- The Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America—arguably the closest thing our nation has to a band of superheroes—has announced the nominees for this year’s Nebula Awards. Nicola Griffith, interviewed on the Daily last month, is up for best novel; and Samuel Delany, interviewed in the Art of Fiction No. 210, has won what’s surely the most finely named lifetime-achievement award in the land, the Damon Knight Grand Master Award. Congratulations to both!
- Today in common ground for humankind: every language contains the utterance “huh.” Let’s say it together.
- “I don’t think I have the right kind of books for homeless people.”
- Cosmopolitan’s sex tips have probably never been anything to write home about, but this one is especially bad. It involves a glazed doughnut, and its origins are in a 1995 “sexual recipe book” called The Foreplay Gourmet.
- Introducing “normcore,” fashion’s latest, most unremarkable trend: “The kind of dad-brand non-style you might have once associated with Jerry Seinfeld.”
- An update to Tuesday’s note on the Voynich manuscript: a medievalist named Stephen Bax claims to have discovered a way of decoding it.
Pop quiz! Which American philosopher coined the following expressions: pluralism, time-line, healthy-minded, live option, stream of consciousness, and the bitch-goddess success. Hint: he counted among his most devoted students Gertrude Stein, Theodore Roosevelt, and W.E.B. DuBois. Last hint, from a letter he wrote to his little brother Henry, in 1902: “You have created a new genre littéraire which I can’t help thinking perverse, but in which you nevertheless succeed, for I read with interest to the end (many pages and innumerable sentences twice over to see what the dickens they could possibly mean).” If you guessed William James (correctly), you probably remember him as the main inventor of “pragmatism,” the can-do philosophy that professional philosophers love to hate. But as Robert D. Richardson shows in his 2006 biography William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism, it is hard to imagine a livelier, more lovable mind. As a scientist, James did original work on everything from evolution to spiritualism. As a philosopher, he anticipated everyone from Bergson to Wittgenstein to Austin to Daniel Kahneman. As a person, James is the most appealing kind of genius, continually inspired by his family, by his friendships and romances, and by communion with what he called “the hidden self,” where we are most vulnerable and alive. —Lorin Stein
The latest issue of Granta includes “Nudity,” an essay by Norman Rush about his youthful encounters with the body au naturel. Rush’s parents dabbled in a kind of functional nudism, which we might today call “letting it all hang out.” “The nudity of my parents did not assuage my ripening interest, but inflamed it,” he writes. “I wanted to see other naked female humans, and I wanted my father to keep his bathrobe on.” Though the piece mostly chronicles the young Rush’s quest to see live nudes, it takes an astonishing, affecting swerve in its final paragraph, which I won’t spoil here. It also includes, of course, those quintessentially Rushian terms for the female anatomy, “escutcheon” (the pubic crest) and “introitus” (just look it up). —Dan Piepenbring
Sunday is Groundhog Day (fingers crossed!), but I’ve been heralding the arrival of spring for days now, however futile my attempts may be. Perhaps that’s why I picked up Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book this week. I’ve read Jansson’s Moomin comics and her children’s books, but I haven’t ever delved into her prose. This book—a series of interrelated vignettes about a girl and her grandmother on a quiet island in the Gulf of Finland—is a treasure. Its stories are miniatures not just in length but in perspective as well: sometimes literally, as when the grandmother lays down near the beach and studies a blade of grass, a fluff of down, and a piece of bark in the sand by her face. Through her examination, their minute details are writ large; the bark, for instance, becomes “a very ancient mountain.” And when she finally gazes past them, to the wider world, it no longer looks so big. —Nicole Rudick
The Lost Art of Dress: The Women Who Once Made America Stylish is a paean to that now-extinct species, the “dress doctor,” a professional consultant who helped average citizens navigate questions of style and economy in a rapidly changing landscape. How should a working girl look professional on a budget? How might a farm wife stretch a yard of fabric and still be chic? And how to incorporate principles of harmony, proportion, balance, rhythm, emphasis into every aspect of aesthetic life? The author, Linda Przybyszewski, is an academic, and the book serves as an informative cultural history. But more than this, it is a tribute to a time when style—and maybe even life—felt more straightforward, and however arbitrary, there were definitive answers. —Sadie Stein Read More
Late in Nicola Griffith’s 1998 novel The Blue Place, her protagonist, Aud Torvingen, speaks rapturously about a spot on the coast of England. “Have I told you about Whitby Abbey, on the Yorkshire coast? There’s a ruin there that dates from the twelfth century, very haunting, very gothic, but the first abbey there was founded in the seventh century by Hilda. There’s a power there.” Fifteen years later, Griffith’s latest novel, Hild, explores the early life of the woman who would go on to become Hilda of Whitby.
