The Daily

First Person

Chevrolet Caprice

April 21, 2014 | by

1987_chevrolet_caprice-pic-40041

A 1987 Chevrolet Caprice.

On a Tuesday in late August, on my way to the ferry landing at Thirty-Fourth Street, I saw a huge, white, rusted-out Chevy Caprice make an illegal turn off FDR Drive, nearly skidding onto just two wheels. The Caprice barreled up Thirty-Fourth Street. When it blew by me I got a quick look at its occupants: three old ladies, all elaborately coiffed: the driver, another riding shotgun, and the third leaning forward in the backseat to better converse with the other two. I imagined they had just come from a group outing to the beauty parlor. Each of them probably had a rain bonnet tucked away in their purses, in case it rained later. The driver was wearing Gloria Vanderbilt–style sunglasses and a smashing shade of coral lipstick that was probably really popular in the seventies. I was quite taken with her. When I’m an old lady I want to drive around with my girl gang in a huge rusted-out white Caprice Classic and piss off cab drivers everywhere, I thought.

The image of the three ladies stayed with me well into the next day, which was also, randomly, Tori Amos’s fiftieth birthday. In observation, a pop-culture site compiled and ranked her 100 best songs. I dumped the top fifteen or so into a playlist and listened to it for most of the day. I felt sad but not depressed, an odd combination for me. One of the reasons I don’t listen to Tori anymore is that I am old. The other is that listening to Tori Amos reminds me of Tracy, my best friend from high school. Emma Straub wrote a piece for the Daily a few years ago called “My Rayannes,” which, in reference to Rayanne Graff from the nineties TV drama My So-Called Life, posits that all teenage girls are half lesbian. Less outrageously, it outlines an adolescent phenomenon in which one seeks a darker, more daring, more risk-taking counterpart—an accomplice in DIY piercings, home dye jobs, and, in Straub’s words, “tempestuous, obsessive friendship.” Read More »

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Our Daily Correspondent

Sleep of Reason

April 21, 2014 | by

Tatiana_Larina's_dream_by_Volkov_(1891)

Volkov, Tatiana Larina’s Dream, 1891

When Edith M. Thomas wrote “Talking in Their Sleep” in 1885, she was already regarded as one of America’s foremost poets. Well into the last century, her poems were part of the canon—and this one, in particular, was a common inclusion in grade-school readers, memorized and recited by generations of students.

If you look at the 1919 textbook Wheeler’s Graded Literary Readers, with Interpretations, you’ll find “Talking in Their Sleep” presented as a straightforward story of plants and trees sleeping through the winter: “In the spring, just as boys and girls awake in the morning, they will awake again.” As a child, I found the poem terrifying. That something should seem dead when sleeping was scary enough; that the seeming-dead should also speak only made it worse. But then, sleep-talking has always frightened me. Read More »

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Arts & Culture

Recapping Dante: Canto 26, or You Can’t Go Home Again

April 21, 2014 | by

Alessandro_Allori_-_Odysseus_questions_the_seer_Tiresias

Alessandro Allori, Odysseus Questions the Seer Tiresias, 1580

We’re recapping the Inferno. Read along! This week: tales of brave Ulysses.

Wrapped in a shroud of fire, sputtering words from the tip of the flickering flame—this is how Ulysses appears to us in canto 26. As Dante approaches the eighth pouch of the eighth circle of hell, he sees sinners in flames; he knows he’ll find Ulysses among these “fireflies that glimmer in the valley.” The man is tied up in a flame with Diomed, both of them being punished for their ruse at Troy. Dante begs Virgil to let Ulysses speak.

When we finally put down the Inferno, Ulysses is one of the sinners we remember best. Not because he’s well known or the architect of one of the greatest schemes in history, but because, like Pier or Francesca, there’s charm, tenderness, and beauty in the way he speaks. On this point, I disagree with Robert Hollander, whose annotations explain that these aforementioned sinners are not meant to be entirely sympathetic—they’re actually self-righteous, Hollander writes, and they’re unable to see the gravity of their sins. By allowing them to speak in a manner that almost absolves them, Dante is even poking fun at them. Read More »

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On the Shelf

A Nation of Postcards, and Other News

April 21, 2014 | by

maine

Image: Boston Public Library

  • On that ever-mysterious rubric, “literary fiction”: “It was clever marketing by publishers to set certain contemporary fiction apart and declare it Literature—and therefore Important, Art, and somehow better than other writing … Jane Austen’s works are described as literary fiction. This is nonsense … Austen never for a moment imagined she was writing Literature. Posterity decided that—not her, not John Murray, not even her contemporary readership. She wrote fiction, to entertain and to make money.”
  • The French economist Thomas Piketty has alighted upon our shores, “like a wonkish heir to de Tocqueville, to tell Americans how to salvage what he called their ‘egalitarian pioneer ideal’ from a potentially devastating ‘drift toward oligarchy.’”
  • A salve for irritated prescriptivists: this new browser extension literally replaces every instance of literally with figuratively, all over the Internet.
  • Gillette’s new razor does violence to the spirit of entrepreneurship: “It’s a men’s razor that does what every other men’s razor since time immemorial has done—removes hair from your face—but with ‘a swiveling ball-hinge’ that the company says will make it easier to get a clean shave … The razor represents everything terrible about America’s innovation economy.”
  • Online, the Boston Public Library has more than 25,000 U.S. postcards from the thirties and forties, all of them vividly illustrated.

 

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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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On Music

Crazy Music

April 18, 2014 | by

Skip Spence’s “music from the other side.”

skip spence

Skip Spence is known for his work in Moby Grape, a seminal psych-rock outfit, and for his only solo album, Oar (1969), which has one of the most gloriously unhinged creation myths in the history of popular music.

In ’68, Spence—who would be, coincidentally, sixty-eight today—was cutting a new Moby Grape record in New York. The city was not bringing out the best in him. One night, as his bandmate Peter Lewis tells it, Spence “took off with some black witch” who “fed him full of acid”: not your garden-variety LSD, mind you, but a powerful variant that supposedly induced a three-day fantasia of hallucinations and cognitive haymaking. The result? “He thought he was the Antichrist.”

Spence strolled over to the Albert Hotel, at Eleventh and University, where he held a fire ax to the doorman’s head; from there, he negotiated his way to a bandmate’s room and took his ax to the door. The place was empty. So he hailed a cab—you know, with an ax—and zipped uptown to the CBS Building, where, on the fifty-second floor, he was at last wrestled to the ground and arrested. He did a six-month stint in Bellevue, where he was deemed schizophrenic. “They shot him full of Thorazine for six months,” Lewis said. “They just take you out of the game.”

But Spence wasn’t out of the game. The same day they released him from Bellevue, he bought a motorcycle, a fucking Harley, and cruised straight on to Nashville, where he planned to record a series of new songs he’d written in the hospital. He was clad, legend maintains, only in pajamas. Read More »

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