- “Several times the proper business of bed has been interrupted by mosquitoes,” Virginia Woolf wrote to a friend on her honeymoon with Leonard, which does not appear to have been an unqualified success: “They bloody the wall by morning—they always choose my left eye, Leonard’s right ear, whatever position they chance to find us in. This does not sound to you a happy life, I know; but you see, that in between the crevices we stuff an enormous amount of exciting conversation—also literature.” Books: the eternal consolation prize.
- Subdued, black, drab, ruffled, veiled—the fashions of Victorian widows have once again wandered on to the catwalk. Rejoice. “The original moment when such styles took a somber turn was in 1861, after the death of Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s great love. For the last forty years of her life, the monarch wore only black and expected everyone else to follow suit. A vogue emerged for gorily erotic storytelling tinged with mysticism. The image of the sexually experienced widow was regarded as a destabilizing factor, with her mourning frocks and jet jewelry subtly advertising the charms of the bereaved to potential second husbands. Darkness, then and now, becomes her.”
- And what would these fashions be without black, the official color of death? The history of black is a history of perfectionism, a quest to find the blackest black, a black that could be, as the members of Spinal Tap put it, “none more black.” “In the words of the French artist Pierre Soulages, black ‘opens up a mental field all of its own.’ He began his epic journey into blackness in 1947, when he started creating abstract expressionist works using a dark walnut stain to make bold slashes across canvas. By the 1950s he was working in oils, thickly smeared onto surfaces using a palette knife. And in 1979, he began a new series of works in a style he dubbed ‘Outrenoir’—roughly translated as ‘beyond black’—with canvases completely saturated in black.”
- Also back in style: gin, that most disreputable of liquors. Britain has seen fifty-six new gin distilleries open in the past two years, suggesting that it may finally have shrugged off any lingering resentment from the time of Georgian London, when “the city’s fetid backstreets spawned the Gin Craze, causing decades of soul-searching among philanthropists, politicians and magistrates about the wretched lives of the poor. Gin’s reputation as the crack cocaine of its day was cemented with lurid press tales about gin-fuelled degradation and squalor, culminating in William Hogarth’s infamous 1751 engraving Gin Lane.”
- Before True Detective the mediocre TV show, there was True Detective, the mediocre true-crime rag, which ran from 1924 to 1996. The magazine had an appetite for the lurid, which, combined with its deeply lax editorial standards, made it very successful: “Consider these three not at all atypical tales of crime detection from a typical issue of True Detective: ‘I Was Raped,’ ‘I Hit Her with the Bowling Pin,’ and ‘Sex Monster At Large’ … The covers reached peaks of exploitation not seen since the ‘shudder pulps’ of the 1930s. They pictured screaming, scantily clad models frequently bound, often gagged … Editing appeared to be almost non-existent, as guidelines carefully instructed writers to leave margins wide enough so manuscripts could fit the typesetter’s copy holder.”
Most dust jackets list only literary accomplishments, but I’ve always been a fan of offbeat author bios. So I asked some of my favorite writers to describe their early jobs.
Jessica Anthony: I was a singing-telegram cowgirl in upstate New York in the early nineties. I wore the dress, boots, hat, and fringe. I went to various places of business and sang, “I’m just a girl who can’t say no” from Oklahoma! to human beings who desperately had no interest in it.
Jonathan Lethem: I once had a job as the assistant of a family friend, a very talented artist and theatrical designer who had, in the parlance of the time, “gone mad.” My tasks included helping him move a discarded chrome car bumper from the street to his tiny Upper West Side studio-apartment bedroom; helping him weld the bumper to a sculpture that also included sardine tins still covered in oil and shreds of fish; and walking his poodle to the liquor store to buy him bottles of gin. But there were problems: the unfortunate, confused dog had a giant clot of bright red paint covering approximately a third of its white curls, so that it appeared to have been attacked by an ax murderer. Also, I was only thirteen. Even in 1977, a liquor store on the Upper West Side wouldn’t sell a tall bottle of gin to a teenager leashed to a zombie poodle.
Adam Levin: I used to hand out Winston cigarettes at bars for a Chicago “guerrilla marketing” firm. I was required to carry around a duffel full of cigarette cartons. We had some discretion over how many packs to give out to each person—usually between one and four. I also carried a box in which an old digital camera was mounted. If you wanted free cigarettes, you had to let me photograph your driver’s license, and you’d nearly always let me, because you were drunk, which is why I picked you to begin with. So maybe it was more like I used to collect personal information at bars in Chicago for a “guerrilla marketing” firm employed by Winston.
Peter Carey: Never, in all my life, have I been employed in a job as absurd and peculiar as the one I have right now. Commuting between 1854 and 2011 is killing me.