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Posts Tagged ‘culture’

Staff Picks: No Conscience, No Hope, No October

March 6, 2015 | by


Ilf and Petrov.

In the latest London Review of Books, Adam Phillips conducts a restless interrogation of conscience, that most eminent and most frustrating of moral constructs. We take it as a given, Phillips points out, that self-criticism has some purgative or ameliorative influence, that it moves us to better ourselves. But it’s more often an exercise in a kind of self-slavery: “We seem to relish the way it makes us suffer.” Why do we put such stock in our superego, who is, after all, mainly a reproachful asshole? “Were we to meet this figure socially, this accusatory character, this internal critic, this unrelenting fault-finder, we would think there was something wrong with him. He would just be boring and cruel. We might think that something terrible had happened to him, that he was living in the aftermath, in the fallout, of some catastrophe. And we would be right.” There follows a fascinating Freudian reading of Hamlet, a meditation on cowardice, and a careful deconstruction of the superego, from whose ridiculousness Phillips draws an inspired conclusion. “Just as the overprotected child believes that the world must be very dangerous,” he writes, “so we have been terrorized by all this censorship and judgment into believing that we are radically dangerous to ourselves and others.” —Dan Piepenbring

When I saw the first installment of Knausgaard’s travelogue for the New York Times Magazine, I thought of Ilf and Petrov’s American Roadtrip, their account of driving around the U.S. for ten weeks in 1935. But in truth, the two chronicles have little in common. Where Knausgaard is expansive and self-seeking, Ilf and Petrov are witty and concisely observant. “And on a chilly November morning we left New York for America,” they write, later finding the archetype of the American landscape at “an intersection of two roads and a gasoline station against a ground of wires and advertising signs.” Both Ilf and Petrov had experience in journalism—they met while working for the proletariat magazine Gudok—but I hadn’t read this early work until this week, when I saw Steven Volynets’s translation in Asymptote of a 1923 feuilleton by Ilf called “A Country That Didn’t Have October.” It’s an atmospheric recitation of the waves of occupation and retreat in Odessa during the civil war and World War I. Volynets calls it an “atomization” of the city’s fervor, and I was frequently reminded of Mayakovsky’s brash, agitated poems. Of 1917, Mayakovsky writes, “The drum of war thunders and thunders. / It calls: thrust iron into the living,” to which Ilf adds a description of the “worker provinces … where the factory smokestacks and horns ominously billowed and tooted. The [revolutionaries’] gaze fell upon the black depot, on the flurried seaport, on the rumbling, ringing, groaning railroad shops.” —Nicole Rudick

If you liked Leslie Jamison’s Empathy Exams or Charles D’Ambrosio’s Loitering, try Steven Church’s latest collection, Ultrasonica group of essays brought together by the theme of sound. Church at times seems to say, I make noise, therefore I am. He dissects the nature of sound waves in a racquetball court, counts the seconds between lightning and thunder, and listens for signs of life from trapped Chilean miners—and his digressions invariably come back around to sucker punch you. Church uses sound to explore notions of masculinity and fatherhood, love and death. He elaborates on his methods and inspirations in an interview with Jacket Copy: “I did a Google search for ‘blue noise’ … I read a sentence that said, ‘Blue noise makes a good dither,’ and, though I had no idea what it meant, I loved how it sounded. The sentence became a puzzle that I wanted to solve and, before I knew it, something like a book project began to take shape as individual essays, each focused on sound in some way.” —Jeffery Gleaves
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“A Few Leaves Too Many,” and Other News

December 15, 2014 | by


Paul Cézanne, The Bare Trees at Jas de Bouffan, 1885–86.

