What We’re Loving: The Backwoods Bull, the Ballet, the Boot


This Week’s Reading


Photo via Wikimedia Commons

If you are afraid of public speaking, and ever called on to do it, I suggest that you avoid reading “The Backwoods Bull in the Boston China Shop,” from the August 1961 issue of American Heritage Magazine. In this lively article, the dean of American studies, Henry Nash Smith, tells how Mark Twain—perhaps the most popular after-dinner speechmaker of his time—flubbed what was supposed to be the comic relief at an 1877 banquet in honor of John Greenleaf Whittier. Twain made up an anecdote about three grifters passing themselves off as Whittier, Emerson, and Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. Apparently, it bombed. According to Twain’s friend and editor William Dean Howells, “Nobody knew whether to look at the speaker or down at his plate. I chose my plate as the least affliction … [Twain] must have dragged his joke to the climax and left it there, but I cannot say this from any sense of the fact.” Twain was so mortified that he wrote a letter of apology to the three venerable grandees, and they were nice about it, but a week later he told Howells, “I see that it is going to add itself to my list of permanencies—a list of humiliations which extends back to when I was seven years old and keeps persecuting me regardless of my repentancies.” Thirty years later he was still trying to decide exactly how bad the speech had been, even reading it aloud to gauge its offensiveness. I am indebted—if that’s the word—to Sadie Stein and her father for digging up this historical gem. It is the stuff of nightmares. —Lorin Stein

My decision to take up ballet at the ripe old age of thirty-one (572 in ballet years) is not without its challenges. The parts of my body that should be loose are tight, and the places that should be firm wobble; if I land one pirouette out of ten it’s a victory. I’m grateful, then, for Eliza Gaynor Minden’s The Ballet Companion, which not only visually breaks down basic steps (with a blessed glossary of all that French), but gives pointers on class etiquette and attire. Gaynor Minden also writes beautifully about the history of ballet (forget the tutu—bring on the seventeenth-century six-foot hoop skirt!), as well as provides a detailed list of ballets to see before you die. If after reading you still need a reason to pull on those leg warmers, remember: it’s never too late for a bracing dose of humility. —Rachel Abramowitz

A few years ago, two of our uncles took my sister out to a French restaurant in Manhattan. One uncle was pushing her to order the duck confit. The other uncle turned to her and said, “Don’t do it. It’s too rich. He made me do it once and I threw up. You’ll throw up, too.” The first uncle assured her, “You’ll definitely throw up, but you should still get it.” She ordered it and threw up right on schedule. We are a family of eaters, sometimes at any cost. But to A. J. Liebling, perhaps the best eater of the twentieth century, my sister’s fowl adventure would have been child’s play. I’ve spent the past week immersed in his Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris, a memoir of Liebling’s years in the city and, of course, the food he consumed there; he was unapologetically obsessed with eating. He was even lucky enough to have friends who could keep up with him, such as Yves Mirande, the French playwright, who, by Liebling’s account, could tuck away in one meal the contents of a New York–size kitchen. “In the restaurant of the Rue Saint-Augustin, M. Mirande would dazzle his juniors, French and American, by dispatching a lunch of raw Bayonne ham and fresh figs, a hot sausage in crust, spindles of filleted pike in a rich rose sauce Nantua, a leg of lamb larded with anchovies, artichokes on a pedestal of foie gras, and four or five kinds of cheese, with a good bottle of Bordeaux and one of champagne, after which he would call for the Armagnac and remind Madame to have ready for dinner the larks and ortolans she had promised him, with a few langoustes and a turbot—and, of course, a fine civet made from the marcassin, or young wild boar, that the lover of the leading lady in his current production had sent up from his estate in the Sologne. ‘And while I think of it,’ I once heard him say, ‘we haven’t had any woodcock for days, or truffles baked in the ashes.’” —Clare Fentress

