- “How do you rehabilitate your love for art works based on expired and inhuman social values—and why bother?” Elif Batuman reckons with racist literature. (Which is, after all, most literature: “These Turks took a pleasure in torturing children,” Dostoyevsky wrote in The Brothers Karamazov.)
- Frida Kahlo’s love letters to José Bartoli are being exhibited and auctioned, thus granting “small-minded people the chance to grub about, imagining what it’s like to be a great artist enjoying a great love affair, with its epic arc, operatic decline and poignant afterlife … This is all being served up like a tray of fast food, yet more low-grade fodder to fuel the Kahlo myth with sexualised details, emotional prurience and papery relics. People will pore over her handwriting in a way they never pore over her work.”
- “Irritated by Renoir’s intrusion, Manet is reported to have told Monet, ‘He has no talent, that boy. Since he’s your friend, you should tell him to give up painting!’”
- On the continued importance of close reading as an academic tool: “The attentive inspection of the verbal texture of poems, novels, and plays continues to be the methodological basis of what we do in our most important venue: the college classroom, especially the Intro to Lit classroom … teachers found that students lacking specialized knowledge of the ins and outs of English history or the finer points of Aristotelian logic could still get excited by talking about the form of a Donne lyric or image-patterns in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man … it allowed public-school trained students at the University of Illinois or Iowa to have as much to say about texts as their preppie counterparts at Yale or Harvard.”
- An ode to the lowly breakfast sandwich, that quiet workhorse: “The great virtue of the bacon, egg and cheese on a roll, or its variations, is in what it doesn’t do. It doesn’t divide New Yorkers by class, income or neighborhood. It doesn’t seek publicity. It doesn’t convey status or bragging rights. It just conveys nutrition and, if you need it, settles your nerves. It is a secret handshake that New Yorkers exchange, not with one another, but with the city.”
- In celebration of its many contributions to arts and letters, Boston has approved a plan to turn a section of the city into the first-ever Literary Culture District. “Plenty of respected (if banal) institutions supported the effort to turn downtown Boston into a literary district … What’s baffling, though, is the metrics by which we’ve decided to judge their progress—more plaques, more street fairs, and more statues, not more writers, more affordable apartments, and more books.”
- Among the many anti-Amazon domain names owned by Amazon: www.fuckamazon.com and www.boycottamazon.com. Your dissent will not be tolerated, peon.
- Elif Batuman on awkwardness, America’s latest bugbear: “We have a hand signal for awkwardness, and we frame many thoughts and observations with ‘that awkward moment when … ’ When did awkwardness become so important to us? … ‘Awkward’ implies both solidarity and implication. Nobody is exempt.”
- Apocalypse fiction as immigrant metaphor: “The same way X-Men comics are sometimes considered as representations of the American civil rights movement, the apocalypse genre represented my shifting understanding of ‘home’ … For immigrants, solitude and the trap of memory are central conditions. The appeal of [apocalypse fiction] is that it renders this so finely.”
- The art of drug branding: the haunting, grimly comic logos on baggies of heroin. “References in the names reflected the addict’s illusions of grandeur (So Amazing, Rolex, High Life) but also the insidious destructive nature of drugs and the ultimate endgame (Flatliner, Dead Medicine, Killa).”
- That wild pope of ours—what’s he up to this time? Why, he’s hiring a Japanese tech firm to digitize the whole of the Vatican Library’s archives, of course! It’s almost as if this pontiff wants to make the world a better place.
- Victorian occultists believed in a kind of synesthesia, “the theory that ideas, emotions, and even events, can manifest as visible auras.” Fortunately for all of us, they made many terrific illustrations to support this theory, too.
- A landfill in New Mexico may contain truckload upon truckload of the worst video game of all time: Atari’s 1982 E.T. tie-in.
- After years of trying to sweep him under the rug, atheists are finally talking about Nietzsche again.