  • Paul Muldoon on Beckett’s collected letters: “The letters collected here come in the wake of the success, in 1955, of the English version of Waiting for Godot, the play in which, according to the critic Vivian Mercier, ‘nothing happens, twice.’ One of the few things that do happen is that the tree that’s barren in Act I develops some foliage in Act II. But, as the high priest of lessness writes to the director Jerzy Krecz­mar of the 1957 Warsaw production—‘The tree is perfect (perhaps a few leaves too many in the second act!)’—even that mustn’t be overstated.”
  • Merriam-Webster’s word of the year is … culture. “When you put it next to another word it means something very different,” their editor at large said.
  • The science of mondegreens: Why do we mishear lyrics? (“You’re much more likely to mishear ‘Cry Me a River’ as ‘Crimean River’ if you’ve recently been discussing the situation in Ukraine.”)
  • How can a writer make goodness interesting? George Eliot tried to do so by examining redemption in Silas Marner. The only problem is that the narrative jumps ahead, giving us the miserly misanthrope before and the radiant saint after he adopts a lost child … But where are the unheroic, sane, consistent, quiet goodnesses? As literature thrives on conflict, the idea of a sequestered, sanguine goodness might seem impossible.”
  • The language of food: a new book crunches the data on the descriptions of 650,000 dishes from 6,500 menus. “Satisfied customers can be remarkably price-sensitive, if unconsciously so. The pleasures of expensive food are equated with sex; foie gras is seared ‘seductively’ and apple tart is ‘orgasmic.’ Cheap food, by contrast, is compared to drugs. Reviewers demand a ‘fix’ of fried chicken and liken cupcakes to crack.”


Staff Picks: Reading Aloud, Rayon Dresses, Red Phones

December 5, 2014 | by


Straight to Moscow.

Our Summer issue this year included Garth Greenwell’s story “Gospodar.” Though I didn’t then know that Greenwell is also a poet, it now seems obvious: his language in the story is economical and precise and yet so fluid. Two and a half years ago, Greenwell’s friend, Max Freeman, a filmmaker and photographer, filmed him reading three of his poems. Greenwell is a superb reader, and I was transfixed by the movement of his face on camera—“enthralled like a bird before a snake,” as he says in the first poem. (Actually, I had to watch the video a couple times because I forgot to pay attention to the words the first time.) The oddly touching “Faculty Meeting with Fly” is the second poem, in which a fly provides interest and pleasure during an otherwise dull moment: “No one before has traced precisely that path / along the thinner vein of my wrist, yet you take / such delight there / … while / beneath you subterraneously my blood must roar / and thrum you like a lyre.” But it’s the last poem, “An Evening Out”—wistful, gorgeous, and sad—that makes the video, and Greenwell’s face, so compelling. —Nicole Rudick

I haven’t read many novels as spooky and sublime and psychologically acute as Forrest Gander’s The Trace. It’s the portrait of a couple in crisis and their misguided road trip through the Chihuahua desert, on the tracks of the writer Ambrose Bierce. Gander’s landscapes are lyrical and precise (“raw gashed mountains, gnarly buttes of andesite”), and his study of a marriage on the rocks is as empathetic as it is unsparing. —Robyn Creswell

Sarah Lazarovic sat down with her brushes and did not stop painting until she’d revealed her entire messy, colorful, and witty journey from a teenaged “fashion-maybe” to a bona fide adult shopping ambassador. In her charmingly illustrated new book, A Bunch of Pretty Things I Did Not Buy, Lazarovic explains how a mall-lovin’ middle-schooler’s early obsession with scrunchy socks later ballooned into a full-blown consumer obsession with clothes of every possible description. Lazarovic’s story will especially resonate for the late Gen Xer who may have similarly cycled through the Gap Girl to Thrift Girl to Goth Girl to I-just-can’t-have-enough-little-rayon-dresses-for-under-twenty-bucks Girl, who along the way also made good use of the venerable scrunchie and the ubiquitous safety pin when the outfit or occasion called for it. Lazarovic meditates on the “ill-defined distinction between fashion and shopping,” stating that “in childhood we create fashion with very little shopping (except you, Suri Cruise).” Her adult self craves a minimal wardrobe and a spare closet. She writes, “What I love best is how time often reveals a solution to what I need that doesn’t involve buying.” She closes her diary with expert tips on how to fill your own closet with quality over mass quantity. —Charlotte Strick
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Freak City

August 26, 2014 | by


Film still from Ulrike Ottinger’s Freak Orlando.

Would it be frivolous to bring a class-action lawsuit against the Emmys? I can’t be the only one who slept poorly and, when she did drop off, slid into nightmare. One assumes productivity suffered. Wages and jobs may even have been lost.

It’s not just the contrast to the state of the world and the country that rankles. This is the nature of the beast. Opening monologues based on racial tensions and international crises have never been calculated to keep network viewers glued to the screen. It's not merely the crumminess of the writing, which was stale and dull, full of hoary, tone-deaf jokes and bits that would have felt démodé on The Benny Hill Show. Or even the monotony of the awards themselves, which overwhelmingly favored a couple of programs; a rout is never very entertaining.

