- In 1965, an elderly Buster Keaton starred in film, a little experiment in cinema by one Samuel Beckett—an unlikely collaboration, but an inspired one. The movie was almost entirely silent, and shot largely in the first person; Beckett regarded it as an interesting failure. Now there’s notfilm, a documentary about film. “Beckett’s twenty-two-minute film dealt in striking ways with many aspects of motion-picture history, and more generally, the nature of spectacle, of perception, and of being perceived by self and others … the film was shot over eleven days, with the camera chase, then a five-minute scene on some stairs, followed by a seventeen-minute sequence in a room.”
- In which Kafka gets real, very real, maybe too real, in a letter to his father: “You asked me recently why I maintain that I am afraid of you … we were so different and in our difference so dangerous to each other that if anyone had tried to calculate in advance how I, the slowly developing child, and you, the full-grown man, would behave toward one another, he could have assumed that you would simply trample me underfoot so that nothing was left of me. Well, that did not happen. Nothing alive can be calculated.”
- Today in provisional libraries: at the Calais migrant camp, a British volunteer has set up “a book-filled haven of peace.” “The shed is filled floor-to-ceiling with books: chick lit, thrillers and a neat set of Agatha Christies line the shelves, alongside a large atlas, a few dictionaries and grammars, and the thin green spines of children’s learning-to-read books. More books spill out of boxes stacked in the corner, and pens, notepads, bags of clothes, a globe, a guitar and a game of Battleship … I am taken aback when a man who has been flicking through various novels for at least half an hour, including classics like Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, settles on a thin picture book about kittens. When I ask him if he really likes cats, he shrugs, mumbles a thank you, and leaves.”
- And while we’re on libraries, here are some items you can now check out at various centers of knowledge around the country: cake pans, snow shoes, ukuleles, American Girl dolls, mobile hot-spot devices, sewing machines. “Services like the Library of Things and the ‘Stuff-brary’ in Mesa, outside Phoenix, are part of a broad cultural shift in which libraries increasingly view themselves as hands-on creative hubs, places where people can learn new crafts and experiment with technology like 3-D printers.” Rent-A-Center must be shaking in its corporate boots.
- Where does porcelain come from? Edmund de Waal endeavors to find its origins: “Trace the origin of any physical object, from the Mona Lisa to an iPhone, and there will be a mass of human labor and human stories lurking behind it, no matter how purely a product of the solitary artist or glossy factory it might seem to be. What is striking about porcelain, however, is that while it appears to be the acme of artistry, it is, by and large, the result of relentlessly standardized piecemeal work.”
Thanks to the success of The Hare with Amber Eyes, Edmund de Waal is now a familiar name to readers. Less well-known is that of his grandmother, Elisabeth, a central character in that book and an author in her own right. Never published in her lifetime, Elisabeth de Waal’s The Exiles Return was recently rereleased by Persephone and, in this country, by Picador. The novel centers around exiles, like de Waal herself, returning to a vastly changed, postwar Vienna. It’s not always assured, but invariably interesting, often painful, highly absorbing, and a vivid picture of that moment in history—as well as the experience of displacement itself. —Sadie O. Stein
Charlotte Higgins covers the arts beat for the Guardian, and is just the sort of reporter who makes Americans love that paper, with a love that is close to envy. She is witty, rangy, unapologetically goofy and erudite at once. All of these qualities inform her first book, Under Another Sky: Journeys in Roman Britain, a sort of travelogue and essay on Roman ruins in the British imagination. Whether Higgins is walking Hadrian’s Wall or handling the “curse tablets”—fourth-century voodoo spells—recovered from the mineral springs at Bath, she is the best possible company. I have been reading her only very late at night, just to make the journey last. —Lorin Stein Read More
For three years—ever since it came out—people have been recommending this unusual family history, by a potter named Edmund de Waal, all about the fate of a collection of Japanese miniatures whose owners migrated from Odessa to Paris to Vienna. And for three years I took their word for it. Because really, a book about somebody’s heirlooms? Then one night last week, all keyed up from three hours of House of Cards, I pulled down The Hare with Amber Eyes (a gift copy), hoping it would put me to sleep. Fat chance. I’d expected charm, but here was astringent wit, quiet erudition, just the necessary amount of first person, and an unromantic, sharply observed, very poignant account of a Jewish family’s rise and fall between the Belle Epoque and World War II. From House to Hare: from the frying pan into the fire. —Lorin Stein
