March 30, 2012
I need to say a God Bless You to Codhill Press, who brought PL Travers's What the Bee Knows back into print. It is one of my absolute favorite books, and it languished for ages. For a while I was recommending it, only to find out from my friends that the cheapest copy they could find was a $50 beat up paperback.
So bless you, Codhill Press. Whoever you are.
At least since Darwin's time, biologists have liked to remind us that the health of many ecosystems -- indeed, the survival of many species -- depends upon the otherwise unheralded work of parasites. The seemingly perverse symbiosis between such lowly creatures and the more conspicuous hosts who afforded them life is a crucial element in nature's vast design. Much of the world of culture is done by similar organisms. The modern universe of literature would be unthinkable without the hungry tribes of critics, scholars, and biographers who feed on the lives and works of more celebrated others -- the authors who inhabit and define the domain of public letters.
For reasons not hard to discern, the work of literary biographers, in particular, lends itself to this analogy.
Oh, I am going to fucking like this book. Those are the opening lines from Michael Anesko's Monopolizing the Master: Henry James and the Politics of Modern Literary Scholarship. (Bonus: The cover kind of looks like Henry James is floating up off the book to glower at you disapprovingly.)
March 29, 2012
The controversy surrounds Backpage.com, a classified site on which pimps and johns regularly buy and sell prostitutes. Village Voice Inc. owns and operates the website, and pockets around $22 million a year in fees from its services. Times columnist Nick Kristof sparked the outcry. Today, it became a family affair. John Buffalo Mailer — the son of famed journalist, editor, and Voice-cofounder Norman Mailer — just joined a protest outside of the paper's offices.
Oh, Houston. The other day a friend asked me how I was feeling about being (stuck?) in Philadelphia to conduct this class, wouldn't I rather be back in Berlin? And I said it was fine, because at least I was asked to teach in a place like Philly and not... I paused here, and both my friend and I said at the same second said "Houston." At least I'm not in Houston*.
The Houston Chronicle revisits what I unfortunately think of the most when I think about Houston (other than its total lack of zoning laws), the arrest of a gay couple on charges of sodomy, who were having sex -- maybe, not even proven -- within the confines of their house. In fucking 1998. The new book Flagrant Conduct: The Story of Lawrence v. Texas relays how this case, which went all the way to the Supreme Court, helped decriminalize gay sex in 2003, which fucking hurts my hands to type.
* I am sorry, Houston. I'm sure you have lovely things about you. That art museum is nice. I had a good sandwich there once. But that's all I've got.
If you are looking for a fitting eulogy for Adrienne Rich, perhaps you should look to Jacqueline Rose's 1999 review of Rich's Midnight Salvage: Poems 1995-98. It is a distinctly feminist response to Rich's distinctly feminist poetry, and maybe the smartest thing I have yet to read on the issues underlying her poetry.
If the energies of patriarchy are so overwhelming, how can the inspired fierceness of our own enterprise, even our own dreams, not be contaminated by the fierceness of men? ‘When I dream of meeting/the enemy, this is my dream:/white acetylene/ripples from my body’ (‘The Phenomenology of Anger’ from Diving into the Wreck). Can you destroy something well? No survivor ever feels wholly benign. No survivor, surveying the wreckage all around her, feels simply entitled to survive. One of the – millenarian – questions being put today both by feminists and, for very different reasons, by their critics is how far feminism has survived itself. Feminism, one might say, is uniquely poised to consider the question – recalcitrant and yet germane to any politics – of how to endure one’s own rage.
March 28, 2012
Adrienne Rich, a pioneering feminist poet and essayist who challenged what she considered to be the myths of the American dream, has died. She was 82.
In her series exposing British tabloid stars to Americans, Emma Garman helpfully explains why the world is about to receive the gift of three books by something called a Tulisa.
Of course, the launch of one’s own perfume is but a preliminary to the inevitable next stage in a modern starlet’s career: a lucrative book deal. Following in the footsteps of such preeminent prose stylists as Kerry Katona and Katie Price, Tulisa has consented to write an autobiography, followed by two novels. The hotly contested auction to publish her oeuvre, which involved seven publishing houses, will have seemed to its participants the glorious culmination of why any book nerd becomes an editor in the first place: to enrich our beleaguered literary culture with precisely the caliber of ghosted celebrity tomes expected—demanded!—by supermarket chains for their discerning shoppers.
Armond White has an impassioned defense of the "contrarian" critic, a term he calls "derisive, belittling." If you don't agree with everyone else about a book or a film or another cultural product, if you have a different worldview, you are labeled a "contrarian," which basically means no one ever has to pay attention to your opinion again. It's not anything genuine, it's merely reactionary.