- Turkey’s Twitter ban has spawned a new Web site, Mwitter, which is semantically pretty fascinating. (Look for Elif Batuman in the comments section.)
Join us this evening at 92Y, where, snow be damned, Gary Shteyngart and Elif Batuman will take the stage to read from their latest work. They’ll be introduced by Sloane Crosley and our very own Lorin Stein, respectively. The night begins at 8:15; those unable (or unwilling) to face the slush can watch a free livecast here. (If last night’s Super Bowl was any indication, it will be much better than whatever’s on TV.)
- Elif Batuman defends the end-of-year list, in a list.
- Here are all the best books of 2013 lists.
- Celebrity death match, Austen style: favorite Mr. Darcy versus dark horse Mr. Knightley.
- Geek, “a person who is very knowledgeable and enthusiastic about a specific subject,” has been named the word of the year by the Collins online dictionary.
On the train down to Washington I read “Stage Mothers,” Elif Batuman’s article about a women’s theater troupe in rural Turkey, and kept pretending to have a cold so the guy sitting next to me wouldn’t think I was crying over the international issue of The New Yorker. Even by Batuman standards, it’s a knockout. If you missed it, go fish it out of the recycling. (Then read her conversation with J. J. Sullivan in the current issue of the Review.) —Lorin Stein
In her introduction to Monica Dickens’s Mariana, recently rereleased by the unimpeachable Persephone Press, Harriet Lane describes it as a “‘hot-water bottle’ novel, one to curl up with on the sofa on a wet Sunday afternoon.” And this story of a young girl growing up in England in the 1930s is certainly comfort-reading at its finest. While dated at points (the moments of casual anti-Semitism are certainly jarring), it’s a fun read, breezy and funny and often touching, with beautifully observed bits of everyday life throughout. Dickens, the great-granddaughter of Charles, was a prolific and popular author; for anyone with multiple winter Sundays to fill, I’d also recommend her 1939 memoir One Pair Of Hands, which details her stint, much to her family’s chagrin, as a cook-general in some of London’s wealthiest households. —Sadie O. Stein
Before the holiday break, I had some time to explore my Netflix account and found, to my excitement, a hidden gem entitled Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale. “This unusual Christmas story is set in the frozen beauty of Finland,” the description reads, “where local reindeer herders race to capture an ancient evil: Santa Claus.” What more could you ask for, to prepare yourself for holiday travel and awkward family soirees, than an R-rated horror film that has more in common with Die Hard than It’s A Wonderful Life? Filled with dry Scandinavian wit and reindeer slaughter, while this isn’t a film for the whole family, it’s one that’ll be playing in the Alvarez household for many Christmases to come. —Justin Alvarez
In a bout of plain old mean-spiritedness, I’ve been relishing the bad reviews of the film Les Misérables. Hugo’s book is among my all-time favorites—there’s just something about those sweeping nineteenth-century social novels—so much so that I wanted to change my name to Jean Valjean after reading it (a confession that brought ridicule from my colleagues here; I stand by my dream). The casting of the film is so absurd, as is the excessive emotion. Oh, the drama! Oddly enough, I inadvertently took David Denby’s advice to those who liked the film to watch Singin’ in the Rain as an example of what good musical theater can be. And he’s right: I loved it. —Nicole Rudick
Holidays are certainly the best time to try out new recipes; most people are pleasantly surprised by an unfamiliar dish amongst the old family standards. My sisters and I have a Twelve Days of Christmas party each December and always aim to have a few things on the buffet that weren’t there the year before. This time around, my older sister’s wassail was the hit of the night, not in the least because it comes with a great history that necessarily involves the host singing one (or more) of the many carols about drink. Seeing as it’s Christmas until Sunday, I’m planning on enjoying another batch of wassail before the season ends. —Clare Fentress
Perhaps few will share my excitement about the following: there is an audiobook of The Golden Bough, and it is free, and you can download it here. —S.O.S.