October 31, 2011
The Daylight Savings switch has been made, so the sun went down about an hour or so ago and I miss it. I might have to get on a train and go south soon, just to remind myself the sun still exists somewhere. (Early in the season for such psychosis, but there you go.)
This is of course appropriate weather for the day, and over at the Smithsonian E.J. Wagner tells the story of a real life murder that inspired fictional versions by Poe and Hawthorne.
If you need more, MR James's story "Casting the Runes" is available for download today.
Jeanette Winterson's Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit was an autobiographical novel, and over at the Guardian she tries to sift through and define which was part autobiographical and which part was fiction.
I was in my teens when I read that book for the first time, and like all sentimental attachments I wasn't really looking to examine it under a bright light. God, don't tell me Elsie isn't a real person, I don't want to know that. It's also the reason I haven't re-read any of those early Winterson books, which were like fragile, magical worlds to me back then. I am afraid the gilding might be revealed to be cheap gold spray paint.
I am having too many thoughts about the new Illuminated Manuscript for Origin of Species. "Ooh pretty" starts first, swiftly followed by worried fretting over one wing of our current society's desire to turn science into a religion. Because it's not, and it can't be. And that level of calcified belief is just as dangerous as... but "oh, look at the cute little birdy, that's nice how they did that." Maybe if in my head I ignore the history of the illuminated manuscript and just think of it as the totally prettified illustrated version, that might work.
October 28, 2011
For about a month, I read a whole stack of books on multiple personality disorders, hysteria, recovered memories, neurasthenia, and ritualistic Satanic abuse. I watched Sybil. All three hours. This was really just a repeat of my fascination for MPD and such that started when I was eight. (Such a happy child...) Back then it was all over the daytime talk shows and in the trashy magazines. Now, of course, other than a shitty Diablo Cody TV project, you don't really hear much about MPD anymore. So how does a mental illness become a fad?
Over at the Smart Set, I write about all these mental illnesses that came out of nowhere, dominated psychiatric circles, and then disappeared with the barest of traces.
Your therapist is probably giving you multiple personality disorder.
Oh sure, he’s going to deny it. He will say you obviously had some problems to begin with, and that he just uncovered the form they’re taking and their source. And there you will be, disassociated into several different personalities. People you don’t know will greet you with names you don’t recognize. You’ll find notes around your apartment written in unfamiliar handwriting. You’ll wake up in hotel rooms without pants (every person who has ever had multiple personality disorder has always had one who was a slut).
And maybe by the end of it you will remember seeing your father drink the blood of a newborn baby. So strange that you had forgotten something like that for the last twenty years, you think it would be a pretty memorable event. Or being raped by your brother. Never mind the fact that you never had a brother, you are sure it happened. And your therapist will say, Aha! That is why you are such a mess, can’t keep a boyfriend or a job for more than six weeks, that is why you dread going home for Christmas. It’s because you remember your parents donning black robes and smearing the blood of a virgin all over your face before they let their friends have their way with you on a Satanic altar. That must be it.
Oh, and that will be $250, sweetie. You can leave the check with the receptionist.
Bookslut gave a positive review to Vivian Gornick's Emma Goldman: Revolution as a Way of Life this month. And now you can read an excerpt from that book, over at the Chronicle. (Speaking of dirty talk, Goldman's love letters are lively and filthy. You might not expect it seeing the hats she wore in the most common photos of her, but the woman was bold -- and screwing boys half her age. Go Emma.)
To be clear: this isn't about sexual repression; it's about the sorry state of sexual expression. When did we forget how to talk dirty?
Charles Lamb, it turns out, was a dirty bastard. I'm researching his murderous sister Mary Lamb now for my Drexel university course, but maybe I'm reading the wrong sibling. (So far my class has one enrollee. Take that, History of Medicine, with your zero students. I have for some reason zeroed in on History of Medicine as my primary campus competitor.) The Awl writes about how those repressed creatures from centuries back had it all over us when it came to writing a good dirty letter.
October 27, 2011
The New York Times lets us peek in at a Lynda Barry writing class.
To explain, she told a story about the neuroscientist V. S. Ramachandran, who helps patients experiencing phantom-limb pain. Barry discussed one patient who felt that his missing left hand was clenched in a fist and could never shake the discomfort — could never “unclench” it.
So Ramachandran used a mirror box — a compartment into which the patient could insert his right hand and see it reflected at the end of his left arm. “And Ramachandran said, ‘Open your hands.’ And the patient saw this” — Barry opened two clenched fists in unison. “That’s what I think images do.
“I think that in the course of human life,” she continued softly, “we have events that cause” — she clenched her fist and held it up, inspecting it from all angles. “Losing your parents might cause it. Or a war. Or things going bad in a family.”
The only way to open that fist, she said, is to see your own trouble reflected in an image, as the patient saw his hand reflected in a mirror. It might be a story you write, or a book you read, or a song that means the world to you. “And then?” She opened her hand and waved.
Fuck. There are five new books I now have to buy immediately. Norman Davies, he of Europe: A History -- which you should really have on your shelf, it will make you smarter and tell people you are continental and sexy and have a nuanced view of the Euro crisis -- offers up a list of five books about European countries that no longer exist and goddamn it, I want all of them.
I've been enjoying Jessica Love's language column at The American Scholar, Psychobabble, and this week's illuminates the importance gestures play in language. Not just in miming your way through a visit with the German bureaucracy when you forget the word for "import tax" -- the experience that was my morning -- but in basic communication.
Indeed, it actually takes work not to gesture when we’re having a tough time getting our point across. When researchers have prevented people from gesturing while trying to think of words—inferno, say, or criminal negligence—they are less likely to successfully retrieve them.
The always lovely Iain McGilchrist gave a talk about the theories behind his book The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, and it was animated by the RSA. (You've seen these animated lectures before.) So spend 11 minutes learning about our asymmetrical brains.
October 26, 2011
There's a new travel publication in the world. Available only on the iPad. I will have a piece in... issue 2? Stay tuned on that one, but probably in issue 2. Funny thing: I don't have an iPad, so I'll have to take your word on whether my piece actually shows up in there.
