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Posts Tagged ‘The New York Review of Books’

Staff Picks: Beard-Burdened and Beer-Branded

September 5, 2014 | by

History of Bluebeard

The Jeff Koons show has a little more than a month to go in its run at the Whitney Museum, and it’s been perplexing to see critics fall in with an artist whose work is the archetype of the money-driven art production about which many of them complain. To me, Koons’s work is all surface—literally and figuratively—and he seems to avail himself of Duchamp’s and Warhol’s legacies in order to promote, in art, wily marketing strategies gleaned during his years as a Wall Street commodities trader. It was a pleasure, then, to read Jed Perl’s assessment in The New York Review of Books. Perl rebuffs the idea that Koons’s work critiques middle-class values, concluding instead that it is the “apotheosis of Walmart” and “a habit-forming drug for the superrich” and that Koons is a too-confident exhibitionist. I find something immensely powerful in Perl’s tracing of the tradition of doubt in art—from Pliny to Michelangelo to Chardin—and in his conclusion that “where there is no doubt there is no art.” —Nicole Rudick

The story of Bluebeard, the wife-murdering aristocrat made famous in Charles Perrault’s seventeenth-century folktale, has captured the imagination of writers from the Brothers Grimm to Angela Carter. But William Thackeray’s lesser-known sequel to the hero’s bride-butchering, Bluebeard’s Ghost, tells the story through new eyes—specifically those of the final Mrs. Bluebeard, who escapes her husband’s clutches and goes on to inherit his estate. Pursued by numerous suitors, she opts for the equally hirsute “Captain Blackbeard, whose whiskers vied in magnitude with those of the deceased Bluebeard himself.” In true Thackeray style, he manages to transform a famously macabre narrative into a comic and playful study of human foibles, with the subjects inflated into caricatures of their former selves. Fittingly, September 5 marks the day that Tsar Peter the Great issued his “beard tax” of 1705, presenting those men determined enough to protect their hair with a hundred-rouble fee and a token bearing the words “the beard is a superfluous burden.” Thackeray’s tale is surely the other side of this coin: although his take on one of the most famous beards in literature is undeniably far-fetched, it is by no means a superfluous addition to the original. As he puts it himself, “Psha! Isn’t it written in a book? And is it a whit less probable than the first part of the tale?” —Helena Sutcliffe

If you’re looking to become productively, righteously, vindictively angry, read this piece in the Times about Crested Butte, Colorado, a town that will become, this weekend, an advertisement for Bud Light. Yes, entirely: “The town’s main thoroughfare, Elk Avenue, has been adorned with outdoor hot tubs, a sand pit, concert lights and a stage. Restaurants and hotels have been stripped of many local markings and given beer-branded umbrellas and signs instead. When the filming starts, drinks will be unlimited, access to the main street will be restricted to people with company-issued bracelets, and beautiful, mountain-ringed Crested Butte will be rebranded as ‘Whatever, USA.’ ” The mayor made the deal in secret, for $500,000; his name is Huckstep. The whole thing seems like an episode from a lesser George Saunders story. One can react only with scorn, and then one must trot out that shopworn but ever more vital statement of Philip Roth’s, from 1961: “The American writer … has his hands full in trying to understand, describe and then make credible much of American reality … It stupefies, it sickens, it infuriates and finally it is even a kind of embarrassment to one’s own meager imagination. The actuality is continually outdoing our talents.” —Dan Piepenbring

I could write about how much I’ve been watching the U.S. Open: how captivating the sport’s collision of intelligence and athleticism is, with its displays of raw emotion every time a player lunges to return a serve. But after reading Ben Rothenberg’s excellent essay on what it takes to be a line umpire, I’ve found my eyes veering toward the edges of the television set. While the task seems simple—“to sit or stand around the perimeter of the counter and monitor one specific line”—the preparation is intense. Understanding the patterns of each specific player helps to ensure no sight goes obscured. What’s even more fascinating is just as players advance through the tournament, so do line umpires. As Rothenberg writes, “By the final, the cream of the crop remains.” —Justin Alvarez

I was excited to see that the NYRB unlocked an essay, from 1985, by Umberto Eco on Krazy Kat and Peanuts. He’s good on the former, but on the latter, I found him to be inadvertently hilarious in his too-Freudian approach. He refers to Charlie Brown and the gang as “monster children,” distillations of modern industrial society’s neuroses. Poor Chuck is perhaps the most victimized: “This is why he is always on the brink of suicide or at least of nervous breakdown: because he seeks salvation through the routine formulas suggested to him by the society in which he lives (the art of making friends, culture in four easy lessons, the pursuit of happiness, how to make out with girls—he has been ruined, obviously, by Dr. Kinsey, Dale Carnegie, Erich Fromm, and Lin Yutang).” —N.R.

