Wed, Feb 29, 2012
What makes the pressure cooker so great?
One thing I am wondering, however, is if we in the English-speaking world are becoming better at understanding the value of good translated literature.
The suppression of literature is an ancient tradition that probably started with the invention of writing and which thrives today all over the world. In the west we generally venerate those authors who stand up against acts of silencing by the authorities. But what are we to think when an author suppresses himself?
“Instead of eating sushi ten times a month, eat it one time a month, but pay ten times as much,” he told me. “That’s how you can really experience what sushi is about.”
Since when did being a writer become a career choice, with appropriate degree courses and pecking orders? Does this state of affairs make any difference to what gets written?
When The Death of Ivan Ilych was published in 1886, it was instantly hailed as an artistic masterpiece. Tchaikovsky said it proved Tolstoy was “the greatest author-painter who ever lived.” The great Russian literary critic Vladmir Stosov wrote in a letter that, “in comparison to those seventy pages, everything is little and petty.” Just past 125 years after it was written, Tolstoy’s story has come to be appreciated in another capacity. Rather than rest content with its narrative brilliance, medical journal writers and Pulitzer Prize-winning authors turn to its pages for applied wisdom about dying. Whatever the mysterious sources of his genius, Tolstoy described and diagnosed psychological conditions so acutely that scientific research is confirming his insights more than a century later. Tolstoy’s suffering, and Ilych’s, it turns out, were not for naught.
Tue, Feb 28, 2012
Jennifer Haigh, Ploughshares
Several months prior, I'd reported on an Ohio warehouse where workers shipped products for online retailers under conditions that were surprisingly demoralizing and dehumanizing, even to someone who's spent a lot of time working in warehouses, which I have. And then my editors sat me down. "We want you to go work for Amalgamated Product Giant Shipping Worldwide Inc.," they said. I'd have to give my real name and job history when I applied, and I couldn't lie if asked for any specifics. (I wasn't.) But I'd smudge identifying details of people and the company itself. Anyway, to do otherwise might give people the impression that these conditions apply only to one warehouse or one company. Which they don't.
And under the influence of the cradlelike rocking of the train, your carefully crafted persona begins to slip away. The superego dissolves as your mind begins to wander aimlessly over your cares and your dreams; or better yet, it drifts into an ambient hypnosis, where even cares and dreams recede and the peaceful silence of the cosmos pervades. It happens to all of us. It’s just a question of how many stops it takes.
That is Amor Towles on the experience of taking the New York subway, a couple of pages into Rules of Civility, and a sample of why this is one of the finest first novels of recent years, simultaneously a delicious historical fiction of the 1930s and a timeless coming-of-age story of a circle of gifted young people in Manhattan. It is also a highly philosophical novel, whose gravitas grows and deepens as the plot progresses.
Mon, Feb 27, 2012
I don't blame mothers for their single-issue approach to life; I would probably have been the same. However, the result is that women are separating into two tribes: the mothers and the childfree, and we are struggling to find common ground.
Betsy Esther Tan, Quarterly Literary Review Singapore
My dream of a 50-50 relationship might have brought us together, but four leap years later, it’s the unbalanced times that reveal just how deep our love has grown.
Sun, Feb 26, 2012
But while The Scream's fame is undeniable, its ubiquity and widespread popularity are, at least on the surface, more difficult to explain.
An icon of misery and desperation makes for an unlikely decorative addition to the typical living room wall, after all.
Thus begins the alternately absorbing and infuriating exercise that is the book “The Lifespan of a Fact,” a Talmudically arranged account of the conflict between Jim Fingal, zealous checker, and John D’Agata, nonfiction fabulist, which began in 2005 and resulted in this collaboration. D’Agata’s original paragraphs appear in chunks at the center of the pages, and their exchanges on the disputed facts in question appear in the marginal running text. D’Agata starts with the casual assurance that the article doesn’t need to be fact-checked, but the process is standard at most magazines, and it remains a fundamental, if hidden, support for their credibility. And besides, the only reason the article ended up at The Believer in the first place was that Harper’s had already killed it — on the recommendation of its own fact-checker.
What reader could not thrill to an OUP monograph whose index catalogues arf arf, bunny-boiler, fucktard, hornswoggle, reffo, skankaroo, top banana, wowser, wha'gwaan, and zhoosh? The Life of Slang by Julie Coleman wears academic robes, but underneath it's only too willing to get down and dirty.
Sat, Feb 25, 2012
You will be fooled by a trick if it involves more time, money and practice than you (or any other sane onlooker) would be willing to invest.
