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A Week in Culture: Jane Ciabattari, Writer, Part 2

February 3, 2011 | by

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

Photograph by Panya Phongsavan.


11:00 A.M. Go out to a café to read a first novel I’m reviewing. Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! is about a family of alligator wrestlers. Talk about Southern Gothic. I’m finding the language fresh and original. Describing a deserted house in the swamp: “A huge hole in the middle of the ceiling opened onto a clear night sky; it looked as if some great predator had peeled the thatched roof back, sniffed once and lost interest.”

6:30 P.M. The panelists for tonight’s National Book Critics Circle discussion I’m moderating, “Book Reviews, Revamped,” are all sitting in the office of Noreen Tomassi, the executive director of the Center for Fiction. I love this place. Floors of books, collections dating back to the nineteenth century.

Once the audience has gathered, we head downstairs to the second floor, where we have a discussion of the ways in which four publications are headed into the new decade.

Jennifer MacDonald, who is involved with revamping The New York Times Book Review, breaks news: in February Paper Cuts is merging into the ArtsBeat blog, and they have hired a new children’s book editor, Pamela Paul.

Robert Messenger, who launched the Wall Street Journal’s stand-alone print book section this fall, says he’s not reinventing a book-review section, he’s preserving an old form, and Rupert Murdoch wants him to edit for the reader, not for advertisers.

Craig Teicher talks about Publishers Weekly’s revival under a new owner, the poetry coverage, and the news blog he’s started.

Barbara Hoffert talks about writing the weekly prepub alert for Library Journal, and mentions the new opportunities for small presses and work in translation to be reviewed.

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A Week in Culture: Jane Ciabattari, Writer

February 2, 2011 | by

Photograph by Panya Phongsavan.


8:42 A.M. I sit on the couch, drinking cold leftover coffee, reading through the printout of the novel I’m working on. The week’s first cultural artifact is the most elusive: a work of fiction in progress, still finding its shape. I’m working on the last quarter of the book, which is mostly rough draft. I’ve been weaving together three narrative threads, set in different time periods, from the 1830s, when two families work together on the underground railroad in small-town Illinois, to 2004.

To see how other writers handle structure with multiple points of view and chapters that slide around in time, I’ve been rereading Heidi Durrow’s first novel, The Girl Who Fell from the Sky. It’s clear by page twenty that young Rachel’s Danish mother jumped off a roof with her three young children, and that only Rachel survived. Durrow keeps building suspense. In the first chapter, Rachel has gone to live with her black grandmother. She is the “new girl” in school: “I learn that black people don’t have blue eyes. I learn that I am black. I have blue eyes. I put all these facts into the new girl.”

I’m suddenly reminded of Quicksand, an autobiographical first novel by the Harlem Renaissance writer Nella Larsen. It’s mentioned in Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts’s collagelike book of essays, Harlem Is Nowhere. I pull out the galley and double check. Yes, Rhodes-Pitt writes that Helga Crane, the narrator in Larsen’s novel, is both black and Danish, as is Larsen, the author. Rachel in the Durrow novel seems to be a cultural descendant of Helga, who has a fractured sense of self but finds temporary contentment in “Harlem, teeming black Harlem.”

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France Honors Philip Gourevitch

January 31, 2011 | by

Photograph by Chris Maluszynski.

We wish to offer a hearty congratulations to our former editor, Philip Gourevitch, who will be awarded this evening with the insignia of chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters at the French Embassy in New York.

Gourevitch served the Review from March 2005 to March 2010, where he published notable writers such as Damon Galgut, Barbara Demick, Mohsin Hamid, and Danielle Evans. The chevalier is awarded only twice a year to a handful of individuals who have contributed to French culture across the world.

Félicitations, Philip! We raise a glass in your honor tonight.


Guy Deutscher on ‘Through the Language Glass’

November 9, 2010 | by

Guy Deutscher, right. Photograph by Janie Steen.

Have you ever asked someone if the hot water is in the uphill tap? Maybe you’ve warned a friend of the fire ants north of his foot. Or perhaps you’ve merely suggested, with all delicacy, that your date might like to brush the cake crumbs from her mountainward cheek. Doesn’t make any sense? Maybe that’s because you don’t speak Tzeltal, Guugu Yimithirr, or Balinese. In Through the Language Glass, Guy Deutscher discusses these and other differences in thought and perception occasioned by the world’s many tongues. He is currently an honorary research fellow at the School of Languages, Linguistics and Cultures at the University of Manchester. Recently, he answered some of my questions about his new book via e-mail.

