Posts Tagged ‘truman capote’
October 4, 2016 | by Dan Piepenbring
Speaking to The Paris Review in 2011, Nicholson Baker remembered one of the small joys of his childhood. “The pencil sharpener was probably the best thing about school,” he said. “A little chrome invention under your control. It had a thundering sound, a throat-clearing sound, that I especially liked.”
As it happens, pencil sharpeners appear early and often in his new book, Substitute: Going to School with a Thousand Kids. But they’re all electric now, and they’ve lost their thunder. “There was a lot of earnest grinding away at the fancy electric pencil sharpener,” he writes on page thirty. Twelve pages later, “Someone else was grinding loudly away on the mechanical pencil sharpener.” On page 111 he mentions again “the remedial grind of the pencil sharpener.”
There’s a sound reason for this anti-sharpener rhetoric: in 2014 Baker became a substitute teacher at several Maine public schools, where the sharpeners’ grinding is just one agent in a multifront sensory assault, and further proof that technology doesn’t equal improvement. Substitute—Baker’s thoughtful, well-observed chronicle of his twenty-eight days in the classroom—catalogs the bells, the morning announcements, the iPad games, the lively chatter, and all the miscellaneous noise that characterize a day at school. Rather than a broadside against the education system, Substitute’s seven-hundred-plus pages offer a close, empathetic account of Baker’s time as a teacher, trading editorial asides for the richness—and, not infrequently, madness—of our efforts to impart knowledge. For every meaningless worksheet or recess infraction, there’s a warm, witty exchange with a student, or a moment, however brief, of genuine engagement.
Substitute is Baker’s sixteenth book; though he’s written nonfiction before, it marks his first outing as a participatory journalist, and he called it the most immersive book of his career. I reached him in his hotel room in Atlanta to ask him a few questions about it.
This is basically an act of participatory journalism, but it’s not like any other account I’ve read. Did you have any touchstones in mind?
Well, there’s George Plimpton. If you want to write about football, get yourself on a football team. If you want to write about boxing, you’re going to have to get punched in the head a few times. That’s what I did with Substitute. When I was in high school I read Up the Down Staircase and really loved it—all those wonderful memos—and in fact there was an actual down staircase and an up staircase in the middle school where I was a substitute. Two nonfiction books, Death at an Early Age and The Way it Spozed to Be also made a huge impression back then, even though I’d gone to an alternative public high school that was nothing like what was described in those books. Once I began writing Substitute in earnest, I tossed educational theorizing aside for the most part and went back to the method I’d used in Human Smoke, a book about World War II, where I did a lot of quoting from daily sources—newspaper articles and diaries and speeches on the radio. Substitute is a sort of collage of voices. In Human Smoke, I took my own voice out completely, but in Substitute I couldn’t—I had to be true to my own teacherly fumblings. Read More »
October 26, 2015 | by Sam Weller
Ray Bradbury’s The October Country turns sixty.
“The Dubliners of American Gothic”—that’s how Stephen King referred to Ray Bradbury’s first book, the little-known 1947 short-story collection, Dark Carnival. There’s good reason few readers, even those well versed in Bradbury’s work, are unfamiliar with Dark Carnival: Arkham House, a small press out of Sauk City, Wisconsin, published the book in a modest run of 3,112 copies; the book went out of print just a few years later. Besides a pricey limited-edition reprint in 2001, Dark Carnival exists as a literary apparition.
And yet many people have read some of Dark Carnival without knowing it. Read More »
October 15, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
- Today in persistence, doubt, the slow burn, and eventual triumph: Marlon James, who won the Booker earlier this week for his novel A Brief History of Seven Killings, saw seventy-eight different houses reject his first novel. (Can you beat that record? Let’s talk.) “ ‘I had to sit down and add it up one day and I had no idea it was that much … I did give it up. I actually destroyed the manuscript, I even went on my friends’ computers and erased it.’ He said he retrieved the text by searching in the e-mail outbox of an old iMac computer.” James is the first Jamaican writer to win the Booker.
- Behold, the awesome generative power of the image search, which has given rise to millions of mood boards and a lust for an intimate connection to pictures: “As the longing for emotional connection spreads from how we want our clothes or living room to feel to how we want our minivan or constitutional democracy to feel, the mood business continues to expand … fueled, in large part, by the sheer overabundance of available images. It’s hard to remember that a couple of decades ago, finding pictures of things involved countless, tedious hours of random page flipping. Now a few seconds of furious keystroking produces endless examples … As vast files of metadata and personal search histories are ferreted away in some server farm in god-knows-where, we crave the kind of anodyne, gauzy experiences that at least promise something warmer and more human.”
