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Staff Picks: Connoisseurs, Contact, Cats

April 17, 2015 | by

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From the cover of the Spring 2015 issue of The Normal School.

9780300149425Like many gifted people, connoisseurs are often bad at explaining what they do. At the turn of the last century, Bernard Berenson was the most influential and successful connoisseur of Italian Renaissance art. With a superhuman visual memory, an old-fashioned belief in beauty for its own sake, and rapacious personal charm, this son of working-class Jewish immigrants climbed to the top of robber-baron society. Yet Berenson considered himself a failure as an art theorist, and he went out of his way to sully his hands with shady business deals, blurring the line between worldly success and self-abasement. This is the story Rachel Cohen tells in her engrossing capsule biography Bernard Berenson: A Life in the Picture Trade, a sympathetic portrait of a self-seeking but passionate lover of art. —Lorin Stein

I’ve been exploring Periscope, a new app in which users live stream video and interact with their audience in real time. Its uses are variously creepy (“If I get 300 viewers, my wife takes her tits out”), frivolous (“Driving thru the car wash, check it!!”), and fascinating (“Watch me feed my ten-foot python”)—but at its best it seems to bring a new intimacy to social media. “The Future of Loneliness,” Olivia Laing’s new essay in the Guardian, speaks to the fragility of that intimacy, and asks what networked life is doing to our ability to connect. I know: it’s familiar territory. But Laing avoids both the alarmism and Pollyannaism that so often mark essays about technology. She identifies the unique double-bind of life online, which affords us unprecedented control over our image while making us ever more vulnerable. “We aren’t as solid as we once thought,” she writes. “We are embodied but we are also networks, living on inside machines and in other people’s heads; memories and data streams. We are being watched and we do not have control. We long for contact and it makes us afraid. But as long as we are still capable of feeling and expressing vulnerability, intimacy stands a chance.” —Dan Piepenbring

It would be hard for any book-lover to imagine a more idyllic scene: thirty-two thousand books housed among a slew of renovated buildings on an 1,800-acre ranch in the foothills of Mount Silverheels. Lucky for us, it’s a scene that’s soon to become a reality. Ann Martin and Jeff Lee are the two Denver-based booksellers behind the Rocky Mountain Land Library, an immensely ambitious project some twenty years in the making. The duo was profiled this week in the New York Times after having found a home, in 2013, for their ever-growing Western-themed collection. As far as this reader is concerned, the only thing that might sweeten the deal would be a Paris Review residency ... —Stephen Andrew Hiltner

Having finally recovered from AWP, I’m reading all the great lit mags I picked up there, one of which, The Normal School, is my second favorite of all time. (You can guess which comes first.) The latest issue’s first essay, “Pig, Sea,” by Timothy Denevi, begins on the shore of Galilee, where we promptly witness more than two thousand pigs—“enormous and low, the light shinning in a pink translucence through their ears”—dive from a cliff into the freshwater lake after being possessed by demons only recently exorcised from a local madman. Waterlogged swine corpses aside, the new issue also contains “Marriage in the Movies,” an essay by Phillip Lopate, who explains why he wasn’t convinced by the marriage in Gone Girl by comparing it with more than twenty other marriages in film; and two poems by the late poet laureate Philip Levine, a longtime friend of the magazine. —Jeffery Gleaves

Website_large_catsA cat might be “just a cat,” as “Life of Cats” curator Miwako Tezuka quips—but her new exhibition of cat-related ukiyo-e (Japanese wood-block paintings) at the Japan Society in Midtown will have you thinking otherwise. Long before Hello Kitty and cute cat clips went viral on YouTube, cats were already substantial players in the Japanese daily routine. They infiltrated every area of life, assuming diverse roles and purposes, appearing everywhere from the patterns of warriors’ kimonos to theatrical masks. There are anthropomorphized cat monsters and, yes, the lucky beckoning cat, Maneki-neko, found in Japanese restaurants around the world. With its colorful paintings, “Life of Cats” provides an accessible entry point, encouraging visitors to investigate the oddities of Japanese culture through the eyes of their most enduring, discreet witnesses.  —Charlotte Groult

Family Units

April 9, 2015 | by

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A poster for a production of The Bald Soprano at the Pearl.

Around 1963, my dad was in a summer-camp production of Eugène Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano. He played M. Martin. Sometimes, decades later, he would quote from it to my brother and I. We know from theatre of the absurd, but we thought the bizarre dialogue—the playwright was influenced by the stilted dialogue of the Assimil English–teaching method—was about the most hilarious thing we’d ever heard. We were especially enamored with a story one of the characters relates in the course of the evening. Read More »

Orwell by Way of Langley, and Other News

November 7, 2014 | by

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A still from the British film adaptation of Animal Farm, 1954.

