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Little Match Girl

April 13, 2016 | by

A nineteenth-century illustration for The Little Match Girl.

The first time I remember lying about why I was crying was in second grade. I’d burst out sobbing in the middle of social studies and, rather than admit I’d been thinking about the plot of “The Little Match Girl,” I claimed vaguely that there was some problem at home, prompting a humiliating private lunch with my teacher and a parent-teacher conference. You’d think that would have cured me.

But being upset about nothing is galling. It’s hard to explain to a stranger on the subway that no, tears are actually rolling down your cheeks because of an episode of The People v. O. J. Simpson, or a piece of music you’re not even listening to. Read More »

The Art of the Courtroom Sketch, and Other News

March 1, 2016 | by

The Hustler Magazine case before the Supreme Court; Larry Flynt in foreground, his attorney, Alan Isaacman talking before the court (Dec. 2, 1987). Illustrated by Aggie Kenny. Courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. Image via Hyperallergic

  • I hear you’re trying to knock over a library. May I suggest you get a hold of the blueprints? Thing about libraries is—librarians, cover your ears—many of them tend to reside in historical or at least oft-remodeled buildings with easily exploited blind spots. Let the architecture guide you: “Stephen Blumberg stole an estimated twenty million dollars’ worth of rare books and manuscripts from institutional archives and academic libraries around the United States. His plan for hitting the rare books collection of the University of Southern California in Los Angeles was characteristic: researching the history of the building, Blumberg had learned that a series of disused dumbwaiters had once functioned to deliver books between floors. The dumbwaiters were no longer active, but the shafts inside the walls of the library still offered a direct connection to book stacks that were otherwise inaccessible to the public … No alarms, no cameras, just narrow, chimney-like chutes invisible to outside view through which Blumberg could shimmy his way to treasure. And shimmy he did, successfully raiding the building from within.”
  • Today in things that are clearly art but that you’ve probably never really thought about as art: the Library of Congress has acquired ninety-six (they couldn’t just make it an even hundred?) courtroom sketches covering more than forty years of trials, featuring such prominent malefactors as Bernie Madoff, Charles Manson, and Larry Flynt. “The Thomas V. Girardi Collection of Courtroom Illustration Drawings at the Library of Congress enhances our existing holding by increasing the number of artists represented, especially female courtroom illustrators,” the curator Sara W. Duke told Hyperallergic. A press release confirmed the obvious: “The Girardi acquisition affirms the LOC as having the most comprehensive American collection of courtroom art.”
  • Adam Shatz on Nina Simone, whose “husky contralto” perplexed the jazz critics of her day but captivated just about everyone else: “Eroticism and suffering lay at the heart of Simone’s work from the very start: she seemed to have one foot in the deep South and another in Weimar cabaret … Simone cut deeper than her peers: she knew how to open the wound, to make pain audible and moving. So long as she felt adored, she was full of mischievous, salty banter in her mike breaks. But if she felt slighted, she could be explosive, even violent … Simone gave expression to a taboo emotion that, in a 1968 best-seller, two black American psychiatrists would define as ‘black rage.’ Her songs were peopled with avenging black angels, most famously a woman named Peaches who, in her 1966 song ‘Four Women,’ declares that she will ‘kill the first mother I see.’ Seldom has anyone combined art and protest to such a sublime effect, in the classical sense of fusing beauty and terror.”
  • To read Daniel Clowes’s graphic novels, you’d think he’s a total depressive, if not an out-an-out misanthrope, even. In fact, as Robert Ito writes, he’s a family man: “Unlike a lot of cartoonists, Clowes is a lot happier than the characters he creates. Most of his hapless protagonists spend much of their miserable lives futilely chasing after the sort of contentment and familial joy that Clowes has found for himself in Piedmont … Clowes acknowledges the huge impact that his own childhood—the divorce, the constant shuttling around—has had on how he views marriage and parenting today. ‘I always grew up wanting what I have now with my own family,’ he says. ‘A house, a wife, a child, everything very stable.’ ”
  • Facebook has introduced “Reactions,” a collection of five “graphicons” that allow you to respond to content (and everything is content) in one of five ways: Like, Love, Sad, Angry, Wow, Haha. If you’ve noticed that those words are, uh … syntactically nonparallel, you’re not alone in being confused and a little afraid: “The syntax of the new Facebook Reactions makes no sense. When Facebook asks you to respond to a status with that set of six words, it’s actually asking your brain to do something that’s slightly complicated: to fill in an implied sentence, or to ‘predicate’ it. Programmatic linguists call this ‘inferencing.’ The problem is, because these words are not the same category of speech, they require different predicates … If those inconsistencies bother you, you may in fact have a disorder called ‘grammar purism.’ Sufferers of GP have been known to correct mistakes on dinner menus and chew their cheeks in an effort not to correct their friend who always says ‘I have drank way too much tonight!’ GP has no cure, but some sufferers find poetry or Winston Churchill quotes soothing.”

