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This Week’s Reading

What We’re Loving: Don B., B. Dole, /u/backgrinder

March 7, 2014 | by

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“How hard was it to supply archers arrows in ancient battles?” Bryson Burroughs, The Archers, 1917.

Sozzled novelists (aka, lit lit) seems to be the thing to write about lately, but it’s more fun to read great writers making fun of great writers drinking a lot. In one of his short pieces originally written for The New Yorker’s Notes and Comment section (more quotidian than Talk of the Town and funnier than Shouts and Murmurs, it’s a section I wish they’d revive), Donald Barthelme describes having received a questionnaire from Writer’s Digest that inquired about his drinking habits. Asked if he’s a light, medium, heavy, or “other” drinker, Barthelme says medium: “Light is sissy and Heavy doesn’t go down so well with Deans, Loan Officers and Publishers, and who in the world would want to be Other?” Only a few days before reading this gem, I’d discovered Niccolò Tucci’s essay on drunkenness in issue 19 of The Paris Review. Tucci starts by recounting a pop-sci study on the hangover. We’d do well to heed one of its findings: “Alcohol itself is perfectly harmless. It cannot be blamed for anything … not even for death. What kills you is malnutrition. Drinkers forget to eat. If they ate more, they could drink more. In fact, obesity kills more people than alcohol. People should eat much less.” —Nicole Rudick

Steve Jobs famously quipped, “People don’t know what they want until you show it to them”—which is often how I feel about the content I find on Reddit, the Internet’s ultimate rabbit hole. Mastering the abbreviated jargon can take some time, but it’s well worth the plunge; I tumbled in, head first, after The Paris Review’s recent AMA. Take, for instance, /u/backgrinder’s response to the very reasonable, if incalculably arcane, question, “How hard was it to supply arrows to archers in ancient battles?” (TL;DR: Surprisingly hard.) —Stephen Andrew Hiltner

I have Bob Dole’s voice in my head, and it’s Richard Ben Cramer’s fault. “Dole’s voice was made for the empty distance and mean wind of the prairie,” Cramer writes in What It Takes: The Way to the White House, his thousand-page opus on presidential politics, published in 1992. Cramer died last year, and I’ve been meaning to delve into this book ever since—for once, the promise of the flap copy is no exaggeration. “An American Iliad in the guise of contemporary political reportage, What It Takes penetrates the mystery at the heart of all presidential campaigns: How do presumably ordinary people acquire that mixture of ambition, stamina, and pure shamelessness that makes a true candidate?” In writing about it here, I’ve bitten off more than I can chew; there’s no way to convey how exhaustively researched it is, how lovingly chronicled, how immaculately well-written. All I can say is that it drove me not just to feel a deep kinship with someone like Bob Dole but to watch the entirety of a Dole debate from the eighties, and to enjoy it. Publishers always like to claim that a given work of nonfiction “reads like a novel,” and it’s so seldom true—but What It Takes has the scope, pace, style, and psychological acuity of the best fiction. —Dan Piepenbring Read More »

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What We’re Loving: Science, Spicer, Sea Maidens, Sandwiches

February 28, 2014 | by

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Rita Greer, The Scientists, 2007

The Haggis-on-Whey World of Unbelievable Brilliance is McSweeney’s hilarious series of faux-science books. The latest volume, “Children and the Tundra,” is due out in May; it includes such edifying features as “Quick Fixes for the Growing Epidemic of Talking Child Syndrome,” “Snow Druids: Fact and Fiction,” and “Comparing Snow with Presidents Past and Present.” (Snow and Zachary Taylor share the following attributes: cold, white, usually on the ground.) In its tone and design, to say nothing of the sturdiness of its typefaces, Haggis-on-Whey nails the authoritarian aesthetic of 1950s textbooks. Most important, it is very, very silly. —Dan Piepenbring

Wordsworth looked forward to a day when poets would “be ready to follow the steps of the man of Science … carrying sensation into the midst of the objects of Science itself.” Alfonso D’Aquino is one such poet of sensation and science. Fungus skull eye wing, his first collection available in English, is dense with the tropical life of Cuernavaca: root systems, veins of mineral, tangles of foliage. Some of the poems are spookily nonhuman; in others, even the stones seem to speak: “I squint fixedly / and find / in this marvelous density in the hollow of my hand / in its livid insomniac paleness / and in its veins dialogues / that only for a moment crisscross.” Forrest Gander’s translation is another marvel. —Robyn Creswell