I was watching Shalom Auslander's trailers for Hope: A Tragedy, and I was trying to remember if there has ever been a good book trailer. Ever. I came up with no. And lo, Auslander has bestowed upon us maybe the first funny book trailer that was actually meant to be funny.
I'm having a bit of a "oh my dear god" moment with Doris Langley Moore's The Late Lord Byron: A Biography. It's unexpected, as I don't particularly care strongly one way or another about Byron or his life. It's an uncommon biography that can make you weak in the knees when you don't care about the subject. But the way she addresses abstract issues that I do care about -- the ethical issues of biography, the afterlife of a dead genius, the petty squabbles that take over an estate -- make me read the book even as I'm walking from room to room in my apartment.
It's part of Melville House's Neversink series, and I always feel like I have to add some sort of disclaimer when I praise a Melville House book, because I love them unconditionally. But I love them conditionally too, the condition being the quality of their books.
But speaking of the Late Lord Byron, there's a report of the desecration of Byron's tomb, and the strangeness of his body's preservation even a century after his death.
October 25, 2011
Kate Grace Thomas found herself accidentally covering the Arab Spring. Stationed in Libya to write Lonely Planet's third edition of its Libya guidebook, she got caught up in the revolution and stuck around to write about war instead of the most interesting cafes and the most comfortable hotels. She writes about the experience at Guernica.
The New York Times has an interesting take on Craig Thompson's Habibi. It's nice to get an aware, feminist response to the fact that a female character in the comic book can't seem to keep her clothes on. (via)
To procure food, Dodola prostitutes herself to passing caravans. One day, Zam follows her to a rendezvous and watches while she is raped. This scene, which Thompson lingers over for several pages (allowing us to note that the rapist has the telltale hairy legs of a Crumb villain), haunts Zam for the rest of the book. Not only because he failed to save Dodola, but because her ravishment becomes his own recurring fantasy.
A 1932 review of Irmgard Keun's Artificial Silk Girl chastised Keun, asking her to "write in a German spirit, speak in a German spirit, think in a German spirit, and refrain from her sometimes almost vulgar aspersions against German womanhood." Thank god she did no such thing. The quotation is taken from a slightly modified version of Geoffrey Wilkes's afterword to Keun's After Midnight, now available to read online. (Although you should really read the book it is generally attached to, too.)
My interest in the James family is a little deranged. And in the middle of any books about the James family there always sat sourpuss Alice. Who I kind of hate. She was always so bitchy, so bitter, so haughty, but she didn't do a goddamn thing except lay about in bed. And yet for someone I hate I read an awful lot about her. When NYRB announced they were re-releasing Jean Strouse's biography of Alice James, I wanted to read it immediately.
I talk to Strouse over at Kirkus about the appeal of Alice James, and why she continues to be a subject of such interest.
I did not idealize or even like her very much at the outset. And as I said above, I got frustrated/angry with her as I watched her close all doors, one by one, to the possibilities of becoming "something else." Yet I admired her Jamesian gift for language, her wit, though it was often bitter, her struggle to find the authentic core of her own experience to deal with what it meant to be a James and a girl. And it was a tremendous privilege for me imaginatively to “live” in the brilliant, deeply troubled, competitive, fraught, highly articulate James family for five years.
October 24, 2011
“In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth had learned to put thinking above feeling, and so did I, by reading about her.”
John Crowley, he of the incandescent Little Big, wrote an essay about how writers have envisioned the future, science fiction and not, and why a contemporary audience has such a hard time envisioning the future and is replacing it with the past in its imagination. He also has a chatty, warm conversation on the same topic at this podcast.
(Updated to add, Crowley's criticism of the dystopian viewpoint -- used as a way to disengage with the real world and abdicate any responsibility to work for change, is echoed in this review of Colson Whitehead's zombie novel Zone One:
Between the cheap and easy real estate punch-lines and the extraneous uses of “On Demand,” “DVR” (as a verb), and “the cloud,” if it’s not a typical zombie novel, then Zone One must be a novelization of Stuff White People Like, with the number one thing being benignly ham-fisted criticism of stuff white people like.)
Tim Butcher's book Chasing the Devil: A Journey Through Sub-Saharan Africa in the Footsteps of Graham Greene is just now coming out in the States, but it was out last year in the UK. And while anything that references Graham Greene will probably get my attention, at least for a second, Aminatta Forna points out some problems with taking a Greene approach to modern Africa, at least without having Greene's ballsy braininess to back it up.
No sooner does a Western journalist sets foot in Africa, than they are tripping over cannibals, witch doctors and naked voodoo warriors.
Africa makes Westerners nervous, a fear Butcher explores and indulges. While Greene searched for an innocence lost in the West, Butcher is on the hunt for: 'an understanding of the pure evil witnessed here during the wars’.
In 1928, Carl Roberts depicted Dickens in a far from favourable light in his novel This Side Idolatry.
The portrayal offended Portsmouth so much that the city decided to ban the book from its library.
But ahead of the 200th anniversary of Dickens's birth, the council has reinstated the book in its libraries.
October 21, 2011
Smithsonian has a very nice piece (with pictures) about Gertrude Stein's return to America in 1935, and how the painfully obscure and dense modernist became a celebrity.
In one sense, this is a phenomenon familiar to anyone who’s ever had to cut public services: people will fight to the death to protect things they never use. But there’s something bigger going on here. This is a fight by middle-class liberals to keep libraries open not for themselves, but for the less fortunate. This is partly out of condescension, and partly guilt – because the protesters don’t use libraries either, and feel they may have precipitated the closures by their neglect.
What this debate needs is some honesty. Yes, public libraries have been of huge benefit in helping us educate ourselves over the past 150 years. It’s an honourable tradition – but it’s over. Their defence depends on a deficit model, the argument that they fill a unique gap. But that’s simply no longer true.
And really you shouldn't get mad, because all that is going to do is make him so very happy, so he can think "Fucking liberal pansies, delicate flowers all of them." And really it just sounds like he needs a blow job and a Mars Bar, but I kind of hope the world withholds that from him, too. Maybe instead just go to your public library.
