The Daily

On the Shelf

A Battery of Tests for You, and Other News

August 19, 2016 | by

“The Make a Picture Story Test,” a psychological study from 1942. Image courtesy Redstone Press, via The New Yorker.

  • Elif Batuman has been reading Psychobook, a new collection of what can only be described as vintage psychological tests. The book is designed for many things, but not to make its readers feel sane: “No less than the many tests in its pages, Psychobook is itself a kind of inkblot, certain to evoke different emotions and associations from different people. For this reader, one recurring sensation was that of a deeply American beleaguerment, with some Eastern European overtones. I thought again and again of the immigrant woman, landing like Kafka’s hero on American shores after a long and, one feels, psychically taxing boat ride, facing the first of many new puzzles in a strange new land … It’s not immediately clear why this book exists, but it would probably look great in a therapist’s waiting room.”
  • Today in junk that might also be art—or, at least, junk that you could soon own: Tekserve, a computer-support shop not far from the Review’s offices in Chelsea, ended its twenty-nine-year run this week. As a kind of progenitor of the Apple store, the business amassed a lot of obsolete technology over the decades, and now you can buy that stuff at auction. Have you had your eye on a Philco Predicta TV? An early “magic lantern” slide projector? A Braille display processor? A Nagra 4.2 portable mono tape recorder? Or perhaps the storied “Mac Museum,” “which comprises thirty-five computers that represent the development of Apple from 1984 to 2004”?
  • Since 1982, the London Review of Books has had featured writers from all over the world for their Diary column. Until this week, no one could say which corners of the globe, exactly, had been represented in the LRB’s pages—but now they’ve gone ahead and marked all eight hundred of their contributors on a map. Note the presences, of course, but also the absences. No one has ever filed a diary from Mongolia or Indonesia, for instance—book your flights now and refine your pitches from thirty thousand feet.

From the Archive

First Breakfast at Home Following an Emergency Appendectomy

August 18, 2016 | by

Redtail_Hawk

Judy Longley’s poem “First Breakfast at Home Following an Emergency Appendectomy” appeared in our Summer 1998 issueHer collection My Journey Toward You was the 1993 winner of the Marianne Moore Prize for PoetryRead More »

Arts & Culture

Liquor License

August 18, 2016 | by

Why are there so many bars in my novel?

A postcard for the Silver Dollar Bar, Jackson, Wyoming.

Novels are long, and you have to fill them with stuff, and that stuff tends to accumulate in patterns, laying bare your preoccupations. If you’re hung up on something, there’s a good chance it will appear, somehow, in the production of three to four hundred pages of fiction. For instance, Wallace had tennis; Joyce had meat. (“Steak, kidney, liver, mashed at meat fit for princes.”) Rereading my debut novel, The Grand Tour, I’ve discovered I have an obsession, too: I like bars.

Even for a novel about an alcoholic writer and bartender, my book has a lot of bars. Sixteen, in fact: sixteen instances in which characters appear at sixteen different bars. Seemingly at every chance, Richard, The Grand Tour’s protagonist, walks into bars, sits down, and drinks. I knew the book featured a lot of bars, but sixteen is more than I’d imagined, and it raises some troubling questions. Whence these many saloons? Whither these sundry watering holes? And what’s wrong with diners, or teahouses, or hookah lounges? Read More »

Our Correspondents

Shanghai 1962

August 18, 2016 | by

How my mother’s accordion led to a chance encounter in Mao’s China.

wei-tchou

For years my parents have told me about a photograph that shows my mother shaking hands with Zhou Enlai, the first premier of China under Mao Zedong. The photograph was taken in 1962, four years before the Cultural Revolution began, but it was lost until a few weeks ago, when a barrage of Instagram notifications, texts, e-mails, and WeChat messages alerted me that the picture had been found. It had turned up on Facebook, of all places, in a post detailing the history of my mother’s grade school in Shanghai. (A point of recent pride: Yao Ming, the basketball player, was a student at the same school, albeit decades later). An aunt of mine who lives in Hong Kong forwarded the picture to my father, who then distributed it across the Internet.

In the picture, my mother is fourteen. Her hair is in a low ponytail and she has an accordion strapped over her shoulders. She wears a checked knee-length skirt, a white blouse, white ankle socks, and Mary Janes. Several rows of Chinese flags fly in the background; in front of these stand many smiling girls holding bouquets of flowers. All eyes in the picture are on Zhou Enlai as he grips my mother’s hand. He’s tall and handsome, in a Mao suit and strappy sandals. Her smile is easy and uncalculated, bordering on surprise.Read More »

On the Shelf

Baronial Colonials, and Other News

August 18, 2016 | by

The alligator insignia of “The Calcutta Pococurante Society.” Image via the Public Domain Review.

