The Tomboy’s Malaise, and Other News


On the Shelf

A Lego ad from the eighties, featuring a tomboy.


  • The Anglophone world treats homophony like a fun parlor trick—two words sound alike, so let’s make some puns and call it a day. But Chinese culture has a profound respect for, even a fear of, the mystery of homophones. Julie Sedivy explains: “Chinese practices take punning to a whole new level—one that reaches deep into a culture where good fortune is persistently courted through positive words and deeds, and misfortune repelled by banishing the negative. The number four is tainted because of its homophony with the word for death—many Chinese people would never consider buying a house whose address contained that number. In visual designs, fish and bats figure prominently because they are sound twins of the words for surplus and fortune. Gift-giving is fraught with homophonic taboos; it is all right to give apples, because their name sounds like peace, but not pears, whose name overlaps with separation … Chinese speakers are more likely to take pains to clarify the intended meaning of an ambiguous word, even when its meaning should be obvious from the context.”
  • Rachel Cusk, whose outstanding novel Transit is out this month, explains what makes for a good memoir: “The memoirist must have complete ownership of their own fate, to the extent that they can create the illusion of friendship with the reader. But their responsibility is actually more like that of the parent: They are highly visible, especially in their mistakes. Likewise the memoirist occupies an intensely subjective world, while creating a template for, or version of, living in which objectivity is everything. A parent can create a complex and instructive ‘self’ for the child, and it can be distressing when the ‘real,’ flawed self breaks through. The really good memoirist can incorporate these losses of control into the picture.”

  • Before he went and ruined himself by becoming a Nazi, Knut Hamsun was working to make fiction more responsive to the vagaries of human psychology—especially in his unsung novel Mysteries, which Jonathan McAloon believes to be better than Hunger: “Hamsun felt that contemporary fiction was only concerned with the plottable results of psychology, not the strange vacillations that operate at a deeper level. He identified the erratic unpredictability of Dostoevsky’s characters as true to at least his own life—the way they throbbed from the page with strange and spontaneous compulsions—and thought he’d make this the core of his fiction … [Mysteries] defies us to come up with a why and we are without a clue. The narrator seems as baffled as we are … Hamsun was making formal jokes about stream of consciousness, parodying it, when it was still in prototype, thirty years before James Joyce or Virginia Woolf had perfected it. He was defying forms that had yet to be invented.”
  • Celebrities love Rumi. Coldplay quotes him, Madonna quotes him, his poems are regularly meme-ified. But in contemporary settings, the thirteenth-century poet is too often stripped of his Muslim identity, Rozina Ali writes: “Aphorisms attributed to Rumi circulate daily on social media, offering motivation. ‘If you are irritated by every rub, how will you ever get polished,’ one of them goes. Or, ‘Every moment I shape my destiny with a chisel. I am a carpenter of my own soul’ … He is typically referred to as a mystic, a saint, a Sufi, an enlightened man. Curiously, however, although he was a lifelong scholar of the Koran and Islam, he is less frequently described as a Muslim.”