You’ve caught me at SXSW—strange to see it without the hashtag—where I’ve spent the past few days overhearing musicians as they talk shop. (“Dude, sick whammy pedal. Is that the new one with true bypass?”) It’s quality eavesdropping, but none of it rivals the dudely conversation on offer in the “Tight Bros from Way Back When” tape, one of the gnarliest cultural documents to emerge from the late eighties. This is a forty-minute taped phone call between two bona-fide California metalheads, Kurt and Derek, that touches on a whole host of topics: police evasion, the occult, Jimmy Page, gravedigging, psychedelics, pyrotechnics, longstanding grudges (“From second grade to now I’ve fought this guy like two hundred times. And I’ve lost three of those times”), and many more. Its first twenty minutes—in which Derek explains how his car got the boot, and how he went to extralegal measures to remove it—make for some of the most memorable storytelling this side of Iron Maiden. “Imagine standing up, right? These bolt cutters were half my height, bro … I’m cruising down the street in broad daylight with these bolt cutters slung over my shoulder, like I’m carrying some skis or somethin’? … I snapped the lock on the boot. It made the gnarliest sound, dude. I summoned the power of all the gods.” The tape has been floating around musical circles for years; at the risk of sounding like Indiana Jones, it belongs in a museum, or at least a top-notch oral history archive. —Dan Piepenbring

I already knew Exact Change for their excellent publishing history—their authors include Leonora Carrington, Guillaume Apollinaire, and Fernando Pessoa—but thanks to our friends at Writers No One Reads, I now know about their new monthly e-zine app, too. The first issue is free, but poke around its archives and you’ll find two additional free issues. Selections include excerpts from Kafka’s notebooks, Emily Dickinson’s envelope poems, and video work by Amy Sillman: all short, and thus perfect for your morning commute. —Justin Alvarez

In 1982, George Lucas founded LucasArts, a sister company to Lucasfilm dedicated to producing video games. From the late eighties through the nineties, the studio created a number of very successful and original adventure games, many of which I grew up watching my brother play; I’ve recently returned to Grim Fandango, released in 1998 and duly renowned for its sharp characterization, its stylish art direction, and, most of all, its genuinely funny writing. Grim Fandango is set in the Land of the Dead, and the story features corrupt government officials and a mob plot to cheat the virtuous out of their just rewards in the afterlife and, caught up in it all, one Manuel “Manny” Calavera, a travel agent and skeleton-in-love, who, in trying to rescue one wronged soul, may find redemption himself. It’s full of charming and clever ideas—for instance, folks in the afterlife aren’t shot but “sprouted”; plants take root in their skeletons, “leaving you nothing but a patch of wild flowers on the ground swarming with butterflies”—and is wonderful to look at even sixteen years on, with a visual style that incorporates Mexican iconography (characters are calaca figures), Art Deco, and an atmosphere distilled from forties film noir, especially The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca, and Double Indemnity. The dialogue is wry and funny, and the characters richly realized. There are some technical hurdles involved in getting it running on a modern computer, but I urge you, if you can, to discover it for yourself. —Tucker Morgan

Because I’m getting impatient waiting for Ann Goldstein to translate the final installment of Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan trilogy, I’ve been reading through the rest of Ferrante’s work available in English. Apart from the first two trilogy installments, My Brilliant Friend and Story of a New Name, we Anglophone readers have Troubling Love, Days of Abandonment, and The Lost Daughter available to us. None of these are as disconcertingly excellent as the trilogy, but that might just be because the trilogy sets an impossible standard. The Days of Abandonment, in particular, is a great example of the terrifying and violent portrayal of domesticity and interior life that Ferrante is so good at. —Anna Heyward

Exploding in Sound is a small record label that puts out noisy music. Among the bands on their roster are Krill, fronted by a Jonah who wails like he’s caught behind baleen; Porches., with a crooner who seems to have strayed to some lonely bog; and Pile, whose piano accompanies a balletic barroom brawl. All are adept, ambitious, and something else live. —Zack Newick