Last month, after her reading at the Golden Notebook bookstore in Woodstock, New York, Irina Reyn sat down for an onstage conversation with the novelist Emily Barton. Reyn had read from her new novel, The Imperial Wife, in which two women—Catherine the Great in eighteenth-century Russia and Tanya in contemporary New York—negotiate marriage and ambition, on two very different registers. Barton’s third novel, The Book of Esther, was also published this summer. It imagines a nation of Turkic warrior Jews transposed from the Middle Ages to World War II–era Europe and follows one woman’s Joan of Arc–style quest to defend her people. Unsurprisingly, the conversation quickly became a lively discussion about the writing of both novels, gender and work, and the standing of women in the current political climate. —Ed. Read More
How the perspective of war stories has shifted—from gods to guns.
My memories of war are fractured: faces disappear like smoke while literal plumes of smoke, their specific shapes and forms, linger on vividly for years. I remember the mesh netting, concrete, and dust smell of tower guard, but the events of entire months are completely gone. I remember the sound of a kid’s voice, but not anything he actually said. I guess that’s what Tim O’Brien meant when he wrote about Vietnam, “What sticks to memory, often, are those odd little fragments that have no beginning or end.”
Memories of people, too complex to carry through the years, fall apart. It’s easier to find purchase on memories of objects. The weapon I was assigned on my first deployment to Iraq was an M249 SAW, or what we would colloquially and inaccurately refer to as the “Squad Assault Weapon.” I remember the way it felt to disassemble—the slight give of the heat-shield assembly, its tiny metal pincers clinging to the barrel. I remember the sound of the feed tray snapping shut on a belt of ammunition. And I remember the tiny rust deposits on the legs of my weapon’s bipod, which would never go away, no matter how hard I scrubbed with CLP (Cleaner, Lubricant, and Protectant oil). I remember my SAW’s voice and the things it said. Read More
Yes, the War and Peace miniseries currently airing in the U.S. makes for riveting viewing. But is it as riveting, I ask, as watching thirteen hundred Russians recite the entirety of War and Peace over a period of sixty hours?! Read More
- The Swedish Academy keeps its lists of potential Nobel winners confidential for fifty years—meaning that, at last, we can see who coulda been a contender for the 1965 prize in literature. That year it went to the Soviet writer Mikhail Sholokhov, of And Quiet Flows the Don. Among the writers in contention, though, were Nabokov and Borges, neither of whom would ever make the cut. According to his maid, Borges was “tortured” by the annual spectacle surrounding the prize: “On the day of the announcement journalists would queue outside his door. This would happen year after year. The news each time that he had not won would make him very sad.”
- In 1894, communes dedicated to the teachings of Tolstoy began to spring up in England; two of them still exist today, vowing to keep the flames of pacifism, anarchism, and clean Christian living. Kelsey Osgood paid one a visit: “Another community resident, Jo, wearing knee-high Wellingtons and a flashlight on her head, showed me the outhouses and taught me how to sprinkle wood shavings into the bucket to compost the bodily waste. (The shavings were from pine trees that they grow on their land and sell at Christmas.) I thought of how Tolstoy asked a young Desmond MacCarthy, the Eton and Cambridge-educated literary critic and journalist, to empty his own chamber pot while visiting Tolstoy’s grand house at Yasnaya Polyana, because the Count thought it degrading to ask the servants to do it.
- A friendly reminder: mice are people, too, often somewhat literally. Maud Newton has humanized mice on the mind: “According to New Scientist, the researchers put human brain cells into mice by injecting ‘immature glial cells’ from human fetuses into baby mice, where they ‘developed into astrocytes, a star-shaped type of glial cell,’ and became invasive … It’s impossible to know how many kinds of humanized rodents exist, in part because, if you’re a researcher, you can have the mice tailor-humanized just for you. One company claims to provide at least seventy-five hundred strains … So far, whatever discussion exists in the scientific community about how humanized mice themselves might be affected by, for example, having human brain cells, seems to focus on the ways we’ve succeeded in making the mice more like us.”
- The New York Public Library’s special collections department has released some 180,000 images into the public domain. You want postcards? They got postcards. You want maps? They got maps. You want rare images of “Town Ball” and “Old Cat,” two stick-and-ball games that were precursors to baseball? You got rare images of “Town Ball” and “Old Cat,” two stick-and-ball games that were precursors to baseball. “It’s not just a data dump,” said Dan Cohen, the executive director of the Digital Public Library of America. “It’s a next step that I would like to see more institutions take.”
- If you’ve ever arrived in New York through the Lincoln Tunnel, you’ve probably espied the big red sign for the New Yorker, a hotel whose iconic name has nothing to do with the magazine. This was “the hotel of the traveling salesmen, pilots and aircrew on short layovers, tourists and GIs being shipped to the European Front … If the Waldorf-Astoria were a well-dressed woman in an elegantly feathered hat, the New Yorker would be a salesman in a crumpled suit, drinking a whiskey and soda.” But what goes on there? What went on there? Early photos tell of a glut of Art Deco glamour—and a secret tunnel leading to Penn Station.
Last March, we announced the ten winners of this year’s Whiting Awards, given annually to writers of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and drama, based on early accomplishment and the promise of great work to come. Now we’ve asked eleven Whiting winners, past and present, to write about the books that have influenced them the most—a list to bear in mind as you choose your holiday reading. —D. P. Read More
- Everyone holds up Anna Karenina as a milestone for realism—“We are not to take Anna Karénine as a work of art; we are to take it as a piece of life,” Matthew Arnold wrote—but Janet Malcolm raises an eyebrow at all that. “The book’s ‘astonishing immediacy’ is nothing if not an object of the exaggeration, distortion, and dissimulation through which each scene is rendered … If the dream is father to imaginative literature, Tolstoy may be the novelist who most closely hews to its deep structures.”
- Now at the Frick Collection: Frederic Leighton’s Flaming June, an iconic Victorian painting whose subject’s well-developed right thigh set the world on fire. “The beautiful woman asleep in some archaic past was a recurrent motif in Victorian art … The figure of the languid woman is more than just an object of erotic desire. She’s the opposite of the rationalist, ever-striving, murderously competitive spirit—once conventionally thought of as distinctively masculine. She embodies a yearning to relax, to retire from the fray and take pleasure in just being alive.”
- Jenny Diski is dying of lung cancer, and facing the illness the only way she knows how: in prose. “A marvel of steady and dispassionate self-revelation, Diski’s cancer essays are bracingly devoid of sententiousness, sentimentality or any kind of spiritual urge or twitch … they also testify to an inner life of undiminished hyperactivity.”
- Nesh, gloaming, cochineal, swamm, clart: writers pick their favorite words. “The chosen words are mostly regional, often monosyllabic, and frequently richly onomatopoeic: the natural poetry of the heterogeneous English-speaking tongue.”
- In which Orson Welles dabbles in pornography: in a pro-bono gig for the picture 3 A. M., the filmmaker “wound up editing a hard-core lesbian shower scene that he couldn’t resist cutting in Wellesian fashion with low camera angles and other trademark flair.”