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Posts Tagged ‘Marilynne Robinson’

Staff Picks: Fever Dreams, Tragic Spells, and In-betweens

July 22, 2016 | by


Detail from the cover of Jesse Ball’s How to Set a Fire and Why.

Carole Firstman’s ambitiously titled debut, Origins of the Universe and What It All Means, is an essayistic memoir about her relationship with her estranged, eccentric (read: undiagnosed Asperger’s) scientist father, but it’s really a thumbed nose at binary argument and an objective romp through subjectivity’s headspace. Throughout the book, Firstman sets up oppositional arguments in order to force them apart and marinate in the liminal in-between. Is her chauvinistic, mostly absent father good or bad? Firstman thinks it’s hard to say, but it doesn’t stop her from examining the relationship through myriad philosophic and scientific lenses. (I doubt there has ever been a book about family in which one learns more about science and the history of thought.) Though the father does and says things that would make even the least feminist, or simply decent, among us cringe, Firstman’s characterization of family dynamics is pitch-perfect: her own impatience and frustrations with her father balance his foibles and thoughtlessness—and her humor softens the lot. This is a very endearing book, a summer read for the curious mind. —Jeffery Gleaves

The Guggenheim’s recent exhibition “Photo-Poetics: An Anthology” made a huge impression on me; the show featured works by ten photographers—nine women, including Erica Baum—who all work closely, sometimes exclusively, with the printed page. So I was delighted to discover Dog Ear, a book of twenty-five exquisite photographs by Baum. For the series, she dog-eared pages in mass-market paperbacks, then photographed the intersection of words at each fold to create a text of her own. In each tiny piece, bits of sentences read horizontally (“skirts, bee-stung lips,” “It’s a funny thing”) and vertically (“made up her face,” “itchiest dresses”). Part photo, part poem, the results vary in tone, from longing to manic, minimal to marvelous. In “Bear,” which feels like a Tomi Ungerer picture book, where animals scheme and smoke cigars, a polar bear is drunk on schnapps and “pawing” “the birds.” A new, limited edition of Dog Ear comes courtesy of Ugly Duckling Presse. Fittingly, the book jacket doubles as a poster. —Jessica Calderon

It may be based on a British procedural, but the new HBO series The Night Of is unmistakably shot in New York and, just as unmistakably, written by Richard Price. The premise: a studious Pakistani American kid sneaks out of the house with the keys to his father’s cab, then ill-advisedly picks up a passenger, a distraught beauty headed to the Upper West Side. It’s classic noir, with John Turturro as the boy's schlubby but dedicated defense attorney; and because it’s a Richard Price script, even a desk sergeant (the excellent Ben Shenkman) can steal a scene. Two episodes in, it’s the best TV I’ve seen this summer. —Lorin Stein  Read More »

Magnet Hands, and Other News

October 13, 2015 | by

Karl Wirsum, Magnet Hands, 1972, crayon and ink on chipboard, 84" x 72".

  • In which Alex Mar gives neo-paganism a try and spends a weekend at a witches’ gathering, only to understand, through her skepticism, the communal appeal: “most humans, once they get in deep enough, will dig in their heels and commit to the value of an experience, because to change their minds and become, instead, openly critical involves a cutting off, a loss, that’s more than most of us want to bear … There’s pressure not to disappoint the group or ourselves, and it colors our individual results, the stories we’ll later tell of circling together. We’re each here, in part, out of a desire to share secrets with the tiniest of in-groups … All religious communities, to some degree, function in this way, bolstered by the collective’s dream of specialness—a specialness spun out of practices whose value can never be verified in the practical world.”
  • Karl Wirsum has been making “boldly graphic interpretations of the human form” for more than forty years. Our managing editor, Nicole Rudick, talks to him about art, Harry Kari, and armor: “If you think of football players putting on the shoulder pads and other protective equipment, or a baseball catcher with the mask and the pads. It’s like armor, and armor really appealed to me, the abstraction attached to the human figure … the abstraction of the armor allows for movement and presents a fearsome quality to the wearer’s presence. I think about it as putting on a more stylized version of what’s underneath, which might look more realistic.”
  • “Jon was quiet, and when he spoke, he told me that his cousin had been recently murdered. ‘My Aunt Margo used to call him a bad seed … He was an alcoholic, and he was murdered by his best friend after they had spent a day and a half drinking together. You can investigate the psychology of it, but basically my aunt was right: He was a bad seed … He and his friend were in a bar, and then they finally ran out of money, so they went home and continued drinking there, and apparently the friend got it in his head … that my cousin was interested in the friend’s daughter, and that led to violence.’ The details, Jon said, were horrifying. When his cousin was still conscious he was asked whether he wanted to be taken to the hospital, and the cousin said, ‘No, he’s my best friend. I don’t want to get him in trouble.’ ” Rachel Kushner talks to Jonathan Franzen in Santa Cruz.
  • I’m eating leftovers for lunch today (tabbouleh, thanks for asking) and so participating in the latest phase of an ever-developing national conversation. Because in America we have a history of caring deeply about our leftovers, except when we don’t: “By the 1960s leftovers were becoming a joke to a lot of people, with a grumbling husband and a mystery casserole playing stock roles. That humor was a direct result of abundance. In the postwar era, a historically anomalous food economy was coming to define American culture, as the cost of food relative to income plummeted and even the poorest Americans were less desperate for calories than they had ever been … [but today] gleaning and scavenging and scrimping have become righteous statements in some quarters. Foraging, meanwhile, has been elevated to high cuisine.”
  • It’s rare that an august publication like The New York Review of Books allows novices and first-timers among their ranks. But they’ve let this total nobody named Barack Obama interview Marilynne Robinson, and the guy, even more weirdly, goes all big-picture on the thing, turning it into a dialogue about America and democracy and religion and God knows what else …