All of my former crushes are now working in publishing. I find this an odd thing to shift in my head. Henry Rollins has his publishing company, Anthony Bourdain is heading up an imprint, and Jarvis Cocker is an editor-at-large at Faber and Faber. Alas, they are probably going to get out of going to BookExpo every year, and so that annual long weekend of suffering and cheap wine will remain hopelessly unsexy.
What is, in actual fact, a minibar? A minibar is designed as a dollhouse for grown men.
October 20, 2011
"What an opportunity presents itself for some millionaire citizen to come forward with one of his useless, embarrassing, and retarding millions and link his name forever with this great community."
So said Andrew Carnegie upon giving his gift of $5.2 million to the New York Public Library. I grew up in a small town with a Carnegie library, and it had the oeuvre of Christopher Pike, which turned me into who I am today. Thank you, Andrew Carnegie.
So you have read The Madwoman in the Attic, yes? It was basically the first book that introduced the female character into literary theory, it changed criticism and literary study so much it's almost impossible to imagine literature without it. But it's an interesting read and worthwhile book on its own, not just in a "it's only women's study syllabus" kind of way.
One of the co-authors, Sandra Gilbert, has a new essay collection out, Rereading Women. The Times Higher Education reviews Gilbert's new book and marks the 30th anniversary of Madwoman.
With the news of Qaddafi today, time to revisit an interview with Algerian writer Boualem Sansal, who also just won the Peace Prize at the Frankfurt Book Fair.
People rebel when they realise that they are dying. The uprisings are not economic, social or political rebellions, as people keep saying. People simply feel the need to talk. So they react. Like an animal that is going to be slaughtered reacts.
Edward Docx has a charming account of his recent visit to Russia for a literary festival, and the scuffle he accidentally started when he explained the Man Booker to the Russian writers.
I begin to explain that the chair of the judges is Dame Stella Rimington and that she is an ex-head of the security services in Britain. And—bam!—that’s it: now everyone is laughing. Oh, the west, they guffaw. Oh, England, they chortle. Oh, hypocrisy. Oh, MI5. Oh, MI6. Even the FSB would not dare! You mean, they splutter, that the winner of your most famous literary prize is judged by the security services? It seems I could not have told them a more perfect Anglo-Russian joke if I tried.
I try to explain that they are mistaken, that Dame Rimington is retired and is a now an author herself. Yes, someone cackles, like Putin is retired from the KGB!
Fuck it, someone else suggests, we should set up an international prize for the security services. We should judge the FSB versus the CIA versus MI5 versus FBI and Mossad. We should proudly declare we know nothing whatsoever about security but say that we intend to make the award based on who we feel has the most zippy-looking offices as seen from street level. Had I ever been in the boy scouts? Yes, for a day. Well, then, certainly I was qualified. Let’s set it up tonight. A famous meta-realist falls off his chair.
Reading the essay I'm reminded of the... is it Bruce Chatwin?... quotation that the famed Russian hospitality is mostly just the Russian love for seeing a foreigner drunk.
We should all be glad that Moby Lives has returned. It's prettier than ever, even.
Today they bring word of a new literary spat, in case anyone still cares about these things. Someone says one thing, then another person says "nuh uh" and then later one of the spatters will be asked by the New York Times to review the other spatter's book. Circle of life! But today it's Laura Miller, declaring that the National Book Awards has its head up its ass (paraphrasing) and NBA judge Victor La Valle giving the requisite nuh uh retort.
October 19, 2011
Julian Barnes has won the 2011 Man Booker Prize for The Sense of an Ending. Bookslut reserves exclusive rights to say they found him dreamy long before he won anything. If you've not read Barnes, though it's not his best work, try this one alongside his fantastic debut Metroland.
Mike Daisey has been doing a show called "The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs" for a while now, but of course certain recent events mean that it's getting a lot more coverage. I wish I could see it, but it's getting good reviews that suggests it's a complex show about a complex issue. Should we be disappointed about what Apple turned into? I mean yay shiny gadgets, but do we really have to think about conflict minerals and the alarming suicide rate at the Apple plants, and how Apple decided not to use its power for good?
It is amazing that these things have not found a wider conversation. It's not surprising the kind of grief that came out for Jobs, but grief doesn't have to turn into beatification. At any rate, Daisey writes a complicated op-ed about Jobs and Apple for the New York Times, that tries to reverse the saint back into a man.
Snippet from my reading, from Nicholas Royle's The Uncanny:
From Pascal: "When one reads too quickly or too slowly one understands nothing." It is impossible to know how quickly or slowly to read; reading entails something unreadable, in reserve, something that resists being understood now. Put in different terms, any reading or teaching worthy of the name does not happen when it happens: it is bound up with a strange experience (which may be the very impossibility of an experience) of deferral, of ghostly time.
From being on the internet for the last twenty minutes, I think there is going to be a lot of this, in various forms, yet to come:
Coming out of the new Tintin film directed by Steven Spielberg, I found myself, for a few seconds, too stunned and sickened to speak; for I had been obliged to watch two hours of literally senseless violence being perpetrated on something I loved dearly.
I didn't even have Tintin around as a child (not educational enough) but I am sympathetic after seeing the preview.
I would selfishly wish more Maud Newton-penned criticism into the world if I could. Here she is, taking on Jeffrey Eugenides's The Marriage Plot in her naturally witty and cutting way. And here she is, summarizing Crime and Punishment in a 60 second take. That should satisfy me for now, I suppose.
October 18, 2011
With Jersey Shore, billions of people around the world who have never been to New Jersey, and will never go to New Jersey, watch it. It’s become part of our mythology. Some kid watching Jersey Shore in Mumbai is incorporating what the guys there do into his self-model of masculine behavior. It’s horrific when you think about it.
Said Graham Greene of Flann O'Brien's At-Swim-Two-Birds: "I read it with continual excitement, amusement and the kind of glee one experiences when people smash china on the stage." The LA Times has a little round up on information on O'Brien's centenary.
Reading The Uncanny, and Nicholas Royle has a chapter on ETA Hoffmann's "The Sandman." (Original German title: "Der Sandmann." There you go.) When Freud read this story, he fumed about "how hard it is for a psychoanalyst to discover anything new that has not been known before by some creative writer." The whole creepy Hoffmann story is available online. It's the story of a man who is afraid the Sandman is going to rip out his eyes, and is engaged to one woman and in love with the automaton version of another. From the story:
To be quite convinced they were not in love with a wooden doll, many enamoured young men demanded that their young ladies should sing and dance in a less than perfect manner... [and] above all that they should not merely listen but sometimes speak, too, and in such a way that what they said gave evidence of some real thinking and feeling behind it.
