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Posts Tagged ‘World War II’

Embankment House

December 16, 2015 | by

Lessons from a building in Shanghai.

Shanghai’s Embankment House.

Among Shanghai’s many architectural gems is a sprawling, curved edifice that was once the largest apartment building in Asia, a building that more than half a century ago played a role in saving many thousands of lives. It’s set just on the north side of Suzhou Creek, a small river whose course has been hemmed in by concrete, and whose polluted contents are still routinely netted by illegal fishermen—mostly, to judge by their catch, in search of the famous Shanghai hairy crab. On the southern bank, there’s a small section of a walking path, which in the fall is hung with the heavy sweet fragrance of osmanthus blossoms, and which attracts elderly taiji practitioners, smoking office workers out for their lunch break, young couples, and a lone tenor saxophonist, who shows up every morning before eight and doesn’t leave until just before dark. Behind them is the heavy stone architecture of the Bund and a pair of neon gods, the Oriental Pearl Tower and the gigantic trapezoidal Shanghai World Financial Center, the world’s eighth tallest skyscraper.

All this I can observe from a window overlooking the creek, the only window in my tenth-floor studio. The unrenovated apartments are stacked up next to one another, so only the apartments on the ends and around the curved courtyard have more than one window. The building draws breezes through central airshafts that have cleverly been left open, providing essential ventilation in the muggy Shanghai summers. People stack plants on the sills there and hang their laundry to dry in the spiraling wafts from below. Read More »

The Displaced Person

December 10, 2015 | by

Reading Flannery O’Connor in the age of Islamophobia.

Illustration: June Glasson, for Farrar, Straus and Giroux

At a little more than fifty pages, “The Displaced Person” is one of Flannery O’Connor’s least anthologized stories—and if you share her beliefs about what she called “topical” stories, it’s also one of the most problematic. O’Connor was wary of stories that focused squarely and perhaps sentimentally on social issues. Her own “Everything that Rises Must Converge,” featuring a bigoted white woman riding a newly integrated bus, was, she feared, just such a story—though in a letter to a friend she confided that she “got away with it … because I say a plague on everybody’s house as far as the race business goes.”

In the very same letter, O’Connor writes that “the topical is poison,” lambasting Eudora Welty’s famous story “Where Is the Voice Coming From,” written from the point of view of the man who assassinated the civil rights leader Medgar Evers. “It’s the kind of story that the more you think about it the less satisfactory it gets,” O’Connor wrote. “What I hate most is its being in the New Yorker and all of the stupid Yankee liberals smacking their lips over typical life in the dear old dirty Southland.”

Like many in the South, O’Connor abhorred racism but was slow to embrace integration, feeling that to rush things would lead to more violence. This stance may have been part and parcel of her attitude toward topical writing. To be topical, she thought, was to risk arguing for social changes that couldn’t be brought about by mere idealism, but by the hard, messy, and sometimes violent work of transforming hearts. Read More »

The Essential Detail

August 5, 2015 | by

Emmanuel Bove’s fiction captures “a well-trodden and forever alienating Paris.”

Emmanuel Bove.

Emmanuel Bove was a master of hyperobjectivity. His characters, drawn from all classes, are often paralyzed by a failure of will, poisoned by envy, cursed with bad luck or betrayal. With relentless clarity, Bove imparts a deeply felt and lasting impression of the lives of these solitary and emotionally shattered young men whose fortunes and futures hinge on a stroke of luck, an immoral act, an accident. The author’s own youth was a harsh one, characterized by instability and discord; and yet, like the lives of his characters, it was occasionally graced by wealth and privilege. Born in Paris, in 1898, Bove was the son of a Belgian-born housemaid, Henriette Michels, and an immigrant Ukrainian Jew, Emmanuel Bobovnikoff. Bove’s father was a largely absent womanizer whose financial contributions to the family were infrequent at best. Bove and his brother, Léon, lived in abject poverty with their mother, who moved frequently within the slums of Paris to find work, always shadowed by bill collectors. However, Bove’s childhood took a decisive turn when his father’s affair with Emily Overweg, a wealthy painter and the daughter of the British consul in Shanghai, led to an unlikely marriage. Sent to live with his father and stepmother, Bove experienced the twilight of Belle-Epoque opulence, while Léon, who would become a doctor, remained with his mother in an unforgiving cycle of grinding poverty. And like the fleeting encounters with fortune that Bove employed in his fiction, this unexpected stretch of good luck would not last. Read More »

You Too Can Be a General

April 2, 2015 | by

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Hemingway with Lanham on September 18, 1944, after the breakthrough of the Siegfried Line in Western Germany.

From Ernest Hemingway’s letter to Colonel Charles T. Lanham, April 2, 1945. Hemingway described Lanham as “the finest and bravest and most intelligent military commander I have known”; he did, in fact, go on to make general. Original spelling and punctuation retained.

