- Coney Island today is a fine place to force-feed yourself hotdogs and get a weird rash, but in centuries past it was a bona fide dreamland—so much so that a new exhibition of early Coney Island art is called “Visions of an American Dreamland.” J. Hoberman writes, “As befits a dreamland, the exhibit—curated by Robin Jaffee Frank, who also wrote much of the show’s excellent, richly illustrated catalogue—is a mix of artifacts and artworks and a trove of suggestive juxtapositions … A 1910 wooden cut-out cartoon of Mae West and Jimmy Durante, both of whom got their starts in Coney Island ‘concert saloons,’ is positioned opposite a selection of roughly contemporaneous Sunday pages by the master draughtsman Winsor McCay, whose gorgeously inventive comic strip Little Nemo in Slumberland was surely the greatest graphic expression of fin-de-siècle Coney.”
- Morgan Jerkins reflects on the role of the diary for black women: “The boundaries of a black woman’s social life are many and varied. Alice Dunbar Nelson, who had been married to the famous black writer Paul Laurence Dunbar, wrote in her diary of her lesbian and other extramarital affairs. One of the fears that many black women writers have historically had is that if they reveal too much of their intimate lives, it could reflect badly, not only on themselves but on the black community. In addition to matters of romance and money, these earlier diaries of black women are filled with confessions about strained familial relationships, and personal demons and insecurities … For a black woman in a white world, a conversation with the self is crucial: for when she walks through that often-unwelcoming world she is subjected to confining perceptions of who she might be. When that world insists on racist and narrow paradigms, the diary gives these women a chance to scratch out and rewrite such definitions.”
- Today in unsolicited advice for parents: take your kids to see Where’s Peter Rabbit, a new puppet musical designed to preserve the memory of Beatrix Potter’s darker side. It’ll scare the shit out of them … but, you know, in a good way. As the designer Roger Glossop argues, “[Potter’s] stories really are not all fluffy bunnies. I mean, Mr. Tod, the fox in The Tale of Jemima Puddleduck, is one of the darker villains you will find anywhere in children’s literature … It is a really foul piece and so, dramatically, that is terrific! We do wonder if some children in the audience may leave weeping, although we will certainly not try to scare them.” Sold!
- Not unrelatedly, a new book of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s letters sheds some much-needed light on her past and her feelings about the coddled youths of her day: “Later in life, as the Little House series grew in popularity, her letters are devoted to readers—children, parents, schoolteachers, librarians, even a congressman—who flood Wilder with fan mail. The Laura in this period is given to mildly political disquisitions on how things used to be. ‘The children today have so much that they have lost the power to truly enjoy anything,’ Wilder wrote from her ten-room house in 1944. ‘They are poor little rich children.’”
- To go by the new collection of Jane Austen’s juvenilia, Love and Freindship [sic], no one would ever accuse her of being a poor little rich kid. The book is, at its best, sublimely ridiculous, as in the case of a 1788 work called The Beautifull [sic] Cassandra: “Escaping her parents’ millinery shop with another woman’s hat on her head, Cassandra sets out to ‘make her Fortune.’ Her attempt would last seven hours. For a lot of heroines, that exit from the parental home would be precisely the moment when a handsome man, whether a villain or a preserver, would be thrown in her way. But when Cassandra finds herself in just this situation, passing an attractive Viscount, she walks right by him to devour a gluttonous amount of dessert … The heroine ‘proceeded to a Pastry-cooks where she devoured six ices, refused to pay for them, knocked down the Pastry Cook and walked away.’ ”
- Have booksellers discovered Shakespeare’s annotated dictionary?
- Laura Ingalls Wilder collaborated with her daughter on many books in the Little House on the Prairie series, and it wasn’t always a cooperative arrangement. A letter from 1938 suggests the scope of their creative frictions: “Here you have a young girl,” Wilder’s daughter wrote to her about one character, “a girl twelve years old, who’s led a rather isolated life with father, mother, sisters in the country, and you can not have her suddenly acting like a slum child who has protected her virginity from street gangs since she was seven or eight.”