Staff Picks: Buses, Basements, Boots, Bed-and-Breakfasts

July 24, 2015 | by


Space suits.

I finally got my hands on a copy of Spacesuits, an illustrated history of the protective clothing worn by space explorers, from the earliest designs in the 1930s to the universally recognizable suits worn during the Apollo missions. The book, with its clinically detailed photographs and methodical descriptions of suits, helmets, gloves, and boots, is surprisingly enthralling; one doesn’t expect vacant clothing to so easily assert its own cultural significance. What’s also surprising are the immense efforts required to preserve these suits—which, it turns out, are among the most fragile items in the Smithsonian’s collection. For some rather timely evidence, look no further than the Kickstarter campaign launched this week by the Smithsonian—with a $500,000 goal—to better document, display, and preserve the space suit worn by Neil Armstrong on Apollo 11. —Stephen Hiltner

I have copies of most of Dubravka Ugresic’s books, and all of them are heavily dog-eared; flip to any page, and it’s more likely than not that several sentences are underlined. I suspect my various notations are due to the fact that Ugresic pulls no punches, and so reading her work—especially her nonfiction—is like having it all laid out for you. And by “it,” I mean, to borrow from Douglas Adams, “life, the universe and everything.” The editors of Music & Literature have given over a third of their latest issue to Ugresic, and my copy of the magazine is already thoroughly dog-eared and underlined. Ugresic’s writing is radical, accessible, aggressive, pungent, and funny, and she is one of the most unique writers in exile at work today—and one of the best writers, period. In an interview in the issue with Daniel Medin, she explains that “as an outsider I was free to shape my own literary taste, to pick my own literary traditions, to build my own system of literary values.” She is quick to add, however, that “going against the mainstream is not an aesthetic category. Risk is moral category, which shapes our attitude toward our vocation as well as our ideological, political, aesthetical, and ethical choices.” —Nicole Rudick

nextnextlevelHaving just returned from a two-week tour in which my band played for many a small crowd in many a dank basement—see photo below—I approached Leon Neyfakh’s The Next Next Level with some trepidation. It, too, concerns musicians, small crowds, and dank basements: that is, it concerns “the problem of making art in the twenty-first century.” Neyfakh tells the story of his friend Juiceboxxx, a white rapper who’s pursued his craft on the fringes of DIY culture for more than a decade. Juiceboxxx, whose name belies his creative energy, tours constantly, publishes ceaselessly, and self-promotes relentlessly. But what’s the point, really? As he tells an interviewer, “When you fucking kind of have this identity based on this totally absurd premise—like, where do you go if you want to stop doing it, man? Like, where do you go?” As someone who’s poured time and energy into a band called Vulture Shit, I ask myself these questions a lot. Neyfakh’s perceptive, thoughtful book may not make them easier to answer, but it’s a much-needed balm: a funny, broad-minded, enchanting reflection on the intersection of art and commerce. You’ll find no better account of what it’s like to make music outside the mainstream in 2015. —Dan Piepenbring
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The Machinery of the Universe

July 1, 2015 | by

Poe’s vision of the cosmos and the art it inspired.


Alfred Jensen, Physical Optics, 1975, oil on canvas, 7'2" x 12'9". Image via Pace Gallery

Since adolescence, Edgar Allan Poe had been picking fights with science. His second collection of poetry, published when he was all of twenty, opened with a mischievous sonnet needling what he called that “true daughter of Old Time”:

Why preyest thou thus upon the poet’s heart,
Vulture, whose wings are dull realities?
How should he love thee? or how deem thee wise,
Who wouldst not leave him in his wandering
To seek for treasure in the jewelled skies,
Albeit he soared with an undaunted wing?