Yeah, holy shit, that story will fuck you up. (Freud also said of the story: "we perceive that Hoffmann intends to make us, too, look through the demon optician's spectacles.") (The Uncanny is quite good, if often a little airless.)
And speaking of Freud (I'm a little connect-the-dots today), André Aciman contemplates Freud and his portraits, cigar cocked and staring down the camera. Tablet's running it as an excerpt from his collection of essays Alibis.
Speaking of Berlin, if you're in need of a retreat, I'm looking for a subletter for my two room apartment in Berlin. (2 room = large bedroom, large living room/office/library.) I'll be in Philadelphia teaching a class from January through March, and that is, conveniently enough, the span of time of an EU tourist visa. The space is very conducive to getting a lot of writing done.
Email me for more information, and please don't be an ax murderer. (50% of all people on the Internet are still ax murderers, yes? Or was that only the statistics of AOL users?)
I think more fundamentally, it is extremely difficult to believe passionately in something and build your life around it and then have that founding belief disappear. It may even be barely possible. It seems to me like we make backbones for ourselves of our beliefs—for good or ill—and that without them we’d risk psychological collapse.
And of course we'll be giving away copies of the book later today here.
October 17, 2011
I made the mistake of trying to talk to two chemists at a party about multiple personality disorder. For the most part, hard scientists don't give a shit about psychology. And they were obviously just being polite when they asked what I was currently writing about, but as soon as "multiple personality disorder" came out of my mouth I felt the need to launch into all of my thoughts on the subject. I have been a little too immersed, reading book after book about recovered memory and MPD and watching Sybil and The Three Faces of Eve, and I vomited it all back onto two poor scientists. No wonder they ignored me for the rest of the party.
The New York Times Magazine is running an excerpt from Debbie Nathan's book about the case that started hundreds of thousands of diagnoses, Sybil Exposed: The Extraordinary Story Behind the Famous Multiple Personality Case. The Sybil case turns out not to be totally true, funnily enough. Which makes what followed, twenty years of recovered memories, an overwhelming number of MPD diagnoses, Gloria Steinem declaring MPD some sort of feminist victory, and a psychological outbreak that rivals hysteria for its cultural influence. See? Here I am, going on and on about it again...
The TLS reviews Virginia Nicholson's Millions Like Us: Women’s lives in war and peace, 1939–1949 and contemplates the ordinary role that British women played during WWII, from translators to nurses to symbols of what the men were out there fighting for.
Pagan Kennedy wonders how many of the books on Amazon are actually written by robots.
In addition to selling conventional books, VDM also extrudes thousands of paperbacks every year using content available without cost on the Internet. These books, or booklike products, lie in wait for the distracted shopper, someone who might think, Oh good, I really need a tome on Spearman’s law of diminishing returns, so I’ll just go ahead and pay $84. And with one overhasty click on the “Place your order” button, the shopper can pay a lot of money for a book that turns out to be warmed-over Wikipedia.
It seemed like a natural fit. When I found myself really disappointed with Killer Stuff and Tons of Money: Seeking History and Hidden Gems in Flea-Market America, I realized I could ask the man who dragged me unwillingly from flea market to flea market throughout my childhood. That would be my father. While Maureen Stanton chose to focus her attention on the dealers who are out to make a quick buck, I was more interested in the passionate collectors that really drive the flea-market world. So my father, a passionate collector turned museum curator answered some of my questions for this week's Smart Set column.
October 14, 2011
As desperately as we may need to unplug a little -- I spent today watching a 1980s television miniseries (for research!) on my laptop while simultaneously reading a book on my Kindle, before I realized someone could probably diagnose this behavior -- going cold turkey is dangerous.
Each link looked more interesting now that I couldn’t click through it.
I would have read the shit out of that story on the debt ceiling.
Nathaniel Missildine spent a summer without wifi in a rural area, and he barely lived to warn off other writers tempted to do something similar.
The perils of literary scholarship. Maggie Nelson, in this expansive interview at Poetry regarding her book The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning, she explains how the book started as My Sylvia Plath and morphed into something else entirely:
I had always wanted to write a book actually only on Sylvia Plath, called My Sylvia Plath, which I really wasn’t going to call that, but it was after Susan Howe wrote My Emily Dickinson, which had made an impression on me. But I don’t think I need to do that now, or maybe I think this is that book, in a way. Anyway, Plath is incredibly expensive to quote from, so I would never write a book with this many quotes from Sylvia Plath again so as to avoid contacting her estate.
Tilda Swinton is interviewed about the film version of Lionel Shriver's We Need to Talk About Kevin, and is asked if she fears the film, or the book, would scare women off from having children, I guess just in case one of them decided to go on a killing spree.
"I don't see why it would," she says sunnily. "It's a fantasy. It's never going to be that bad … Everybody thinks for one moment when they're pregnant that they're actually carrying the spawn of the devil."
October 13, 2011
Interesting question: We often congratulate a male writer for writing "believable" or "realistic" female characters, but can a female character truly be described as realistic if in the novel she has no other female friends?
In support of the importance of learning one new thing every day, I'll just drop in a line about Equanil, which I learned about reading Debbie Nathan's Sybil Exposed: The Extraordinary Story Behind the Famous Multiple Personality Case. It was:
an anti-anxiety pill more popularly known as Miltown. It had been put on the market in 1955, accompanied by great fanfare from pop media like Newsweek, Time, and even Cosmopolitan, which suggested that the decade's new crop of psychotropic pills could even cure female "frigidity," and help career women who were nervous about matrimony to make the decision to marry.
After reading the Atlantic's piece "All the Single Ladies," perhaps Atlantic, which is so very, very interested in the marriagability of women, it seems, would like to hand out samples of Equanil to its lady subscribers.
Stefany Anne Golberg makes the case for Baudelaire being the patron saint of our the Internet Age and our total lack of privacy.
