Jenny Diski died yesterday. You might have discovered that fact if you happened to visit the London Review of Books, where Diski published essays, reviews, and blog posts for nearly twenty-five years. Or maybe, like me, you learned it on Twitter, where, hours before the obituaries arrived, old tweets of Diski’s, some of them years out of date, started swirling back into circulation. They joined a tumble of appreciative links and quotations, an accumulation whose size quickly disqualified the possibility of happy coincidence. This is how death announces itself now, at least for the artists who don’t rate a breaking-news alert on our phones: a surge of mentions on social media, a collective attempt to plug up the vacuum of absence with digital abundance. For a moment you think you’ve lucked into an outpouring of spontaneous enthusiasm. Finally! you tell yourself. We’re talking about her now! But then quickly enough the rational brain reasserts itself and begins working down the checklist: Are they handing out Nobels today? A genius grant, maybe? Was someone quoted by Beyoncé? No? Oh. Oh, no. Read More
Remembering Sherwin Nuland, the author of How We Die, who died last week.
I attended the Yale School of Medicine when Shep Nuland taught there, and despite our both being surgeons, I know him best in my capacity as a reader. I don’t recall when I first read How We Die—I was just finishing high school when it came out—but I do know that few books I had read so directly and wholly addressed that fundamental fact of existence: all organisms, whether goldfish or grandchild, die. His description of his grandmother’s illness showed me how the personal, medical, and spiritual all intermingled. As a child, Nuland would play a game in which he indented her skin to see how long it took to resume its shape—a part of the aging process that, along with her newfound shortness of breath, showed her “gradual slide into congestive heart failure … the significant decline in the amount of oxygen that aged blood is capable of taking up from the aged tissues of the aged lung.”
But “what was most evident,” he continued, “was the slow drawing away from life… By the time Bubbeh stopped praying, she had stopped virtually everything else as well.” With her fatal stroke, Shep Nuland remembers Browne’s Religio Medici: “With what strife and pains we come into the world we know not, but ’tis commonly no easy matter to get out of it.” Read More
Once upon a time, a very nice couple whom I didn’t know very well threw some kind of party. I can’t remember what the occasion was, but I do know that they lived in a nice apartment near the Broadway-Lafayette F stop, and that I went to the party with a former boyfriend. It proved to be a memorable evening.
We made small talk with lots of nice people. At some point we found ourselves clustered together with two other couples; at least one component of each was an architect. Some public figure had just come out as gay, and one of the guests said something innocuous about the importance of being true to oneself.
“Oh, I agree,” said one of the women, blandly. “Take my father-in-law, for instance. It wasn’t until he got terminal cancer that he was able to tell the world who he really was.”
“What was that?” said my ex-boyfriend. Read More
The Polish sculptor Alina Szapocznikow made a career of disassembling the body, of exposing its weaknesses, its many vulnerabilities, whether through the uses and abuses it’s been put to in the abattoir of twentieth-century history or at the mercy of the more mundane, if no less fatal, everyday mortality. If that sounds like a bit of a downer, worry not: Szapocznikow managed to keep a sly tongue firmly in cheek, and her work, for all its startling beauty, its nearly unbearable intimacy, its sublime evocation of pain and disease and suffering, is witty, even funny.
Her sculptures—on display, through January 28, at the Museum of Modern Art, where they are presented as part of a retrospective entitled “Alina Szapocznikow: Sculpture Undone, 1955–1972”—indulge in the darkest shade of black humor, extracting their punch lines from abysmal pockets of human experience. Take, for example, her Lampe-bouche (Illuminated Lips) (1966), a series of resin casts of a female mouth set atop metal stands and wired to work as lamps. Read More
I didn’t think I would ever read another book about Henry James. But here I am, three quarters of the way through Michael Gorra’s Portrait of a Novel, a book-length study—or really, essay—on The Portrait of a Lady. It reads like an old-fashioned work of belles lettres, combining biography, travelogue, and literary history (plus a good deal of helpful synopsis) to explain how and why James wrote his best-loved novel. The explanation is full of grace and deep learning lightly worn. Yet Gorra takes for granted James’s homosexuality, and his sexual knowledge, as well-established facts. In this sense, it is a book of our moment, a hi-def image of the Master coming into his own. —Lorin Stein
The host, for some reason, was taking Instamatic pictures of his guests. It was not clear whether he was doing this in order to be able to show, at some future time, that there had been this gathering in his house. Or whether he thought of pictures in some voodoo sense. Or whether he found it difficult to talk. Or whether he was bored. Two underground celebrities—one of whom had become a sensation by never generating or exhibiting a flicker of interest in anything, the other of whom was known mainly for hanging around the first—were taking pictures too.
I have Lorin to thank for introducing me to Renata Adler’s 1976 first novel, Speedboat. Maybe its unconventional structure (a series of vignettes) and plotline (there isn’t really one) are not for everyone. But for sheer linguistic pleasure, fierce intelligence, and a vivid picture of seventies New York, look no further. I breezed through it in a day and have been recommending it left and right with the kind of excitement I haven’t felt in a long time.—Sadie O. Stein
Bruce Springsteen’s music is the Staff Pick of my heart. “Bobby Jean” and “Secret Garden” give tremble to the word rock, while “Born to Run” accomplishes something in music that Holden Caulfield did in literature, honestly portraying the anxiety of adolescence in a desire to escape. The New Yorker’s profile of Bruce Springsteen is a breathtaking homage to the now sixty-two-year-old rocker, who is set to embark on yet another world tour. The piece follows a young Springsteen watching Elvis on the black-and-white telly, takes us through his years of top-forty glory and out into a political movement that gave hope to the country. The profile shows that there is still heart in the music industry—even if that heart was born in Jersey. —Noah Wunsch