Since the advent of the Internet and the rise of review aggregators like Rotten Tomatoes, the illusion of consensus opinion now dominates the culture’s perception of criticism. Individual critics’ voices matter less than the roar of the crowd, which judges films as “fresh” or “rotten” and drowns out anyone who begs to differ. Outlying critics are isolated and deprecated, their deviations from the consensus seen as proof of their eccentricity or ineptitude. As an icon of mainstream critical influence, and as someone who had little use for group hugs, Kael’s independent stance presents a real challenge to the current critical order.
My infallible editor at the Smart Set had the idea to send me to the Public Library Association conference to suss out the future of libraries. That is, if they have one! It's bad news all around for libraries. So I went, looking for bad news. The fucking librarians though were not cooperating.
This was a disaster. Three days spent at the library conference and I had yet to find evidence of libraries’ destruction. There was an article in the newspaper that detailed the troubled future for the Philadelphia Free Library; they are planning an expansion, but it’s not as big of an expansion as they would have liked. They might have to sell one of their Warhols.
I recently read the controversial addendum to Anne Stevenson's biography of Sylvia Plath. It's a sort of, I guess, self-important corrective to the myth of Sylvia Plath as wounded bird, written by Dido Merwin, a woman who just so obviously hated her. And I read it with a bit of glee. It was an entertaining take-down, for sure. When someone is typically portrayed as being so goddamn saintly and martyr-y and fragile, it can be entertaining to read "well, actually she was a total bitch."
Terry Castle has a wise essay at the London Review of Books about this phenomenon, particularly as it relates to women, and calls these take-downs the "She was mean!" books, which gets the tone of our nasty enjoyment just right. (This is from a while back, got it from the LRB twitter feed.)
In these blithe post-feminist times, everyone, it would seem, enjoys the spectacle of a famous old dead lady humbled – especially one as wrinkly, foul-mouthed and imperious as Lillian Hellman. Three cheers for the slave girl! Go get ‘em, Rosemary!
March 27, 2012
Godine is republishing Franz Werfel's The Forty Days of Musa Dagh in a new translation. The book's subject -- the Armenian genocide -- has made it at once an important work and controversial as hell. People have been trying (and failing, due to "pressure" by various parties) to turn the novel into a film since the 1930s. (One of those films was going to be masterminded by Sylvester Stallone, so, you know, some evil machinations actually do have slightly okay results, as one does not entirely wish that the Armenian genocide be brought to the wider public's attention by way of Ramboification of the material.)
On my end, I certainly do think we leave a part of us in each of the places we visit. There are repercussions to doing this with frequency, too – if you keep leaving parts of yourself around the world, what’s left to leave? And is there a way to go back eventually and collect all the pieces?
There are suitcases open on my floor again. This is a topic that has been on my mind.
Over at Kirkus, it's a short review this week. The catalog for the This Will Have Been: Art, Love and Politics in the 1980s has been more inspiring than I would have thought. It's kind of gorgeous and rowdy. My only complaint? The writing does not at all match up with the visual material. It's overly academic and obscure, all trying to be impressive and losing meaning in the process.
March 26, 2012
A vet from the war in Iraq looks for relevance to the current skirmish in the works of old dead writers: Somerset Maugham’s The Hero (the Boer War), Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End (WWI), and Evelyn Waugh’s The Sword of Honor Trilogy (WWII).
What I find intriguing is that the shape of these stories is not one where the greatest trauma occurs in battle. What Homer understood, and indeed what Waugh, Ford, and Maugham explain, is that, for the soldier, the return is often more destructive than the war itself.
I read this publisher's reaction to the VIDA statistics last week and wasn't sure what to do with it. It's a little obviously in the fine tradition of "It is totally not my fault, that is just the way things are" excuses. She publishes fewer women because men submit better books. Better is never defined. Nor even questioned. This is not a dark night of the soul kind of op-ed. It is a "this situation is not my fault" op-ed.
It is a little disappointing, but I suppose not surprising, that the dialogue stops at this much more comfortable place -- "not my fault" -- than anywhere interesting or in the dark realms of the underground. Because it's no one person's fault. The system was built this way. You can go around the system if you like, but be prepared to spend your life broke and ignored if you do. The system will evolve much more slowly than it should, and only when it has to for financial reasons, and that is just the way it is. Until that point, no one is going to be digging too deeply.
Novelist Amelia Gray (Threats) considers the water supplies of the deserts in which she has lived, being born in Tucson and now residing in Los Angeles. I was trying to figure out how to describe the essay so that you might be inclined to read it. It is about water! Ah well. I have always liked Amelia Gray as a short story writer. It's interesting to discover she's a hell of an essayist as well.
March 23, 2012
Jon Ronson's writing for the Guardian has been almost universally charming. He now reviews Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking and makes every other review of the book dull in comparison.