“Baudelaire, the man of crowds,” wrote Sartre, “was also the man who had the greatest fear of crowds.” Baudelaire knew that true anonymity was impossible to achieve in modern urban life. His love of observing was forever at war with his fear of being seen.
Bookforum interviews Grant Gee, director of a new documentary about W. G. Sebald.
The new biography of Eva Braun is now seeing its English language release. (I covered the book in its German form -- my review is in English, or else it would have been written in simple, declarative sentences in the present tense only.) I don't know if you want to read the book itself -- it would require picturing Hitler and Braun fucking, and no one needs that in their brain. The New York Times pretty much sums up the pattern of their relationship: "Again, she tried suicide. He got her a house." And so on. We all have curiosity about what the hell she thought she was doing, but there is no answer in the biography. Just more confusion.
Jenny Diski has a wonderful bit of bile for evolutionary psychology and the new book The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life.
The reading public lapped it up as both a neat, satisfying narrative, and as an excuse for all manner of not-so-civilised behaviours for which we no longer had to take personal and moral blame. We go to war – well, so do baboons; it's in our genes, we can try to overcome it, but in the end as in the beginning we're all just animals. By 1976 we didn't even have to blame the animal in ourselves: Richard Dawkins gave us the selfish gene, whose sole reason for existence was to reproduce itself. And we, that is the body and brain of you and me, were nothing but vehicles for these genes which compelled us to optimise their chances of replicating. Talk to the gene, the conscience isn't listening.
October 12, 2011
These are some of the important geo-political lessons I learned from watching an episode of Pan Am: Germany used to have some Nazis in it, I don't know if you heard. And they really don't like to talk about it! Also, their old people are magical trolls. I really need to stop watching television shows I hope will be trashy goodness but know deep down will only fulfill one of those words.
And in the name of our continuing, obsessive need to ask that immortal question asked by a Pan Am stewardess you could tell was supposed to be French because of her swooping eye liner, "What did you do during the war?" we should read this article about Gertrude Stein's complicated time spent in Occupied France. This is also the subject of a new book called Unlikely Collaboration: Gertrude Stein, Bernard Faÿ and the Vichy Dilemma.
In case you were worried that Steven Pinker's book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined meant you were going to have to be optimistic about mankind, philosopher John Gray offers a rebuttal.
I have to admit, I had a little dread about Craig Thompson's Habibi. I am the only person in the world (I checked) who did not care for his graphic novel Blankets -- I thought it was very pretty, and very, very YA. (Not to use YA as an insult, but there you go.) And so now Pacific Northwest emo-boy was going to explain Islam to the American masses? "Ohhhhhh" is the only way to properly sum up my dread.
Now I have a copy, and it is stunningly beautiful to look at. To read is another consideration. I haven't spent enough time with it to do it justice, but the Hooded Utilitarian has.
I was about the spend a year abroad studying how The Adventures of Tintin is a Orientalist text precisely because Hergé rarely left the confines of Belgium while drawing the far off landscapes of India, Egypt, China, or made-up Arab lands like Khemed. And here was Craig Thompson some 80 odd years later, well intentioned, proposing a very similar project of creating a made-up Arab land of Wanatolia for the purposes of quelling his own guilt. What he called “fast and loose,” I called cultural appropriation.
It's a very smart review, which does joyfully and generously give credit to Thompson when he gets things right. But when he doesn't, the review still remains generous. (I am not so great at that, I admit it. I have pages defaced in my copy of Honey Money.
I think that you are very worried, like all of us from our part of Europe—brought up on the myth that the life of a writer ends if he abandons his native country. But it is only a myth, understandable in the countries where the civilization long remained a rural civilization and “the soil” played a great role.
That's from a letter that Czesław Miłosz sent to Joseph Brodsky, when Brodsky was in exile in Ann Arbor of all places. It's from a piece on the friendship between Brodsky and Miłosz, and the Eastern European poetic diaspora.
Maria Tatar is on the On Point radio show, discussing the 100th anniversary of Peter Pan and her recent annotated version. When they get to the was he totally creepy? discussion, which of course they have to, Tatar kind of surprisingly pleads for his ability to keep a secret. (via)
October 11, 2011
I have been reading Jean Strouse's Alice James: A Biography and was impressed by her objective viewpoint. It's so nice to read someone who isn't turn Ms. Neurasthenia into a metaphor for something else.
Here she is, talking to the other illustrious biographer Judith Thurman (of Isak Dinesen and Colette) about their subjects, about the task of the biographer, and when tackling a subject means having to become fluent in a whole new language.
Welcome to your extra special edition of Bookslut's Interviews on Kirkus, or whatever the hell we call what we are doing over there. I had such a good time interviewing Kate Zambreno about her luminous book Green Girl that we went a little over. And so, I offer you a little bonus material, a question we had to cut from the full interview, running now on Kirkus.
The epigraphs are very revealing, both of your thought process and of your character, in a strange way. It reveals the contents of her head from a different angle. They also seem very important to the progress of the story, the way they are sequenced, so that occasionally they seem like they are commenting on the story, and at other times like Ruth is doodling them in the margins of her notebook. How did you choose them, and what did you want them to do for the novel?
I think of this novel as an Arcades Project of the ingénue, and there are several quotes from Walter Benjamin’s catalogue/collage of the 19th century Paris arcades scattered throughout Green Girl (also because I was engaging and interrogating his section on the flâneur, or urban walker, in Arcades Project, wondering and resurrecting a flâneuse in a contemporary urban space). I also wanted the epigraphs to have the feel of a girl at her locker pasting up quotes or, to be more contemporary, a girl’s Tumblr. I like to think that there is little distance between what Benjamin and these girls are doing. Also, I wanted to pay tribute to the novels and works that inspired GG, sort of foregrounding it as an essay—the consideration of the girl in Clarice Lispector’s The Hour of the Star or Rainer Maria Rilke’s Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, or quotes from New Wave films or The Smiths. The process of placing the quotes came after the major stuff of the novel was written -- it was rhythmic, intuitive, chaotic.