More Than Mere Brotherly Love, and Other News

September 9, 2014 | by

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Nicolaus Knüpfer, Bordeelscène, ca. 1650.

  • If you were a rake headed to Philly in the 1840s, you wanted to have this pocket guide with you—it lists all the brothels in town, with some helpful editorializing about each. “None but gentlemen visit this Paradise of Love,” one description says. Another: “Beware of this house, stranger, as you would the sting of a viper.”
  • A list of the one hundred most popular books on Facebook contains exactly zero surprises.
  • From a new documentary on Susan Sontag: “She sat me down on her bed … and ran through the argument of the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. She must have been fifteen.”
  • “We all have bodies; we all wear clothes; we all have reflections that vex us; we all exist in dynamic relationship to our communities, and fashion is a medium for testing or strengthening those bonds … anyone who diminishes the significance of that is carrying water for the patriarchy, deferring reflexively to those thousands of years of human history when men got to decide what was frivolous or not. You know what's frivolous? Fantasy football.”
  • In 1932, Einstein endorsed a psychic. And she endorsed him: “Dr. Einstein is indeed the most remarkable personality I have ever contacted [sic]. And his aura is just sublime—pure blue electric sparks, instead of color. It was just like talking to God.” And so Einstein’s credibility as a scientist came under fire: “Now he is the tamest lion in the intellectual zoo. He goes everywhere. He attends picture openings with the regularity and aplomb of Clark Gable. He is at all the public dinners.”

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Joyce Recommends the Red, and Other News

August 20, 2014 | by

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“There is jollity.” (Jollity not pictured.)

  • Social media has warped the way we think of “sharing our stories,” but the status update hasn’t obviated the need for memoir. “I worry that we’re confusing the small, sorry details … for the work of memoir itself. I can’t tell you how many times people have thanked me for ‘sharing my story,’ as if the books I’ve written are not chiseled and honed out of the hard and unforgiving material of a life but, rather, have been dashed off … I haven’t unburdened myself, or softly and earnestly confessed. Quite the opposite.”
  • A bit of searing on-the-ground reporting from James Joyce’s birthday party, 1931: “The waiter brings a special wine which Joyce recommends to us very earnestly though he does not drink it himself as it is red. It is Clos Saint Patrice, 1920 … ‘He is the only saint whom a man can get drunk in honor of,’ Joyce says, praising Patrick in this way. We laugh, but he insists that this is high praise … In the apartment to which we return there is jollity. George Joyce sings; Sullivan sings; James Joyce sings.”
  • And while we’re on Joyce: “I started illustrating Finnegans Wake in 2009 because no one convinced me not to,” writes a man who has illustrated Finnegans Wake because no one told him not to.
  • The third novel in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan series is out this month, and Ferrante—a pseudonym—has granted a rare interview. Is this why she guards her identity? “‘My desk mate, with whom I had a great friendship, suggested we write a novel together,’ she explains. Together, they came up with a story, and the friend wrote the first chapter. Ferrante didn’t like it, and so she wrote the entire story herself, from beginning to end, telling her friend she wasn’t up to the project.”
  • Don Pardo, the distinctive, stentorian announcer for Saturday Night Live, died this week; he got his start in game shows. “Staff announcer was such a prestigious job that members of the profession, in another holdover from radio, typically wore tuxedos while on the job, even though the audience hardly ever saw them and they were mainly confined to an ‘announce booth’ in or near the studio. Even simple station breaks—‘This is the National Broadcasting Company’—were done live from those close quarters.”