You could easily teach a whole seminar on Denis Johnson’s “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden” (in this week’s New Yorker). You could prepare students by assigning them “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” and “The Dead,” which seem to me a sort of North and South Pole to Johnson’s story, and shape its beginning and end. Then you could have students compare the two paintings in the story, and the two newspapers called the Post, and the names Elaine and Maria Elena, and you could let those comparisons lead you into the narrator’s habits of mind. Or else you could spend a whole semester reading Denis Johnson, trying to pinpoint the quality of his prose that makes him sound both matter-of-fact and possessed. Or you could dismiss class and send everyone home to read the story again and stare at the wall, because “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden” is great and the questions it raises—like, What difference would it make if Whit could say he loved his wife, or that his daughters were beautiful or clever; or, What kind of fairytale is this—are too big for an English seminar to answer. —Lorin Stein

In Seattle, this year’s AWP is off to a rollicking start: picture 15,000 writers and all their attendant neuroses in one sprawling conference center. Madness! Luckily, no one bats an eye if you take a break to read some newly published poetry; that is, after all, what this thing is about. My first AWP purchase was Caroline Manring’s Manual for Extinction, which soothes the overstimulated soul with its lyrical surrealism and extraordinary formal experimentation. And of course one cannot help but see the mass of writers reflected:  “When we are arranged by crop // you can see we are a toothy, / forever naked, rag-tag lot.” —Rachel Abramowitz Read More »

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What We’re Loving: NASCAR, Nukes, Nobility

February 21, 2014 | by

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From the cover of Elaine Scarry’s Thermonuclear Monarchy.

When I discovered the work of Elaine Scarry in college, I remember thinking that her name was somehow bound up in her field of study—one had informed the other. She has a new book out, and the connection has never seemed more apt. Thermonuclear Monarchy is a badass title and a frightening one. The book is 640 pages, so I haven’t read it—it could be a while before I have that much time—but I have been reading about it. Nathan Schneider’s essay at The Chronicle of Higher Education is the best read. Scarry is a broad thinker, pulling from unusual corners of politics, history, and culture (including, Schneider notes, “the town where [Thomas] Hobbes grew up, a mistranslation of the Iliad, marriage, CPR, the Swiss nuclear-shelter system”). Thermonuclear Monarchy, then, is “less an argument that nuclear weapons should be eliminated, or how, than an entire worldview in which they have no rightful place.” —Nicole Rudick

We all know him as The Paris Review’s trusty third baseman (“Wisdom” and “Chaos Mode” are but two of his on-the-field nicknames), but it turns out that Ben Wizner occasionally gets around to other things, too—such as serving as the legal advisor to, um, Edward Snowden. (Yeah, NBD.) Listen here as he and Daniel Ellsberg argue in favor of the motion “Edward Snowden Was Justified” in a debate against Andrew C. McCarthy and R. James Woolsey. (Really, listen—it’s riveting.) —Stephen Andrew Hiltner

Our forthcoming Art of Nonfiction interview with the British psychoanalyst and author Adam Phillips is full of literary reminiscences and references to books that have meant something to Phillips over the course of his life. One in particular has stuck with me over the past few weeks, a Randall Jarrell quote from “A Girl in a Library”: “The ways we miss our lives are life.” Happily, it has reminded me to return to Jarrell’s The Animal Family, which I started a few months ago and put down for no good reason. (I don’t even have the excuse of length—it’s a children’s chapter book). Through the simple story of a woodsman who gathers together members of various species—real and imagined—to form an unconventional family, Randall touches on death, love, the pain of being alone, the strangeness of taste, the joys of language, and the terrifying calm of the wilderness. It is a lesson in what plain words thoughtfully said can evoke, perhaps the best such lesson I’ve ever read in prose. My edition, and I think most others, includes beautiful Maurice Sendak illustrations that are, for Sendak, unusually pastoral—not a figural representation in the lot—and add much to Jarrell’s story. —Clare Fentress

NASCAR was incorporated on this day in 1948—exactly one hundred years after the first publication of The Communist Manifesto. (Would that their similarities didn’t end there.) On such a storied anniversary, an educated citizen has two duties. First, reread your Marx and Engels—now’s as good a time as any to hone your critique of capitalism. Second, visit—or revisit—the thrilling world of NASCAR romance novels. Bonus points if you’re somehow able to combine these pursuits, e.g., by writing a book that’s both a critique of capitalism and a NASCAR romance. —Dan Piepenbring Read More »

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What We’re Loving (The Love Edition)

February 14, 2014 | by

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Photo: Seyed Mostafa Zamani, via Flickr

“As usual, the love plot is the least convincing aspect of the book,” said my friend, handing me a crumbling, loved-to-death copy of Barbara Pym’s last novel, A Few Green Leaves. It is not clear to me which part my friend found unconvincing—the growing attraction between the meek, widowed rector Tom and the awkward anthropologist Emma, or the obstacles to their match. (E.g.: Tom’s dreary sister, a visit from Emma’s old flame Graham, or the Oxfordshire village full of aging gossips who have nothing better to do than monitor the hand-delivery of casseroles to local bachelors.) At any rate, I bought the whole thing, and I believed that Emma did, too. As Pym’s narrator observes, “Even the most cynical and sophisticated woman is not, at times, altogether out of sympathy with the ideas of the romantic novelist.” —Lorin Stein