I debated recommending the Romanian film Beyond the Hills, not because it isn’t terrific—a fact that will come as no surprise to anyone who saw director Cristian Mungiu’s first feature, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days—but rather because so many critics have done it more justice than I ever could, and because I found watching it so harrowing an experience. Loosely based on a real-life 2005 case of an exorcism in a Moldavian monastery, the film is a horror movie, a romance, a character study, and, most of all, the kind of true tragedy we normally don’t see, or feel. It’s long and slow paced, but utterly riveting; I came out of the theater completely shell-shocked. I don’t think I could sit through it again, but you’ll be making a mistake if you don’t see it while you can. —Sadie Stein
Chimurenga is a difficult magazine to define: a collection of African art, comics, journalism, and photography, every edition looks entirely different (to give you an idea of its inscrutability, the October 2011 edition was set in May 2008). The founder is also a DJ who runs a jazz bar, and sometimes hosts twenty-four-hour secret jam sessions. There are no invites and no posters; the Chimurenga motto is “who no know go know.” Their latest venture is Chimurenga Chronic, a “pan-African quarterly print gazette” that deals in everything from art and faith to dirty deals and cricket stars. (To get a sense of its sweep, try “The Last Words of Fela Anikulapo Kuti” and the interactive comic strip.) Print availability is another matter: Chronic was due out on the streets “now-now,” which in South Africa translates roughly to “it’ll be out when it’s out, which will probably be soon, we can’t say exactly when, but we know you want to keep your eyes peeled for it. And it might already be out, so look sharp.” —Olivia Walton Read More
“There are two basic motives living within all readers. They want to spend time in the presence of a great mind. And they want their hearts awakened.” That’s Steve Almond in Ecotone on the early novels of Don DeLillo. Two other pieces kept me up late with the new issue: Jonathan Lethem on the perils of self-regard, plus a swinging little poem by Jaswinder Bolina, “In Another Version of the Afterlife,” which begins, “I regret some of the aftermath but none of the choices I made / during my tenure among the living, which must be / what the villain feels after being villainous.” Two lines later we’re lying beside matadors and pornographers “groggy and unsleeping in ornate haciendas.” I don’t know if my heart was awakened, but Bolina did keep me awake. —Lorin Stein
The Hare with Amber Eyes is a family saga, a study in art history, and an overview of the European Jewish experience all in one. Edmund de Waal uses an inherited collection of netsuke carvings to explore the legacy of the Ephrussis, once one of Europe’s most prominent Jewish families. The family stuff is great, but what I’m enjoying particularly is the way the author, a prominent ceramicist, conveys the tactile. (And, incidentally, how skillfully he describes all these tiny things with a minimum of diminutives—a skill in itself!) —Sadie Stein
In an interesting juxtaposition of writing styles, I began reading Bertrand Russell’s amazing Autobiography only to stop partway when I picked up Atlanta-based rapper T. I.’s debut novel, Power & Beauty. I can’t read either of them quickly enough, and, needless to say, my heart is divided. —Natalie Jacoby
Though I’m not writing a novel, I’ve been vaguely following The Guardian’s How to Write Fiction series. But were I writing a novel, I’d surely tack Geoff Dyer’s sublimely simple lesson—that limitations, yours and everyone else’s, can prove as enriching as your strengths—above my work desk. —Nicole Rudick
In the Presence of Absence, by Mahmoud Darwish, is a moving reflection—part autobiography, part lyrical elegy—on the question that has always been at the center of his work: “What does it mean for a Palestinian to be a poet and what does it mean for a poet to be a Palestinian?” This is one of Darwish’s last writings, and it bears the hallmarks of his late style: uncompromising difficulty, surprise, and summation. —Robyn Creswell
Here are the sentences I can’t get out of my head from “Hadji Murat.” This is about ten pages from the end. Three quarters through. Just at a moment when you believe that Hadji Murat is about to do an heroic thing, he’s about to wake up his men, before dawn, to prepare them for an escape by horseback. He’s living among the Russians, to whom he has lately sworn loyalty. He has even fallen in love with one of their women. He doesn’t actually want to betray them, he just can’t let the fucking Shamil hold his family captive any longer. He has to rescue them or die trying. It’s his only way to keep his whole idea of himself and the honor of his people from shattering. Politics are irrelevant. And everything that’s happened so far in the story leads you to suspect that he’ll do it, that he knows how to do it. But in fact within hours he’ll be shot down like a dog. And this is what Tolstoy does, to signal the pivot. Two sentences. Nightingales are singing.
Hadji Murat was so deep in thought that he did not notice he had
tipped the jug and water was spilling from it. He shook his head at
himself and went into his room.
It’s so perfect, you hear it only stethoscopically, but you do hear it. He walks away from the water jug to his death.—John Jeremiah Sullivan