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Posts Tagged ‘essays’

Swat with Scruple

June 3, 2014 | by

Balthasar_van_der_Ast_-_Flowers_and_Fruit_-_WGA1040

Balthasar van der Ast, Flowers and Fruit, c. 1620

From “Why We Hate Insects,” an essay by Robert Lynd, collected in his 1921 book, The Pleasures of Ignorance.

It has been said that the characteristic sound of summer is the hum of insects, as the characteristic sound of spring is the singing of birds. It is all the more curious that the word “insect” conveys to us an implication of ugliness. We think of spiders, of which many people are more afraid than of Germans. We think of bugs and fleas, which seem so indecent in their lives that they are made a jest by the vulgar and the nice people do their best to avoid mentioning them. We think of blackbeetles scurrying into safety as the kitchen light is suddenly turned on—blackbeetles which (so we are told) in the first place are not beetles, and in the second place are not black …

There are also certain crawling creatures which are so notoriously the children of filth and so threatening in their touch that we naturally shrink from them. Burns may make merry over a louse crawling in a lady’s hair, but few of us can regard its kind with equanimity even on the backs of swine. Men of science deny that the louse is actually engendered by dirt, but it undoubtedly thrives on it. Our anger against the flea also arises from the fact that we associate it with dirt. Donne once wrote a poem to a lady who had been bitten by the same flea as himself, arguing that this was a good reason why she should allow him to make love to her. It is, and was bound to be, a dirty poem. Love, even of the wandering and polygynous kind, does not express itself in such images. Only while under the dominion of the youthful heresy of ugliness could a poet pretend that it did. The flea, according to the authorities, is “remarkable for its powers of leaping, and nearly cosmopolitan.” Even so, it has found no place in the heart or fancy of man. There have been men who were indifferent to fleas, but there have been none who loved them, though if my memory does not betray me there was a famous French prisoner some years ago who beguiled the tedium of his cell by making a pet and a performer of a flea. For the world at large, the flea represents merely hateful irritation. Mr W. B. Yeats has introduced it into poetry in this sense in an epigram addressed “to a poet who would have me praise certain bad poets, imitators of his and of mine”: Read More »

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That Was the Month That Was

March 5, 2014 | by

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Photo: Jack Weir, via Wikimedia Commons

Before everyone gets too deep into March—what with its Madness; its Ides; its suspicious “in like a lion, out like a lamb” mentality; its trying Lenten sacrifices; its Prince Kūhiō Day; blah, blah, blah—let’s not forget dear old February, arguably the most hated month, if not the cruelest. At only twenty-eight days, it always gets short shrift, even during leap years; it’s as if we can’t wait to wash our hands of it. Well, we’re here to say: we’re going to miss it. It was a fine month, one for the books, and we have proof—below are some of the excellent long essays the Daily published. Now, onward, to Saint Patrick’s Day, Pi Day, National Potato Chip Day, and Save a Spider Day. Read More »

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Blurring the Lines: An Interview with Michelle Orange

March 19, 2013 | by

Orange300Last month I read a book by David Foster Wallace for the first time. (Dare I admit that? Not having read DFW is practically a sin in most literary circles; it was something that embarrassed me for years.) I finally read the essay collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. When I finished the book, I was greedy for more essay collections in which the author gets me to read about something I didn’t realize I had any interest in.

Michelle Orange’s This is Running for Your Life is exactly what I was looking for. While the author deserves comparisons to DFW and John Jeremiah Sullivan, she has her own distinct voice. Orange’s prose is animated by her innate curiosity and her convincing meditations on culture and her own life. I recently interviewed her via e-mail.

I was struck by the essay about your grandmother, in which you talked about the many ticket stubs she sent you on which she had scrawled short reviews. Movies, it seems, are more than a personal pleasure. It’s almost as if you genetically inherited the desire to watch cinema, to immerse yourself in the stories. Did you become a film critic partially because of your relationship with your grandmother?

There does seem to be something passed down about that kind of movie love, although in this case it skipped a generation—my mom is more of a special-event moviegoer. My father, though, is at least as devoted a movie-lover as my grandmother was, so I had it coming from several directions. What I sensed with my grandmother is that she seemed to need the movies as much as she loved them. Our trips to the Cineplex, where she would take seven-year-old me to see rated-R-for-mature-content movies like Night Shift, were the only time we spent alone together. They were memorable for that alone, but I think they embedded some of that need in me as well. She wasn’t interested in talking about a movie afterward. The pleasure was really in discovering and rediscovering that private response. Which is what made the ticket stubs so special to me—her effort to connect through this thing that we both loved so privately.

In “The Dream Girl Is Over,” you posit, “What if all life, but especially the part of it that involves consuming art and images, is in some sense a reminder?” Do you think that’s why those of us who are drawn to art, in whatever form we consume it, find some sense of recognition and familiarity in the work that we love?

There’s nothing better than encountering a voice that seems to have been living in your head, waiting for a microphone, or an interlocutor. It’s a feeling of being called. When art can make that connection it couldn’t be more personal. Read More »

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Bullet Points

August 30, 2012 | by

1.

