- Today in nomenclature: having lived for years in total ignorance of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), I was at last moved to pay attention, because the names of our cheeses—the entire foundation of our nation’s fragile relationship with dairy—are in jeopardy. Mark Hay explains: “Deep within the bowels of the treaty, there’s one clause that could have a profound effect on everyday American life — by making it illegal for U.S. cheese makers to use common names rooted in regional European culinary traditions like feta, muenster, or parmesan … And the U.S. has officially pushed back, arguing that EU producers can just file trademark applications for protection in the U.S. Just like under the EU’s system, this would prevent people other than the trademark holders or licensed users from labeling their cheese with specific names in America … But for Europeans that’s not enough; the trademark for Parmigiano-Reggiano doesn’t extend to parmesan, which to them is a synonym, not a generic genus term.”
- People love to be protected from rattlesnakes—that’s just so typical of us! But no one asks about the snakes. Do they want to be protected from the people? We’ve been murdering them with impunity for centuries now. It’s time to make amends. And so I give you Rattlesnake Island, a new snake place. Christopher Benfey writes, “Timber Rattlesnakes, nostalgically recorded in local place names like Rattlesnake Gutter … and Rattlesnake Knob, once thrived in New England. Not anymore. They have been wholly exterminated in Maine and Rhode Island, and it is estimated that not more than two hundred survive in a few disparate colonies … Under the circumstances, it seemed reasonable to conservationists and herpetologists to find an uninhabited island, outfitted with the belowground dens essential to snake survival in the winter, and slowly introduce a small colony of rattlesnakes, one by one, equipped with monitors to track their location. Mount Zion is large enough, at 1,350 acres, that snakes, according to experts, ‘would have little motivation to leave.’ ”
- Elif Batuman has been reading Psychobook, a new collection of what can only be described as vintage psychological tests. The book is designed for many things, but not to make its readers feel sane: “No less than the many tests in its pages, Psychobook is itself a kind of inkblot, certain to evoke different emotions and associations from different people. For this reader, one recurring sensation was that of a deeply American beleaguerment, with some Eastern European overtones. I thought again and again of the immigrant woman, landing like Kafka’s hero on American shores after a long and, one feels, psychically taxing boat ride, facing the first of many new puzzles in a strange new land … It’s not immediately clear why this book exists, but it would probably look great in a therapist’s waiting room.”
- Today in junk that might also be art—or, at least, junk that you could soon own: Tekserve, a computer-support shop not far from the Review’s offices in Chelsea, ended its twenty-nine-year run this week. As a kind of progenitor of the Apple store, the business amassed a lot of obsolete technology over the decades, and now you can buy that stuff at auction. Have you had your eye on a Philco Predicta TV? An early “magic lantern” slide projector? A Braille display processor? A Nagra 4.2 portable mono tape recorder? Or perhaps the storied “Mac Museum,” “which comprises thirty-five computers that represent the development of Apple from 1984 to 2004”?
- Since 1982, the London Review of Books has had featured writers from all over the world for their Diary column. Until this week, no one could say which corners of the globe, exactly, had been represented in the LRB’s pages—but now they’ve gone ahead and marked all eight hundred of their contributors on a map. Note the presences, of course, but also the absences. No one has ever filed a diary from Mongolia or Indonesia, for instance—book your flights now and refine your pitches from thirty thousand feet.
I used to like buying cheese. You could say it was one of the small, reliable pleasures of my week. I never bought a great deal—usually just a small piece to eat for lunch with some bread and fruit—but I enjoyed the process of tasting and learning and then bearing home the neatly wrapped little waxed-paper bundle.
The cheese guy was nice, too. Knowledgeable without making a big show of it, authoritative without snobbery, and pleasantly detached. It was this detachment, in a way, that allowed me to enjoy the transaction—he never made a big fuss about my being a regular. I felt slightly invisible, but in the best possible way. It would have been awkward if he’d been flirtatious or overly friendly. And he never made me try more cheeses than I wanted, which I thought was nice. Read More
- Last night, we hosted our Spring Revel, and our guests came away with a special, unexpected treat: a Lydia Davis story on a bottle of mouthwash. “It hasn’t exactly been my dream to see my work printed on a bottle of mouthwash,” she told T Magazine. “I wasn’t even aware there was such a plan in the works … I was very surprised and amused … I actually had to go back and forth a few times with everyone to get the spacing of the story right—it makes a difference with those very short stories. They have to be read slowly, with pauses in between the lines, otherwise they go by too quickly. So I gave some revisions to the people at The Paris Review, and they went back to Aesop, and in the end we got it just right—it was tricky working in such a small space … So, if someone had asked me what I was doing that day, I would have had to say I was working collaboratively to revise a mouthwash label.”
- Today in books of photos of other people’s mirrors: try Mirrors, which is just that. It comprises pictures of mirrors advertised on Craiglist—a difficult prospect for the sellers, who always ends up showing more than intended. The photographs, as Rebecca Bengal writes, “innocently intrude into strangers’ bedrooms and trespass into their backyards. Unwittingly, the would-be sellers reveal themselves in bizarre and beautiful ways—a phantom hand, a pair of feet, a swath of wallpaper, a drawn curtain, a gaudy, overdressed living room, another one totally lacking in decoration or feeling. The sheer presence of the reflection interrupts reality, creating new graphic worlds, transforming even the most plain surface into an optical illusion. They invite a casual voyeurism; that lack of self-awareness is at the heart of their allure … A vase of flowers regards its reflection; a computer screen stares down its echo; a dog pauses before a reverse of itself. In these images, the mirror becomes a character, too, a palpable observer in the room, quietly enhancing and regarding everything in sight.”
