presented me with a Folio edition giveaway, weighing sixteen pounds (with regrettable illustrations), I took it everywhere, in case I had half an hour alone. I was warned that things go downhill after you-know-who appears in the night and tears Jane’s you-know-what. Not for me. The weirder the subplot, the more Jane tightened her grip. What had changed? Maybe certain writers—Norman Rush, Defoe, Dickens, Melville, Hawthorne—or maybe just reading in general had taught me that dialogue can come in weird shapes, not just tit-for-tat, and that soliloquies can happen on the page. Maybe I’ve just gotten to know more women, like Jane, who live at war with themselves, and maybe the freakiness of wanting and hating to be bossed around makes more sense to me now. The whole time, I kept thinking, So many girls read this when they’re kids—and get it. How could it take so long to catch up? —Lorin Stein

Reading a László Krasznahorkai novel is a major commitment, and the kind I’m willing to make, but I haven’t had the time lately to devote myself to it. I’ve made do with the London Review of Books’ recent story “There Goes Valzer.” A man named Róbert Valzer who likes walking (“not that I have anything do to with the famous Robert Walser”) takes an aimless stroll on the Day of the Dead in his La Sportiva boots, through cemeteries and out to the edge of town. Because of its brevity and relatively short sentences, the story offers an opportunity to better appreciate Krasznahorkai’s sly humor, often camouflaged by his melancholic themes. Not that there isn’t disillusionment here, but it’s tempered by a ready absurdity: “I hate Michaelmas daisies and, I must confess, I am not too keen on people either, in fact you might say I hate people too, or, better still, that I hate people as much as I hate Michaelmas daisies and that is simply because every time I see Michaelmas daisies they remind me of people rather than of Michaelmas daisies, and every time I see people I always think of Michaelmas daisies not of people.” (Yes, that is a short sentence—for Krasznahorkai.) —Nicole Rudick

This unending winter—and the moods that have come with it—has reminded many Americans, brutally, of the effect the environment has on our psyches. It’s a theme I haven't encountered in a work of American fiction in recent memory, though I wonder, with our rapidly changing earth, if we’ll begin to see it reflected more in our country's creative output. The seasons and their regularities, their whims have figured prominently in Japanese art for many centuries, though, and Takashi Hiraide's The Guest Cat, recently translated by Eric Selland, is a new cornerstone in this tradition. A short novel about little more than the comings and goings of a neighborhood cat around the grounds and home of a childless couple, the swells and lags in the emotional narrative of the book are propelled by a rising temperature, a blooming flower, a drooping tree. It’s reassuring to feel that perhaps a close tie between one's mental state and the weather may be, in fact, quite natural. —Clare Fentress

Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson is a bit like Nigel Slater’s Kitchen Diaries: there’s an entry for almost every season, holiday, or time of the year. Reading Boswell’s Life, it’s hard not to think of it at times as a practical joke; Boswell’s silliness is the great enigma of this book. Just to see what he would say, Boswell would ask Johnson questions like “What would you do if you were locked in a tower with a newborn baby?” The entry for Good Friday, 1778, contains so much: a discussion of literary aestheticism and didacticism, of the usefulness that literature can have to society, of the etiquette of making small talk. And it’s full of the usual yuks from the Boswell-Johnson buddy act:

Johnson: “Sir, it would have been better that I had been of a profession. I ought to have been a lawyer.”

Boswell: “I do not think, Sir, it would have been better, for we should not have had the English dictionary.”

Johnson: “But you would have had reports.” —Anna Heyward Read More »

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What We’re Loving: Communism, Climates, Cats

April 11, 2014 | by

Joseph_Stalin_with_daughter_Svetlana,_1935

Joseph Stalin with his daughter Svetlana, 1935.

