- Every April for years, intrepid editors have searched in vain for a way to fuse National Poetry Month to Mathematics Awareness Month, killing two birds with one stone. It turns out a pair of Italian mathematicians solved the problem centuries ago: “Niccolò Tartaglia (ca. 1500–1557) had discovered a way to solve certain kinds of cubic equations. Another mathematician, Girolamo Cardano (1501–1576), wanted to learn the formula and promised not to publish it. Tartaglia shared the formula with Cardano as a poem, and Cardano ended up publishing it.” Even with its terza-rima rhyme scheme, though, the poem is pretty bad, I’m sorry to report. It begins: “When the cube with the cose beside it / Equates itself to some other whole number, / Find two others, of which it is the difference. // Hereafter you will consider this customarily / That their product always will be equal / To the third of the cube of the cose net.”
- Legend tells of a radical library in Lawrence, Kansas—a library teeming with zines, a countercultural cornucopia, its shelves overflowing with DIY ephemera. And this library … is totally out of business. But the University of Kansas has acquired its holdings and plans to digitize all of them. “You can already explore over 830 digitized examples from the Solidarity archives in the Internet Archive … There are hand-illustrated guides to fertility awareness, freedom for Palestine publications, essays against prisons, Firefly fanzines, and more curious titles like ‘Don’t Leave Me: How to Make Better Coffee at Home and Spend More Time With Your Cat(s).’ ”
- Today in butterfly genitalia and literary luminaries: a new book examines Nabokov’s work as a lepidopterist, especially his “intensely magnified” drawings of butterflies’ reproductive organs. The book argues that Nabokov’s drawings provide a new lens through which to view his fiction—but maybe they’re just butterfly drawings. Laura Marsh writes, “The more we find out about Nabokov’s work as a lepidopterist, the more difficult it is to grasp what he saw in butterflies, and how much his study really found its way into the worlds of his books … As a lepidopterist, he was interested in stories that spanned vast, geological time periods, informed by fine-grained empirical observations. But in his novels and stories, butterflies flit in and out of the narrative, either to adorn a moment of impossible desire or as flickering omens of doom—as in the case of the red admiral that lands on John Shade’s arm before he is assassinated in Pale Fire. They are creatures of the ever-disappearing present, hardly existing for any concrete purpose at all; their wings bear the heavy load of subjectivity.”
- Writers, screenwriters, narrative artists of all stripes: if you’re still laying the foundation for your next project, I suggest throwing a kidnapping into the mix. People love kidnappings, especially when they involve young women. Add a seamy, irrepressibly erotic abduction to your plot and success will be yours for the taking. As Anna Leszkiewicz notes, “British and American pop culture has been gripped by the kidnap narrative. Young women stare desperately out of skylights or at heavy metal doors, before wrenching themselves through. Their kidnapper has methodically planned their captivity for years, making escape particularly difficult. They often exploit the mental weaknesses in their abusers in order to do so. They struggle to find a psychological liberty that matches their newfound physical freedom, and to detach themselves from the events of their captivity … The victim is always a young woman, usually adolescent either at the time of her capture, or during her captivity. She looks a specific way, too: a pretty brunette with big, round eyes; skinny when first captured, gaunt as her captivity develops; and despite the huge number of missing black girls and women, she’s white. She has all the physical attributes Hollywood and our wider society problematically conflate with innocence, purity and victimhood—and enthusiastically sexualize.”
- Jonathan Shaw owns the largest collection of vintage tattoo flashes in the world. Lucky for us, he’s put them in a book called, yes, Vintage Tattoo Flash. Behold the mess of cowboys, sailors, smoking skulls, neon dice, good-luck charms, babes, and babies that have made their way onto American bodies from Long Beach to the Bowery.
A brief survey of fictional books.
I’m soon to move across the country, and surveying my bookcases—the three in the living room and the three in the bedroom, plus the unshelved piles that crop up from any flat surface—fills me with dread. The only cure, I’ve found, is to let my thoughts wander to another, even larger literary collection, a kind of underworld reflection of the one all around me. The books in this second collection are not all fiction, but they are all fictional. I’m imagining a place the late Umberto Eco might appreciate: the Borges Memorial Non-Lending Library of Imaginary Books. Read More
Game Theory’s Lolita Nation, thirty years later.
This month, Omnivore Recordings rereleased Lolita Nation, the 1987 double album by the San Francisco pop band Game Theory, who were dissolved in 1990 by their leader, Scott Miller. (Obligatory note: he’s not the Scott Miller from the V-Roys). It’s the latest and most prized offering in Omnivore’s reissue of Game Theory’s complete catalog, long out of print—original pressings of Lolita Nation sold for more than a hundred dollars on eBay.
