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Posts Tagged ‘motherhood’

The Trouble of Rational Thought

June 10, 2016 | by

How Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai cultivates ambition in its readers.

The first edition of The Last Samurai.

Watch Helen DeWitt discuss The Last Samurai in our My First Time video series.

In the late nineties, Helen DeWitt, a then-unpublished writer with a Ph.D. in classics from Oxford, got an offer on her first novel, The Seventh Samurai. It had been seventeen months since her agent had indicated she would be able to get an advance based on the first six chapters of the manuscript—which, in the absence of a contract, DeWitt had diligently been attempting to finish. After she received the offer, she wrote to her agent; she felt she was likely to commit suicide if she had to continue working with her. Looking over her editor's comments, she scarcely felt more hopeful. When a contract arrived, she decided not to sign it.

Some time later, a friend showed the manuscript to Jonathan Burnham, then at Talk Miramax Books; he immediately offered her $70,000. At the Frankfurt Book Fair, the novel caused what can fairly be called a sensation; but the enthusiasm of foreign houses did not make English-language publication any easier. DeWitt spent months battling her copy editor, who had ignored DeWitt’s edits and imposed hundreds of standardizing changes of her own. It was, DeWitt told the Observer in 2011, as if they were trying to “kill the mind that wrote the book.”

In 2000, DeWitt’s novel was released as The Last Samurai. (DeWitt was forced to change the title, only to see its Google results buried, three years later, beneath the Tom Cruise movie of the same name). In The New Yorker, A. S. Byatt hailed it as “a triumph—a genuinely new story, a genuinely new form.” Read More »

More Public-spirited Pigs, and Other News

May 27, 2016 | by

Eliot (not pictured) disapproves.

  • As an editor at Faber & Faber, T. S. Eliot had the chance to publish Animal Farm. He declined. And he had sound porcine reasons for doing so, according to a newly digitized letter he wrote Orwell in 1944: “The positive point of view, which I take to be generally Trotskyite, is not convincing … After all, your pigs are far more intelligent than the other animals, and therefore the best qualified to run the farm—in fact, there couldn’t have been an Animal Farm at all without them: so that what was needed (someone might argue), was not more communism but more public-spirited pigs.”
  • Memorial Day has only been around for about 150 years, meaning it’s not terribly old as far as memorials go. Consider instead the Bayeux Tapestry, which likely dates to the 1070s. Alison Kinney writes, “It’s a seventy-by one-half-meter length of linen panels worked in crewel, its madder-, mignonette-, and woad-dyed yarns still as vivid, after a thousand years, as the tints of the Art Nouveau comic strip Little Nemo … The medievalist Valerie Allen writes about the Bayeux Embroidery’s ‘dynamic things grounded in space and time,’ ‘from kitchen utensils to war gear … Objects acquire a kind of agency by exerting their inherent “virtue,” wearing down conventional distinctions between human and non-human to the point that a hand, a sword and a relic can all share in the same phenomenal luminosity.’ The Embroidery itself is just such a luminous agent: a war memorial—a Normandy Beach war memorial, no less. In this place occupied by hundreds of memorials, planned and incidental, fleeting and obdurate, from funerary sculpture to the bunkers that, after seventy years of coastal weather, still bear flamethrowers’ char marks, memorials develop unpredictable, unaccountable vibrancies that can shape the conflicts, even the topography, of later battles. That is, if they can first escape violence, neglect, and ordinary wear and tear.”
  • Because your day needed the phrase intravaginal hardware for the pregnant body in it, here is Sasha Archibald on a thrilling development in consumer electronics: “A company in Spain recently released a new product, the Babypod. The device entails a small roundish speaker … The idea is to insert the speaker inside one’s vagina, like a tampon, and connect the auxiliary jack to an iPhone, from which the mother-DJ selects a playlist. The music is piped in directly where it can be heard best … Women have presumably always enjoyed the utility of an interior pocket, though no one has written this history. The nineteenth-century spirit medium Eva C. had a trick of producing ectoplasm from her vagina, and police report finding jewels and drugs, money and handguns, stolen phones and credit cards. In these cases, the vagina is treated as a secret lockbox—a hiding place no one will think to look, the corporeal equivalent of a buried treasure chest. The Babypod inhabits the woman in a totally different fashion. The very purpose of the device is to announce itself and broadcast sound. It makes the vagina speak. The Vagina Monologues didn’t need to get more literal, but they have.”
  • While we’re in the vicinity of the genitals: “When reporters are forced to write about sportsmen kicking each other in the nuts, what do they write? This week has provided some answers … In ninety-six articles, totaling a little more than fifty thousand words, groin was used 148 times across headlines, body and photo captions. Of course, in sports, groin injuries can mean something very different from your basic knee to the crotch. So at best, this creates unnecessary ambiguity in order to demur from coarser language. The next most frequently used was some form of below the belt with seventeen appearances, followed by nuts with fifteen, low blow with fourteen, a few variations of private parts totaling twelve, between the legs with ten, and balls with nine.”

Babies in Art

May 5, 2016 | by

Virgin and Child with the Infant Saint John the Baptist (1635), by Carlo Dulci

Carlo Dulci, Virgin and Child with the Infant Saint John the Baptist, 1635.