Bonus Bonus material, with Kate explaining why she chose a shopgirl as her heroine:
Like that Degas painting hanging up at the Art Institute of Chicago, the shopgirl staring longingly at the lovely hats their colors gorgeous like fluffs of cotton candy. I watch the shopgirl, we watch her stillness, we see her as a beautiful object like the ones she is selling, and she is aware of our gaze. There is an alienation to that that I wanted to explore.
Update: We are giving away copies of Green Girl here.
NPR is running my review of Paule Constant's novel Private Property.
Tiffany, the 9-year-old at the center of Paule Constant's Private Property, is not like the other girls, and she has no mother to wipe away the tears. Her parents, French colonialists living in Africa in the years leading up to the Algerian War, have sent her back to France alone to live and be schooled at the Convent for Slaughterhouse Ladies. The nunnery's name sums up the atmosphere of the place, where the playground becomes the setting for young girls' bloodsports and the nuns dole out about as much softness as the scratchy stiffness of their garments. The other girls tease and torment Tiffany for her African origins, her missing mother and for the way she does her hair. Every time she reaches out for solace or companionship, she is, at best, met with indifference. Understandably, she strives to become an invisible observer, at a remove from everyone else.
From Asti Hustvedt's Medical Muses: Hysteria in Nineteenth Century Paris:
Bournevill compared [the hysteric] Genevieve's symptoms to the convulsionists of Saint-Medard, a group of fanatical girls who went into convulsions when they visited the grave of Francois de Paris, a priest who died in 1727 of self-starvation and was buried in the cemetery of the Saint-Medard Church in Paris. His tomb became the site of reported miracle healings, and the mostly young female pilgrims lay on the grave and ate the dirt that covered it, upon which they would erupt into ecstatic trances and convulsions that were startlingly erotic. The girls touched themselves suggestively and mimicked sexual intercourse. At first there were only a few, but soon there were hundreds of girls, and instead of simply eating dirt, they found increasingly horrible ways to degrade themselves: they had themselves squashed under paving stones, they pierced their tongues, they raked their bodies with hot irons and had themselves hung up by their ankles and beaten with sticks. The convulsionists were so disruptive to the neighborhood that in 1732 the cemetery was sealed by royal decree. Louis XV exercised his supreme sovereignty with the following mandate: "By order of the King, God is hereby forbidden from working any miracles in this spot." While God complied, the girls proved more difficult to manage and continued their convulsing and increasingly more flamboyant and excruciating forms of self-torture: some swallowed live coals and others had themselves nailed to a cross. A year after the cemetery was closed, a law was passed forbidding the convulsionists from practicing in public. Needless to say, the threat of punishment and prison was not particularly effective on this group of girls.
Shortly after the cemetery of Saint-Medard was sealed, another vexing problem arose. Nuns at a nearby convent erupted in a chorus of meowing...
October 10, 2011
Just in case you fell behind on the news regarding cases argued before the Supreme Court what with all the hubbub and such, Lewis Hyde is here to catch you up. The recent copyright case Golan v. Holder was argued last Wednesday, decision pending. Hyde, the author of Common as Air: Revolution, Art, and Ownership, explains why the case is important.
“He had two lives: one, open, seen and known by all who cared to know, full of relative truth and of relative falsehood, exactly like the lives of his friends and acquaintances; and another life running its course in secret. And through some strange, perhaps accidental, conjunction of circumstances, everything that was essential, of interest and of value to him, everything that made the kernel of his life, was hidden from other people; and all that was false in him, the sheath in which he hid himself to conceal the truth – all that was open. And he judged of others by himself, not believing in what he saw, and always believing that every man had his real, most interesting life under the cover of secrecy and under the cover of night. All personal life rested on secrecy.”
Lyndall Gordon quotes Janet Malcolm quoting Chekhov in her conversation about her favorite biographies. Malcolm's book about Chekhov makes the cut, as does TS Eliot's biography of Dante, and Eva Hoffman's Lost in Translation, a Bookslut favorite. The conversation is worth reading beyond the recommendations, as she discusses making a private life public and the vicious act that biography can be.
You know the photograph, even if the names Elizabeth Eckford and Hazel Bryan don't ring any bells. Elizabeth was one of the students who de-segregated Little Rock's schools in 1957. Hazel was the white girl who hurled epithets at her back.
The photograph is the subject of a new book, Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock, and over at the Telegraph, author David Margolick introduces the story of two schoolmates who found friendship in adulthood. And lest you think "oh yuck, Hallmark moment post-racial bullshit," the story complicates from there.
Michael Newton's wide-ranging essay on Maria Tatar's annotated Peter Pan, lost youth, consumerism, great literature written by perverts, the suspension of disbelief, and the magic of theater is quite the thing.
Has anyone set up a webpage or a mailing address for the Occupy Chicago library yet? (I hear there is one, I'm having trouble finding any information on it, though.) Chicago is the home of Haymarket Books, and I'm hoping they are participating or at the very least that their books are well represented.
(Also, Chicagoans: This shit is in your DNA. Rally. I wish I could be there. I would have some books for you.)
Related: The Occupy Wall Street Library has a very interesting blog.
October 07, 2011
Wynken de Worde (a k a book historian and bibliophile extraordinaire Sarah Werner) has a neat post today about female printers in early modern England. Yes, they did exist--a fact she says shouldn't surprise us. Sarah runs the undergraduate education program at the Folger Shakespeare Library:
I do an exercise with my students on using the Stationers’ Register and during the course of tracing one book’s passage through the Register, we come across three different women who printed or published the book. It’s sort of an accident that that’s the book we work with it, but it’s a really effective exercise. My students are always shocked that there are women working as printers in this period. But why is it so shocking?
I suspect that it is, in part, because we have become so used to thinking about the early modern period as being repressive for women. Chaste, silent, and obedient. But that’s an assumption that blinds us to the lives of actual women in early modern England....I’m not going to claim that the opposite of “chaste, silent, obedient” is true—women were not by any means empowered or enfranchised—but our blind spots shouldn’t mean that we don’t reconsider our assumptions when we start to see what we’ve been missing. How many of the unnamed printers in imprints are women?