In the introduction to your book, you point out the many ways the general public overestimates the influence of language on thought and experience. Why do you think that is? And are there any respects in which ordinary people underestimate language’s influence?

Can it be that we tend to overestimate the influence of language partly because we so often underestimate the intelligence of other people? Think about common arguments on the lines of “if you call something X, people will believe it’s X just because of the name.” We rarely hear, “If you call something X, I will start believing it’s X just because of the name.” I obviously know better. But others don’t. This type of overestimation has a long history. One of the earliest discussions of the influence of language on thought was an essay by the Bible scholar Johann David Michaelis from 1760, which won the prize of the of the Prussian academy. In it, Michaelis explains that if, for example, one gave completely different names to two vegetables which are in reality quite similar, “the people” would never suspect that they are similar. He’d obviously not heard of clementines, mandarins, tangarines, and satsumas.

On the other hand, it is also true that we underestimate the influence of language, as I tried to show in the book. What we are not sufficiently aware of is the force of the habits that language can create, through the distinctions that it trains us to make and the types of information that it trains us to be attentive to from an early age. And ironically, the areas where the mother-tongue can make a real impact on thought are exactly where common sense would expect all languages to be the same, for instance in the way we describe the space around us or the way we talk about colors.

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A Week in Culture: Radhika Jones, Editor

September 1, 2010 | by


MORNING Tea1 and the NYT Editor's Choice on the iPad. Morning commute: F train, relatively uncrowded because it's the end of August. Reading survey reveals it's a periodical-dominated morning: the Times, the WSJ, the Metro, the Post, and two people facing off with The New Yorker. I pull out my advanced reader's copy of Skippy Dies, which I am in the middle of, and which is so absorbing2 that I need to be careful not to miss my stop.

Second cup of tea steeping in office kitchen. Delightful news via memo left under my door: from now on, the motion-sensor light in my office will only come on if I push it. I hate the fluorescent light, but until now have been powerless to disengage it. Now I will just never turn it on!

Wake up computer and look at to see what my colleagues have been up to overnight. Also look at the NYTimes Web site, and the Guardian, and Talking Points Memo. And a few book blogs, an old Paris Review habit I've reignited in these slightly news-slow summer months—which is how I come across the sad story of the death of VQR's managing editor.

On deck for this morning: signing off on finished magazine pages; ideas meeting; edits for next week. Also opening all the mail that has piled up in the last few weeks. I should open my mail every day. Then it would not pile up. I know that, but sometimes I rebel3, and this time it has gotten so bad that random colleagues have begun stopping by my office and offering to help me open it. I am the office Collyer Brother.

Morning meeting over. Half an hour until next meeting. Office gloriously unfluorescent. Work takes on low-lit, romantic flavor.

E-mail from my brother wondering which Scrabble app he should download so we can play together. I want to play with him, but he lives in Andover, Mass., so if we are to play, I will have to join Facebook4.

Open InCopy. I love InCopy. It lets me work in layout, and secretly I've always wanted to be a graphic designer. This reminds me that I never saw that documentary Helvetica, all about the font. Turn on iPad and add Helvetica to Netflix queue. It's available for instant viewing! Maybe I will watch it this weekend.

Meetings meetings meetings. Lunch!

AFTERNOON Back at my desk after Italian food and a lovely chat with an entertainment publicist who fills me in on a few fall movies. Caitlin Roper (of Paris Review fame) alerts me to a tweet from Bill Burton saying the President just bought a copy of Jonathan Franzen's Freedom. I'm going to go ahead and assume that's because we put Franzen on the cover of Time. President Obama, if you need any more book recommendations, feel free to call me directly. I think you'd really like David Mitchell.

Heroically refrain from reading Skippy Dies during multicolor wheel spin while waiting for InCopy file to open.

Culturally with-it colleague Gilbert Cruz drops by, ostensibly with a work question but actually to recommend I watch the Free Willy horror movie recut on YouTube. It's fantastic. Then we watch The Shining recut as romantic comedy. Then, because I am a Harry Potter fan, I must read "Harry Potter and the Prisoners of Gitmo" on, about the books on offer for Guantanamo detainees.

Call neighborhood bookstore, BookCourt on Court Street, to see about the first Paul Murray book. They don't have it, alas. Meanwhile, twilight is coming on, and it's kind of dark in here. May need to buy an office lamp.

