The Daily

Posts Tagged ‘Elif Batuman’

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.

Deconstructing Garfield, and Other News

July 12, 2016 | by

Get it?

  • In 2003, as the U.S. mustered its forces for a long, messy invasion of Iraq, Saddam Hussein sat in solitude. He had an important task: he was putting the finishing touches on a piece of fiction. Not a novel, mind you—he’d already written three of those, and now he was just slightly too busy for another—but a novella, yes, called something like Get Out, You Damned One, and soon to arrive in English, at last: “The manuscript was reportedly carried out of Iraq by Saddam’s daughter, Raghad Saddam Hussein, in 2003. She announced plans to publish the 186-page novel in Jordan in 2005, before it was quickly banned from sale, resulting in multiple bootleg versions appearing … Hesperus has yet to announce what its English title will be. A spokesman for Hesperus described the book as ‘a mix between Game of Thrones and the UK House of Cards–style fiction,’ and said it was full of political intrigue, but that the publisher would be ‘keeping the rest secret until Christmas.’ ”
  • Like thousands before her, Elif Batuman has learned to love her fate, to heed the call of an ancient destiny: she’s moved to Brooklyn. “For a long time,” she writes, “I used to make fun of writers who lived in Brooklyn. There are a lot of things about Brooklyn that are both funny and sad, but none more so than the density of writers per square yard. I was trying to explain it once to a Russian novelist, back in the old days. We were sitting at a table. ‘There are writers everywhere. If this table was in Brooklyn, you would look under it, and there would be a writer.’ The novelist looked under the table, and said: ‘Like mushrooms.’ ”
  • Whither the stochastic, parodic Garfield spin-off? Anyone looking for an undercurrent of existential dread in America’s fattest cat can find it in any number of unauthorized novelty sites: there’s Garfield Minus Garfield, Minus Jon Plus Jon, Square Root of Minus Garfield, Garkov, and Random Garfield Generator. One artist explained the appeal: “The relative inanity of the original strip’s dialogue is a uniquely strong setup for weird/broken/scrambled non-sequitur text. I think that’s what works so well about so many Garfield variations, really; it’s such a sterile, safe, drama- and menace-free strip that injecting any kind of Dada strangeness or emotional complexity into it makes it jump off the page a bit.”

What Our Contributors Are Reading This Summer

June 10, 2016 | by

In place of our usual staff picks this week, we’ve asked five contributors from our new Summer issue to write about what they’re reading. 

It’s coming. The Mister Softee Jingle will clang down on you like a recurring nightmare, then distort itself around the bend like a lost memory of something crucial you’ll die trying to reclaim. This is summer—and I can think of no better way to get yourself in the mood than by reading Ritual and Bit, Robert Ostrom’s latest collection of poems, which is steeped in nostalgia and foreboding. The cinematic, otherworldly play of images—“bit[s] of dream you almost had hold of”— will leave you achey, haunted, indiscriminately homesick. It’s like sleepaway camp all over again. Or, if we’re doing similes, then Ostrom’s poetry is like an exfoliating scrub for souls. Your tender self is stripped of its winterized, anesthetized hull, and everything is suddenly more dicey and exquisite. Or (final simile), in Ostrom’s words, “it will be like watching a church service through a keyhole”—stolen, mystifying glimpses of a choreographed sequence that feels timeless and charged. Here is the religion you (I) wanted, all stained glass and incense smoke, spooky-sublime chanting and devil-may-care suspension of disbelief; no Sunday sermons or starched shirts: “Cattywompus, pray for us.” —Danielle Blau (“I Am the Perennial Head of This One-person Subcutaneous Wrecking Crew”)

I’m reading Elif Batuman’s The Possessed and Liana Finck’s A Bintel Brief. Though both books do many other things, each lovingly renders a past love. For Batuman it is her ex-fiancé, Eric, “with his gentle blinking Chinese eyes, as philosophical and good-humored as Snoopy,” highly alert and strategic but always sounding a bit dreamy, like a navy reserve intelligence officer with a delusive fever, which he sometimes is. For Finck it is Abraham Cahan, editor and advice columnist for the Jewish Daily Forward. Cahan’s disembodied head, in Finck’s drawings, is either a peach or a heart. He is never quite real enough to be mistaken for a father or a boyfriend, always a bit incorporeal or out of human scale or dressed a century out of style. Eric trails Batuman to Samarkand, and Cahan trails Finck around her aimless roomy freelance days. I like feeling the lasting affection for such ghosts. —Rafil Kroll-Zaidi (“Lifeguards”)Read More »

Staff Picks: Lunar Landscapes, Washerwomen, File Formats

February 5, 2016 | by

Peter Hujar, William Burroughs, reclining, 1975.