There is a one in 1,461 chance of being born on 29 February, so a leap-day birthday isn't that rare, but there is something about it that appeals to my love of the uncommon. There's even a special name for someone born on that day: a leapling. The first thing everyone wants to know is when we celebrate our daughters' birthday and so far it's been tricky to decide.
From very early on, we both intuit and learn the language of pictorial representation, and most modern adults, the picturebook was our first dictionary of this visual vocabulary. Yet the picturebook -- defined by its narrative framework of sequential imagery and minimalist text to convey meaning or tell a story, and different from the illustrated book in which pictures play a secondary narrative part, enhancing and decorating the narrative -- is a surprisingly nascent medium.
“Men in Space” is sometimes overly caught up in fine details, and occasionally characters are implausibly slow at reading the signals that surround them — but the novel is an intellectually voracious cross section of a historical moment, and a thrilling indication of the vitality of the contemporary British novel.
Spend too much time with 24-hour news networks and it's easy to feel that exposure to that much talk can make you sick. Taking the idea a few steps further, author Ben Marcus imagines a world in which language becomes fatal in "The Flame Alphabet," a powerfully strange and frequently disturbing work that examines the power of words in a new, apocalyptic way.
Fri, Feb 24, 2012
If ever I might find a kind word for the coming post-bibliographical world it would be this week, when I have to pack up the thousands of volumes in my office and reassemble them a short distance away—they are so heavy, they take up so much room, and so on; but even now, with the crates piled high in the hall, what I see most plainly about the books is that they are beautiful.
What do these new equations of influence — the shift from “power over” to “power with” others, as some describe it — mean for the writer? For in this and other ways, modern life challenges the picture of the writer-as-island.
The reason for my unease is that what is so lovingly created in such settings is not a bookshop, but an idea of a bookshop. It is a sentimental idea, a kind of pastoral often untouched by serious commercial consideration. The kind of bookshop you might find in a Beatrix Potter book, with browsing rabbits. Why bother choosing a great stock when you can provide a great environment?
I have just spent a day re-creating the iconic loaf of 1950s-era soft white industrial bread, using easily acquired ingredients and home kitchen equipment. With the help of a 1956 government report detailing a massive, multiyear attempt to formulate the perfect loaf of white bread, achieving that re-creation proved relatively easy. Until Hana's arrival, however, I did not fully understand why I was doing it. I had sensed that extracting this industrial miracle food of yesteryear from the dustbin of kitsch might have something to teach about present-day efforts to change the food system; that it might offer perspective on our own confident belief that artisanal eating can restore health, rebuild community, and generally save the world. But, really, it was reactions like Hana's that I wanted to understand. How can a food be so fake and yet so eagerly eaten, so abhorred and so loved?
Since at least as far back as the 1930s, Chicago has been the global capital of pinball manufacturing—home not only to Stern and Williams, but also the late giants Bally and Gottlieb. There doesn't seem to be any one specific reason why the pinball industry made Chicago its home, although the local manufacturing infrastructure and the regional popularity of bagatelle (pinball's flipperless, French-born evolutionary forebear) were certainly factors. Chicago remained the epicenter of pinball culture as it spread across the globe, even during a period when it was actually illegal to play pinball here.
"I'll tell you what," pinball designer Steve Ritchie says of the industry's peak, "it was extremely fun for me. It was fun for all of us. And, yes, there was ridiculous competition. Just ridiculous. [But] we all knew each other."
Things are different now. There's hardly any "each other." Ritchie's one of the last designers standing; Jersey Jack is the only other place that employs them.
You’d Better Run
Natalie Shapero, The New Republic
Thu, Feb 23, 2012
I am not generally a fan of the Green party, but at those moments I feel a deep kinship with their cause: All those lovely trees, acres and acres of wood pulp darkened, and for what?
Called "having eyes" for a table, or "feeling" or "reading" the table by restaurant workers, it's how the best waiters know what type of service you prefer before you tell them. From fine dining to inexpensive chains, restaurants are working to make service more individualized as the standard script ('I'm so-and-so and I will be your server tonight") is sounding dated.
Even chain restaurants like Denny's, T.G.I. Friday's, and Romano's Macaroni Grill are focusing more on personalized service by training staff to note body language, eye contact and offhand remarks, hoping to make service feel less mechanical.
We often worry about lying awake in the middle of the night - but it could be good for you. A growing body of evidence from both science and history suggests that the eight-hour sleep may be unnatural.
Wed, Feb 22, 2012
But both P.&G. and Kellogg are in the business of making money, not feeding people with food.
The meeting f top management that resulted in Freddie Mac's hiring Gingrich as a part-time historian for twenty-five thousand dollars a month.