Shortly after moving to New York, I found a used copy of Twenty Letters to a Friend, a memoir, written in 1963, by Svetlana Alliluyeva, Stalin’s daughter. It’s an unlikely book, to say the least—she condemns Communism, details her father’s agonizing death, and tries to come to terms with her own, very particular Stalinist experience—and it fed my budding fascination with Soviet cultural history. Nicholas Thompson’s essay in the March 31 issue of The New Yorker, which describes his friendship with Alliluyeva and her experiences in the United States, was a reminder of how that bizarre, late Soviet period had first piqued my interest. I’d never read, though, about Alliluyeva’s encounter with Frank Lloyd Wright’s widow, Olgivanna, an adherent of the theosophist G.I. Gurdjieff. Oligvanna believed Alliluyeva to be the reincarnation of her daughter, also named Svetlana, and wanted her to marry the dead woman’s husband; she did. It’s the kind of thoroughly weird story that couldn’t possibly be true, but then, this is Stalin’s daughter. —Nicole Rudick

After receiving two uncomprehending reviews in the New York Times, Jenny Offill’s novel Department of Speculation has finally gotten the kind of attention it deserves, first from James Wood in The New Yorker and now from Elaine Blair in The New York Review of Books. The latter is actually more than a review; it’s a brief and startling essay on the place of adultery in fiction today. Of the marriage in Department of Speculation, Blair writes, “How can a relationship so intensely intimate and companionable seem so easily soluble? And what is that other thing, extramarital sex, that has everyone quickly making contingency plans to jump ship? The wife and husband’s exemplary, perhaps even ideal, modern marriage is a form of personal gratification—a nonbinding choice that is very much bound up with the ego.” When Blair writes about fiction, she writes about life, which in some moods seems to me the only way to do it. Read an excerpt of Offill’s novel in issue 207. —Lorin Stein

I don’t often have the time to reread these days, but I recently gave a copy of André Maurois’s Climates to a friend, and he enjoyed it so much that I was inspired to revisit it. It’s an autobiographical novel of love lost, found, and lost again, the kind of book you find yourself giving to all your friends, wanting them to read it immediately so you can marvel at it together. Back when I first read Adriana Hunter’s beautiful translation, I felt it mirrored the melancholy of events in my own life. I worried, I think, that it wouldn’t resonate as much now. But I was wrong: it is a gripping read, deeply felt, and so full of memorable lines that I wanted to dog-ear every other page. I would have, except that this time it was a library copy—I had long since given mine away. —Sadie Stein

When I rewatched Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love, I knew, faintly, that the film’s odd pudding subplot was based on a true story. But only now have I done my homework. Fun fact: in 1999, a Californian engineer named David Phillips was grocery shopping when he noticed a loophole in a frequent-flier offer on Healthy Choice products. He did the math and discovered that if he could purchase enough cheap Healthy Choice–brand foods, the value of the miles would exceed the cost. So Phillips scoured the region, buying up some twelve thousand cups of Healthy Choice pudding—the cheapest product he could find, at a quarter a cup. He redeemed them for 1.25 million American Airlines frequent-flier miles. This is that rare thing, a Kafkaesque story with a happy ending: a man confronts the warped logic of bureaucracy and emerges victorious. It was shrewd of Anderson to rip it from the headlines. In Punch-Drunk Love, Adam Sandler’s character makes the same discovery, and it softens his neurotic, seething violence. He’s attuned to the world, we see, just vibrating on a different wavelength. The plot gets at the surreal, godlike power that corporations can wield in our lives, descending from on high to deliver the occasional windfall or catastrophe. As Sandler’s character says, “I have to get more pudding for this trip to Hawaii. As I just said that out loud I realize it sounded a little strange, but it’s not … You can go to places in the world with pudding.” —Dan Piepenbring Read More »

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What We’re Loving: Dead Poets, Dead Magazines, the Dead Zoo Gang

April 4, 2014 | by

Truffaud screen test

A still from Jean-Pierre Léaud’s 1958 audition for The 400 Blows.

In December of 1891, Walt Whitman contracted pneumonia. He was by then a celebrity poet and his deteriorating health had for a long time been media manna. The New York Times sent a reporter to Camden in 1888, and updates on Whitman’s health were published continually over the next few years—see 1890’s “Walt Whitman Has a Bad Cold.” By 1891, the end was within sight, and the paper published daily dispatches with headlines like “Walt Whitman Slowly Dying,” “Walt Whitman Still Lingering,” and “Walt Whitman About the Same.” Readers were made privy to such personal details as Whitman’s caloric intake (two oysters one day; a mutton chop another), his mindset (“he is perfectly rational”), and his doctor’s solemn belief that Whitman would last but a handful of hours more. He died on March 26, 1892. —Zack Newick