Of all the things I’ve read about Michel Houellebecq’s Submission, the most poignant has to be Elif Batuman’s essay in this week’s New Yorker—about Houellebecq’s novel, but also (and mainly) about her experience as a woman and journalist in Turkey, unexpectedly drawn to the idea of leading an observant Muslim life: “Houellebecq’s vision of an Islamic state, for all its cartoonishness, has a certain imaginative generosity. He portrays Islam not as a depersonalized creeping menace, or as an ideological last resort to which those disenfranchised by the West may be ‘vulnerable,’ but as a system of beliefs that is enormously appealing to many people, many of whom have other options.” —Lorin Stein

Dan has already covered the Peter Hujar show that’s up at Paul Kasmin, but I can’t resist talking about it again. Hujar’s portraits, particularly the close-ups that are on view here, are compelling: looking at faces that are, often, looking back at us; rarely do we have such an opportunity to study the details of another’s visage, and the longer I look, the more foreign they appear, like lunar landscapes instead of human faces. Maybe that’s why the subjects I recognize easily—Warhol, Sontag, John Waters, Quentin Crisp, Burroughs—are less captivating than those I don’t: Paul Thek, whose head is cocked curiously as he stares agape into the camera; John Heys in Lana Turner drag in 1979 and then again, in 1985, as himself; Rene Ricard, naked, his legs pulled to his chest, head in hand. Of the two portraits of David Wojnarowicz in the show, I spent the most time in front of the one in which his hand obscures most of his face, so that, instead, I examine the tidy curve of his fingernails and the length of his collarbone (and think of Georgia O’Keeffe’s Ram’s Head with Hollyhock). —Nicole Rudick Read More »

Paper—It’s Not Just for Writing! And Other News

February 2, 2016 | by

Twentieth-century lithography by the Danish designer Axel Salto. Image: British Library, via Hyperallergic

  • In which Elif Batuman, visiting Turkey, puts on a head scarf and begins to rethink some things: “What if I really did it? What if I wore a scarf not as a disguise but somehow for real? I was thirty-four, and I’d been having a lot of doubts about the direction my life was taking … Now a glimmer appeared before me of a totally different way of being than any I had imagined, a life with clear rules and duties that you followed, in exchange for which you were respected and honored and safe. You had children—not maybe but definitely. You didn’t have to worry that your social value was irrevocably tied to your sexual value. You had less freedom, true. But what was so great about freedom? … Travelling alone, especially as a woman, especially in a patriarchal culture, can be really stressful. It can make you question the most basic priorities around which your life is arranged. Like: Why do I have a job that makes me travel alone? For literature? What’s literature?”
  • Infinite Jest turned twenty yesterday, and Tom Bissell has given it an astute new appraisal: “In interviews, Wallace was explicit that art must have a higher purpose than mere entertainment: ‘Fiction’s about what it is to be a … human being.’ And here, really, is the enigma of David Foster Wallace’s work generally and Infinite Jest specifically: an endlessly, compulsively entertaining book that stingily withholds from readers the core pleasures of mainstream novelistic entertainment, among them a graspable central narrative line, identifiable movement through time and any resolution of its quadrumvirate plotlines … Made-up words, hot-wired words, words found only in the footnotes of medical dictionaries, words usable only within the context of classical rhetoric, home-chemistry words, mathematician words, philosopher words—Wallace spelunked the O.E.D. and fearlessly neologized, nouning verbs, verbing nouns, creating less a novel of language than a brand-new lexicographic reality.”
  • In the interest of evenhandedness, please note that the novel has earned, on Amazon, a large share of one-star reviews, and these disappointed readers deserve their say, too. “If you’re trying to make sense of a bunch of mumbo-jumbo then by all means place this one in your shopping basket,” one happy customer wrote. “He is a literary bully,” another reader said. And: “Didn’t know it was 1000 pages. Too hard to hold. Bought one for my son and he felt the same way.”
  • Paper: it’s good for writing, yes, but—did you ever think of this?—it’s also good for decorating. The new Anthology of Decorated Papers compiles some fine examples of all the things people have done with paper besides writing on it, which is, when push comes to shove, boring. “Much of the collection of over 3,500 papers focuses on book endpapers and other publishing ephemera. There are also wrappers, backs of playing cards, currency paper, wallpaper, musical instrument covers, and other examples of the medium, mostly dating from the sixteenth to twentieth centuries.”
  • I like to say that magazines are dying because it makes me look smart and chicly pessimistic. And I have to imagine my forebears felt the same way. People have been saying that magazines are dead more or less since they were born. Evan Ratliff writes, “We are not the first generation to witness the death of great magazine writing. That bell began tolling, some would say, as far back as 1911, when a run of unprofitability forced Samuel S. McClure to sell off McClure’s—founded in 1893 … When Vanity Fair came (in 1913) and went (in 1936), it was only a hint of the carnage that the era of radio would bring. We lost the titanic trio of Scribner’sForum, and Liberty—you remember them, of course—not to mention Living Age. When the Delineator went from over two million subscribers in 1929 to suddenly ceasing publication in 1937, the writing was on the wall.”

Saturday: See Lorin Stein Discuss “Narcissus and Literature”

October 9, 2015 | by


New York! Tomorrow—Saturday, October 10— at three P.M., our editor Lorin Stein will moderate a discussion with our Southern editor John Jeremiah Sullivan, Elif Batuman, and Jessica Moss. The matter at hand: How do writers interact with the mirror of the page? They’ll talk about the uses and perils of the first person in modern and classic literature.

Their discussion is part of this year’s Onassis Festival, a four-day series of arts and ideas to inaugurate the renovated Onassis Center; the theme is Narcissus Now: The Myth Reimagined. The event takes place in the gallery at Olympic Tower, 645 Fifth Avenue, at Fifty-first Street. Tickets are available here. We hope to see you there!