For eight years I had used the back of my stroller to carry groceries. Sometimes I even piled bags on my daughter’s lap.
But those days were over. My children were in school full time and I had no stroller, just two bags of groceries to carry eight blocks. I also had a bad back and a bum knee.
Tue, Feb 21, 2012
One of the first things to like about Tracie McMillan, the author of “The American Way of Eating,” is her forthrightness. She’s a blue-collar girl who grew up eating a lot of Tuna Helper and Ortega Taco Dinners because her mother was gravely ill for a decade, and her father, who sold lawn equipment, had little time to cook. About these box meals, she says, “I liked them.”
In the past decade, scientists have come to realize that our memories are not inert packets of data and they don’t remain constant. Even though every memory feels like an honest representation, that sense of authenticity is the biggest lie of all.
Sun, Feb 19, 2012
Cremation has its hazards: I’m always hearing about parents’ ashes left in a closet. Or you can get the wrong box from the funeral home and end up reciting “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” over the urn of some unknown person who it turns out thought Dylan Thomas was a drunken blowhard. Then there are the hazards of disposal: In Meghan O’Rourke’s “Long Goodbye,” the family gathers on a Connecticut beach on a blustery December day to scatter her mother’s ashes; the wind comes up and blows them all over her brother. “I’m fine,” he reassures everyone: “I just have Mom in my eyes.”
Burial, though, is somehow too ... real. In the final scene of “Humboldt’s Gift,” Saul Bellow’s novel about the fictional genius poet Von Humboldt Fleisher, his friend Charlie Citrine attends Humboldt’s funeral. Citrine observes the process with dispassion: “The coffins went down and then the yellow machine moved forward and the little crane, making a throaty whir, picked up a concrete slab and laid it atop the concrete case.” But then the question to which we all know the answer bursts from his unconscious: “How did one get out? One didn’t, didn’t, didn’t! You stayed, you stayed!” Learning to tolerate this eternity of eternity is the biggest challenge of our lives.
Long poems about battles have never been my thing. When I studied Anglo-Saxon at university, I remember complaining that whenever I wasn't sure of a word, it turned out to mean "spear". The number of words meaning spear seemed infinite. Perhaps I had Simon Armitage's The Death of King Arthur coming to me.
Sat, Feb 18, 2012
A few months ago I attended a book launch party for Adam Hochschild's World War I history, "To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918," where he offered a concise dissection of the difference between writing novels and writing history. To write history, he said, the story needs only to be true. To write a novel, the story must be plausible — an often much more difficult thing to accomplish.
With writer-critic Thomas Mallon's new book, "Watergate: A Novel," we have something of a hybrid. It's fiction in which Mallon novelizes historical events to find human insights that may have eluded the shelves of nonfiction books spawned by the 1970s political scandal that toppled President Richard M. Nixon. So within the framework of the true, Mallon also has to find the plausible, which he has done in satisfying ways with one large asterisk — context.
Adam Thorpe, The Guardian
To what did I owe this newfound oblivion about where I was? This insouciance about fraying schedules? This good cheer about the dismaying ritual of herding, shuffling, squeezing, starving, sitting and suffocating that characterizes air travel today?
To understand Robert Coles’s two latest books, it helps to have seen his writing chair.
A couple of years ago, Chris Woehrle grew sick of corporate life and decided to become an artisanal food craftsman — any kind of artisanal food craftsman. “I spent a month making every item I could think of: kimchi, harissa, salsa, every kind of pickle imaginable, a bunch of different herb mustards,” says Woehrle, who worked for a music conglomerate. And every time, he quickly discovered, “there were eight companies already doing it well.”
This is because Woehrle lives in Brooklyn, ground zero of the artisanal-food universe, where competition is intense. Eventually, though, he and his partner stumbled upon a hole in the market: handcrafted, all-natural beef jerky. And so Kings County Jerky was born.
Fri, Feb 17, 2012
The uneasy truth is that we can shift time around all we like, if we like, and countries have been playing with the malleability of time zones since their inception. But the way we mark time is as metaphysical as it is economic.
Cameron has justly been praised for being one of the few directors to use 3D usefully, in "Avatar." But "Titanic" was not shot for 3D, and just as you cannot gild a pig, you cannot make 2D into 3D.
Thu, Feb 16, 2012
It would be crazy to fail to pay close attention when that many people are devoted to something.
In practical terms it is all too easy to defend the e-book. We can buy a text instantly wherever we are in the world. We pay less. We use no paper, occupy no space. Kindle’s wireless system keeps our page, even when we open the book on a different reader than the one we left off. We can change the type size according to the light and our eyesight. We can change the font according to our taste. Cooped up in the press of the metro, we turn the pages by applying a light pressure of the thumb. Lying in bed, we don’t have that problem of having to use two hands to keep a fat paperback open.