- But even as the Internet helps us find too many things, it loses them. A thirty-four-part series of investigative journalism from 2007—nominated for the Pulitzer, even—disappeared from The Rocky Mountain News’s Web site, where it had been exclusively published. “If a sprawling Pulitzer Prize–nominated feature in one of the nation’s oldest newspapers can disappear from the web, anything can … today’s web is more at-risk than the iterations that preceded it. The serving environments are now more complex, and the volume of data involved is astonishing … Saving something on the web, just as Kevin Vaughan learned from what happened to his work, means not just preserving websites but maintaining the environments in which they first appeared—the same environments that often fail, even when they’re being actively maintained.”
- Richard Spruce, a nineteenth-century biologist, was obsessed not with spruces or even conifers at large, but with mosses, liverworts, bryophytes: the true underdogs of the plant world. Most scientists of his kind found them boring, but mosses had an active life in other quarters of the Victorian imagination: “Bryophytes had a way of working themselves into art and literature as signifiers of privacy and secrecy … Moss in particular served to create some botanical, aesthetic sense of a setting that allowed for illicit sexual encounters and for primal yearnings … Moss provided a soft bed for sexual romps that had to take place outside of stuffy Victorian homes. Serving, perhaps predictably, as a slang term for pubic hair, moss was understood to be consistently moist and jewel-like, glittering like emerald colonies under light … Hidden moss grottoes conjured up an image of something semi-religious, some secret refuge from the trials of urban—and overwhelming imperial tropical—life.”
- Hilton Als on Truman Capote’s early stories, and their approach to queerness, blackness, and the social politics of their day: “As an artist, Truman Capote treated truth as a metaphor he could hide behind, the better to expose himself in a world not exactly congenial to a Southern-born queen with a high voice who once said to a disapproving truck driver: ‘What are you looking at? I wouldn’t kiss you for a dollar’ … It’s interesting to think about him maybe taking in news reports from the time, like that story about those four black girls in Alabama, one of his home states, blown to bits in a church by racism and maleficence, and maybe wondering how, as the author of 1958’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, he could have written of Holly Golightly, the book’s star, asking for a cigarette and then saying: ‘I don’t mean you, O.J. You’re such a slob. You always nigger-lip.’ ”
March 23, 2015 | by Gerald Howard
How Gordon Lish’s first novel anticipated The Jinx.
Like every other sentient being with an HBO subscription, I’ve been riveted by the layers of mendacity, hypocrisy, voyeurism, manipulation, deception, dysfunction, and psychopathology on display in The Jinx. Robert Durst is as compelling a creep as has ever appeared on an LED screen; he seems like a character sprung from Patricia Highsmith’s dark imagination. (The Talented Mister Durst?) Andrew Jarecki, with his distinctly Mephistophelean facial hair, gives off his own aroma of brimstone. As I watched the series—rapt, but with a queasy feeling of complicity—I felt I’d encountered something like this before. Then I remembered what it was: Gordon Lish’s skilled, twisted, and exceptionally prophetic first novel, Dear Mr. Capote (1983).
The self-proclaimed “Captain Fiction,” Lish is most famous and/or notorious today for his writing classes, which more resembled EST sessions than workshops, and his hyperactive editorial pencil—which, depending on your point of view, either butchered or rescued much of Raymond Carver’s fiction. By 1983, Lish was riding high as an editor at Knopf, but through most of the seventies he’d been the fiction editor of Esquire, where he had almost single-handedly engineered a sea change in the style and substance of American short fiction, publishing the work of such minimalists as Carver, Joy Williams, Mary Robison, and Amy Hempel. Lish also convinced Truman Capote to publish the first two installments in his long bruited-about novel-in-progress, Answered Prayers. Capote had bragged that it would be his American answer to Proust, and the first of the chapters to appear, in June 1975, “Mojave,” received rapturous praise. Buoyed by this response, he gave Esquire another chapter to publish later that year, the incendiary and staggeringly impolitic “La Cote Basque, 1965,” which spilled a dump truck’s worth of dirt on his high-society friends and exiled him from the fancy circles and acquaintances he had so assiduously cultivated. Its publication sent Capote’s career into a terminal tailspin, perhaps the most disastrous miscalculation by a major writer in our literary history. Lish, too, has his Mephistophelian side. Read More »
February 9, 2015 | by Sadie Stein
Harper Lee fever has gripped the nation. Ever since news of her lost novel hit last week, the famously reclusive writer has been everywhere—trending on Twitter, spawning lists, smiling above the fold on the front page of today’s New York Times. Naturally, there’s been as much controversy as delight: Is the elderly author being taken advantage of? Does she want the book released? According to her lawyer, the author is humiliated by such allegations.