The weather yesterday was awful; this incessant wintry-mix business has got to stop. It has me thinking about Russian poems set during the siege of Leningrad, and last night my brain produced one of the most incredible jump shots since 2001: A Space Odyssey—from Boris Pasternak to Guns N’ Roses. The former has a poem that begins “February. Get ink and weep! / To write and write of February / like bursting into sobs, with thundering / slush burning in black spring.” Naturally, that led to “So never mind the darkness / We still can find a way / ’Cause nothin’ lasts forever / Even cold November rain.” The latter seems somehow right today—it’s a song, after all, about the vagaries of love. In fact, the classic Guns N’ Roses catalogue is brimming with Valentine’s Day–appropriate songs: charged lyrics for lovers (“Said, woman, take it slow / And it’ll work itself out fine / All we need is just a little patience”) and the lovelorn (“To think the one you love / could hurt you now / Is a little hard to believe / But everybody darlin’ sometimes / Bites the hand that feeds”). —Nicole Rudick

Some advice: Run, do not walk, to your love’s home. Take her by the hand and recite this Restoration-era poem about premature ejaculation: “The Imperfect Enjoyment,” by John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester, a legendary libertine who slept his way around the Royal Court and succumbed, at age thirty-three, to venereal disease. Here, in words as lewd and depraved as anything uttered in 2014, he recounts one of his less inspiring performances. Making love, he can’t quite contain himself, and “In liquid raptures I dissolve all o’er, / Melt into sperm, and spend at every pore.” His lady unsatisfied, he finds himself unable to get it up again, and lambasts his errant penis. “Worst part of me, and henceforth hated most, / Through all the town a common fucking-post.” If that doesn’t make her swoon, gents, nothing will. —Dan Piepenbring

When Dan asked us to recommend love-themed staff picks, I was all set to talk about one of my favorite films, the 1945 Powell-Pressburger classic I Know Where I’m Going! Then I saw it described by Vanity Fair as “a cult among poetic bluestockings” and my enthusiasm dimmed somewhat. But it deserves whatever following it has—incidentally, Pauline Kael and Martin Scorsese are in the cult, too—and I can’t think of a more romantic movie than this tale of a willful young woman stranded in the Scottish Hebrides. (When I describe it like that, I can see why the poetic bluestockings are so excited, but don’t let that put you off!) —Sadie Stein Read More »

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What We’re Loving: Being Stranded, Being Stoned, Krumping

February 7, 2014 | by

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Promotional still from Dock Ellis & the LSD No-No

When you grow up in Los Angeles with divorced parents, you’re always getting stranded somewhere, usually in your own home. This particular conundrum, unique to the geography of LA, is novelized in Darcy O’Brien’s A Way of Life, Like Any Other, a loosely fictionalized account of his sordid childhood in mid-century Hollywood, published in 1978. O’Brien is the only son of two fading film stars, whom he is burdened to babysit. Like all proper LA novels, this one has Malibu, western stars, prostitutes, “screenplay ideas,” Mexican food. But what I was most struck by was O’Brien’s portrait of the LA child as a captive audience. As our protagonist more somberly puts it: “My jailer had forgotten what I was in for but he wanted to keep me there for company.” That is what happens when you are stranded. Parents confide in you, and not just your own parents—anyone’s parents, perhaps because they truly are seeking decent advice, or maybe just because you’re the only other soul they’ve encountered that day. Our hero learns all the right coping mechanisms: make friends with the kid that has a car, play your parents against each other, move in with a nice Jewish producer who has more rooms in his house then he knows what to do with, and then try desperately to convince someone to love you, or at the very least to sleep with you. —Hailey Gates

Ever heard the story of MLB pitcher Dock Ellis’s having thrown a “no-no” in 1970 while he was as high (on LSD) “as a Georgia pine?” Well, now you have. —Stephen Hiltner

Earlier this week, on a flight from the Midwest to the East Coast, I read William Morris’s lecture “The Lesser Arts” to distract myself from the ear-popping, the altitude, and the beginnings of a cold. It’s Morris at his philosophical best: a manifesto on the use and value of the decorative arts, speaking against the notion that they’re somehow “lesser” than other fine arts. “Everything made by man’s hands has a form, which must be either beautiful or ugly,” spoke Morris, “beautiful if it is in accord with Nature, and helps her; ugly if it is discordant with Nature, and thwarts her … the hand of the craftsman is guided to work in the way that she does, till the web, the cup, or the knife, look as natural, nay as lovely, as the green field, the river bank, or the mountain flint.” As I engaged with the text, the interior of the plane—with its many small miracles of engineering packaged in just as many sins of design—felt more and more like a post-apocalyptic bomb shelter. To Morris, even late-nineteenth century London was an abomination of ugliness: “a whole country or more covered over with hideous hovels, big, middle-sized, and little.” One can only wonder what he would think of 2014 London—or, for that matter, New York City. —Clare Fentress

