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Posts Tagged ‘Jenny Offill’

What We’re Loving: Communism, Climates, Cats

April 11, 2014 | by

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Joseph Stalin with his daughter Svetlana, 1935.

Shortly after moving to New York, I found a used copy of Twenty Letters to a Friend, a memoir, written in 1963, by Svetlana Alliluyeva, Stalin’s daughter. It’s an unlikely book, to say the least—she condemns Communism, details her father’s agonizing death, and tries to come to terms with her own, very particular Stalinist experience—and it fed my budding fascination with Soviet cultural history. Nicholas Thompson’s essay in the March 31 issue of The New Yorker, which describes his friendship with Alliluyeva and her experiences in the United States, was a reminder of how that bizarre, late Soviet period had first piqued my interest. I’d never read, though, about Alliluyeva’s encounter with Frank Lloyd Wright’s widow, Olgivanna, an adherent of the theosophist G.I. Gurdjieff. Oligvanna believed Alliluyeva to be the reincarnation of her daughter, also named Svetlana, and wanted her to marry the dead woman’s husband; she did. It’s the kind of thoroughly weird story that couldn’t possibly be true, but then, this is Stalin’s daughter. —Nicole Rudick

After receiving two uncomprehending reviews in the New York Times, Jenny Offill’s novel Department of Speculation has finally gotten the kind of attention it deserves, first from James Wood in The New Yorker and now from Elaine Blair in The New York Review of Books. The latter is actually more than a review; it’s a brief and startling essay on the place of adultery in fiction today. Of the marriage in Department of Speculation, Blair writes, “How can a relationship so intensely intimate and companionable seem so easily soluble? And what is that other thing, extramarital sex, that has everyone quickly making contingency plans to jump ship? The wife and husband’s exemplary, perhaps even ideal, modern marriage is a form of personal gratification—a nonbinding choice that is very much bound up with the ego.” When Blair writes about fiction, she writes about life, which in some moods seems to me the only way to do it. Read an excerpt of Offill’s novel in issue 207. —Lorin Stein

I don’t often have the time to reread these days, but I recently gave a copy of André Maurois’s Climates to a friend, and he enjoyed it so much that I was inspired to revisit it. It’s an autobiographical novel of love lost, found, and lost again, the kind of book you find yourself giving to all your friends, wanting them to read it immediately so you can marvel at it together. Back when I first read Adriana Hunter’s beautiful translation, I felt it mirrored the melancholy of events in my own life. I worried, I think, that it wouldn’t resonate as much now. But I was wrong: it is a gripping read, deeply felt, and so full of memorable lines that I wanted to dog-ear every other page. I would have, except that this time it was a library copy—I had long since given mine away. —Sadie Stein

When I rewatched Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love, I knew, faintly, that the film’s odd pudding subplot was based on a true story. But only now have I done my homework. Fun fact: in 1999, a Californian engineer named David Phillips was grocery shopping when he noticed a loophole in a frequent-flier offer on Healthy Choice products. He did the math and discovered that if he could purchase enough cheap Healthy Choice–brand foods, the value of the miles would exceed the cost. So Phillips scoured the region, buying up some twelve thousand cups of Healthy Choice pudding—the cheapest product he could find, at a quarter a cup. He redeemed them for 1.25 million American Airlines frequent-flier miles. This is that rare thing, a Kafkaesque story with a happy ending: a man confronts the warped logic of bureaucracy and emerges victorious. It was shrewd of Anderson to rip it from the headlines. In Punch-Drunk Love, Adam Sandler’s character makes the same discovery, and it softens his neurotic, seething violence. He’s attuned to the world, we see, just vibrating on a different wavelength. The plot gets at the surreal, godlike power that corporations can wield in our lives, descending from on high to deliver the occasional windfall or catastrophe. As Sandler’s character says, “I have to get more pudding for this trip to Hawaii. As I just said that out loud I realize it sounded a little strange, but it’s not … You can go to places in the world with pudding.” —Dan Piepenbring Read More »

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How Much Could Be Left Unsaid: An Interview with Jenny Offill

March 31, 2014 | by

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Issue 207 of The Paris Review included Jenny Offill’s story “Magic and Dread,” an excerpt from her new novel, Dept. of Speculation, published earlier this year. James Wood called it “a novel that’s wonderfully hard to encapsulate, because it faces in many directions at the same time, and glitters with different emotional colors.” Offill is the author of the novel Last Things, and the coeditor, with Elissa Schappell, of two anthologies of essays. She has also written several children’s books, including 17 Things I’m Not Allowed to Do Anymore, 11 Experiments That Failed, and Sparky! She teaches writing at Queens University, Brooklyn College, and Columbia University.

For the narrator of your novel, the wife, there’s a lot of conjecture going on—guessing how to write a book, how to be in a marriage, how to raise a child, how to bear the time of writing a book. Do you consider writing to be a fundamentally speculative act?