The best part of The 400 Blows is when Jean-Pierre Léaud ad libs an intake interview at reform school. Over the weekend a friend sent me the film test that got him the part. You can just feel Truffaut’s excitement at having found the child actor who would become his alter ego. The kid is pure heartbreaking charm. —Lorin Stein

Every couple of years, I revisit this documentary on the late broadcaster Victor Packer—hands down, one of the best things I have ever heard on the radio. Packer was, to put it mildly, a man of tremendous energy and varied interests. The portrait that emerges, by the Yiddish Radio Project, is that of an eccentric—but also of another era. It’s twelve minutes very well spent. (Packer, incidentally, is voiced by Christopher Lloyd.) —Sadie Stein

In “The Dead Zoo Gang,” a novella-length article published on The Atavist, Charles Homans tells the story of a group of international thieves known for robbing unlikely targets: taxidermists, antiques dealers, and natural history museums. They steal rhino horns to sell to buyers in Asia, and it’s been the work of law enforcement agents across the world to catch them—a difficult task, mainly because the thieves all seem to hail from an impenetrable subset of an already insular and poorly documented community, the Irish Travellers. Homans’s slow-building depiction of this community fascinates me. The Travellers are Roma-like nomads that exist on the outskirts of Irish society; they move from town to town in their trailers, congregating just once a year for, among other things, wedding celebrations so raucous they spawned a reality series, My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding. They speak a patois of Irish Gaelic and English and are organized in wildly complicated extended-family groups. And, most important, some of them—patriarchs whose net worth is estimated to be between 275 and 690 million dollars—appear to run scams and criminal activities (to say nothing of the odd legitimate business) on every continent except Antarctica. This a deep rabbit hole, but you won’t regret following it to its conclusion. —Tucker Morgan Read More »

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What We’re Loving: Strokes, Sex Appeal, Splenetic Surfers

March 28, 2014 | by

just-a-sigh

Emmanuelle Devos in a still from Just a Sigh, 2013.

If you saw American Hustle with your parents, as I did last Christmas, you will have noticed something that set it apart from pretty much every Hollywood movie of the last few years. I refer to the sex appeal of Amy Adams. Her hotness was a blast from the past, and not just because of the disco décolletage. For some reason, Hollywood doesn’t really do sexy these days, at least not in female roles—and certainly not compared to the French. Just think of Lola Créton in Goodbye, First Love or Adèle Exarchopoulos in Blue Is the Warmest Color—both playing teenagers with a soulful teenage horniness that’s taboo in American movies—or Marion Cotillard as a double amputee in Rust and Bone, or best and most recent of all, Emmanuelle Devos, the fifty-year-old star of Just a Sigh, who’s never looked better (which is saying something), and who smolders so intensely for Gabriel Byrne that the poor guy just sort of disappears off the screen. Until the actual love scenes, you hardly notice: this is a one-woman show. —Lorin Stein

Rodrigo de Souza Leão died shortly after the publication of All Dogs Are Blue, an autobiographical novel detailing his time in a Rio de Janeiro mental asylum. Souza Leão uses a kind of language his schizophrenia has taught him, creating a poetry that’s at one moment absurd—his two recurring hallucinations are Rimbaud and Baudelaire—and the next heartbreakingly self-aware. (“Is it the kiss of Judas? Will I betray my father in my madness?”) It’s an innovative, original book, though not an easy one to read. But then, as Souza Leão writes, “The truth can be a sloppy invention and still convince everyone.” —Justin Alvarez

When will spring arrive‽ Isn’t all this cold weather lovely though⸮ I love it—I hope it never ends؟ If you’ve been feeling that we have a lack of punctuation marks at our disposal—we don’t have a way to represent, for instance, an ironic question—then why not revive the obsolete irony mark⸮ It has a long history of failure in mainstream typography that you can read all about in Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks, by Keith Houston. But if you believe that to point out irony to an intelligent reader would defeat its purpose wholesale, perhaps you would prefer the percontation point, which was invented by the English printer Henry Denham in the nineteenth century—it’s meant as a visual indication of a rhetorical question. Or the interrobang, which combines the feeling of the exclamation point with the function of the question mark. Or my favorite, the love point, used to denote deep affection. —Anna Heyward

Geoff Dyer was not killed, or even, apparently, seriously impaired by his recent stroke, and he writes buoyantly about the experience for the London Review of Books. Ten days into his new life in Venice Beach, his vision went weird and his coordination abandoned him, and he stumbled about half-blind in perfect weather. His is a kind of coming-of-age story that reminds you how many such stories make up a life, whatever your age. —Zack Newick Read More »

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What We’re Loving: Digressions, Disappointments, Delicious Kisses

March 21, 2014 | by

vase

William N. Copley, Untitled, undated, hand-painted Marie Brizard glass bottle, 8 x 3 x 3 inches. Image via Paul Kasmin Gallery.