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Literary Sneakers, and Other News

June 13, 2014 | by

New-Balance

Because books and footwear belong together. Photo: Courtesy of New Balance

  • Donald Hall, who published poems in our first issue, has taken to the Concord Monitor to excoriate a senator in verse: “Get out of town, / You featherheaded carpetbagging Wall St. clown, / Scott Brown!”
  • Today in crass commodification: New Balance is releasing a series of shoes based on great American lit. “No one captures the essence, spirit, and the American experience better than American authors and the stories they have told throughout history. For the Made in USA Authors Collections, we pay homage to great American authors by building a collection inspired by their stories and moments.” The shoes are three hundred dollars a pair and “aren’t specifically tied to an author’s name.”
  • The history of the professional executioner is a chronicle of perfecting the choreography of death. It’s a story of exacting skill and the never-ending search for a more efficient means to enact (and contain) the spectacle of death.”
  • Bob Silvers talks to The Guardian about the New York Review of Books, which is to be the subject of a new documentary by Martin Scorsese.
  • No plans this weekend? Paint your actuary! “It might seem strange that an artist would lavish such care on the nuts and bolts of something so mundane, like a poet writing couplets about a corporate expense report. But … accounting paintings were a significant genre in Dutch art.”

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The Sicilian Defense

January 10, 2014 | by

Photo: Martin Lopatka, via Flickr.

Photo: Martin Lopatka, via Flickr

Dear Mr. Ross,

Thank you for sharing with us your review of Claudia Roth Pierpont’s Roth Unbound. The piece is colorful and sharp, and it is with regret that we say it does not suit our needs at this time.

Too much of the writing reflects back to the writer himself—to you yourself. (And, inexplicably, to your father.) While we certainly don’t mind personal inflection, and even tolerate the insertion of an occasional “I,” a review must be grounded more firmly in the subject or book under consideration. (And less so in the reviewer’s father.)

Critiques such as yours are redolent of ego. We say this not as admonishment, but as something of which you may want to be aware as you continue what looks to be a promising writing career. We wish you the best of luck in placing this piece elsewhere, and will be happy to consider your queries in the future.

Sincerely,
The Editors
The New York Review of Books

The difficulties began when I attempted to write, for The New York Review of Books, a review of Claudia Roth Pierpont’s critical biography of Philip Roth. My intention was simple: to demonstrate that I appreciated Roth’s work with a higher degree of sophistication than Pierpont. But articulating my Sophisticated Appreciation was tough to do. At first this didn’t bother me—an inability to articulate one’s Sophisticated Appreciation, I reasoned, may itself be proof of how complex and nuanced that appreciation is.

I’d been invited to submit to NYRB based on the success of an essay I’d written about Philip Roth for The New Yorker’s Web site. (An NYRB editor had e-mailed me to commend its “substantial humorousness,” and asked me to pitch an idea his way.) I wanted badly to be published in NYRB. I had some friends who’d been published in NYRB, and I was jealous of them. Moreover, my father is an avid NYRB reader—“It’s so wonderfully stuffy,” is his line; “the official periodical of leather armchairs and lowballs of Scotch”—and placing an essay in its pages, I believed, would recompense him for having twice paid my tuition to the universities where I’d learned to appreciate things sophisticatedly. (He would be pleased, too, to learn that I’d written something that wasn’t about him, as opposed to everything else I’d published—excepting the Roth piece—since finishing graduate school.)