Now I just feel homesick, lonely and useless. But will pull out of it. Because have to.

Also have cut out heavy drinking … and since Liquor is my best friend and severest critic I miss it. Also have explained to my old girls there is nothing doing—and this light drinking, righteous Life isn’t comparable to always haveing at least two bottles of Perrier Jouet in the ice bucket and the old Kraut Marlene [Dietrich] always ready to come in and sit with you while you shave […] Read More »

Shep and Dorothy

November 15, 2014 | by

A husband-and-wife team and their influential midcentury designs.

Page 34-35

From Dorothy and Otis: Designing the American Dream.

Lucky is the designer who can see in both two and three dimensions. Luckier still is she or he to be married to someone with equal gifts—especially if that mate is a collaborator and not a competitor. So appears to have been the case with Dorothy and Otis Shepard, whose enviable creative lives have been captured in the absorbing, moving, and lushly illustrated new book Dorothy and Otis: Designing the American Dream, by Norman Hathaway and Dan Nadel.

Both Dorothy and Shep (his nickname since childhood) got their start as commercial artists during San Francisco’s billboard boom of the 1920s. The Federal Highway Act, signed in 1921, helped fund the expansion of U.S. roadways, and advertisers took the opportunity to reach audiences beyond the traditional black-and-white pages of mail catalogs by posting colorful advertisements along America’s highways. Shep, a veteran of World War I, was a man of great adventure, with a strong and lasting interest in the theater. He was well regarded as a commercial painter while employed as an art director at Foster & Kleiser Outdoor Advertising Company, a top Bay Area agency of the period. In 1927, he wisely hired the gifted and highly praised Dorothy Van Gorder straight out of the California School of Arts and Crafts, from which she had graduated in only three years, as valedictorian. According to family lore, Dorothy was unabashedly outspoken (and just plain unabashed—she was once evicted from an apartment for sunbathing nude on the roof), and it cost her the Foster & Kleiser job, but almost as soon as she was let go, she was rehired for her prized skills. Hathaway and Nadel write that either in spite of or because of Dorothy’s brashness, Shep, the “raconteur,” soon began courting the “young bon vivant.”

And so their joint artistic adventure began—most markedly with a honeymoon in 1929 to Paris, Venice, Zurich, and Vienna. While there, they purchased Bauhaus furniture and had the good fortune to meet the great modernist Joseph Binder, who was a leader in the European abstract graphic style. “Shep and Dorothy already wanted their work to convey meaning through compositional structure—instead of realism,” write Hathaway and Nadel, but Binder’s reduction of “an image to a series of shapes and forms and [integration of] typography into his pictures” helped refine their approach to design and illustration. Both Dorothy and Otis had been following the modernist movement with great interest back home, but seeing this work and the new techniques in person and to scale had a profound and lasting effect on them. Read More »

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The Kids Are All Right, and Other News

September 11, 2014 | by

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New research suggests that this American youth and those like him have not entirely gone to seed.

  • Young Americans at the library: do they even, like, get it, what with all their young-person gizmos and e-gadgets? They do, kind of. Among the findings of a new Pew survey: “Despite their embrace of technology, 62% of Americans under age thirty agree there is ‘a lot of useful, important information that is not available on the Internet,’ compared with 53% of older Americans who believe that … 88% of Americans under thirty read a book in the past year, compared with 79% of those ages thirty and older.” But: “36% of Millennials say they know little or nothing about the local library’s services, compared with 29% of those thirty and older.”
  • Not unrelatedly: “In 1943, in the middle of the Second World War, America’s book publishers took an audacious gamble … over the next four years, publishers gave away 122,951,031 copies of their most valuable titles … By giving away the best it had to offer, the publishing industry created a vastly larger market for its wares. More importantly, it also democratized the pleasures of reading, making literature, poetry, and history available to all.”
  • Fact: Tolstoy was, in 1910, captured on film. (Alas, by the time the talkie was invented, he was no longer among the living.)
  • The history of “Can This Marriage Be Saved?”, the once-thriving advice column from Ladies’ Home Journal: “For a modern reader of the column’s 1950s and sixties archives, it’s hard not to be horrified by the complete and utter awfulness of many of the husbands … more shocking still are the counselor’s responses. No matter how bad it got, the counselor always managed to find a way to blame the woman for the couple’s problems.”
  • Before the Man Booker Prize shortlist, with only two of its six authors hailing from the U.S., was announced, defeatist British novelists feared the list would be overrun with Americans. “Why did they assume their American counterparts were better? Or if they thought Americans were just different, why did they assume judges would prefer the game the Americans were playing? Saul Bellow is dead. John Updike is dead. David Foster Wallace is dead, and Philip Roth has made announcing his retirement a full-time job.”

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