But I want to go beyond practicality to the reading experience itself, our engagement with the text. What is it that these literary men and women are afraid of losing should the paper novel really go into decline? Surely not the cover, so often a repository of misleading images and tediously fulsome endorsements. Surely not the pleasure of running fingers and eyes over quality paper, something that hardly alters whether one is reading Jane Austen or Dan Brown. Hopefully it is not the quality of the paper that determines our appreciation for the classics.
When a big bank goes bust in Manhattan, forcing a thriving construction site in Mumbai to shut down and the price of recyclable scrap to plummet, entire families in the slums of India go hungry. This is the butterfly effect of the harrowingly interrelated global economy described in Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Katherine Boo's first book, "Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity."
“Shut up and calculate!” As physics became more mathematical and abstract during the past century, that phrase—first uttered by physicist David Mermin—became its mantra. Indeed, the more that physicists stopped worrying about what their complicated equations meant and simply ran the numbers, the more progress they made. Some of their predictions have now been confirmed by experiments to 10 decimal places or more— the most accurate predictions in history. But the cost of this progress was striking: physics became more and more alienating as fewer and fewer people understood it.
Wed, Feb 15, 2012
There was so much I did not understand that first winter about how important it is to carry reminders of home when you go to hostile places. The hardest part was never the bombs, it was the lack of the familiar, a sense of the predictable, of even the most mundane pleasure. War zones are stripped down. Usually there are no choices — about what to eat, or much else. The food is mostly cold and functional. The kind you can shove into a pocket or throw under a car seat: protein bars, raisins, a box of potato chips. These are calories, not cuisine.
Typically, participants leave a brainstorming session proud of their contribution. The whiteboard has been filled with free associations. Brainstorming seems like an ideal technique, a feel-good way to boost productivity. But there is a problem with brainstorming. It doesn’t work.
Tue, Feb 14, 2012
I met a blue-eyed girl 1,135 days ago. Her name is Anne. Our lives first crossed at a New Year's Eve party teeming with unfamiliar faces and red Solo cups. We were bumper cars, swerving aimlessly from stranger to stranger, that kept running into each other.
We started talking, and soon it became clear we shared a love of food. We talked recipes for Thanksgiving turkey (stuffing goes beneath skin) and spaghetti carbonara (lardons, no cream). We compared how many of our favorite restaurants overlapped. I went home that night, her face on my mind, and like anyone with whom I have a passing interest, I Googled the bejesus out of her.
The origins of the short story in different regions of the world - where it came from and when, how it developed - vary from country to country. Although its birth was most often a natural transformation of what was there already, occasionally the change that occurred was more dramatic, coming from nowhere, without a pedigree of tradition or of anything else. The vitality of America's first stories owes much to such newness, to an untrammelled purity that challenged, without being at odds with, the classicism of Russia's vast contribution to the same literary development. In Europe - particularly perhaps in France and Germany - the influence of the antique continued, then slowly withered.
Mon, Feb 13, 2012
Recently, however, researchers stumbled on a striking fact about suicides in New York: A surprising number of people who kill themselves in the city come here from out of town, and many appear to come expressly to take their own lives.
Sun, Feb 12, 2012
It’s a basic but still weird fact about books that two people’s experiences of the same book can be radically different but equally valid.
More than two decades later, a return visit to Tiananmen Square finds it scrubbed clean—just as it was immediately following the Incident. Except now there is thick smog, and ghosts. In contemporary Beijing, the past is like Kentucky Fried Chicken: unavoidable.
In these autobiographical sketches of flânerie, the self-effacing Walser (who was a favourite of Kafka's) enjoys presenting himself as the wide-eyed provincial revelling in the cultural life of the German capital.
Through its slow unspooling of Amber's past, it also becomes an exploration of memory and the way trauma lives on in the present. Cool, calculating and utterly chilling, Kind of Cruel is another compulsive book from Hannah, to be gulped down with all the lights on and someone to grab when the sense of menace grows too great.
Sat, Feb 11, 2012
If Sloterdijk's reflections sound obvious or fanciful, consider again the long and vexed history of enclosed but transparent volumes as images alike of freedom and security, futurism and consolation.
As these unspeakable incidents pile up and feed off one another, Boo, who spent significant time in Annawadi, makes no effort to assist her readers in making judgments. Characters drift in and out of the book, only gradually revealing themselves. Their actions, however vicious or shortsighted, are rendered comprehensible by the wellsprings of motivation to be found within their own words, and by the depth of Boo’s descriptions. Although she never precisely explains how people could reach a state where the death of a child is neither noteworthy nor tragic, her reporting allows for us to reach our own conclusions. Boo’s presence is skillfully invisible, so that the reader recalls her only when wondering, admiringly, how she was able to document the extraordinary story that she tells.