  • I’ve never understood the appeal of mixed martial arts—too often it features, as Matthew Shen Goodman puts it, “an unending barrage of increasingly indistinguishable bald men and cornrowed women with terrible tattoos throwing the same one-two into a low kick and wrestle-fucking each other into the fence.” But maybe we’re watching it for the storytelling? Or maybe not: “MMA’s drama tends to be somewhat undercooked and boring, or terrifying and repulsive: incidents of domestic violence; hyping fights with xenophobic slurs (please, Conor and Joanna, stop telling your Brazilian opponents to go back to the jungle or that you’ll ransack their villages on horseback) or intense narratives about face-punching for Jesus/America/family legacy. There are a few fighters who thrive on being death spirits personified (Robbie Lawler, for example, who soberly told a broadcaster he takes people’s souls on Atlanta local television), but an actual story is often lacking, as are characters. This makes for difficult viewing, given how many fights there are, and the fact that you usually have to pay to watch, as well as the time spent sitting through ads for MetroPCS and new appetizers at Buffalo Wild Wings.”
  • Everyone knows that Netflix’s Stranger Things pays homage to eighties-era horror and sci-fi, but if you want to be a real asshole at the next party you go to, you can insist that its roots go much, much deeper, back to Lovecraft and an earlier tradition of speculative fiction: “The idea—central to Stranger Things—that the unnatural is weirder, more widespread, and therefore scarier than the state of nature dates back at least to 1927, when H. P. Lovecraft published a short story called ‘The Colour Out of Space.’ It’s about a meteor that lands on a farm in rural Massachusetts. A strange life-form is buried within the meteor, and it soon leaches into the soil. The farm’s plants begin to glow in shades ‘unlike any known colors of the normal spectrum.’ The animals, too, begin to move in unnatural ways. Eventually, the life-form takes a concrete shape. It begins to move about, stalking the farmer and his family and turning their bodies into a kind of living ash. Of the meteor, the narrator concludes, ‘It was nothing of the earth, but a piece of the great outside.’ ” 
  • Before fat shaming was a thing, there was Roald Dahl, peppering his books with gluttons and the many objects of their gluttony. As Annalisa Quinn writes, food in Dahl’s work is uniquely fraught: “If you look closely, the danger inherent in food is everywhere. There’s the dinner party in ‘Taste,’ Dahl’s chilling adult short story in which the host bets his gourmand guest that he won’t guess the provenance of the wine (the prize: his daughter); the chocolate Xanadu of Willy Wonka, where handling food the wrong way subjects you to contortions and tortures; and the dripping, voluptuous peach that kills James’ aunts. He entices us and then shows us what happens if we succumb: derision, loss of bodily autonomy, death.”
  • Calcutta in the early nineteenth century was full of British fat cats cooling their heels in various exotic locales. Joshua Ehrlich looks at 1833’s Calcutta Quarterly Magazine, which includes a bizarre supplement mocking a fictitious group called the “Calcutta Pococurante Society” for its indulgent ways: “The members’ wandering dinner chat, peppered with lines of poetry and elements of the occult, is not the kind of thing modern readers are used to seeing in print. Nor is it obvious why past readers should have wanted to … It is striking, meanwhile, how little the text is concerned with India or Indians … The aloofness of the British transplants, their dislocation from their surroundings, seems part of the satire … At the Society’s dinner, even local ingredients are rendered in French on the menu. The members discuss almost exclusively Western politics, philosophy, and literature. On the rare occasions when the east enters the scene, it does so obliquely and fancifully, for instance in the decoration of the Society’s meeting place: ‘a Turkish tent of white silk … Ottomans of pale Blue and Gold … a profusion of Purple Velvet drapery.’ The everyday experience of life in India is relegated to outside the tent-flaps.”
  • While we’re on the British empire: Zimbabwe’s Harare City Library boasts a new Doris Lessing Special Collection, commemorating the thirty-five hundred books she gave to the library after her death. Lessing had a special history with the place, as Percy Zvomuya writes: “Lessing lived in Southern Rhodesia between 1925 (when she was six) and 1949 … The independent Zimbabwe that Lessing returned to in the 1980s was a different country from the Southern Rhodesia she left in 1949, which had declared her a ‘prohibited immigrant’ when she went back in 1956. She described it as an ‘awful place’ in one interview. ‘Only someone who’s lived in these dreadful colonial places will understand why. They are so dead and narrow and stultifying. If you are living in that kind of society where a small number of people are oppressing a great many, they become obsessed by the fact, and they talk about nothing else, day and night. And I always think of Goethe, who said, if you are going to keep a man down in the ditch, you are going to have to get into the ditch with him.’ ”

Correspondence

A Jolly Companion

August 17, 2016 | by

Hans Hoffmann, A Hedgehog, sixteenth century.

Ted Hughes was born on this day in 1930. In a 1950 letter to Edna Wholey, he dilated on his love of hedgehogs. Read more of his correspondence in Letters of Ted Hughes, edited by Christopher Reid. Read More »