NYRB’s editors expected six thousand words from my desk. Yet for several days I was too nervous to begin. More than anything else, the review would need to establish for NYRB’s readership how intelligent I was—establishing the writer’s intelligence seemed the purpose of most NYRB reviews, and I have always liked to fit neatly into prevailing systems. If it didn’t prove my intelligence, though, my review could only prove my lack thereof, and nothing was more terrifying to me than the idea of being exposed as intellectually inadequate. Read More »

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8, rue Garancière

May 7, 2012 | by

On April 3, Robert Silvers accepted the Paris Review’s Hadada Prize for a strong and unique contribution to literature. These were his remarks.

When something like this evening happens, you ask how you got here, and I thought back to the autumn of 1954, when I was a soldier at NATO military headquarters—called SHAPE—near Paris. One of the best things about working there was that, by some international understanding, practically everyone had Wednesday afternoon off—you could go to the Louvre, you could go to the Café de Flore. And there, one Wednesday afternoon, at the kiosk in front of the Flore, I bought a copy of The Paris Review and took it back to our international barracks at Rocquencourt and read it in my bunk. I thought I should know more about it.

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The Rescue

April 2, 2012 | by

Our Spring Revel will take place tomorrow, April 3. In anticipation of the event, the Daily is featuring a series of essays celebrating Robert Silvers, who is being honored this year with The Paris Review’s Hadada Prize.

“I first met Robert Silvers in 1989 at a party that George Plimpton gave for me at his apartment on Sutton Place.” It would be hard to exaggerate how gratifying it is to be able to write down such a sentence. Those were heady days. My novel, The Book of Evidence, had been shortlisted for that year’s Booker Prize, and I was riding on the crest of a wave that, as it turned out, would quickly run into the sands, though the ride was fine while it lasted. I may not have been exactly the toast of New York, but an evening at George’s place that included an encounter with the editor of The New York Review of Books was bubbly enough for me.

Bob that night inquired where I was staying in New York and said he would “send something round.” When I got back to my hotel room there was a parcel waiting for me, containing Denis Donoghue’s memoir Warrenpoint, along with a note from Bob asking if I would write on it for the NYRB. At least, that was what it seemed to be asking, for this was my first experience of Bob’s handwriting and it took a good ten minutes of peering and squinting before I had deciphered enough of the message to guess at the overall import.

I have had many notes from Bob since then, most of them brief and all of them hard to read, but never less than courtly in tone. The few longer ones have tended to be typed, on what is evidently a real typewriter. This last is oddly comforting; somehow a man who continues to type is a man one can trust. Read More »

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The Wizard of West Fifty-seventh Street

March 29, 2012 | by

Robert Silvers in the New York Review offices.

Our Spring Revel will take place on April 3. In anticipation of the event, the Daily is featuring a series of essays celebrating Robert Silvers, who is being honored this year with The Paris Review’s Hadada Prize.

My first encounter with Robert Silvers was with his sonorous and elegant voice, with its precise, slightly British diction. It must be said that most of my encounters over the years have been with the voice rather than the man, as we’ve met in person only a few times.

I first heard the voice in the summer of 1988. Back in the States after my first year of graduate school at Cambridge University, I somehow landed a job in the advertising department at The New York Review of Books. I can’t imagine I came by it entirely honestly, but I have no recollection of whose kindness may have opened the door. This was at the old address, 250 West Fifty-seventh Street, where entering the offices felt somehow like slipping in a back door, because you were immediately dwarfed by books. Mountainous, heavily laden shelves overhung the narrow, dark corridors, and people scurried quietly among them as if in fear—fear, I always thought, that like Leonard Bast they would be crushed by knowledge.

In the several months I worked in those offices—in the domain of Catherine Tice, at the elbow of a brassily confident assistant named Kim—I never laid eyes on either Bob or Barbara. (I had, on the other hand, many mad and wonderful conversations with the late Bob Tashman, who roved the office with apparently much time on his hands and who, although balding, had an impressive corona of hair emerging from his shirt collar. His long-worked-upon American Decameron, alas, we will never now see.) Bob and Barbara’s offices were down long tributaries of the book-lined hallways, unenterable by the likes of me. But I did, upon occasion, hear the magical voice. It was like hearing the Wizard of Oz. Whether he was speaking on the telephone or to an assistant, his interlocutors were inaudible, the authority of his inflections absolute, and his physical presence purely notional. Read More »

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