Whatever you think about the release of the novel, the whole thing has started to feel a bit squicky, or at the very least odd. All of this has so little to do with the woman herself. Or so I declared self-righteously to my head over the weekend, when I resolved to take an attitude of superior distaste towards the whole business. When I saw a feature on Harper Lee’s New York in the New York Post, my lip curled. Until, that is, I glanced at the annotated map and saw that it listed—along with the Yorkville flat where Lee lived off and on for decades, Capote’s Brooklyn Heights home, and the offices of agent Maurice Crain—the old Shea Stadium. Read More »
November 7, 2014 | by The Paris Review
“One of the striking features of the discourse of man to modern eyes, in a sense the most striking, is how unreadable it is, how tedious, how unhelpful. The puzzle is why it is unreadable.” Thus, Mark Greif in his exhilarating study The Age of the Crisis of Man: Thought and Fiction in America 1933–1973. By “the discourse of man” Greif means the vast midcentury literature on human dignity, from Being and Nothingness, to the “Family of Man” photo exhibition, to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—a discourse that Greif interrogates with verve, erudition, sympathy, and suspicion, and that he follows into the fiction of our time. I’ve been toting The Age of the Crisis of Man around for the last month, using a pencil for a bookmark, because there’s something to underline on every page—and I haven’t even got to the chapters on O’Connor and Pynchon. —Lorin Stein
Like many nineties kids, I received my first doses of NPR while buckled up in the backseat of my parents’ car; Saturday-morning drives, often to visit my grandparents, meant one thing: Car Talk. The show has been a constant in my life ever since. (In fact, if you’ve ever wondered what occupies The Paris Review’s staff on our five-hour quarterly drives to our press in Pennsylvania, look no further than the Car Talk podcast.) So many of the tributes to Tom Magliozzi, the elder “Tappet” brother who died this week of complications from Alzheimer’s disease, focused on his inimitable and infectious laughter—and rightfully so. But the somberness of the occasion reminded me of a letter Tom and Ray once fielded from a troubled freshman at Mount Holyoke College, a young listener named Lea. (You can listen to Tom read Lea’s letter here; she later called in to the show.) Give them a listen and you'll be reminded of just how much the show provided: laughter, yes, and advice about cars—but also the occasional window, especially for its young listeners, into the sort of life one might aspire toward, one where the adults of the world still engage in “water-pistol fights, with whipped cream.” —Stephen Hiltner
I can’t in good faith claim that Robert Altman’s Dr. T and the Women (2000) is a “good” movie, but it captivates, in its quietly provocative way. Imagine the eye rolls after this pitch meeting: “Well, it’s this sexy, envelope-pushing comedy where Richard Gere plays a hunky gynecologist in upper-crust Dallas, but he doesn’t boink his patients or anything lewd like that—he just treats everyone really respectfully, including his daughters and his wife, who goes insane, in fact, because of how deeply loved she is and how well her personal needs are met.” Dr. T is a farce, a riff on the “Book of Job” and the suffering of the virtuous; all of its women are kooky and dependent in some way on the ministrations of the good doctor, with his boundless patience and his way with the speculum. Altman wrings a lot of jouissance from his ensemble cast, especially Gere, who really does seem too sensitive for this milieu. But what is this milieu? Why are all these rich ladies so gabby, so troubled, so sad? That’s where Dr. T is ultimately thwarted: in spite of its lead’s genuine (and believable) reverence for the feminine, the film can’t help but lapse into misogyny. It’s called Dr. T and the Women, for god’s sake. But right up to its positively outlandish ending, it asks questions about chivalry, materialism, and gender that not many movies would dare to touch, then or now. It’s audacious filmmaking—and that alone makes it worth watching. —Dan Piepenbring
In 1892, long before the O. J. Simpson trial or the Lindbergh kidnapping, there was a court case that swept the nation’s interest. It wasn’t because the violence of the crime—one woman publicly slashing the throat of another—but the motivation: a same-sex love affair. Using love letters, archives, newspaper articles, and government records, Alexis Coe’s Alice + Freda Forever brings to life the story of Alice Mitchell and Freda Ward, who lived in a much too-familiar world intolerant of any relationship outside the norm. Coe’s narrative covers the perceptions of sexuality, women’s role in society, racial hierarchy, media manipulation, and even mental health, but she never strays too far from the heart of the story: the tragic romance between two women forty years before the word lesbian would be in circulation. —Justin Alvarez
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