We are witnessing a profound assault on book publishing and literature, on the text itself—not from ebooks, which publishers are slowly, painfully coming around to after a long resistance, or the internet, which is after all entirely made of text—but from applications, “enhanced” books and reductive notions of literary experience. As I’ve written about before, in the context of advertising, publishers’ reactions to new technologies betray a profound lack of confidence in the text itself. We are being distracted by shiny things.
At io9, Charlie Jane Anders diagnoses 10 kinds of writers' block--yes, 10--and tells you how to overcome them. I often find how-to writing advice either patronizing or useless or irritating (or all of those things at once), but Anders's suggestions seem pretty good.
4. You're stuck in the middle and have no idea what happens next.
...If you've been stuck in the middle for a while, though, then you probably need to do something to get the story moving again. Introduce a new complication, throw the dice, or twist the knife. Mark Twain spent months stuck in the middle of Huckleberry Finn before he came up with the notion of having Huck and Jim take the wrong turn on the river and get lost. If you're stuck for a while, it may be time to drop a safe on someone.
And there's more exquisite sadness from Joan Didion, whose forthcoming memoir, Blue Nights, talks about losing her daughter. The book's not out until Nov. 1 but Christopher Hitchens writes about it in Vanity Fair.
The long day wanes along a spectrum of blue. So did the short life of the keen, merry girl, who wasn't too spoiled by showbiz or room service, who shrewdly opposed her mother's choice of poem at her father's memorial service. And whose solemn recommendation about death was “Don't dwell on it.”
Having transformed our relationship with technology, Steve Jobs is now going to save the book business.
It took only hours on Wednesday night for Walter Isaacson’s forthcoming biography of Steve Jobs to shoot up the best-seller list on Amazon.com, eventually moving from No. 384 to the No. 1 spot. On Thursday morning, a book buyer at Powell’s Books in Portland, Ore., quintupled its order of the book, to 500 copies. Simon & Schuster, the publisher, said it was accelerating the publication, moving the release date to Oct. 24 from Nov. 21.
And from the department of perplexing transitions and odd marketing decisions, there's this:
Interest in the book was not limited to big cities on the coasts. Jessilynn Norcross, an owner of McLean & Eakin Booksellers in Petoskey, Mich., said the store had already printed small posters to hang on the registers, gently publicizing the book. They read: “iSad :(.”
In one of my next lives, I will be a font designer. Until then, I make do with visits to Typography Daily, "your daily dose of type." Things beautiful and useful.
October 06, 2011
Google opens eBookstore in the U.K., can't resist invoking tea, the Tube, and "across the pond."
Someone's figured out how to turn old books into iPod/iPhone charging stations.
Yes, for true (sentimental) bibliophiles, it hurts a tiny bit to know that a book has been put out to pasture, but it’s certainly a relief to know it’s not been chucked into some landfill, and it’s doing a different job altogether.
Today's out-of-context writerly quote comes from Jonathan Franzen: "At this point in my life, I'm mostly influenced by my own past writing.... Direct influence makes most sense only for very young writers." That's part of a blog report on a talk the "charming and occasionally awkward" Franzen gave last night in Denver. The report begins, "Jonathan Franzen is a great American novelist in large part because he has written a great American novel--two, in fact." So there you go. (H/T Mark Athitakis)
I'd have given the Nobel Prize for literature to Tomas Tranströmer just because he has a cool name, but presumably the Swedish Academy had sounder reasons. I've seen less of the usual "Wait, who?" commentary this year, which is refreshing. (Although every year somebody has to write an essay reminding us that the academy's tastes in literature have tended to be...idiosyncratic.) If you run into Bob Dylan or Philip Roth today, remind them that there's always next year.
The Literary Saloon has an excellent roundup of links and resources about Tranströmer and his work. The Barnes and Noble Review, in its roundup of links, described the academy's announcement as itself "almost poetically compressed." If you're looking for news stories, which will be plentiful, try here (Guardian) and here (NYT). Less helpfully, the Guardian also live-blogged the buildup to the announcement.
I feel like maybe my laptop's recent death (yesterday) was really an act of suicide, to keep itself from having to read a thousand "who the fuck is that?" stories about Tomas Tranströmer winning the Nobel Prize in literature. But hooray for Graywolf, who is probably going to get an uptick in orders for The Half-Finished Heaven by people who are curious. And good for them, they do good work.
As for me and my computerless state, I'll find you a guest blogger to fill in some gaps, for all that essential "but why didn't they give it to Philip Roth? This is bullshit" coverage. I'll be off blogging and Twitter for a few days, but we'll talk soon.
It is less about victory than sustainability. It is not about one-pointedness, but inclusion and groping toward consensus. It is not like a book; it is like the Internet.
Author Douglas Rushkoff tries to explain the Occupy Wall Street protests to the media pundits at CNN.
October 05, 2011
We were talking about Janet Malcolm in our new issue, as Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich discussed her classic piece of journalism The Journalist and the Murderer in her essay about psychopaths, writing about dark material, and trendy psychological diagnoses.
But also, Janet Malcolm is the subject of "The Writer's Dilemma," a new series at Wired. Dobbs discusses Malcolm's The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, and he offers a small taste of Malcolm's ability to set a scene. There's a short excerpt from Malcolm's visit to an elderly man who lived below Sylvia Plath at the time of her suicide, and was later paid by a newspaper to dish on Plath/Hughes gossip. (via)
Also, there's a short clip of Malcolm answering Ian Frazier's question of why she is so good at "portraying nuts." She's all cool refinement. He's, you know, Ian Frazier.
There are two good pieces about Flann O'Brien's centenary. The first, in the Guardian, says that this is the perfect time to try reading him again. He was, perhaps, writing works his audience was not ready for.
The Irish Times gives a more basic profile of O'Brien's life and works and his relationship to his country:
Writing is sex for an all-male, sex-averse society. Its children are conceived without all the bother and awkwardness of having to deal with women. In the bedroom that is the world of his narrators, congress with oneself generates the only life that is available – the life of words and stories.
Maud Newton made Harry Crews's recipe for fried rattlesnake and I was totally sad not to be there. She wrote about the experience -- "like a sinewy, half-starved tilapia" -- for the New York Times Magazine.
Another year, another month of squabbling about the Nobel Prize for Literature. Speculation followed by revelation quickly followed by "who?" and then followed by "The Nobel is a joke," but then people get all worked up about it the next year. I've written about this before.