LATER Writing headlines is hard.

LATER STILL I'm done for the day. Skippy and I are reunited!

EVENING Friday nights were made for catching up on Top Chef. Life before DVR—I've blocked it from my memory. Read More »


  1. P.G. Tips, half teaspoon sugar, half teaspoon honey, splash of milk.
  2. It's Paul Murray's second novel, out August 31 in the U.S., and I am going to review it for Time.
  3. Against myself? The post office? All the publishers who put out books and mail them to me?
  4. I didn't join at the beginning, and then I missed the second through eighth waves of enthusiasm and proselytizing. I figured I would just continue blithely through life, Facebook-free, forgetting people's birthdays. But now… Scrabble. Will it be my downfall? This is one of those luxurious dilemmas we face in the developed world.


A Week in Culture: Reagan Arthur, Part 2

June 24, 2010 | by

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


6:10 A.M. The New York Times. More about Israel and the Gaza attacks. A surprising waste of space devoted to a co-op spat on the Upper East Side. I love reading about real estate and rich people behaving badly, but this feels small: boring fight and boring story. Bob Herbert on the oil spill. Henin and Ginepri are out of the French Open.

7:00 A.M. Managed to miss the train. On the bus instead, where my usual carsickness subsides enough to let me continue Operation Franzen.

8:15 A.M. E-mail includes news of a rave review by Julie Orringer in the Washington Post of Frederick Reiken’s Day For Night. I already loved Julie Orringer, but now I think she can do no wrong.

8:20 A.M. Great interview on the Huffington Post with Cal Morgan, editor at Harper Perennial and one of my earliest publishing pals when we were both at St. Martin’s Press. Cal is publishing some terrific fiction, in a really interesting way.

8:36 A.M. My morning spin around the blogs. Maud Newton, Betsy Lerner, Elegant Variation, Galley Cat, Sarah Weinman. With BEA last week I’m a little behind on these, and I see that Maud has been, as always, sharp and smart—this time about Garrison Keillor’s recent prediction that publishing is on its deathbed. Betsy Lerner writes about writing, publishing, and being an agent, and it’s beyond me how she manages to post a smart and witty new entry every day, but her blog has become a welcome daily habit.

12:23 P.M. Publishers Weekly, with round-up of last week’s BEA at Javits. Photo of Jon Stewart, who hosted the sold-out author breakfast, and provided the quote of the fair when he followed Condoleeza Rice’s apparently great speech with: “Don’t MAKE me like you.” I perform the editorial review scan: race through the review section for my own books, as well as books I saw, bid on, or passed on. These can bring pain or pleasure but today I’m spared both. Nice review for Don Winslow’s upcoming Savages. He’s the first writer I ever signed up, and a great guy to boot.

1:00 P.M. Glamorous publishing lunch: falafel at my desk. Twitter brings news that the Gores are divorcing: wow. And Twitter sends me to a deeply satisfying, hilarious review of Sex and the City 2 by Lindy West in The Stranger, which I promptly bookmark so I can read her more often.

1:10 P.M. Newsweek Tumblr in response to David Carr’s piece about their sale.

3:10 P.M. Break from work to check the Times online and dammit, Federer’s been knocked out of the French Open by the unpleasant Swede. I must Tweet my dismay.

4:45 P.M. Bookforum. Lovely Michael Greenberg essay about his near-death and his dying mother. Mary Gaitskill’s rigorous and convincing review of Marlene van Neikerk’s Agaat. Mark Stevens on the new Leo Castelli biography. Paul La Farge and Keith Gessen on utopia and dystopia. Reader, I skimmed. James Gibbons on Rick Moody’s The Four Fingers of Death, which my colleague Pat Strachan edited—a “comic tour de force”! Hooray.

6:00 P.M. Franzen on the bus. The manuscript pile is growing. Must. Finish. Galley.

8:30 P.M. Manuscripts.

10:30 P.M. New Yorker. I love the Jeffrey Eugenides story set at Brown, which makes me nostalgic for my early New York City days when I was surrounded by Brown graduates who quickly cured me of saying “girl” instead of “woman” and other late-eighties infractions. Joan Acocella on “Cirque du Soleil,” which I just dragged my family to last week out on Randall’s Island. I could happily read Joan Acocella all day. The only thing that could make this New Yorker issue any better would be a Nancy Franklin review.
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