- What was in your average Soviet cosmonaut’s survival kit circa 1968? Among other specialties: three balaclavas, a tripartite rifle/shotgun/flare-gun, and a pistol intended to frighten “wolves, bears, tigers, etc.” in the event of a crash landing.
- A new app called Cloak helps you “avoid exes, co-workers, that guy who likes to stop and chat—anyone you’d rather not run into.” Which makes life a bit more miserable, it turns out: “‘All Clear: There’s nobody nearby’ reads like such a strange, sad message, such a lonely thing to have achieved through technological control of our social environments. Looking at that screen makes me want to place my phone face down on my desk, go out into the street, and walk around until I bump into someone I know.”
- Christian Montenegro, an Argentinean illustrator, makes arresting drawings that look like eclectic contemporary woodcuts.
A couple of years after I graduated college, my mother gave me a present: her old set of Portuguese Little House on the Prairie books, which she first read at the age of twelve in Brazil. Uma Casa na Campina—the familiar story of a family leaving the safe realm of the Wisconsin woods for the unknown American West—had awakened her to wanderlust: reading itself became her own covered wagon plowing through uncharted prairies. Such yearning quickly blossomed into a passion for the English language, the channel through which a whole literary world came to life. And decades later on hot summer days, we would lie out in the yard as she labored, in her delicate accent, to bring the iconic figures of the literary canon to life. She guided my sister and me through glorious readings of many authors—from Charlotte Brontë to Nathaniel Hawthorne—but the one I mostly vividly remember to this day is Laura Ingalls Wilder.
I was in the third grade when we started the Little House books together, fully immersing ourselves in Wilder’s world. If Ma made flap-jacks, we topped our Saturday morning pancakes with old-fashioned maple syrup; when the Ingalls family ate sourdough biscuits, we cultured yeast for our own bread. My sister and I stripped the tender, green sheaths from store-bought cobs, soaked them, dried them, and made our own cornhusk dolls. In lieu of a gingerbread house, we gathered twigs and pebbles from the yard, constructing miniature log cabins inside halved cardboard boxes. My mother even made us calico sunbonnets using a costume pattern she found at the fabric store. Nothing about this seemed unusual to me; it was all part of the great narrative we had entered. Read More
Literary tourism is as old as time (or at least as old as the Lake District), but, due to a combination of new technology and easy travel, we seem to be living in its Golden Age. Last year, Wendy McClure reported from the Little House pilgrim trail, and Oxford, Mississippi, has drawn fans of Southern Gothic since Faulkner’s 1950 Nobel. On this site, you’ll recall Margaret Eby’s paeon to Eudora Welty’s Jackson garden. If you want to reenact The Canterbury Tales, well, you can. In recent years, readers have flocked to the Pacific Northwest to get a taste of Twilight; lovers of The Help have tried to get a taste of the 1960s in Greenwood, MS; and now, you can even experience the survivalist thrill of The Hunger Games in North Carolina.
Over the weekend, the FT reported live from Germany’s “Fairy Tale Road,” on which one can walk in the steps of Pied Pipers (Hamlin), the Musicians of Bremen, and the sites where Grimm scholars believe Sleeping Beauty might have actually pricked her finger and Rapunzel let down her hair. (More easily verifiable are locales that figured in the brothers’ lives.) Of course, in real life, all is not fairy-tale perfect. Explains Günther Koseck, the German noble who inhabits Dornröschenschloss (“Sleeping Beauty’s castle”) during the castle’s weekly Sleeping Beauty reenactments, his enchanted princesses “have to always be young and beautiful, and that means they have to be replaced occasionally.”
A cultural news roundup.
- RIP illustrator John Griffiths. A slideshow of his Penguin covers.
- Speaking of covers, Meg Wolitzer asks whether male authors garner better ones.
- The best spokesman for an Ernest Hemingway novel? Papa himself.
- The world’s first edible cookbook is printed on sheets of fresh pasta, blueprints for its own destruction that, when baked, turn into a lasagna.