By the time Poe wrote Eureka: A Prose Poem, the last major work he published before his premature death in 1849, his attitude toward certain men of science had softened. He eagerly absorbed—and sometimes rejected—theoretical works by the brilliant astronomer Sir John Herschel, the popular scientist J. P. Nichol, and the towering, eccentric naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, to whom Eureka was dedicated. He was still capable, on the other hand, of caustic put-downs such as the one he attributes early in the book to a scientist from the distant future. It’s in that figure’s prophetic voice that Poe chews out most of his contemporaries for “their pompous and infatuate proscription of all other roads to Truth than the two narrow and crooked paths—the one of creeping and the other of crawling—to which, in their infinite perversity, they have dared to confine the Soul—the Soul which loves nothing so well as to soar in those regions of illimitable intuition which are utterly incognizant of path.” Read More »

Make Your Dream City a Reality, and Other News

October 6, 2014 | by


A seventeenth-century map of Palmanova, Italy, a medieval star fort.

  • Wyatt Mason profiles Marilynne Robinson: “Somebody who had read Lila asked me, ‘Why do you write about the problem of loneliness?’ I said: ‘It’s not a problem. It’s a condition. It’s a passion of a kind. It’s not a problem. I think that people make it a problem by interpreting it that way.’ ”
  • How do outlandish ideas in architecture become reality? “The cities we live in need not have been as they are. In fact, they aren’t as they are. There’s a strange desperate hope in realizing how much of life is fiction.”
  • Lyudmila Ulitskaya’s novels—her latest, The Big Green Tent, appears in the U.S. next year—challenge the Russian state, taking on subjects that make many readers uncomfortable. “A book can be an inspiration or a murder weapon. Ulitskaya is fascinated by these transformations, but even more so by the peculiar trajectories that create fate—the travels of a person, a picture, a book. If there is a strange journey to be traced, she cannot resist the retelling.”
  • The e-book is an unstable medium: in a given edition, publishers are always swapping out advertisements, modifying content, rescinding access, or upgrading technology. So how do libraries preserve e-books? “Everyone knows that if we don’t do something now, we’ll be in big trouble later.”
  • Manufacturing stardom, then and now: “Trying to create a coherent image is always going to be the same, no matter if the star is from the 1930s or 2010s … Beyonce is producing an image using Tumblr and Instagram, which obviously stars in the thirties didn’t have, but she’s still trying to create a very specific understanding of the type of woman that she is. She’s trying to also make it seem like there isn’t a publicity campaign and that she’s not doing that, which was also done in the 1930s.”


“Aestheticized Loot,” and Other News

June 20, 2014 | by


“Six different artists made these paintings.” Photo via Vulture

  • An excerpt from Marilynne Robinson’s next novel, Lila.
  • Discovered: twenty unpublished poems by Neruda.
  • As video games move from amusements to art, game designers should be increasingly concerned with presenting moral dilemmas in their games … Rather than having choices presented ‘as either/or, good/bad binaries with relatively predictable outcomes,’ games should strive to present ‘no clear narrative-or-system-driven indication as to what choice to make.’”
  • The photographer Eilon Paz has released Dust & Grooves: Adventures in Record Collecting, featuring pictures of, yes, record collectors and their daunting collections. Among the specialists: a guy who only collects The White Album; a guy who only collects Sesame Street records; the Guinness World Record holder (no pun intended) for largest collection of colored vinyl.
  • “A large swath of the art being made today is being driven by the market, and specifically by not very sophisticated speculator-collectors who prey on their wealthy friends and their friends’ wealthy friends, getting them to buy the same look-­alike art … It’s colloquially been called Modest Abstraction, Neo-Modernism, M.F.A. Abstraction, and Crapstraction. (The gendered variants are Chickstraction and Dickstraction.) Rhonda Lieberman gets to the point with ‘Art of the One Percent’ and ‘aestheticized loot.’ I like Dropcloth Abstraction, and especially the term coined by the artist-critic Walter Robinson: Zombie Formalism.”
  • Among the World Cup’s rules and regs: sex laws. Some teams are banned from pregame intercourse; others are only barred from certain forms of it. E.g.: “France (you can have sex but not all night), Brazil (you can have sex, but not ‘acrobatic’ sex), Costa Rica (can’t have sex until the second round) and Nigeria (can sleep with wives but not girlfriends).”