Lolita Nation checks off all the boxes of the sprawling, ambitious double album: its twenty-seven tracks, mostly of Miller’s knotty but grabby songs, are interspersed with outbursts of experimental noise, rash new musical ideas, a backward-masked Beatles crib, and references to the Beach Boys, Led Zeppelin, Joyce, and Kubrick. There’s a song in 5/4 time, loosey-goose instrumental interludes, and self-referential snippets of other Game Theory songs—a trademark Joycean habit of Miller’s—all of it marshaled into an apparent concept album about the anxious transition from youth to adulthood. But Lolita Nation defies thematic pigeonholing, just as its songs resist easy listening, and it still sounds fresh and compelling almost three decades after its release. Mitch Easter, who produced it along with five more of Miller’s albums, told me, “Scott was always modern in a way that took me a minute to say, Are you sure?” Read More
- It feels like only yesterday that I was lugging my hardcover of 2666 around town, regularly having my mind blown on subway cars, buses, park benches, et cetera. Imagine how much easier it would’ve been to have that experience in one prolonged five-hour session at the theater! Robert Falls and Seth Bockley are bringing Bolaño’s opus to the stage next month, at the Goodman Theatre: “The play is being presented with three intermissions. To keep things moving, Mr. Falls and Mr. Bockley boiled the novel down to essential characters and story lines, though they would periodically restore some of the stories-within-stories-within-stories, like the tale of a painter who attaches his mummified hand to a self-portrait … The directors and the design team worked to create a distinct style for each of the five parts, keyed to the radically different literary genres Mr. Bolaño drew on: fairy tale, hard-boiled crime novel, academic satire, lyrical short story, Don Quixote–style picaresque.”
- Meanwhile, in Chile: Ariel Lewiton is on the hunt for Neruda’s ghost. “Isla Negra was the home Neruda loved best, the one for which he’d written: The house … I don’t know when it was born in me … For the first time I felt the prick of the scent of the winter sea—a mixture of laurel and salty sand, seaweed and thistle, struck me. It was here I believed I would finally find Neruda … I had not thought to bring flowers. I walked past the grave to where the hill gave way to the sea. At the shore, waves thrashed the rocks. I took off my shoes and waded out from the land. The water was so cold it burned and I stood there for a while with the ocean biting at my ankles.”
- And while we’re focusing on the Spanish language, Janet Hendrickson has translated entries from the letter a in a seventeenth-century Spanish dictionary. Among the words: apio (celery), “the symbol of sadness and weeping”; alba (dawn), “What is that? Nothing but the dawn as it walks among the cabbages”; and andrógeno (hermaphrodite), “Some say that women have three wombs on the right and three on the left and one in the middle; some wombs create males, the others females, and the one in the middle hermaphrodites. And others attribute even more wombs to women, and many allow for none of this.”
- Did you know? Between long bouts of poverty, disease, and malnutrition, people in the Middle Ages occasionally had fun. They did this by playing cards, mainly. And you should see these cards, on display now at the Cloisters Museum here in New York: “The decks on view are often beautiful, and sometimes poetic; a number are humorous and a few downright bawdy. For instance, on one card (pictured above) a woman with long blonde braids sits on a stool milking a grumpy cow—which on inspection proves to be a bull. Another portrays a woman passing a phallic-looking tree on her way to market. One hand balances the basket of geese on her head, the other lifts her long skirt above her knee. Geese are not all that is for sale.”
- There’s been plenty of attention paid to Nabokov’s recently collected letters to his wife, Véra—but why hasn’t anyone told me before now that he used those letters to chronicle everything he’d eaten for the day? The Nabokov diet, writes Nina Martyris, was hardly gourmet: “Nabokov kept his promise of sending her a daily bulletin, which included a scrupulous itemization of his meals. Listing every meal he ate was clearly a drudgery, but he hurried on with it by squashing the menu between parentheses: ‘(A couple of meatballs—cold-cuts, sausage, radishes)’; ‘(cold-cuts, fried eggs, a cold meatball)’; or ‘(liver and gooseberry jelly—a sort of frog caviar).’ Occasionally, there was a dry barb: ‘incomprehensible meat,’ and more rarely, a stab of praise, ‘magnificent blueberry soup.’ But mostly it was a boring plod of cold cuts and compotes.”
We’re away until January 4, but we’re re-posting some of our favorite pieces from 2015. Please enjoy, and have a happy New Year!
“I can’t remember the moment when I fell in love with cartoons, I was so young,” John Updike once recalled in Hogan’s Alley magazine. “I still have a Donald Duck book, on oilclothy paper in big-print format, and remember a smaller, cardboard-covered book based on the animated cartoon Three Little Pigs. It was the intense stylization of those images, with their finely brushed outlines and their rounded and buttony furniture and their faces so curiously amalgamated of human and animal elements, that drew me in, into a world where I, child though I was, loomed as a king, and where my parents and other grownups were strangers.”
This is one of many passages where Updike talks about his childhood love of comics, a theme that recurs not just in essays but also in poems and short stories. What deserves attention in this passage is not only what Updike is saying but the textured and sensual language he’s using when he recalls the “oilclothy paper” and the “buttony furniture.” His tingling prose, where every idea and emotion is rooted in sensory experience, owes much to such modern masters as Joyce, Proust, and Nabokov, but it was also sparked by the cartoon images he saw in childhood, which trained his eyes to see visual forms as aesthetically pleasing. Indeed, the comparison with Nabokov is instructive since the Russian-born author of Lolita was also a cartoon fan. The critic Clarence Brown has coined the term bedesque (roughly translated as “comic strip-influenced”) to describe the cartoony quality of Nabokov’s fiction, including its antic loopiness, its quicksilver movement from scene to scene, and its visual intensity. I think one reason Updike felt an affinity for Nabokov is because they both wrote bedesque prose. Read More >>
The other day, I invented the worst game ever. It all started in the supermarket when I passed the processed cheeses. Velveeta, I read. Then, somehow, I found myself thinking, Velveeta, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Vel-vee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Vel. Vee. Ta.
This was quite bad enough, but understandable. I tried it with Chiquita, and Ryvita, and then I forgot about it, because, well, it’s asinine. Then, later in the day, I realized I was muttering, “Flour. Light of my life, fire of my loins.” And later, the same thing, but with asphalt subbed in. Read More