“Between Blossoms,” an exhibition of photographs by Shen Wei, is at Flowers Gallery in New York through April 22. Wei, born in China and now based in New York, focuses on landscapes with a pervasive, ghostly negative space. This series, he says, uses “a touch of melodrama here, a hint of seduction there” to bring out the layer of dream-life hovering just beneath reality; he aims to find “an elusive, enchanting beauty” in the everyday.
- I like Walden as much as the next guy. My problem with it—my problem with all books—is that it’s just such a passive experience for the reader. Thoreau does all the talking; I’m just supposed to listen. Thoreau does all the fishing; I’m just supposed to watch. Thoreau plants all the beans; he never asks, Hey, reader, would you like to come out here and give me a hand with the beans sometime? But all that’s about to change with Walden, a Game, the new video-game adaptation of Thoreau’s treatise on solitude that puts you in control of your spiritual self-discovery. Its designers, Robin Pogrebin writes, hope to fuse the thrills of gaming to the joys of quiet contemplation: “The new video game, based on Thoreau’s nineteenth-century retreat in Massachusetts, will urge players to collect arrowheads, cast their fishing poles into a tranquil pond, buy penny candies and perhaps even jot notes in a journal—all while listening to music, nature sounds and excerpts from the author’s meditations … Should you not leave sufficient time for contemplation, or work too hard, the game cautions: ‘Your inspiration has become low, but can be regained by reading, attending to sounds of life in the distance, enjoying solitude and interacting with visitors, animal and human’ … The goal is not to win in any competitive sense, but to achieve work-life balance.”
- Nell Zink, who tends to greet realist novels with a very formidable eye roll, writes in praise of Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, which gave her “some rigorous realist fiction to love”: “ ‘Realistic’ novels … generally don’t even try. They want to ‘work,’ to be ‘good reads,’ by manipulating emblems of meaning smoothly in a framework of familiar myth. Many work contemptibly, steering sentimental nodules of canned subjectivity into the cheesiest myths imaginable. Authors hope to inhibit readers’ critical urges entirely for as long as a given book lasts; in essays, interviews, and formats like ‘My Writing Day,’ we hint at the tricks we use to facilitate total audience immersion in our shared dream. Where we do intend readers to exercise critical faculties, those should be directed at something other than the work. They want a trance state, and we want to give it to them. But in that transaction, something vital is lost. That could be the reason so many admirable people read nonfiction instead: You can’t communicate with people you’re trying to hypnotize!”
- Memoirs are hot right now. “Lost” books are hot right now. So it stands to reason: if you could write a memoir and then somehow “lose” it—maybe, by, say, failing to remember that you ever wrote it at all—you’re gonna be rolling in the dough. But who, you might ask, could ever forget writing his own memoirs? The answer is simple: Mick Jagger, whose whole life lives under the banner of plausible deniability. Jagger, who’s claimed that he’ll never write an autobiography, has apparently forgotten that he already wrote one, of some seventy-thousand words, in the early eighties. Having expunged any memory of the book, he’s done more than any publicity tour could to enhance its salability. John Blake dishes: “Stuck in a secret hiding place right now I have Mick’s 75,000-word manuscript … Mick was reputedly paid an advance of £1 million, an extraordinary figure for the time. A ghost was appointed and publication scheduled. Only it didn’t work out quite like that … [In the book], Mick tells of buying a historic mansion, Stargroves, while high on acid and of trying out the life of horse-riding country squire. Having never ridden a horse before, he leapt on to a stallion, whereupon it reared and roared off ‘like a Ferrari’. Summoning his wits and some half-remembered horse facts, he gave the stallion a thump on the forehead right between the eyes and slowed it down … I was determined that this book needed to be published. Mick’s delightful manager, Joyce Smyth, responded encouragingly to my letter. Mick could not remember any manuscript.”
- While we’re failing to remember things—more believably and far more tragically, the culture has failed to canonize Freda DeKnight, a prominent black editor, writer, and cook whose midcentury fame has now completely evaporated. Donna Battle Pierce explains, “Born in 1909, DeKnight spent much of her fifty-four years collecting, protecting and celebrating African-American culture and traditions in the years after World War II up to the civil rights movement. Yet her name has been all but forgotten—she doesn’t even have that most basic of 21st century acknowledgements, a Wikipedia page … As the first food editor for Ebony magazine, DeKnight wrote a photo-driven monthly column that offered her home economist’s tips, as well as regional recipes from the “Negro community” of home cooks, professional chefs, caterers, restaurateurs and celebrities … DeKnight presented a more nuanced and often glamorous image of African-American cooking and culture—not just to African-American readers, but to the broader world.”
“Famous last words” and Japanese death poems offer two strikingly different approaches to mortality.