You will likely have noticed by now the writerly fashion of building an essay by numbered sections. These sections can vary from just a single sentence to many pages. Sometimes a section will bear one or more indentations or line breaks and will stretch into a mini-essay. Sometimes there will be as few as three sections and sometimes there will be more than a hundred.

Writers, such as God, have been numbering sections for a very long time indeed, and I do not wish to suggest that this technique is new, rather that it is increasingly used. My proof is a general sense that this is happening, nursed into conviction by a robust confirmation bias.

Two

Quite often these sections comprise a series of declarative sentences, near aphorisms, sayings that, breathed from the lips of drunks, would by most of us be taken in, swished around and then spat out.

III

These sections comprise wild declarative sentences, aphorisms, sayings that, belched from the throats of drunks, would be swished around and then spat out.

To take one example, “The only picture that it seems appropriate to paint in 2012 is a painting of people having their picture taken by famous paintings.”

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Geoff Dyer on ‘Otherwise Known as the Human Condition’

April 19, 2011 | by

Photograph by Lawrence Impey.

“Writing, for me, has always been a way of not having a career,” Geoff Dyer explains, by way of introduction, in his new essay collection Otherwise Known as the Human Condition. His goal in such a retrospective, he adds, is not to illustrate the coherent themes of his work. Rather it is “to serve as proof of just how thoroughly my career had avoided any focus, specialization, or continuity except that dictated by my desire to write about whatever I happened to be interested in at any given moment.” Dyer’s readers will find that sentiment unsurprising. He is the author of four novels, a critical study of John Berger, a book of photography criticism, and several books inexplicable in blurb form (e.g. Out of Sheer Rage, a National Brook Critics Circle Award finalist ostensibly about D. H. Lawrence but largely about the process of Dyer attempting to write about D. H. Lawrence; and Yoga For People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It, a travelogue as easily filed in humor as it might be in philosophy). Otherwise Known as the Human Condition is a curio cabinet of reviews ranging across photography, art, and literature, combined with Dyer’s experiential approach to topics as wide as forays into the foreign world, and his search for the perfect cappuccino-and-doughnut combination.

How does one approach selecting from a life’s work for an essay collection like this?

My editor, Ethan Nosowsky, and I both independently turned up with a provisional list of what we’d like to see. And we were pretty gratified at how, in a Venn diagram sort of way, there was so much overlap between the two. I’ve written a real lot, including things I’d forgotten about. The general rule would be that they had to at least raise some question—I’m thinking of the pieces about books here—something that transforms it from being a review to a sort of essay in its own right. People either are or are not interested in Denis Johnson, say, but there are a few things in that essay which are worth raising about people other than Denis Johnson. The better the piece, in some ways, the more irrelevant it would render this issue of whether or not you had read the book in question. The pieces also aren’t chronological, so you get a juxtaposition of a piece written maybe twenty years ago with a more recent one—and the slight contradiction that emerges because of that.

Most of these essays are personal at some level; do you look back on the sentiments and feel like the they hold up for you over time?

What I’ve really liked doing is combining what you might call art criticism or music criticism with something that is happening in real life. Something like “Blues for Vincent,” where I combined what is in a photograph with something in a love letter. So to answer your question in the most prosaic, literal-minded way: Of course I’m not in love anymore with the women to whom these love letters were sent. But I think there is an enduring truth in the sentiment, even if the sort of cast list has changed.

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Heather Havrilesky on ‘Disaster Preparedness’

January 18, 2011 | by

Photograph by Whitney Pastorek.

Heather Havrilesky’s uniquely endearing voice—always witty, often self-deprecating—has been delighting and enlightening online readers since 1995, when she cocreated the weekly Filler column for Suck.com. At Salon, where she was a television critic for seven years before recently making the jump to new iPad newspaper The Daily, her incisive columns reflected on the ways in which television mirrors its audience—and she managed to be funny. In the recently published essay collection, Disaster Preparedness, Havrilesky takes her own life as the subject, examining scenes of trauma—losing her virginity, her parents' divorce, her father's death—with brutal honesty, a sense of humor, and a willingness to forgive. She spoke to me recently from her home in Los Angeles.

The book is called Disaster Preparedness, and each of the chapters deals with some kind of problem or disaster. How did you decide to organize the book around this particular theme?

I had written an essay for All Things Considered about planning with my sister some way of dealing with catastrophes, probably as a result of seeing too many disaster movies. And I started looking at that essay (which is now my introduction) and saying, What does it mean that we had all this preemptive defensive stance toward the unknown?

I also have an appetite for the most humiliating, sad—to some people depressing—dark stories from my own childhood. Maybe it’s because I’m screwed up, but those are the stories that I love the most, that I think are the most sort of delightful to read in anyone else’s memoir or book of essays. Those were the stories I remembered the best, too. And I had a lot of fun with that kind of dark stuff. Certainly there were times when I leaned into the emotional core of it. I mean, I didn’t want it to be a cavalier take on the past. I really wanted it to be an honest attempt to look at the things that happened to me and how they affected me and how my perspective now is different from what it was when these things happened. I learned a lot through that process.

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