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Staff Picks: Zoë Heller, Roald Dahl, Wes Anderson

October 22, 2010 | by

Zoë Heller's savvy essay on Roald Dahl presents the enduring master of children's fiction (somewhat less enduring, though still somewhat masterly, in his writing for adults) as a perfect misanthrope:

At dinner parties, Dahl’s potent gifts of vituperation regularly sent fellow guests home early. He was once thrown out of a London gambling club for complaining at the top of his voice about the disgusting Jews who were spoiling the place. When his seventeen-year-old daughter Tessa accused him, accurately, of having an affair with Felicity Crosland, the family friend for whom he would later leave Neal, he berated her for being “a nosy little bitch.” He was forever bashing out bitter letters to his publishers and his agents, complaining about perceived slights to his authorial dignity. When he finally threatened to leave Knopf, his editor Robert Gottlieb was only too happy to show him the door. “Let me reverse your threat,” he wrote to Dahl. “Unless you start acting civilly to us, there is no possibility of our agreeing to publish you. Nor will I—or any of us—answer any future letter that we consider to be as rude as those we’ve been receiving.”
David Wallace-Wells

Eugène Guillevic called his charming 1967 book, Euclidiennes, a “somewhat peculiar bestiary.” Each short poem is a caption or ekphrasis for a geometrical figure: line, ellipse, cylinder, spiral. Some figures are apostrophized, others speak in their own voice, and the result is as witty as anything in La Fonatine. Here is “Tangent” (you remember, a straight line that touches a curvaceous line at just one point), expertly “Englished” by Richard Sieburth in the recently released Geometries: “I will only touch you once. / And it will only be in passing. // No use calling me back, / No use reminding. // You will have plenty of time / To rehearse and remember / This moment, // To convince yourself / We’ll never part.” —Robyn Creswell

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Staff Picks: MFA Microculture, Comfortable Middle Age

September 17, 2010 | by

What we’ve been reading.

The Cross of Redemption, James Baldwin’s uncollected prose. So absorbing I woke up thinking about it this morning, showered and shaved, and stepped back into the shower. (“You’re wet. You showered,” was my first non-Baldwin thought of the day.) —Lorin Stein

“The First Tycoon of Teen,” Tom Wolfe’s 1964 profile of pop wunderkind Phil Spector—“the first millionaire businessman to rise up out of the teen-age netherworld.” At 23, Spector had already produced “Zip-a-dee-doo-dah,” “He’s a Rebel,” “Be My Baby,” “Da Do Ron Ron,” “Then He Kissed Me,” “Uptown,” and “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin.” “I get a little angry when people say it's bad music,” Spector tells Wolfe. “It has limited chord changes, and people are always saying the words are banal and why doesn't anybody write lyrics like Cole Porter anymore, but we don’t have presidents like Lincoln anymore either.” —David Wallace-Wells

A recent poem from The New Yorker called, “On the Inevitable Decline Into Mediocrity of the Popular Musician Who Attains a Comfortable Middle Age.” It goes: “O Sting, where is thy death?” —Daisy Atterbury

In the midst of a renewed discussion about female writers and their relationship with the literary establishment, This Recording re-published a piece written by Margaret Atwood in 1976 entitled “On Being A 'Woman Writer.’” Atwood is clear, calm, thorough and undeniably relevant: it wasn't until I got to the bottom of the essay that I realized the piece was over thirty years old. —Miranda Popkey

Elif Batuman’s astounding “Get A Real Degree” in the London Review of Books, which begins as an focused inquiry into the MFA program microculture but expands outward and outward and outward again, until the entire horizon of post-Quixote literature has been pulled into view. —D. W.-W.

I recently watched The Red Stuff, a documentary about the Soviet Union’s race to space. It’s bizarre to see Russian astronauts, especially those now past their prime and overweight, surrounded by Russian space memorabilia. But what I wanna know? Space ice cream. Do the Russians now sell it at their science museums like we do? Also recently viewed: IMAX: Hubble 3D, about the last flight to the Hubble Space Telescope. The images of earth are so beautiful that I cried. —Thessaly La Force

A mesmerizing essay in The Nation on Javier Marías and his Your Face Tomorrow trilogy by the man I'm beginning to think is the best critic writing today, William Deresiewicz. “Marías’s Europeanness is of the autumnal variety, much in evidence in recent decades, the product of a ripened civilization that feels itself equipped for nothing but the harvest," Deresiewicz writes. “Reflection in James or Proust,” he continues, “isn't a commentary on the story; it is essential to the story. It hugs the plot like a lining of a coat. It exposes character, develops relationships, shapes action. It gives utterance to feeling and direction to choice. It evolves, as the protagonists themselves evolve. But reflection in Your Face Tomorrow rarely does any of those things; it simply sits alone in its study, watching the plot go by.” —D. W.-W.

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