But more interesting is Peter Englund, the permanent secretary of the Academy that selects the winner, talking to the Guardian to assure us that politics are not as influential in the decision as you might think, and to be perfectly charming about the "Oh my god, give Philip Roth the Nobel, he's so sad about it" campaign.
I don't know if you're out protesting or not, but either way, you may have to negotiate that territory between knowing too much about how fucked we all are and basic functionality. Because la la la none of this is happening is not going to cut it. But here, Henry James puts it better:
"Laura had not aspired to be coaxed or coddled into forgetfulness: she wanted rather to be taught a certain fortitude -- how to live and hold up one's head even while knowing that things were very bad. A brazen indifference -- it was not exactly that that she wished to acquire, but were there not some sorts of indifference that were philosophic and noble?" - Henry James, "A London Life"
You can read the entire story online.
October 04, 2011
I was 29 when I first read Marguerite Duras's 1984 masterpiece, 'The Lover', translated from the French by Barbara Bray. A revelation and a confrontation in equal measure, it was as if I had burst out of an oak-panelled 19th-century gentleman's club - into something exhilarating, sexy, melancholy, truthful, modern and female.
Renowned Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali died on Sunday at the age of 80, reports Ma’an News Agency. Ali’s poems “followed the experiences of Palestinians living in Israel, and Palestinian refugees around the world.
Helen Oyeyemi's Mr Fox is about a topic near to my heart: the use of the murdered female as entertainment. Right around the time her book landed on my doorstep I was reading a comic book that is highly praised, written by a well respected writer, published by a prestigious imprint, and just a few dozen pages into it a woman is cut in half with a scythe. And the murderer makes a funny little pun as he's doing it, I forget what. And what did this have to do with the plot? Not a thing.
So I talked to Oyeyemi about this phenomenon, and how she used the Bluebeard fairy tales to wrestle with the issue.
The aspect that I found most fun whilst writing was the sparks between Mary and Mr. Fox over the necessity of the “death and the maiden” trope. I sided with both Mary and Mr. Fox to some extent, because as a reader and film watcher, I find the death and the maiden trope spectacular when it's properly done—for example, when it feels organic to the story and doesn't participate in a dodgy aesthetic. All I ask of a story about the murder of a woman, or the murder of several women, is that it doesn't imply that her death was beautiful, or that the murdered woman is in some way more beautiful or potent or interesting in death. That's a terrible lie, and I don't want to hear it. People tend to be at their most beautiful and potent and interesting when they're alive.
Spiegel has an update on the investigation into Dmitry Pavlyuchenkov, accused of the murder of journalist Anna Politkovskaya.
If you would like to donate books to the Occupy Wall Street library, their address is:
Occupy Wall Street Library
c/o UPS STORE
118A Fulton St. #205
NY, NY 10038
I think FS Michael's The Monoculture (see my review here) would be a particularly good addition to the group. See also: the works of Nelson Algren, Vaclev Havel, and perhaps books about the 1989 Revolution.
October 03, 2011
Honey Money -- which I refuse to call by its American title Erotic Capital, because the American title does not make it sound ridiculous enough -- has been the cause of much amusement, but also the occasional panic attack. It is so very, very wrong that I fear one review could not address all the wrongness. I suggested on Twitter that a full response would necessitate five volumes, probably of approximately 1,000 pages each, and would have to be titled The Ugly Girl Brigade. So while I'm working on that, you can read my completely inadequate introduction to the wrongness of Honey Money at the Smart Set.
This is the story of two sisters. One sister is blonde and beautiful; the other is dark and dowdy. The lighter sister has the appearance of an angel, and the world is kind to her. People give her what she wants without asking any questions — all she has to do is wish. Things do not come as easily to the darker sister, who spends her life in the shadow of the lighter. Struggle and resentment has turned her sour; she mumbles and grumbles and plots her revenge. The two sisters’ lives are as different as two lives can be, all because one was blessed with beauty and the other was cursed with a more commonplace visage.
I was having a conversation with a writer, and he was feeling pressured to include a romance in his novel. His novel was about a young single man, so the expectation was that there would be love at some point. It really is sometimes difficult to find novels that are realistic about the life of a single person. If the novel is about a single person, then part of the plot line and the conclusion must be about this person finding love. As if no one has ever experienced long dry spells.
My friend Emma sent me this Modern Love column. I know, but don't vomit yet, it's not one of the ones with whales or The Secret. Sara Eckel writes about her own long time spent without being in a serious relationship, and the self-help addiction that can set in. But really, sometimes it's just nice that people say these things out loud.
There was the Tough-Love Married Lady who declared the key to finding a soul mate was to grow up, quit whining and do something about your hair. There was the Magical Soul-Mate Finder who prescribed keeping a journal, long hikes, candle-lighted bubble baths and other hocus-pocus. And there was The Man — i.e., a moderately cute guy who wrote a book — who gave insider tips on how to hook up with him, which involved not being critical and having long hair.
Our October issue is full of psychopaths, ghosts, and industrial music. It's not just because of Halloween. We maybe skew a little dark.
Mairead Case talks to Daphne Carr, the author of the 33 1/3 book Pretty Hate Machine, about Hot Topic, the dangers of being a NIN fan after Columbine, and being a strange teenager. Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich is writing a book about a killer, which is leading to awkward cocktail party conversations. Greer Mansfield takes a look at writers like MR James and Sheridan le Fanu who try to scare the hell out of us, and why we keep going back for more.
Lee Randall sits down to talk about books with Henry Rollins, who I will just go ahead and admit I had a giant crush on at 15. And so I am jealous. There. Wanted to clear the air. Roxane Gay examines two books of strength and what they say about what we like most about men. And Terry Hong talks to Ha Jin about trying to travel back to China, thinking in English, and teaching.
In columns and reviews, Jenny McPhee pays tribute to the first wave, we all love Kate Zambreno so much and elected Lightsey Darst to express this in review form, Martyn Pedler contemplates suicide but god not like that, Margaret Howie draws hearts around Alan Hollinghurst's name, and Matt McGregor calls for revolution in the name of Emma Goldman. That, and more, in the new issue.