Paul Kasmin Gallery has a show up about the Iolas Gallery, which was open from 1955 to 1987 and was helmed by Alexander Iolas. He’s best remembered as the dealer who (along with William Copley, in California) helped introduce the Surrealists to the American art world; the work on view, which he originally showed, is worthy of a museum exhibition—paintings by Magritte, de Chirico, Ernst, and Man Ray. But Iolas championed art that suited his taste, rather than art that was trendy, which means he liked what was, at the time, very weird stuff—such as Joseph Cornell, Copley, and Takis. He gave Warhol his first gallery exhibition when the artist was eighteen, and he was the first to show Ed Ruscha in New York. In Paul Kasmin’s showcase, there’s a wonderfully big, ethereal painting by Dorothea Tanning and a bronze toilet in the shape of a fly (the paper is dispensed through the fly’s mouth, and you can store reading material in a bin under its thorax) by Les Lalanne. My favorite, though is a hand-painted glass bottle by Copley covered with tiny blue nudes, a modern take on the Grecian urn. —Nicole Rudick

In our recent interview with Matthew Weiner, the Mad Men creator states, “To me … digressions are the story.” César Aira’s wildly funny novel, The Conversations—recently translated by Katherine Silver—is one long digression: two friends discussing an action movie argue over the inconsistency of a Rolex watch on one of the film’s goatherd characters. This seemingly small error sets off an exploration of, among other topics, the reinterpretation of memory, reality vs. fiction on film, and storytelling in our “technological state of globalized civilization.” As Aira writes, “What had seemed about to come to an end had, in fact, just barely begun.” —Justin Alvarez

I realize I’m 993 years late to this party, but Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji, as centuries of scholars and readers know, is one of the richest and soapiest books ever written—not bad for what’s arguably the first novel ever. The story follows Emperor-spawn Genji as he navigates his way through the Imperial Court of eleventh-century Japan, marrying, political-intriguing, philandering, marrying again, and predating Freudian psychology by nearly a thousand years. The Penguin edition, translated by Royall Tyler, retains the high language of the original Japanese while situating the modern reader in a world in which poetry could make policy—would that it could today!—and the intricacies of court hierarchy could make even a Junior Fourth Rank, Upper Grade Left Officer’s head spin. —Rachel Abramowitz

I’ve just received a new translation of Louise Labé’s love sonnets and elegies. Labé wrote during the French Renaissance; after her death, her poems fell into obscurity until they were rediscovered in the nineteenth century. Earlier today, I flipped through its pages and landed on Sonnet 18, which brought an immediate smile to my face. It begins,

Kiss me, rekiss me, & kiss me again:
Give me one of your most delicious kisses,
A kiss in excess of my fondest wishes:
I’ll repay you four, more scalding than you spend.

You complain? Well, let me ease your pain
By giving you ten more honeyed kisses.

What it lacks in subtlety it recoups in passion. No need to compare your love to a summer’s day: just bring on the kisses. —Dan Piepenbring Read More »

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What We’re Loving: The Backwoods Bull, the Ballet, the Boot

March 14, 2014 | by

Mark_Twain_seated

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

If you are afraid of public speaking, and ever called on to do it, I suggest that you avoid reading “The Backwoods Bull in the Boston China Shop,” from the August 1961 issue of American Heritage Magazine. In this lively article, the dean of American studies, Henry Nash Smith, tells how Mark Twain—perhaps the most popular after-dinner speechmaker of his time—flubbed what was supposed to be the comic relief at an 1877 banquet in honor of John Greenleaf Whittier. Twain made up an anecdote about three grifters passing themselves off as Whittier, Emerson, and Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. Apparently, it bombed. According to Twain’s friend and editor William Dean Howells, “Nobody knew whether to look at the speaker or down at his plate. I chose my plate as the least affliction … [Twain] must have dragged his joke to the climax and left it there, but I cannot say this from any sense of the fact.” Twain was so mortified that he wrote a letter of apology to the three venerable grandees, and they were nice about it, but a week later he told Howells, “I see that it is going to add itself to my list of permanencies—a list of humiliations which extends back to when I was seven years old and keeps persecuting me regardless of my repentancies.” Thirty years later he was still trying to decide exactly how bad the speech had been, even reading it aloud to gauge its offensiveness. I am indebted—if that’s the word—to Sadie Stein and her father for digging up this historical gem. It is the stuff of nightmares. —Lorin Stein