  • Fact: the New York Public Library has among its possessions a letter opener with a handle made from the paw of Charles Dickens’s dead cat. (“The story is that he had trained his cat to put out his night candle with his paw.”)
  • “Genre doesn’t have to be vexing. It can be illuminating. It can be useful for writers and readers to think in terms of groups and traditions. And a good genre system—a system that really fits reality—can help us see the traditions in which we’re already, unconsciously, immersed.”
  • Sixty years ago, the CIA helped to bankroll England’s first-ever animated film: an adaptation of Animal Farm. They thought it would make for great anti-Russian propaganda, especially if they changed the ending, and they knew it would be cheaper to make it in England. “The CIA agent who bought the film rights supposedly promised Mrs. Orwell that he would arrange for her to meet her favorite star, Clark Gable.” Did such a meeting ever occur? When will our government finally tell us the truth?
  • Oops: “Do you remember when the Authors Guild sued Google over Google Book Search, which is basically the right to make an index of stuff in books? They said to Google, ‘If you’re going to do this, you’re going to do it on our terms, and you’re going to have to give us a whole $70 million.’ … Google said, ‘$70 million? Let’s shake the sofa and find some change for you.’ Meanwhile, you are guaranteeing that nobody else in the future history of the world will be able to afford to index books, which is one of the ways people find and buy books. Now Google owns that forever, for a mere $70 million! Nice work, Authors Guild. You’ve just made us all sharecroppers in Google’s fields for the rest of eternity.”
  • The latest battle in the Usage Wars is really heating up: “If you say ‘It’s not you, it’s me,’ you are probably a native speaker of English or someone with a good command of how native speakers actually speak. If you say ‘It’s not you—it’s I,’ you will quickly achieve the goal of making the other person not want to spend any more time with you. Yet this bizarre formulation is just how Nathan Heller of The New Yorker would have you speak.”

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Tiny Books About Cats

October 22, 2014 | by

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From Adlai Stevenson’s Veto 1949, illustrated by Alice Garman.

Given the passionate nature of bibliophiles, the fanatical devotion of cat fanciers, and the obsessive tendencies of miniaturists, it only stands to reason that when the three join forces, it is to form the most powerful coalition in the world. (Or the least powerful, I suppose, depending on how one quantifies these things.) In any event, what you end up with are miniature cat-themed books, a prominent subgenre.

I fell down this particular rabbit hole when I ran across the miniature bookstore on Berlin’s Torellstraße. It’s affiliated with Freundeskreis Miniaturbuch Berlin, one of many associations of miniature-book collectors; there are miniature-book societies around the world. (The best museum for miniature books is said to be in Baku.)

As Louis Wolfgang Bondy, an enthusiast, wrote in his 1988 book Miniaturbücher von den Anfängen bis Heute (Miniature Books from the Beginnings Until Today),

In this small world, books occupy a place of honor. They join to the great skill lavished on their creation the crowning glory of man’s spirit enshrined in their text. Small wonder then that the ranks of collectors who specialize in them and who cherish, nay adore, them is forever growing … An increasing number of people are convinced of the dictum that small is beautiful.

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Pati Hill, 1921–2014

September 24, 2014 | by

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An illustration by B. Whistler Dabney for Pati Hill’s essay “Cats,” from our ninth issue.

The Paris Review was saddened to learn that Pati Hill, a frequent contributor and longtime friend of the magazine, died last Friday at ninety-three. A native of Kentucky, Hill worked during the forties and fifties as a model in France, where she was part of the same community of expats that included George Plimpton and the founders of the Review.

Over the years, beginning with our second issue, Hill published six stories and an essay with the Review; her last contribution, part of a series of sketches, came in Spring 1981. She wrote a pair of well-regarded books—a novel and a memoir—in the fifties, but today she’s probably best known for her art, which made early and innovative use of an IBM photocopier, as an obituary in the Times says.

To celebrate Hill, we’re posting her essay “Cats,” from our Summer 1955 issue, in its entirety, with a pair of illustrations by B. Whistler Dabney. It begins:

I like cats as far as creatures go. I like almost any animal that does not have horns or scales on it for that matter, but I especially like cats. Any sort and denomination: spotted or solid, fat or thin, with and without fleas. I like them and admire them and almost anything they do is a pleasure to me.

The way they can walk around the rim of a bathtub, for instance, without falling in and the way they can get comfortable in any old place. There is nothing better than a cat looking out from behind a pot of geraniums on a windowsill or walking slowly down a country road of a summer evening. There is something at once comforting and disquieting about a cat which makes him attractive.

They are wonderful when they stick their noses cautiously into a hole and then back out again, and when they flatten down their ears the tops of their heads look like giant bumblebees. Also they have marvelous feet. When a cat puts his paw on the head of a half eaten fish it is at once delicate and dainty and fierce and when he retracts his claws again he is most beautifully innocent like firearms in a shop window or a pin-cushion with no pins in it.

Read the rest here.

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To Serve and Protect

August 4, 2014 | by

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Not, alas, an actual archival photo.

Cats Hate Cops” is a tidy black-and-white pamphlet from Research & Destroy, a “radical zine collective” based in New York. Its title may seem, to the casual observer, like an editorial statement, but make no mistake: it’s a fact. The zine’s sixty-two pages comprise 150 years of cat-on-cop violence, all of it diligently chronicled by our nation’s newspapers—hard evidence, in other words. The first report is from 1805, when, in Edinburgh, a man attempting to police his dairy met with a cat bite on the neck; the latest is from the Melbourne Age, which last January ran a sidebar called “Anatomy of a Cat Attack.” (“Police close one lane and engage Scratchy, who resists.” Attaboy, Scratchy!)

Whether these are disconnected incidents or the enactment of a kind of feline political philosophy remains to be seen, but my money’s on the latter. It just makes sense. Cats and humans are coevolved; the Scratchys and Tigers of the world have had ample time to form opinions about authoritarianism and the police state. And think about it: Have you ever seen a cat driving a cruiser? Have you even once seen a cat with a badge? These animals want Friskies, not frisking.

Of course, the media tends to side with the state. “A mad cat upset the general routine of things last Friday morning at a grocery store,” reads a 1939 blurb, failing thereafter to give the cat’s point of view. Time and again, “Cats Hate Cops” describes a world in which the humane treatment of animals is not a going concern, and in which the police are generally assumed to be competent executors of the public will. The prose is often blunt: “After clubbing the animal into insensibility they shot it through the head,” one story ends.

The zine is available from Brown Recluse Zine Distro; below are two of my favorite entries. Read More »

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