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Life After the Bench, and Other News

August 19, 2014 | by

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Garry Winogrand, World’s Fair, New York City, 1964

  • Catching up with two subjects from a 1964 Garry Winogrand photograph—that one, up there—fifty years later: “I never saw a photographer, or anyone taking our picture. It was not like today, when people are taking pictures every minute. We were just a bunch of girls out having fun. Why would anyone take our picture?
  • Whither the book jacket? “If, for the majority of books, the jacket no longer serves a protective function, it still shields the subcutaneous narrative metaphorically. As we spend more of our reading time in digital, disembodied, notional environments where texts lack differentiation and may easily leach into one another unconstrained, covers (and physical books in general) remain part of an anxious cultural effort to corral and contain the boundless.”
  • Humor is dead, subtlety is dead: Facebook is now proposing to append a “satire” tag to any shared article with a comic bent—the equivalent of winking after every joke.
  • Sensory deprivation used to be a form of torture; the CIA thought it could help with brainwashing. Now it’s a form of therapy.
  • “Escaping into video games is something that people have been doing since video games were first invented … Traditional media cannot provide the amount of hours of entertainment that games can, exercise and sports are limited by physical exhaustion and most other hobbies or activities would be impractical if pursued to the same extent … It could be argued that the last two decades or so through which the video game has risen to prominence have created a boondoggle of incalculable proportions.”

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The Perils of Value Judgment, and Other News

August 13, 2014 | by

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Preference: it’s a good thing.

  • RIP, Lauren Bacall. “Her simplest remark sounded like a jungle mating call, one critic said.” (He meant it as a compliment—I think … )
  • Michel Gondry’s new film, Mood Indigo, is based on L’Écume des Jours, a 1946 novel by Boris Vian whose title “literally means either ‘The Foam of the Days’ or ‘The Scum of the Days’ but has been translated as ‘Froth on the Daydream,’ ‘Foam of the Daze,’ and—after the Duke Ellington song—‘Mood Indigo.’ The problem of translating Vian doesn’t end with titles. His books are crawling with wordplay: puns, mixed metaphors, neologisms, you name it.”
  • Speaking of translational difficulties, here’s how to give yourself an anxiety dream: just before bed, imagine being the first translator to attempt War and Peace or Anna Karenina. “Not only was the sheer prolixity of Tolstoy’s great novels a deterrent to all but the most determined of translators, but after the urbane Turgenev, whose measured prose slipped so easily into English, Tolstoy was also far more unpolished, more uncompromising and, well, altogether more Russian.”
  • How to give yourself an anxiety dream, part two: like everything on Facebook and watch as your hyper-personalized world crumbles around you. “Literally everything Facebook sent my way, I liked—even if I hated it. I decided to embark on a campaign of conscious liking, to see how it would affect what Facebook showed me … I began dreading going to Facebook. It had become a temple of provocation … By liking everything, I turned Facebook into a place where there was nothing I liked.”
  • Is the science-fiction writer R. A. Lafferty due for a comeback? “Lafferty’s most accessible and widely read novel, Space Chantey, is a psychedelic, Homeric odyssey in which space captain Roadstrum leads an expedition to the pleasure planet Lotophage, where the immortal houri Margaret tells him, very wisely, that ‘there are worse places to live than in tall stories.’ ”

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