Babies in art mostly look nothing like babies in life. This is especially true of the baby Jesus, but also of babies more broadly, and this is true even, and maybe most noticeably, in paintings and sculptures that are, apart from the oddly depicted babies, realistic. Often babies are depicted with the proportions of small adults: their limbs are relatively longer than baby limbs, and their heads are not as relatively large as baby heads; in real life, babies have heads so large and arms so short that they can’t reach their arms beyond their heads. But one almost never sees this in a museum. I am told, also, that a major problem through the centuries for artists depicting the baby Jesus has been the question of what to do about the Lord’s penis. Read More »

How Repulsive

February 10, 2016 | by

On the merits of disturbing literature.

Frederic Leighton, Study at a Reading Desk‎, 1877.

In a letter to a reader who was disturbed by his novel The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, Rainer Maria Rilke wrote, “If [Malte] contains bitter reproaches, these are absolutely not directed against life. On the contrary, they are evidences that, for lack of strength, through distraction and inherited errors we lose completely the countless earthly riches that were intended for us.”

Faced with a reader like Rilke’s, it can be hard for a writer to defend the need for “bitter reproaches”—to uphold the disturbing above the merely distasteful. After all, some “disturbing” books do nothing more than shock. Charlotte Roche’s Wetlands, for instance, is a litany of gross and obscene bodily functions that never adds up to more than grossness and obscenity. But good books disturb for good reasons. To disturb is, among other things, to guard against complacency: to make the reader face the underbelly of dark thoughts and actions, see how circumstances can make even good people go astray if they are not vigilant in honoring the best in themselves and in the outside world. Disturbing passages, when skillful, make a vital inquiry into the subtle causes and effects of human behavior. Read More »

Impressive Propaganda, and Other News

February 10, 2016 | by

A book designed by Klaus Wittkugel on display at P! Gallery. Photo: Sebastian Bach

  • If you’ve been holding off on reading Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan novels because there’s, like, four of them, and that’s just kind of a lot of books, and you secretly don’t even really enjoy reading that often anyway, you’re in luck: they’re being adapted for television. “FremantleMedia’s Wildside and Fandango Productions will adapt the four novels as four eight-episode series, one for each of the books—My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and The Story of the Lost Child. And just in case you were worried, The Hollywood Reporter reports that Ferrante herself will be involved in the production of the series, and it will be shot in Italy.”
  • With his Jack Reacher thrillers, Lee Child writes what are certifiably—at least according to Forbes—the most addictive novels in all of commercial fiction. In this, Christopher Tayler writes, Child owes a debt to Donald Westlake, an earlier thriller writer with a formula that varied in intriguing ways: “Westlake was hailed as a master by John Banville and Stephen King, but he never troubled the bestseller lists, and it’s part of [his series protagonist] Parker’s charm that he’s a bit of a cult property, a creature of the drugstore paperback carousel rather than the airport bookstore … Luc Sante—who published one of the first serious appraisals of the Parker books in 1985—argues persuasively that the master theme of professionalism is as much writerly as criminal. Westlake said that he devised the series because he wanted to write about ‘a workman at work’, and the books offer a double lesson, showing not only, say, each step in the process of breaking though a Sheetrock wall with a claw hammer, but also how to turn the process into mesmerizing fiction.”
  • In the fifties and sixties, you couldn’t step into an East German bookstore (and clearly I speak from experience) without encountering the work of Klaus Wittkugel, one of the GDR’s most prominent graphic designers. A new exhibition in New York collects his striking book designs and propaganda posters. If you doubt his significance, just have a look at this unstinting praise from none other than the East German State: “For nearly every important political event in the history of our Workers’ and Peasants’ State, there exists an artistic statement by Wittkugel, who, through his work, has contributed considerably to the new orientation of our applied graphics.”
  • The author photo, once the foundation of any decent book-publicity campaign, has seen some changes in the Information Age—some might wonder if there’s really any reason for it at all anymore, when you just Google an author and find pictures by the dozen. But when Matthew Shaer saw Sven Birkerts’s author photo, he felt something different. “Its anomalousness shook me: If the vast majority of author photos fit into one of a handful of standard poses—the Fist-on-Chin (conveying thoughtfulness), the Stare-Out-Window (inner depth), the Icy Stare (strength), the Hearty Laugh (confidence!), etc.—here was an author photo that threw centuries of literary convention in our face. Here was a man who was not even fully dressed in his author photo.”
  • In which Alice Gregory ventures to the shadow of Geneva, with a friend and a ten-week-old baby: “Malka is in the other room pumping, ‘like a cow.’ She returns and tells me about a Scandinavian balloon that you insert into your vagina for ten minutes per day for the last month of pregnancy. If you do this, she promises, you won’t need stitches. Malka is full of advice that I don’t need but want anyway. We talk about lots of things up there in the mountains: Buchenwald, deviant sex, how Italians sound like roosters when they try to sing lieders. They use too many vocal effects, apparently. Or, as Malka says, ‘lots of cream all over.’ ”

Truth in Advertising

January 29, 2016 | by

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Martha Jane Burke (“Calamity Jane”), on horseback in 1901. Photo: C. D. Arnold. Via United States Library of Congress

Another person is the best way to learn about a book. At least, it’s my favorite; good reviews are an art form, Web sites a modern marvel, but somehow my best-loved books have come directly from someone else’s recommendation, and the enthusiasm of those conversations is a pleasure in itself. It’s hard to overstate the importance of this particular chain of connection. When you think about it, most of the world’s great religions are based on book recommendation. 

I recently learned about the book I want to recommend to you today via someone whom I met while reporting a story. He, in turn, had been recommended the title by a horse trainer on a film set. Where that guy heard of it, I can’t say, but the chain is doubtless long—dating back, at any rate, to 1976, when Shameless Hussy Press published Calamity Jane’s Letters to Her Daughter

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