My decision to take up ballet at the ripe old age of thirty-one (572 in ballet years) is not without its challenges. The parts of my body that should be loose are tight, and the places that should be firm wobble; if I land one pirouette out of ten it’s a victory. I’m grateful, then, for Eliza Gaynor Minden’s The Ballet Companion, which not only visually breaks down basic steps (with a blessed glossary of all that French), but gives pointers on class etiquette and attire. Gaynor Minden also writes beautifully about the history of ballet (forget the tutu—bring on the seventeenth-century six-foot hoop skirt!), as well as provides a detailed list of ballets to see before you die. If after reading you still need a reason to pull on those leg warmers, remember: it’s never too late for a bracing dose of humility. —Rachel Abramowitz

A few years ago, two of our uncles took my sister out to a French restaurant in Manhattan. One uncle was pushing her to order the duck confit. The other uncle turned to her and said, “Don’t do it. It’s too rich. He made me do it once and I threw up. You’ll throw up, too.” The first uncle assured her, “You’ll definitely throw up, but you should still get it.” She ordered it and threw up right on schedule. We are a family of eaters, sometimes at any cost. But to A. J. Liebling, perhaps the best eater of the twentieth century, my sister’s fowl adventure would have been child’s play. I’ve spent the past week immersed in his Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris, a memoir of Liebling’s years in the city and, of course, the food he consumed there; he was unapologetically obsessed with eating. He was even lucky enough to have friends who could keep up with him, such as Yves Mirande, the French playwright, who, by Liebling’s account, could tuck away in one meal the contents of a New York–size kitchen. “In the restaurant of the Rue Saint-Augustin, M. Mirande would dazzle his juniors, French and American, by dispatching a lunch of raw Bayonne ham and fresh figs, a hot sausage in crust, spindles of filleted pike in a rich rose sauce Nantua, a leg of lamb larded with anchovies, artichokes on a pedestal of foie gras, and four or five kinds of cheese, with a good bottle of Bordeaux and one of champagne, after which he would call for the Armagnac and remind Madame to have ready for dinner the larks and ortolans she had promised him, with a few langoustes and a turbot—and, of course, a fine civet made from the marcassin, or young wild boar, that the lover of the leading lady in his current production had sent up from his estate in the Sologne. ‘And while I think of it,’ I once heard him say, ‘we haven’t had any woodcock for days, or truffles baked in the ashes.’” —Clare Fentress

You’ve caught me at SXSW—strange to see it without the hashtag—where I’ve spent the past few days overhearing musicians as they talk shop. (“Dude, sick whammy pedal. Is that the new one with true bypass?”) It’s quality eavesdropping, but none of it rivals the dudely conversation on offer in the “Tight Bros from Way Back When” tape, one of the gnarliest cultural documents to emerge from the late eighties. This is a forty-minute taped phone call between two bona-fide California metalheads, Kurt and Derek, that touches on a whole host of topics: police evasion, the occult, Jimmy Page, gravedigging, psychedelics, pyrotechnics, longstanding grudges (“From second grade to now I’ve fought this guy like two hundred times. And I’ve lost three of those times”), and many more. Its first twenty minutes—in which Derek explains how his car got the boot, and how he went to extralegal measures to remove it—make for some of the most memorable storytelling this side of Iron Maiden. “Imagine standing up, right? These bolt cutters were half my height, bro … I’m cruising down the street in broad daylight with these bolt cutters slung over my shoulder, like I’m carrying some skis or somethin’? … I snapped the lock on the boot. It made the gnarliest sound, dude. I summoned the power of all the gods.” The tape has been floating around musical circles for years; at the risk of sounding like Indiana Jones, it belongs in a museum, or at least a top-notch oral history archive. —Dan Piepenbring Read More »

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