If you haven't ever read Casanova's memoirs, you are in for a treat. The twenty thousand (or so) volumes are a little hard to track down, but a lot of decent used bookstores have those delicious green hardbacks. You might want to start with To Paris and Prison. France's National Library has plans to post all 3,700 pages of the manuscript online (in, you know, French, so those of us with about three phrases under our belts are out of luck), and a new future edition of the book might have him known as something other than a big slut. (He was that. But he was also a very funny travel writer, pseudo-philosopher, and diarist.)
At the Smithsonian, they have a re-appreciation of Casanova as a writer, and tell the twisted story of how his manuscript got into print.
In 1943, a direct hit by an Allied bomb on the Brockhaus offices left it unscathed, so a family member pedaled it on a bicycle across Leipzig to a bank security vault. When the U.S. Army occupied the city in 1945, even Winston Churchill inquired after its fate. Unearthed intact, the manuscript was transferred by American truck to Wiesbaden to be reunited with the German owners. Only in 1960 was the first uncensored edition published, in French. The English edition arrived in 1966, just in time for the sexual revolution.
David Albert gives a hilarious hubris-check to Lawrence Krauss's A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing. That title. Was asking for it.
Oh, the perils of a man who must deal with a lady and her notebook.
Gawker has a piece on female magazine writers and their male profile subjects, and how sometimes the men think because that woman is sitting there and like paying attention to them they can totally get into her pants later. It recently happened to Claire Hoffman as she profiled Drake for GQ, and she decided to leave the sexual proposition in the piece.
But then that's how these magazine profiles go. Male magazine writers longingly spread out prose about a starlet's luscious lips, insinuating they could totally bang her if they wanted and hey, maybe they did, you don't know. The Gawker piece is a great deconstruction, written by Emma Carmichael, who wrote that kind of piece about the Juggalos for Deadspin.
March 22, 2012
There is a war going on in linguistics, I don't know if you have heard. It started with Daniel Everett's highly entertaining memoirish, traveling writingish, linguistics breakdown thing Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle. In it, Everett uses his experience learning the tribal language Pirahã as a way to attack Noam Chomsky's theory of Universal Grammar. Yes, apparently capitalized.
Now he has another book, Language: The Cultural Tool, furthering his attacks on Chomsky's theories, which have been annoying everyone for decades now but no one really wanted to go after. I would summarize, but I need to go tend to my cassoulet, and anything I wrote would be a diminishment of Tom Bartlett's piece anyway. Just go read that. It has to do with how humans use and learn language, our need to see humanity as separate from and superior to the animal world, and petty academic bickering.
Susan J. Matt, who wrote a lovely book called Homesickness: An American History (read my column on it here), has an op-ed on a similar subject. With 1 billion people in the world wanting to relocate to find better employment and more opportunity, according to some poll or other, she warns about the downside to mobility. In a word: homesickness. Which is not just a summer camp affliction, but a serious form of emotional displacement.
Today’s technologies have also failed to defeat homesickness even though studies by the Carnegie Corporation of New York show that immigrants are in closer touch with their families than before. In 2002, only 28 percent of immigrants called home at least once a week; in 2009, 66 percent did. Yet this level of contact is not enough to conquer the melancholy that frequently accompanies migration. A 2011 study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry found that Mexican immigrants in the United States had rates of depression and anxiety 40 percent higher than nonmigrant relatives remaining in Mexico. A wealth of studies have documented that other newcomers to America also suffer from high rates of depression and “acculturative stress.”
Do you want to read George Orwell's original 1940 review of Mein Kampf? Silly question. Of course you do.
March 21, 2012
We all knew that publishing a previously unpublished James Joyce story as a stand alone book, particularly one that was written to the prickly heir to the estate Stephen Joyce, was going to piss off the rights holders. But now it seems that perhaps the publication of the story has an even more deceitful beginning. The original letter and story exists in the archive held in Switzerland, and it seems that instead of asking for an official copy or working with the estate, someone just went in there under false pretenses and copied the story out into their own notebook and made off with it. Charming! The estate is appalled.
“I think reactions have been generally of disgust and shock, and what worries me is a breach of implicit trust, I hate to see every visitor as basically a thief out to grab things.”
I've noticed I've been getting a high proportion of travel questions in my Kind Reader inbox. I fear I am mostly known now for being displaced, and perhaps people think I know how to deal with that. I don't, mostly. As I write in my new Kind Reader column, to a woman who is suddenly motionless after a year of shifting about, it can be a struggle to stay in the present tense. To wake up and think, "Ah yes. In Philadelphia. That is okay." Because when I close my eyes I am somewhere else, either someplace from the past or in the future.