Hild is an intricately plotted historical epic, set in a landscape that seems familiar and a culture that is anything but. Hild, the young protagonist, acts as an adviser to the king, Edwin, and the novel abounds with plotting, misdirection, and the use of mysticism toward decidedly realpolitik ends. Griffith’s ability to evoke a different time and place has manifested itself in very different ways over the years; her first two novels, Ammonite and Slow River, were both science fiction, though of very different types. Ammonite begins as anthropological science fiction and gradually becomes more epic in scale; Slow River involves conspiracies, industry, and a marvelously intricate plot. The series of three novels featuring Aud Torvingen—The Blue Place, Stay, and Always—are set in the modern world, with a fiercely analytical (and sometimes critically violent) protagonist. And in 2007, her memoir, And Now We Are Going to Have a Party: Liner Notes to a Writer’s Early Life, was released.
Reached via phone at her Seattle home, Griffith’s spoken language is as precise as it is on the page.
How long have you known that Hilda of Whitby was a figure you wanted to write about?
Since my early twenties. Actually, I didn’t even know that I was going to write about her—I discovered the abbey in my early twenties, and I was very struck by it. Hilda grew on me. She grew in the back of my mind. At first, I thought I was going to write an alternate history novel, one in which the Synod of Whitby didn’t go the way that it actually went. But the more I discovered about the world itself, about the seventh century, the more I wanted to write how it actually was. Not make it fantastical, just really go there, really live there for a while. And Hild herself became more and more interesting to me.
I kept putting off writing about her, because I really didn’t want to write a book about women as chattels, and women as baby-making machines. But as I discovered more about the seventh century, I realized that my preconceptions were wrong, and in fact, Hild could have been a really powerful woman in her own right. A really powerful person—not just a powerful woman. And then, one day, I just thought, This is enough. I have to really go there. It’s time to step up. The day before my forty-seventh birthday, I sat down and wrote the first paragraph. So it took more than twenty years. Read More
Seven years ago I was walking up Fifth Avenue with David Foster Wallace. He wanted to know what I thought of The Names. That one’s the key, he said, speaking of Don DeLillo’s work like it was a safe which contained its own code. It was hat-and-glove weather. Wallace wore a purple sweatshirt. Where did I get my coat? he asked. That’s a great coat, he said. It was like something James Bond would wear. Had I been to this restaurant before?
We had just walked into Japonica, a sushi restaurant on University Place. Our interview was underway, and Wallace was already several questions ahead of nearly every writer I had ever profiled. Most writers, even the most curious one, don’t ask questions of a journalist. Nor should they, necessarily. They are the ones being interviewed, after all.
Wallace, however, seemed to think in the interrogative mode. He was tall and slightly sweaty, looking like he had just come from a run. But he seemed determined not to intimidate. He was like a big cat pulling out his claws, one question at a time. See, look, I’m not going to be difficult.
Once we got going, though—and there was a propulsive, caffeinated momentum to the way he talked—he returned, constantly, to questions. Had I ever written about my life? It’s hard, right? Are celebrities even the same species as us? Is it possible to show what someone was really like in a profile?
“These nonfiction pieces feel to me like the very hardest thing that I do,” he said, talking about Consider the Lobster, the book he had just published, “because reality is infinite.” And then. “God only knows what you are jotting.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about this encounter lately. For the past fifteen years, I have interviewed a lot of writers. A few hundred—perhaps too many, but why not say yes? Shortly out of college a friend gave me a vintage set of The Paris Review Book of Interviews. They exhaled the flinty musk of a cigar smoker’s home, and were as snappy as the lining of a 1940s dinner jacket. Read More