People looked creepy. I know we all realize this, but it bears repeating. We are as physically grotesque right now as at any time and place in human history. The face-lifts, the fillers, the wasted, sinewy limbs are now the rule, not the exception. We all know why; the fetishization of youth—and its spiritual implications—are recognized by everyone. And yet, our cultural tolerance for true unnaturalness is unbelievably high. This is horrifying, but it is also fascinating. And this has got to be a unique moment: within five years, plastic surgery techniques will have evolved. Makeup artists and chemists will have better adapted to the harshness of HD. In a decade, we’ll look back with shock at what we accepted as normal and desirable. Never before, and never again, will things be as bad. Relish it. Read More »

A Week in Beirut

September 19, 2012 | by


I wake up early to make ice cream for an old friend who is visiting from Riyadh. I blow a fuse in the power converter getting the machine to turn fast enough, but I have a spare fuse and all is well. The visiting friend, Matt, flies in on Saudi Arabian Airlines, which is now a member of SkyTeam, so you can use your miles on Delta or Air France. That night, Matt, my wife, and I stay up late drinking beer and wine and telling stories about the life we shared in Riyadh, where my daughter was born and where Matt still spends weekends DJing parties.


Matt and I follow the old coast road up to Byblos, where the ticket taker laughs when I say we met in Riyadh. He asks, “You are an American?” When I confirm, he says, “Ahlen Wa Sahlen,” which means “welcome.” Under a blazing September sun, Matt and I climb ten-thousand-year-old stairs, noting how few guardrails or official paths there are. Then I find a pomegranate tree growing from rocky soil, and we pause to admire the strange fruit hanging from gnarled branches. Hungry, we take a car to a fish restaurant that’s been open forty years. Lunch is grilled sea bass, which we eat on a table in the water, so that waves wash up our legs and sometimes splash on the fish, giving it a little more salt. Before we can leave, our waiter insists on my taking a shot. I ask for something brown, and he takes down a bottle of coffee-flavored Patrón.


I make sure Matt sees this killer little cassette shop, Deep Music, which is just down the block from my apartment. Then we have a final lunch at a nearby restaurant, where they bake their own bread and many, if not all, of the salad greens are local and organic. We each drink a spicy pale ale, brewed by a guy I see around town, and then we share a bowl of merguez sausages drowning in sour syrup, and a seafood frikeh made with an intensely, earth-green grain.

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A Week in Culture: Nico Muhly, Composer, Part 2

February 17, 2011 | by

This is the second installment of Muhly’s culture diary. Click here to read part 1.

Photograph by Samantha West.


10:15 A.M. While I slept, iTunes seems to have downloaded the complete collected works of MNDR. I must have gone on a pre-ordering binge, because it also is trying to download the film of Never Let Me Go. I’m listening to “I go away,” from the MNDR track. I like electronic-based slowish tracks; I loved that Capslock track off the MIA album whose title I dare not reproduce here. I wish there were a more poetic way to describe the rhythmic passage of time than “tick tock.” I’m looking at this queue: yet more SVU and the new Top Chef are coming! I fly tonight back to New York so maybe I can sneak one of these in on the plane.

3:00 P.M. Good God! The BBC has a story about the “history” of chai in India. The segment begins with a twelve-second history of tea that elides over the idea of Empire so quickly it feels like a blow to the solar plexus. I reach a Kiplingesque encounter with a terra-cotta cup maker in Kolkata just as we reach the rental car return, so I don’t have a moment to jot down who was responsible for this. They should write opera libretti! I do wonder who is responsible for radio’s “generic ethnic background noise.” I’m convinced that if you slow down the audio and remove the host’s voice, you’ll hear the same group of five people chattering—be it a story about Inuit fishing quotas or the assassination of Benazir Bhutto.

9:00 P.M. A calm post-flight evening of take-out and listening to Ella Fitzgerald. I am preparing for Saturday night, which is when I will be seeing the Metropolitan Opera’s production of John Adams’s Nixon in China with a bunch of friends. I have the score perched next to my computer. I watch the first twelve minutes of an episode of Top Chef with Isaac Mizrahi saying outrageous things to the cheftestants and pass out.

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