My recommended reading for this peculiar state of being is Elizabeth Bowen's The Death of the Heart. Also good: the song "Mother Whale Eyeless," and its opening line of "I can think of nowhere/I would rather be/Reading morning papers/Drinking morning tea." And try to agree with that.
As always, if you have a question (travel related or not -- probably not, my editor is probably sick of my travel columns) you can write me here.
A friend told me I write too much about The Chicagoan on my blog. Eat me. I'm proud of what we did over there. The centerpiece of issue one is a massive, and strangely magnetic, oral history of Siskel & Ebert. As the physical issue quickly disappears, almost sold out now, your best way to read the second best thing in the magazine (Martin Preib's essay taking first place, naturally) is to read it as an ebook. It's available as such today. Slate has an excerpt for you to read online.
March 20, 2012
"I find that the hardest work in the world -- it may in fact be impossible -- is to persuade Easterners that growing up in the West is not intellectually crippling." - Marilynne Robinson, from her new essay collection When I Was a Child I Read Books. And god bless her for saying that.
Nick Cohen has a smart piece on how writers self-censor, and publishers accidentally censor by shying away from controversial books that might cost them financially.
Trying to explain the importance of the Dreyfus Affair to my students during my class about Celine was not so easy. "So a dude wrote a treasonous letter, and a Jew got blamed for it and then suddenly everyone in France was freaking out." That is a simplification of my lecture, obviously. But you know, undergrads are undergrads, and it's easier to understand the importance of a war, or a massacre, or something where someone dies, than a court case about a letter. I used the opportunity of interviewing Jacqueline Rose for Kirkus about her (really pretty awesome) book Proust Among the Nations: From Dreyfus to the Middle East to ask her how to explain it better next time:
I don’t envy you! I would start with Louis Begley’s wonderful Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters. He makes brilliant links to whistle-blowing, rendition, forms of state autocracy in the U.S. today. I think I would say that the question of individual freedom, miscarriage of justice, the ugly side of nationalism—that none of these questions have gone away and that it is one of the first and most startling demonstrations of them in all their force. But also perhaps say how moving and significant it is that this one Jewish Army officer, sent to Devil’s Island, should have the power to split a country down the middle, that, as with the psychoanalytic symptom, you do not know where the most revealing things about a nation and its history might suddenly erupt.
Read the whole thing. Jacqueline Rose is a delight.
It should not have surprised me when Kate Zambreno's Green Girl got kicked out of the Tournament of Books first round. Traditionally, that whole thing is not friendly to experimental literature. Or, um, good literature. The really interesting stuff is generally found to be too obscure or too unfriendly to get very far, and giant books of Importance written by dull middle-aged white dudes (hello, Jeffrey Eugenides) get a pass. But I loved Green Girl so much I got optimistic that it would triumph through at least one round, and more people would read that beautiful book. Alas.
Then the strangest thing happened. The judge who judged Green Girl harshly, Edith Zimmerman, decided to interview Zambreno. And they talk about all of the things that Zimmerman hated about the book, and some interesting things are said. Like:
I was really struck by the insistence in this particular forum that Green Girl was only a novel for a certain young girl. I thought this was totally bogus. I mean, yes, I feel really gratified when people say that they identified with Ruth — if literature can make you feel less invisible, less marginalized, more known, that can be a magical thing. But literature should be more than about identification.
March 19, 2012
There was a discussion recently (over nachos and margaritas) over whether we were going to read Parallel Stories, the latest 4-pound novel by Peter Nadas. I love Peter Nadas. But I can't commit to a book I can't figure out how to read. I can't carry it with me on the train, nothing else will fit in my bag. I can't read it in the tub, or in bed. It is so hulking it can only be read at the desk, sitting upright in a chair, like I am in school.
It is a stupid reason not to read a book, but there you are. It is not a suitable book to read as an ebook, at least in my eyes, because Nadas is a writer you want to flip back and forth, revisit certain pages and passages as you read. I can only wish the publisher had seen fit to break the book down into smaller volumes, like with 2666. Something portable, easier. I don't need to have all 2,643 pages (approximately) with me at all times.
This is a whine, I know. But this piece on Nadas at signandsight made me wish I had the book with me, in a format I could read.
While we're all talking about the definition of "truth" again, thanks to Mike Daisey and John D'Agata, we might as well revisit Truman Capote's famous "nonfiction novel" In Cold Blood and the seizures it must have given his New Yorker editor W. Shawn.
The reason Perry Smith (one of the killers) was paroled and what states the fugitive killers passed through during their flight from the murder scene were changed. In the New Yorker version, Smith’s brother “killed his wife one day and himself the next.” The book clears the brother of murder. And so on.
It's the subject of a new investigation, Truman Capote and the Legacy of In Cold Blood, but Jack Shafer does a little extra digging around.