- Perhaps not shockingly, members of Russia’s Public Chamber have criticized a school notebook, part of the Great Russians series, the cover of which features an image of Stalin in military regalia. The publishers, defiant, point out that in a recent TV contest, Stalin placed third in a vote on the country’s “greatest historical figures.”
- The Awl’s number-one tip for writing the Great American Novel? “Move out of Brooklyn.”
- The big news in Salt Lake City was not that yours truly was there (although I was): luminaries of the horror genre converged on the Beehive State for the 2012 Bram Stoker Awards, where writers Joe McKinney and Allyson Byrd won big.
- In which Ian McEwan helps his son with an essay on one of his own novels … and gets “a very low mark.”
- Sylvia Plath slept here (and take a peek into fourteen other writers’ bedrooms).
- Robert Lowell wrote here—on Manhattan’s West Sixty-seventh Street—and it can be yours for $685,000.
- The Little House books are canonical—literally. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s autobiographical series join the Library of America.
- John Updike predicted New York’s newly announced 6 1/2 Avenue in a 1956 New Yorker article: “As a service to readers who are too frail or shy for good-natured hurly-burly, we decided to plot a course from the Empire State Building to Rockefeller Center that would involve no contact with either Fifth or Sixth Avenue.”
I’ve been dreaming of hosting a cozy winter dinner party based on a famous meal from literature. What famous feasts are the most completely described? I’d like to be able to re-create the menu, the atmosphere, and the attire, if possible.
There are probably a few people in the world more interested in this question than I—but, I’d reckon, a very few. As long as we’re being frank here, you may as well know that I belong to a literary potluck society in which we do monthly themed dinners. (We have yet to venture into the realm of costume.)
Laurie Colwin once wrote a whole essay on books containing good food; she singled out the early novels of Iris Murdoch, the Barbara Pym canon, and Anna Karenina. Inasmuch as I own and have used the Barbara Pym Cookbook, I can’t really agree that any of these vivid descriptions would make for very satisfying dinner parties (or, in the case of czarist Russia, a very relaxing one for the cook).
Here are a few other ideas to get you started: The Master and Margarita (for more manageable Russian cuisine—and think of the costume opportunities!). If you fancy something Dickensian, see any of the gluttonous Joe’s numerous meals in The Pickwick Papers. If you really want to take the guesswork out of it, Heartburn comes complete with recipes. Proust is a no-brainer—if Proust can ever be called a no-brainer. If your interest runs to tea, root out Enid Blyton. And at the end of the day, does any book in the world have better food than Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Farmer Boy?
If you don’t feel like going the fictional route, there is always the food memoir. Nowadays, you’re spoiled for choice. Or (ration-bound Pym aside) consider the subgenre of cookbooks authored by enthusiastic writers: two whose quality is rivaled by their own idiosyncrasies are Roald Dahl’s Cookbook and The Tasha Tudor Cookbook.
Whatever you decide, please drop a line and let me know—the group and I are always looking for ideas.
What do you think about movie adaptations of books? Are there any instances where you think the film actually improved on a particular story, or do you find that adaptations for the most part don’t do justice to the original text?
Of course there are terrific adaptations. The Godfather, after all, made a thriller into a baroque masterpiece. We could list successful adaptations all day—I hope you will, in comments—but just a few that I like: The 39 Steps, The Dead, Persuasion, The Remains of the Day, High Fidelity, The Leopard, and, most recently, the new Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which manages to cover a lot of ground with enviable economy.
I recently moved into a crumbling three-bedroom in Bushwick, with peeling hand-painted green wallpaper in the cramped and poorly lit stairwell. The front door’s peephole, the tin cover of which unmoors itself at night and clatters to the ground, overlooks a dismal and gloomy green landing, where I can easily envision a seedy groping or muffled strangling taking place. My own room is separated from the living room by an old-fashioned sliding parlor door about the size and weight of a Prius. The bathroom window opens into a murky blue chute, which smells like laundry and cigarettes and exhales a strange warmth. What books should I read here?
Reading’s the easy part—sounds like your pad is made for it. What you should watch, and posthaste, is Roman Polanski’s The Tenant.
On the other hand, maybe you shouldn’t.