- Look, normally I don’t go in for this type of thing, but come on: this is John Milton made of Stilton. Show a little respect, people. “I fell in love with John Stilton,” his maker, Christian Kjelstrup, says. “In Norway, Milton and Stilton are treated the same: both are enjoyed only by connoisseurs. The difference between John Milton and John Stilton is the latter is fat, greasy and sticky. I had a hard time making him. The fridge in my office now serves as his temporary mausoleum; I suspect his odor will survive him, perhaps even the fridge.”
- Shakespeare’s plays are full of lots things: murder, royalty, cheap penis jokes … and drugs, of course. It’s these that captured the interest of Meghan Petersen, who’s curated an exhibition called “Shakespeare’s Potions” at the Currier Museum of Art. It’s not about drugs, per se, but poisons and elixirs: “Titania, the fairy queen of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, has four followers named for household remedy ingredients: Cobweb, Peaseblossom, Mustardseed, and Moth. Oberon also sees Titania sleeping on a ‘bank where the wild thyme blows, / Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows, / Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine, / With sweet musk-roses, and with eglantine.’ The aromatic language precedes Oberon placing a love potion in her eyes. Petersen noted that while herbals relayed cures, they additionally included herbs ‘for provoking lust,’ such as sea holly, mustard, and peas. ‘Shakespeare’s Potions’ also explores perhaps the most famous of the Bard’s brews: the witches’ cauldron of Macbeth … While some of the components are outlandish, hemlock was a poison well-known in herbals, the “digged i’th’ dark” emphasizing, as Petersen stated, “the belief that plants harvested in the dark — without the light of the moon—took on evil and villainous powers.” The toxic plant also appears in Hamlet with this emphasis: ‘Thou mixture rank, of midnight weeds collected.’”
- Note to historical novelists: the Stalinist era is severely underrepresented in fiction, even though it was a demented hellscape whose horrors practically beg to be dramatized. Saul Austerlitz makes the case: “Life under Joseph Stalin was often brutal, dramatic, and short, so it’s curious that the period is still given such short shrift by fiction writers. Hitler’s Germany, by contrast, is very well-trod ground, and even the post-Stalinist era is a more regular fictional backdrop. Yet neither of these periods can match the mixture of paranoia, longevity, and callousness that marked the dictator’s three decades in power … In the West, the Soviet purges of the late 1930s or the gulag aren’t discussed with the same authority or regularity as Kristallnacht or the concentration camps. The fundamental illogic of the USSR, hellbent on consuming its own, is as hard for outsiders to explain as it is to understand. And the complexity of Stalinism’s impact on the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe remains underexplored, literarily speaking. Lithuanian-American historical novelist Ruta Sepetys, author of the World War II refugee novel Salt to the Sea, is hoping to expand the frame of stories told about forgotten places and forgotten times: ‘I’d love to see more fiction about countries like Hungary, Armenia, and Ukraine. Through characters and story, historical statistics become human.’”
The other day, I invented the worst game ever. It all started in the supermarket when I passed the processed cheeses. Velveeta, I read. Then, somehow, I found myself thinking, Velveeta, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Vel-vee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Vel. Vee. Ta.
This was quite bad enough, but understandable. I tried it with Chiquita, and Ryvita, and then I forgot about it, because, well, it’s asinine. Then, later in the day, I realized I was muttering, “Flour. Light of my life, fire of my loins.” And later, the same thing, but with asphalt subbed in. Read More
Fifty years ago, John Cheever published The Wapshot Scandal, his second novel. Like many second novels, it’s more ambitious and more playful than its predecessor, the work of a writer who suspects he’s better than he feared. The traditional form suddenly seems boring, the same old themes threaten a categorization that the writer doesn’t want, and the writer—encouraged by praise, validated by awards, perhaps softened by income—realizes he can write just about anything. So he does.
The Wapshot Scandal begins where The Wapshot Chronicle ended: with the Wapshot family leaving the safety of St. Botolphs and searching for fulfillment in more modern suburban communities. An acrid whiff of cynicism rises from the page: we know this won’t end well, Cheever knows we know, and now it’s a matter of how and when. Moses and Coverley Wapshot bring their wives to Proxmire Manor and Talifer, respectively; the first is an archetype of the suburban nightmare, the second an archetype of a Cold War community, built around a missile-research facility.
Scandal is very much of its time, but even in its time the satire was well-trod: husbands drink too much, wives betray, wealth corrodes, families splinter, sex—granted or withheld—destroys. Cheever’s cynicism isn’t unique; he never claimed it was. What was, and what remains, unique, are passages like this:
The village, he knew, had, like any other, its brutes and its shrews, its thieves, and its perverts, but like any other it meant to conceal these facts under a shrine of decorum that was not hypocrisy but a guise or mode of hope.
This is what made Cheever special: he understood that the desperate idealism behind existential decay is still idealism. Which brings me to, well, me. Read More