New Holocaust book controversy. They just keep springing up like weeds. This time it's regarding Bruno Apitz's Naked Among Wolves. (When I read that title for a minute I was worried someone else had written a raised-by-wolves-during-the-Holocaust memoir, but it turns out the wolves are the Nazis.) This one is a novel based on the author's imprisonment, and a young boy who was smuggled into the camps by his father and survived the ordeal. The young boy is now 71 and would like his story told in another way.
Known in the novel as Stefan Cyliak, the identity of the real "Buchenwald Kind", as he is popularly known, was later revealed to be Stefan Jerzy Zweig, a Polish boy born in the Kraków ghetto who came to Buchenwald with his father, Zacharias, when he was three, leaving after liberation in 1945. His mother and sister were both murdered at Auschwitz. Recent information, however, has revealed that – contrary to the book – Zweig was "swapped" for a 16-year-old Roma boy called Willy Blum who was sent to death in his place, almost certainly after the communists who saved him did a deal with a Nazi doctor.
March 16, 2012
If you have geekiness deep within your soul, you should be reading Sarah Blaffer Hrdy. Maybe start with Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding and Mother Nature: Maternal Instincts and How They Shape the Human Species. She offers a wonderfully female corrective to many male-focused evolutionary theory and anthropology. It wasn't too long ago that psychologists like James Watson were writing nonsense like this:
"Mother love is a dangerous instrument which may inflict a never-healing wound," he insisted, "an instrument which may wreck your adult son or daughter's vocational future and their chances for marital happiness."
To cite just one example, when the prominent biologist Robert Trivers was asked to comment on Hrdy's groundbreaking work on primate infanticide in 1979, he told a reporter: "My own view is that Sarah ought to devote more time and study and thought to raising a healthy daughter. That way misery won't keep travelling down the generations."
March 15, 2012
Today's theme appears to be dead people. Sorry about that.
It's the 75th anniversary of HP Lovecraft's death, and Matthew Baldwin uses the occasion to trace his afterlife of influence.
Dmitri Nabokov’s threats of legal action for copyright infringement against the English translation of an Italian novel, “Lo’s Diary” by Pia Pera, caused the book’s American publisher to withdraw it. The novel was later brought out by a small press headed by Barney Rossett — a legendary maverick publisher who also died recently — according to an agreement with Dmitri Nabokov. He compelled them to include a preface to Pera’s novel in which he disparaged it as a “derivative” work by a “would-be plagiarist.”
Dmitri Nabokov: an only slightly nicer, warmer version of Stephen Joyce.
My class, now over, alas, was very sympathetic to Stephen Joyce and his desire to keep family secrets secret. But then after being forced to hear about the dirty laundry of Celine, Patricia Highsmith, W Somerset Maugham and others, it was probably more of a wish that they hadn't heard what they'd already heard.
Peter Novick, a history professor at the University of Chicago who stirred controversy in 1999 with a book contending that the legacy of the Holocaust had come to unduly dominate American Jewish identity, died on Feb. 17 at his home in Chicago. He was 77.
March 14, 2012
Englander’s appropriation of Carver’s title and scene-setting is corny, in the way that performing karaoke is corny, and his execution is thoroughly sentimental: his characters get to pretend to be Anne Frank without skipping a meal.
Yikes! It looks like if you want something about how the violence of the Holocaust is used to justify violence by its victims, you should try Jacqueline Rose's Proust Among the Nations, and if you have a hankering for some Anne Frank, you are better off with Auslander's Hope: A Tragedy.
In case your day was lacking in both insanity and fairies, I've got you covered. Nicholas Tromans, author of Richard Dadd: The Artist and the Asylum, has an essay about Dadd's painting "The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke." You know the one. It's the painting that if you look at long enough an eerie face starts to loom out of the painting and then you go mad. It's at the Tate.
Among the symptoms of Dadd’s illness – which sounds today like a form of schizophrenia – were delusions of persecution and the receipt of messages from the Ancient Egyptian deity Osiris. Dadd was commanded to kill his father (or the demon who it appeared to him had taken his place) and did so with efficiency in the summer of 1843, not long after returning from his tour. After an equally well planned escape to France, the artist was eventually admitted to the Criminal Lunatic department of Bethlem Hospital in Lambeth (now the Imperial War Museum) and it was here that he painted the Fairy Feller.
A little like Mary Lamb! Although she eventually left the asylum after murdering her mother, and we have the kind of weirdly wonderful Mrs. Leicester's School (available free online) as a result. (The book has a large number of strangely motherless girls.)
German intellectual Martin Walser (The Burden of the Past) has an extensive interview at the European, and says a lot of stuff about atheists that I want to agree with but can't, quite. Although this hurts my heart a little:
You cannot spend two thousand years trying to understand God and then simply abandon the question and declare that we’re not interested in it anymore.
