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Posts Tagged ‘Sarah Bakewell’

What We’re Loving: Communism, Climates, Cats

April 11, 2014 | by

Joseph_Stalin_with_daughter_Svetlana,_1935

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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Staff Picks: Sarah Bakewell, Vladimir Sorokin

March 11, 2011 | by

For the last few months I’ve been rereading—very slowly and very late at night—Montaigne’s essays. All thanks to Sarah Bakewell (who won a National Book Critics Circle Award last night for her biography of Montaigne: How To Live). —Lorin Stein

Several years ago I read Vladimir Sorokin’s Ice and found its matter-of-fact sci-fi narrative intriguing but its conclusion quite disappointing. Turns out it’s the second book in a trilogy, which, thankfully, NYRB has published in a single volume—the way it ought to be read. I haven’t reached the end yet, but so far it’s wonderfully weird. —Nicole Rudick

The reviews of Margaux Fragosos’s Tiger, Tiger gave me the chills. It’s a memoir of her relationship with Peter, a pedophile forty-four years her senior. When a copy of the book was slipped on my desk this week, I had to pick it up. —Thessaly La Force

As an undergraduate, I remember catching my necromantic tutor in Old Icelandic obliviously reciting poems from the language on the top deck of the city bus. This week, I’ve been putting those extracurricular lessons to use by whipping out Basil Bunting’s Collected Poems on the subway. It doesn’t take long for the short, incantatory lines of “Briggflatts”—studded with monosyllabic words that Bunting excavated from Anglo-Saxon and his regional Northumbrian dialect—to achieve the twin effect of making me forget my surroundings and baffling my fellow passengers. I mean, what on earth is an oxter? —Jonathan Gharraie

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What Bloggers Owe Montaigne

November 12, 2010 | by

The weekend newspapers are full of them. Our computer screens are full of them. They go by different names—columns, opinion pieces, diaries, blogs—but personal essays are alive and well in the twenty-first century. They flourish just as they did in James Thurber’s and E. B. White’s twentieth-century New York, or in the nineteenth-century London of William Hazlitt and Charles Lamb. There seems no end to the appeal of the essayist’s basic idea: that you can write spontaneously and ramblingly about yourself and your interests, and that the world will love you for it.

No end—but there was a beginning. The essay tradition blossomed in English-speaking countries only after being invented by a sixteenth-century Frenchman, Michel Eyquem de Montaigne. His contemporary, the English writer Francis Bacon, also used the title Essays, but his were well-organized intellectual inquiries. While Bacon was assembling his thoughts neatly, the self-avowedly lazy nobleman and winegrower Montaigne was letting his run riot on the other side of the Channel. In his Essais (“Attempts”), published in 1580 and later expanded into larger editions, he wrote as if he were chatting to his readers: just two friends, whiling away an afternoon in conversation.

Montaigne raised questions rather than giving answers. He wrote about whatever caught his eye: war, psychology, animals, sex, magic, diplomacy, vanity, glory, violence, hermaphroditism, self-doubt. Most of all, he wrote about himself and was amazed at the variety he found within. “I cannot keep my subject still,” he said. “It goes along befuddled and staggering, with a natural drunkenness.” His writing followed the same wayward path.

In doing this, he rejected almost every literary virtue the French were to hold dear for the next few hundred years: clarity, rigour, beauty, and elegance. Yet his rebellious style gave him immense appeal to British, Irish and American authors. For more than 450 years, they took inspiration from Montaigne and his meandering charms.

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