I was born in the middle of March in a small town in China. My parents didn’t give me a name; they simply never got around to choosing one. On April 7, I nearly died after choking—and they saddled me with that date as a moniker, a sort of inescapable memento mori. When I came to the United States, at age five, my mother told me I was to be named Angela, after a coworker of hers. Was this coworker particularly kind or smart or pretty? I asked. By all accounts, no. It seemed to be an entirely arbitrary decision.
Fittingly, I’ve long been fascinated by the traditions surrounding the words that bookend a life. There’s a split, I’ve found, between the East and the West: the latter favors spontaneous last words that serve as a final confirmation of your personal brand, whereas the East has a custom of premeditated death poems, jisei, that offer a rare chance to break with convention. These differing traditions offer a glimpse into the clash of individualism versus collectivism, spontaneity versus control—forces I’ve tried to balance in my own life, living between Asian and American culture. Read More
- Today is Friday the thirteenth—but then, hasn’t every day been, since November 9? New horrors greet us each morning and tuck us in each night. Rebecca Solnit runs a long, thorough postmortem on the election that got us here, imploring us to remember the sexism that coursed through it from start to finish: “In the spring, Trump retweeted a supporter who asked: ‘If Hillary Clinton can’t satisfy her husband what makes her think she can satisfy America?’ Perhaps the president is married to the nation in some mystical way; if so America is about to become a battered woman, badgered, lied to, threatened, gaslighted, betrayed and robbed by a grifter with attention-deficit disorder … Hillary Clinton was all that stood between us and a reckless, unstable, ignorant, inane, infinitely vulgar, climate-change-denying white-nationalist misogynist with authoritarian ambitions and kleptocratic plans. A lot of people, particularly white men, could not bear her, and that is as good a reason as any for Trump’s victory. Over and over again, I heard men declare that she had failed to make them vote for her. They saw the loss as hers rather than ours, and they blamed her for it, as though election was a gift they withheld from her because she did not deserve it or did not attract them. They did not blame themselves or the electorate or the system for failing to stop Trump.”
- While we’re pressing our noses to the cold, clear glass of reality, we might as well ask—just to be prepared—how our society could practice cannibalism without hating ourselves for it. It just seems like it might be a valuable skill in the not-too-distant future, I don’t know. Bill Schutt’s new book Cannibalism offers some guidance. Libby Copeland writes in her review: “What does cannibalism look like in a culture that doesn’t attach as much stigma to it? Like many other peoples, the Chinese practiced survival cannibalism during wars and famines; an imperial edict in 205 B.C. even made it permissible for ‘starving Chinese’ to exchange ‘one another’s children, so that they could be consumed by non-relatives.’ But, according to historical sources cited by Schutt, the Chinese also practiced ‘learned cannibalism.’ In Chinese books written during Europe’s Middle Ages, human flesh was occasionally cited as an exotic delicacy. In times of great hunger or when a relative was sick, children would sometimes cut off their flesh and prepare it in a soup for their elders. One researcher found ‘766 documented cases of filial piety’ spanning more than 2,000 years. ‘The most commonly consumed body part was the thigh, followed by the upper arm;’ the eyeball was banned by edict in 1261.”
We’re away until January 3, but we’re reposting some of our favorite pieces from 2016. Enjoy your holiday!
There is nothing more hopeless in this world than the so-called Southwestern Regional Bus Station in Nanjing on May 5, 2002, shortly before seven o’clock in the drizzling rain and the unappeasable icy wind, as, in the vast chaos of the buses departing from the bays of this station, a regional bus, starting from the No. 5 bus stop, slowly ploughs onward—among the other buses and the puddles and the bewildered crowd of wretched, stinking, grimy people—up to the vortex of the street, then sets off into the wretched, stinking, grimy streets; there is nothing more hopeless than these streets, than these interminable barracks on either side, numbed into their own provisional eternity, because there is no word for this hopeless color, for this slowly murderous variation of brown and gray, as it spreads over the city this morning, there is no word for the assault of this hopeless din, if the bus pauses briefly at a larger intersection or a bus stop, and the female conductor with her worn features opens the door, leans out, and, hoping for a new passenger, shouts out the destination like a hoarse falcon; because there is no word which in its essence could convey whether the direction in which he now travels with his companion, his interpreter, exists in relation to the world; they are headed outward, moving away from it, the world is ever farther and farther away, ever more behind them; they are shaken, jolted in advance in the disconsolate brown and yellow of this ever-thicker, indescribable fog; headed to where it can hardly be believed that there could be anything beyond the brown and the gray of this frighteningly dreary mixture; they sit at the back of the ramshackle bus, they are dressed for May but for a different May, so they are chilled and they shiver and they try to look out of the window but they can hardly see through the grimy glass, so they just keep repeating to themselves: Fine, good, it’s all right, they can somehow put up with this situation, not to be eaten up from without and within by this grimy and hopeless fog is their only hope; and that where they are going exists, that where this bus is supposedly taking them—one of the most sacred Buddhist mountains, Jiuhuashan*—exists.