The whole thing is worth reading, as he chats about why intellectuals are despairing ("It’s their job, you might say."), the importance of Kafka's The Trial, and the role of beauty in faith.
Last week France passed a law that permits the state to seize authors' rights on out-of-print books published before 2001. Scribes have just six months to opt-out, or lose their moral rights and the ability to determine a price for their work.
March 12, 2012
I'm sorry, but is Tablet Magazine really treating Rabbi Shmuley Boteach -- the man who said gay men should just try to have sex with women, they would probably like it more than they think they will, the man who said the way women can get men to stop raping and beating them is to stop dressing like such trollops -- as if he were a real writer and real thinker? That's unfortunate.
Andrew Motion's sequel to Treasure Island, called Silver, is coming, and there really isn't anything we can do about that. Except for maybe go reread all the Stevenson we can find, because he is a much better writer than you probably remember.
Harold Shipman writes about the return of Treasure Island, and how about the real life inspiration for the character of Silver didn't really appreciate the comparison so much.
I was surprised at how much I liked this panel discussion between Germaine Greer, Naomi Wolf, Eliza Griswold, and Clem Bastow, because Jesus Christ do we really need another panel discussion about the state of feminism? And Naomi Wolf is doing her couple's therapy "What I hear you saying is..." bullshit and the person I'm most interested in hearing from, Griswold, is being the most quiet. And yet it's entirely compelling, and not just because Greer is all lit up, doing some sort of feminist stand up comedy routine. Interesting things do manage to be said, even if Naomi Wolf keeps trying to prevent exactly that.
"Once Freud and his disciples got a female on the analytic couch and found traces of intellectual activity, they attempted to persuade her that she … was seeking in work a substitute for the male sexual organ."
INTERVIEWER: You have written that there is a great difference between a male sensibility and a female sensibility, and you have a marvelous phrase for it in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon.
WEST: Idiots and lunatics. It’s a perfectly good division. [The Greek root of “idiot” means “private person”; men “see the world as if by moonlight, which shows the outlines of every object but not the details indicative of their nature.”] It seems to me in any assembly where you get people, who are male and female, in a crisis, the women are apt to get up and, with a big wave of the hand, say: “It’s all very well talking about the defenses of the country, but there are thirty-six thousand houses in whatever (wherever they’re living) that have no bathrooms. Surely it’s more important to have clean children for the future.” Silly stuff, when the enemy’s at the gate. But men are just as silly. Even when there are no enemies at the gate, they won’t attend to the bathrooms, because they say defense is more important. It’s mental deficiency in both cases.
If you can't get to Chicago to see the "This Will Have Been: Art Love & Politics in the 1980s" at the MCA, or even if you have seen it and can't get it out of your head, I can't recommend the catalog of the same name enough. I try not to think of Jeff Koons when I think of art in the 1980s, and the catalog has some really good substitutes to think of instead. (Candy Jernigan, where have you been all of my life?)
WBEZ has a little audio overview of the exhibition, discussing its distinctly political nature and the apolitical nature of a great deal of contemporary art.
March 9, 2012
Everyone I know is recommending Ellen Ullman's By Blood right now. (I am struggling to get into it. The only thing I can think, over and over again, is "no one has ever had a therapy session like this. These are the least realistic therapy sessions I have ever read" and I keep putting the book down in frustration. Realizing this is my own problem, and probably not the author's, I'm going to pass along everyone else's recommendation rather than saying eh about it.) She is profiled in the New York Times, as part of another gleeful "this book is amazing" media tour stop she seems to be on.
Next year will see Robert Browning's bicentenary, and Thomas Marks hopes it will be a time of revival for the poet's rather mangy reputation.
The bicentenary does at least give us the online archive of Browning's letters to and from his wife Elizabeth Barrett.
Cristina Nehring (A Vindication of Love: Reclaiming Romance for the 21st Century) continues to be one of my favorite travel writers. She searches for islands ("A place where the hotel lobby is more likely to stock Famine, Inishmore author Liam O’Flaherty’s angry novel about Irish mass death, than Tan Lines, a paperback about finding love in the Florida Keys" as she puts it) to meditate, to be moody, to read weighty tomes.
(As an aside: god bless her for writing about Ireland without meditating on her family's Irish heritage. It takes a strong writer to avoid that particular banality.)
Here is something that will help you with your day today: how to increase your odds of surviving Russian Roulette. In case it comes up.
Jacob Burek takes Graham Greene's novella Doctor Fischer of Geneva, or The Bomb Party as its starting point. In the book, Dr. Fischer informs the guests at his party that of the six Christmas crackers lying in the bowl, 5 are filled with a check for a very large amount of money, and 1 contains a bomb. The guests fight to go first, as they believe that will give them the best chances of survival -- 1 in 6. The second person will only have 1 in 5. They are, however, doing their math wrong, as Burek explains.