One of the odd things about being a writer is that you never reach a point of certainty, a point of mastery where you can say, Right. Now I understand how this is done. That is why so many talented people stop writing. It’s hard to tolerate this not-knowing. It’s hard to tolerate feeling like an idiot or an imposter, and it gets harder as the years tick by. 

But I would argue that this feeling of uncertainty is actually the best practice you could have for the other important things you will do in your life. No one ever masters falling in love or being a parent or losing someone close to him. And who would want to master such things, really? Wandering through the woods, looking for a sudden sunlit clearing, that’s the most interesting part of it. Read More »

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Tonight: Jenny Offill in Conversation with Lorin Stein

February 24, 2014 | by

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This evening at seven, join us at McNally Jackson, where our editor, Lorin Stein, will be in conversation with Jenny Offill. Jenny’s excellent new novel, Dept. of Speculation, is out now; Vanity Fair calls it “a startling feat of storytelling—an intense and witty meditation on motherhood, infidelity, and identity, each line a dazzling, perfectly chiseled arrowhead aimed at your heart.” (I hasten to assure you that no arrows, perfectly chiseled or otherwise, will be aimed at anyone at tonight’s reading.)

Jenny’s name should sound familiar: her story “Magic and Dread,” an excerpt from the novel, appears in our Winter issue. If her name doesn’t ring a bell, it probably means you haven’t read our Winter issue—get on that!

 

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Fasten Your Seatbelts, It’s Our Winter Issue

December 3, 2013 | by

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The flight attendant on the cover of 207 does not deceive you: this issue is a ride and a half. For your reading enjoyment we offer:

Geoff Dyer on the art of nonfiction—and why he hates that rubric:

I don’t think a reasonable assessment of what I’ve been up to in the last however many years is possible if one accepts segregation. That refusal is part of what the books are about. I think of all them as, um, what’s the word? … Ah, yes, books! I haven’t subjected it to scientific analysis, but if you look at the proportion of made-up stuff in the so-called novels versus the proportion of made-up stuff in the others I would expect they’re pretty much the same

Edward P. Jones on the art of fiction:

People say, Did you grow up thinking of yourself as this or that, blah blah blah. These middle-class or upper-class kids, maybe three or four times a week they’d have a doctor over, they’d have an engineer over, they’d have a writer over, and they’d get into a conversation with the writer and all of a sudden realize, Oh, I think I want to be a writer. That didn’t happen to me. That doesn’t happen to the rest of us.

Plus! The first installment of a novel by Rachel Cusk. New fiction from J. D. Daniels, Jenny Offill, Nell Freudenberger, Ottessa Moshfegh, and Lydia Davis, and the winner of the NPR Three-Minute Fiction Contest.

Plus, poems by Kevin Prufer, Susan Stewart, Hilda Hilst, Charlie Smith, Monica Youn, Sylvie Baumgartel, Emily Moore, and Linda Pastan.

And did we mention a portfolio of nudes by Chuck Close?

We realize you have choices when it comes to quarterly reading, and we thank you for choosing The Paris Review.

Subscribe now!

 

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What We’re Loving: Russian Doubts, Family Ties, and the Letters Q, T, and X

November 22, 2013 | by

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Kazimir Malevich. Or not.

Where do letters come from? Why do they change? What are they, really? What makes a q a q, and what quiddity does it share with Q? These are questions that most kids outgrow around the time they learn how to read. Ewan Clayton has written a book for the rest of us. In The Golden Thread: The Story of Writing, he leads us through the formation of the Roman alphabet, the development of medieval scripts, the evolution of Renaissance and modern typefaces, the rise of cursive, the twentieth-century invention of “print” handwriting as a progressive educational tool, the unexpected success of e-mail, and into the future of data storage. A calligrapher (and former monk) who helped Apple create its onscreen fonts, Clayton is as interested in a digital Gill sans as he is in uncials written with a quill. Although different readers may warm to different chapters of his book, my galleys are dog-eared throughout. Whether his topic is Roman inscriptions, the bookkeeping traditions of the East India Company, the first admission of handwriting as evidence in a court of law, the pitfalls of the paperless office, or the experience of copying sacred texts, Clayton writes with ingenuous charm and contagious enthusiasm, often illustrating his points with “calligraphic studies” of his own. I only wish there were more of these—more illustrations in general—because he turns a line of type into an object of contemplation and makes it okay to be curious, all over again, about the ancient symbols we all spent so long learning to use, and to ignore. —Lorin Stein

Nell Dunn’s 1963 short story collection Up the Junction ain’t for the faint of heart—think bleak birth and mundane death, impersonal sex, pub patrons whose breasts evoke “two cheeses in a gauze bag.” As a young woman Dunn forsook her posh West End upbringing (she’s the daughter of late businessman Sir Philip Dunn) to move to Battersea, South London, where she found work in a sweets factory. At 127 pages it’s an all-out romp, capturing a particular cultural moment and inspiring several more: eponymous works by Ken Loach (a 1965 BBC Wednesday Play), Peter Collinson (a 1968 feature film) and “Squeeze” (a 1979 #2 UK single) all owe their debt to Dunn. —Abby Gibbon Read More »

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