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
The house Thomas Mann described as “so completely my own” could be torn down.
Thomas Mann’s house in Pacific Palisades, California, is up for sale. The news came as a surprise: the house, designed by the modernist architect J. R. Davidson, was believed to have a reliable owner with Chester Lappen, the lawyer who bought it from Mann in 1953, and his heirs. As late as 2012, they’d expressed no interest in selling. Things have changed. Read More
Seventy-two years ago today, in Hartford, Connecticut, someone photographed a clown carrying a bucket of water toward a fire. It’s a surreal image, haunting in the old black-and-white way. The clown is stepping through an arid landscape littered with what appear to be wooden crates, a lone railroad car, and the suggestion of bleachers. As clowns go, he’s the sad tramp kind, a pained grimace on his face. In front of him, to the left, someone is exiting the frame—a portion of a leg is visible—and the clown follows, gripping his bucket, exuding dread. He’s heading toward something unseen and tragic, something almost ghostly.
The Hartford Circus Fire occurred during a midafternoon Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus show on July 6, 1944. Some 167 people died; about 700 were injured. No one knows for sure how it started. Read More
Elie Wiesel, Nobel Peace Prize winner, died Saturday at his home in Manhattan at the age eighty-seven. Best known for Night, an autobiographical account of his experience in Nazi concentration camps toward the end of World War II, Wiesel, “more than anyone else, seared the memory of the Holocaust on the world’s conscience,” wrote the New York Times.
Indianapolis, 1964. My younger self owned a bandolier full of bullets; three revolvers, two with bone handles to fit a holster; a rifle; knives; a sword; a full Civil War uniform; a genuine U.S. Army helmet. From age eight to ten, I fought and died a thousand times for fun. My friends and I knew all the best ways to fall down dead, exhaling sighs of pleasure. Awaiting nuclear annihilation, we acted out gun ballets like period folk art. Here, in America’s “Gun Belt,” boys used to get their first squirrel rifle at eight, nine, ten years old; now they get pint-size assault rifles. Get them early, so they can learn to handle the violent kick of firing, learn not to hold the part of the weapon that gets so hot it smokes. And it’s not just boys. Parents can purchase special pink assault rifles for their junior misses.
In my own backyard, I was always alert for enemies. I moved with a stooped, serpentine grace, darting, pausing, looking around for people to shoot before they shot me. There was something adorable about it. We had very convincing submachine guns then. They were made by Marx out of hard molded plastic and came in black—the conventional color, suitable for playing Chicago gangsters or warriors in the European theater—or brown-and-green camouflage, for war in the tropics. There was a knob along the side to unleash a machine gun rat-tat-tat whenever we encountered the enemy. I was unaware of the irony in the brand name: we were training for our turn to halt the march of Marxism, but we were unfamiliar with Marx the mastermind. Every Friday I looked forward to the latest photos of the Vietnam War, counting the dead in LIFE magazine. Read More
Lessons from a building in Shanghai.
Among Shanghai’s many architectural gems is a sprawling, curved edifice that was once the largest apartment building in Asia, a building that more than half a century ago played a role in saving many thousands of lives. It’s set just on the north side of Suzhou Creek, a small river whose course has been hemmed in by concrete, and whose polluted contents are still routinely netted by illegal fishermen—mostly, to judge by their catch, in search of the famous Shanghai hairy crab. On the southern bank, there’s a small section of a walking path, which in the fall is hung with the heavy sweet fragrance of osmanthus blossoms, and which attracts elderly taiji practitioners, smoking office workers out for their lunch break, young couples, and a lone tenor saxophonist, who shows up every morning before eight and doesn’t leave until just before dark. Behind them is the heavy stone architecture of the Bund and a pair of neon gods, the Oriental Pearl Tower and the gigantic trapezoidal Shanghai World Financial Center, the world’s eighth tallest skyscraper.
All this I can observe from a window overlooking the creek, the only window in my tenth-floor studio. The unrenovated apartments are stacked up next to one another, so only the apartments on the ends and around the curved courtyard have more than one window. The building draws breezes through central airshafts that have cleverly been left open, providing essential ventilation in the muggy Shanghai summers. People stack plants on the sills there and hang their laundry to dry in the spiraling wafts from below. Read More