Someone did once write to Greene to explain the math in his story was all wrong. Greene responded: "It amused me, but I am afraid it was far too mathematical for me to follow."
March 8, 2012
Cathal Sheerin on the increasing numbers of murdered female journalists in Mexico.
I am just now getting around to reading Jacqueline Rose's Proust Among the Nations: From Dreyfus to the Middle East, despite the fact that she is always my favorite thing about the London Review of Books. (God, have you read her essay "This is Not a Biography," about trying to deal with the estate of Sylvia Plath? I think Rose is wonderful.)
Proust is pretty great. Not so much about Proust, per se, as about the partition of Israel and Palestine. And the way she makes that happen, despite it being pretty unlikely, is impossible to explain but divine to watch.
She was the subject of the Guardian's A Life in Writing series, and she discusses her intellectual curiosity, the indignity in rooting around in writers' private lives for academic interpretations, and accusations of being both Zionist and anti-Zionist.
"It more than makes sense as a nationalist movement. A wonderful Russian formalist thinker called Victor Shklovsky, talking about the aesthetic choices facing the avant garde under Stalinism, said: 'There is no third way and that is the one we're going to take'. I don't see myself as an anti-Zionist or a Zionist: I see myself as a reader of Zionism trying to understand why it's so powerful and why it does seem to find it very hard to look at its own past."
The great Marina Warner has a few things to say to all of those who want to stop reading fairy tales to their children, what with all the murder and death and matricide and cannibalism found therein.
“The richer a child’s upbringing is imaginatively, the more a child is likely to cope with the vicissitudes and boredom and tedium of life; and there will be emotional resources built up by that, because through stories, even when tragic, you can discover that people have survived.
“It can strengthen you, to read a terrible story and learn that people have been through this before and that there’s sympathy out there in the world of imagination.”
Germany wanted to publish Lord of the Rings, but first wanted to ask Tolkien a question about his ancestry...
I cannot, however, forbear to comment that if impertinent and irrelevant inquiries of this sort are to become the rule in matters of literature, then the time is not far distant when a German name will no longer be a source of pride.
March 7, 2012
Sometimes you need a little poison to get your heart moving again. When a reader finds herself regretting her decision to leave a lover and tries to win him back, only to be rejected, she gets stuck. Unable to move on. Over at my B&N Column Kind Reader, I prescribe Patricia Highsmith, This Sweet Sickness, to get her moving again.
Have you ever read the story of Daphne? Fearful of her amorous pursuer Apollo, she cries out for help and her father the river god turns her into a tree to protect her. That story is all kinds of contaminated with daddy issues, but I thought of it when I read your letter. Your inability to move, your rootedness. So often we plant ourselves in places of great pain for us, terrified to move on. Right when we should be looking for ways to increase our flexibility and mobility, even if it hurts a little more and we will have to turn and face whatever is chasing us, we think, Oh no, right here in my despair and anxiety, I'll fix myself to this spot.
As always, questions can go to firstname.lastname@example.org.
It had been a while since I read Orson Scott Card's essay "The Hypocrites of Homosexuality." But then he came up in class, and it had to be done. My students had all loved Ender's Game -- of course, it's a very lovable book -- and did not know how to process Card's viewpoint on homosexuality. I still don't know, but I do know that I loved Ender's Game much less this time through, after reading Celine Journey to the End of the Night. The class has me in the odd position of finding more sympathy for a Nazi than for a regular old homophobe.
Because it turns out I'd rather have the social reject than the man out to save all of mankind, who thinks he's smarter than everyone else. The last couple years in America have shown that is a pretty stupid way to go through life. My students, bless their hearts, still have optimism and therefore still like Ender.
March 6, 2012
I talk to Heather Christle about her new collection What is Amazing over at Kirkus, and we also discuss how to have awe without the God, and why someone would greet the end of mankind with enthusiasm.
When I'm writing I find my poems wanting to converse with so many things—trees, stars, other people, sharks—and each of them can instill in me a sense of awe.
So, too, can a box of cereal, for that matter, when I begin to think of all that has occurred to make it exist as it does right before me. Perhaps the awe comes not from the thing itself, "the clear night," but from the act of looking. That we humans are capable of such looking—and of then considering our own looking—feels like some kind of miracle.
March 5, 2012
With cheerleaders coming down with what looks a lot like hysteria, perhaps it's time to review who throughout time we have not known very much about the human brain. Jenny Diski reviews Clark Lawlor's From Melancholia to Prozac: A History of Depression for the Guardian, noting that the science to support current theories about depression are about as thoroughly proven as ideas of humours were back in the day.