Fri, Feb 10, 2012
I Love You, Susan
Jessica Ruby Radcliffe, 3:AM Magazine
I am normally what could be classed as "a healthy eater", but I have one fatal weakness; doughnuts. I'm of the opinion that there are few problems in life that can't be solved with a steaming hot cup of tea and a sticky, sugary, jam-filled doughnut. Maybe it's my northern sensibilities, but I would plump for a doughnut any day of the week - plump being the operative word.
Thu, Feb 9, 2012
Porn books and librarians have always had a passionate, mutually defining relationship—it was, in fact, a prudish French librarian in the early nineteenth century who coined the word pornography. So it comes as no surprise that the sexy librarian, a fixture of the pornographic imagination, is most at home in books.
Wed, Feb 8, 2012
Shadow And Smoke
Charles Wright, The New York Review Of Books
Tue, Feb 7, 2012
Wyn Cooper, Slate
Menu design is a complex and opaque business.
If you’re unfamiliar with the great burger boom, you may think you know what I’m talking about: chains such as Byron or Gourmet Burger Kitchen, which freed us from the limp grey patties of McDonald’s or Burger King. But the real action is away from the high street, in places that reinvent the burger as an intoxicatingly tender and mind-blowingly juicy trip to gastronomic nirvana.
Mon, Feb 6, 2012
What a lonely species we are, searching for signals of life from other galaxies, adopting companion animals, visiting parks and zoos to commune with other beasts. In the process, we discover our shared identity.
Sun, Feb 5, 2012
This novel is an elegant vigil – a long night's journey into day. A wife, Nina, sits with her husband, Philip, who has died of a heart attack. She waits with his dead body, drinks her way through a bottle of wine and remembers. The book itself can be agreeably knocked back in a couple of hours but leaves one sober. Nina's reminiscences are not as reproachful as the book's title would imply, but it is not until page 161 that she gets round to crying: "Tears well up in her eyes." The atmosphere throughout is dry: emotions are not Lily Tuck's thing, she does not know what to do with them as raw materials. What she is trying here is, in its way, more ambitious.
Sat, Feb 4, 2012
Now is a good time to consider the awesome and cyclical tempestuousness of our star.
Julia Donaldson, The Guardian
Like a mother shielding her infant from brutal reality, Ausubel has found her own muted way of writing about the Holocaust. “As I wrote through deeply sad stories, I found that hope was in the telling,” she says on her publisher’s Web site, explaining how she retrieved and reimagined family fables. “As long as the story was told, it was alive.”
Fri, Feb 3, 2012
Blovers and blaps… what next? For my part, I can see where Orwell, Paglia, and Miller are coming from, and I certainly wouldn’t bemoan the disappearance of blurbs. But not everyone is like me.
Thu, Feb 2, 2012
If middle age is truly the prime of life, as posited by Patricia Cohen, the author of “In Our Prime,” then why do so many Americans go to such lengths to deny they belong to that club? When Ms. Cohen was doing her research, she tells us, the first question her subjects nervously asked was “When is middle age?”
Wed, Feb 1, 2012
Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow, Slate
It’s clearly feasible, then, to live alone and sustain thriving relationships of various kinds. But, especially in the later stages of life, it is far from inevitable or effortless. And here is where women enjoy an advantage.
This past December, as I coped with my third annual Thanksgiving-through-New-Year’s malaise, I thought to consult Mrs. Beeton, whose masterwork, Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management, I remembered included a chapter on invalid cookery. This was a common feature of cookbooks in the nineteenth century, a time when most health care was “provided” at home and when the kind of sicknesses that we now zap with antibiotics or ward off with vaccinations were much more serious.
A British historian once said that being published by the Oxford University Press was like being married to a duchess—the honour was greater than the pleasure. My experience was otherwise. Not long before I began working in their archives, the OUP had published my first book. As scholarly books go, it was a work of art—set, using hot metal type, in an elegant Baskerville by the legendary PK Ghosh of Eastend Printers, Calcutta. The cover was arresting—a photograph by Sanjeev Saith of a Himalayan oak forest cut up by the designer to represent the ‘unquiet woods’ that the book documented. The prose inside, jargon-ridden and solemnly sociological in its original incarnation, had been rendered moderately serviceable by the intense (and inspired) labours of the book’s editor, a young scholar with a PhD in English literature from the University of Cambridge.