A few weeks ago, when I wrote briefly about Howard Moss, Lorin recommended “Ménage à Trois,” a poem Moss published in The New Yorker in 1969. (Subscribers can read it here.) You might expect, given the title, a bit of titillation—but this is Moss, and his is a household of jaded appetites. Wry, unforgiving, and larded with tart apercus, the poem tells of a trio on a harrowingly dull vacation: “The food is dreadful. The weather worse./ So much for all the touted joys/ Of the Riviera—or wherever we are.” That kind of weariness pervades, and charges, the whole thing. Moss’s exhaustion makes for oddly buoyant verse, and you have to admire the verbal precision behind his contempt: “We provide pornography/ (mental) for the neighbors, who watch our blinds/ As if they were about to disclose an orgy.” That disclose is spot-on. As we approach the treacle-fest that is Valentine’s Day, a ménage as loveless as Moss’s is a fitting aperitif: bitter, but stimulating. “A little citrus kiss,” to borrow a turn from the poem. —Dan Piepenbring Read More »

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What We’re Loving: Pragmatism, Professional Consultants, Pubic Crests

January 31, 2014 | by

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Walter Battiss, Wandering Nude 1, 1978, oil on canvas.

Pop quiz! Which American philosopher coined the following expressions: pluralism, time-line, healthy-minded, live option, stream of consciousness, and the bitch-goddess success. Hint: he counted among his most devoted students Gertrude Stein, Theodore Roosevelt, and W.E.B. DuBois. Last hint, from a letter he wrote to his little brother Henry, in 1902: “You have created a new genre littéraire which I can’t help thinking perverse, but in which you nevertheless succeed, for I read with interest to the end (many pages and innumerable sentences twice over to see what the dickens they could possibly mean).” If you guessed William James (correctly), you probably remember him as the main inventor of “pragmatism,” the can-do philosophy that professional philosophers love to hate. But as Robert D. Richardson shows in his 2006 biography William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism, it is hard to imagine a livelier, more lovable mind. As a scientist, James did original work on everything from evolution to spiritualism. As a philosopher, he anticipated everyone from Bergson to Wittgenstein to Austin to Daniel Kahneman. As a person, James is the most appealing kind of genius, continually inspired by his family, by his friendships and romances, and by communion with what he called “the hidden self,” where we are most vulnerable and alive. —Lorin Stein

The latest issue of Granta includes “Nudity,” an essay by Norman Rush about his youthful encounters with the body au naturel. Rush’s parents dabbled in a kind of functional nudism, which we might today call “letting it all hang out.” “The nudity of my parents did not assuage my ripening interest, but inflamed it,” he writes. “I wanted to see other naked female humans, and I wanted my father to keep his bathrobe on.” Though the piece mostly chronicles the young Rush’s quest to see live nudes, it takes an astonishing, affecting swerve in its final paragraph, which I won’t spoil here. It also includes, of course, those quintessentially Rushian terms for the female anatomy, “escutcheon” (the pubic crest) and “introitus” (just look it up). —Dan Piepenbring

Sunday is Groundhog Day (fingers crossed!), but I’ve been heralding the arrival of spring for days now, however futile my attempts may be. Perhaps that’s why I picked up Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book this week. I’ve read Jansson’s Moomin comics and her children’s books, but I haven’t ever delved into her prose. This book—a series of interrelated vignettes about a girl and her grandmother on a quiet island in the Gulf of Finland—is a treasure. Its stories are miniatures not just in length but in perspective as well: sometimes literally, as when the grandmother lays down near the beach and studies a blade of grass, a fluff of down, and a piece of bark in the sand by her face. Through her examination, their minute details are writ large; the bark, for instance, becomes “a very ancient mountain.” And when she finally gazes past them, to the wider world, it no longer looks so big. —Nicole Rudick

The Lost Art of Dress: The Women Who Once Made America Stylish is a paean to that now-extinct species, the “dress doctor,” a professional consultant who helped average citizens navigate questions of style and economy in a rapidly changing landscape. How should a working girl look professional on a budget? How might a farm wife stretch a yard of fabric and still be chic? And how to incorporate principles of harmony, proportion, balance, rhythm, emphasis into every aspect of aesthetic life? The author, Linda Przybyszewski, is an academic, and the book serves as an informative cultural history. But more than this, it is a tribute to a time when style—and maybe even life—felt more straightforward, and however arbitrary, there were definitive answers. —Sadie Stein Read More »

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