Daisy Rockwell has a must-read review of Craig Thompson's Habibi, a book that has attracted a lot of adoration and a lot of uncomfortable shifting. Uncomfortable as in, he does know that the Islamic world doesn't fly around on magic carpets, right? And, uh, that sure is a pretty rape scene you drew there, Craig Thompson. And Rockwell's response is the best I've seen thus far, delicately taking apart his Orientalism and weird affection for drawing sexually abused women.
The Americans were not just going to invade another country; they were going to liberate women brutally oppressed by the Taliban. This message was elided with the rhetoric of the Iraq invasion as well, despite the fact that women's rights have reportedly been set back substantially since the Americans landed there, and despite the fact that women enjoy very few rights in the countries of some of America's closest allies in the Middle East, such as Saudi Arabia. Faludi rightly highlights the knight-in-shining-armor rhetoric deployed by the Bush administration to frame its role in the Middle East as one concerned with rescuing women. Thompson's statements about his aim in creating Habibi, that he wanted to create a positive image of Islam and Muslims, mirrors this rescue-mission rhetoric. He then enacts a rescue mission through the creation of the book, creating a helpless and victimised woman and then rescuing her from her fate. Of course, the rescue itself is bizarre: to escape a life of rape and exploitation, she must be saved by a man who desires her sexually but is unable to have intercourse with her. Oh, and he's sort of her son.
Bookslut is looking for writers interested in conducting semi-regular interviews with writers. If this strikes your fancy, let us know with an email and your dream list of subjects.
March 2, 2012
Relating to the story of Warner Brothers attempting to copyright characters from The Wizard of Oz, books that are in the public domain, is the story of the estate of Edgar Rice Burroughs attempting to copyright the characters of Burroughs's public domain works. A law student explains why this might be possible:
The protection of a character as separate from the protection of the surrounding work of fiction could sound surprising at first. If one were to write a story about a teenage magician with jet-black hair and a lightning-shaped scar on his forehead, one would likely be sued over copyright infringement of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books, more so than over the trademark infringement of its main character. However, one could also be sued for trademark infringement of the character of Harry Potter. Both ways, intellectual property protection of fictional characters may indeed turn these pieces of imagination into very lucrative creations.
March 1, 2012
The longlist for the 2012 Best Translated Book Awards has been released, with writers from 14 countries and 12 different languages, and some frankly brilliant publishers. Three Percent is planning an embarrasment of pre-award riches, with upcoming features on all 25 books.
The full list of nominees is underneath the cut.
Leeches by David Albahari
Translated from the Serbian by Ellen Elias-Bursać
My Two Worlds by Sergio Chejfec
Translated from the Spanish by Margaret B. Carson
Demolishing Nisard by Eric Chevillard
Translated from the French by Jordan Stump
Private Property by Paule Constant
Translated from the French by Margot Miller and France Grenaudier-Klijn
Lightning by Jean Echenoz
Translated from the French by Linda Coverdale
Zone by Mathias Énard
Translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell
Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion? by Johan Harstad
Translated from the Norwegian by Deborah Dawkin
Upstaged by Jacques Jouet
Translated from the French by Leland de la Durantaye
Fiasco by Imre Kertész
Translated from the Hungarian by Tim Wilkinson
Montecore by Jonas Hassen Khemiri
Translated from the Swedish by Rachel Willson-Broyles
Kornél Esti by Dezső Kosztolányi
Translated from the Hungarian by Bernard Adams
I Am a Japanese Writer by Dany Laferrière
Translated from the French by David Homel
Suicide by Edouard Levé
Translated from the French by Jan Steyn
New Finnish Grammar by Diego Marani
Translated from the Italian by Judith Landry
Purgatory by Tomás Eloy Martínez
Translated from the Spanish by Frank Wynne
Stone Upon Stone by Wiesław Myśliwski
Translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston
Scenes from Village Life by Amos Oz
Translated from the Hebrew by Nicholas de Lange
The Shadow-Boxing Woman by Inka Parei
Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire
Funeral for a Dog by Thomas Pletzinger
Translated from the German by Ross Benjamin
Scars by Juan José Saer
Translated from the Spanish by Steve Dolph
Kafka’s Leopards by Moacyr Scliar
Translated from the Portuguese by Thomas O. Beebee
Seven Years by Peter Stamm
Translated from the German by Michael Hofmann
The Truth about Marie by Jean-Philippe Toussaint
Translated from the French by Matthew B. Smith
In Red by Magdalena Tulli
Translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston
Never Any End to Paris by Enrique Vila-Matas
Translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean
Sonia Faleiro's fantastic Beautiful Thing: Inside the Secret World of Bombay’s Dance Bars gets a good write up in the New York Times. (See my Q&A with Faleiro here.)