Perhaps A Series of Unfortunate Events is so special simply because Handler saw children as people. He only wrote a children’s book after his publisher, passing on his first novel, The Basic Eight, told him to. Thinking all children’s books were “crap”, he set out to write something he would want to read. He took his readers seriously. Where Harry Potter was aggressively simplistic, Handler used devices such as alliteration and repetition to the point of absurdity, while referencing everything from Shakespeare to Melville. Books are an essential part of the plot: our heroes love reading and use literary references as code, whereas “wicked people never have time for reading. It’s one of the reasons for their wickedness”.
Petry bristled against the limelight immediately upon finding success and sought to safeguard her privacy her entire life. This “rage of privacy,” as her daughter, Elisabeth Petry, puts it in her memoir, At Home Inside: A Daughter’s Tribute to Ann Petry, determined many of her life choices and had a direct impact on what now remains of her archive. And as scholar Farah Griffin puts it, Petry “so feared the possibility of exposure that she destroyed much of her own writing, including letters and journals.”
Leaving New York in 1947 to seek a more quiet life for her writing, Petry and her husband, George, moved back to her native town, Old Saybrook in Connecticut, and throughout her career she deflected all inquiries into her life or into her as a person back toward her oeuvre. Publicity campaigns, she wrote in one of her surviving journals from 1992, made her “feel as though I were a helpless creature impaled on a dissecting table—for public viewing.”
My favorite used bookstores don’t pad their shelves with outdated computer manuals collected from garage sale free bins. Each one offers a considered selection of literature that has outlived passing trends. They’re also a good place to start when I get anxiety over the impossibility of making a dent in the world’s literary offerings. Many secondhand-seekers lean on Thoreau’s advice to “read the best books first, or you may not have a chance to read them at all.” A used book’s very endurance is a reassuring vote of confidence that’s harder to find in a new bookstore, where untested titles offer little to go on besides literary world hype and a polished publisher’s blurb.
No figure in classical music is more iconic than the conductor, or more misunderstood. The authoritarian figure on the podium, waving his arms and demanding that everyone follow him, is the embodiment of the worst sides of patriarchal classical tradition. Yet the conductor also is the ultimate communicator, the person charged with bringing the best out of a hundred musicians to create compelling music. No job in music is harder to quantify, and no job is, when it’s done well, more important.
So here’s a brief look at the function of the conductor.
I had the idea to write a book of literary selfies almost by chance. I was leafing through a book on Frida Kahlo (who isn’t my favourite artist, but I admire her courage, and how her numerous self-portraits form a sort of painful autobiography). I came across the painting Tree of Hope. It is a dual self-portrait: a Frida lying on her side, draped in a sheet, on a wide gurney, and a Frida sitting up very straight on a seat against the gurney, facing the viewer, and wearing a gorgeous red dress.
I was stunned: this dual portrait echoed precisely a situation I had experienced myself. It was so similar that I immediately imagined the picture I would paint if I could. But I am no artist. And so it was a matter of painting in words an image that existed only in my imagination: two Sylvies, one lying on a radiotherapy bed and the other sitting on the edge of the bed, wearing a very beautiful dress.
“Make It Scream, Make It Burn,” a new collection of essays by Leslie Jamison, meets many of the prerequisites conjured by the phrase “collection of essays by Leslie Jamison.” It explores notions of witness, storytelling, and authenticity; of art and morality; and of pain—others’ and one’s own. Stylistically, the book is almost frustratingly eloquent. Jamison, who has also authored an addiction memoir, “The Recovering,” can pin an idea with the speed and fluidity of a pro athlete. (A stepmother becomes “a token mascot of the dark maternal.”) She thinks ethically but feels aesthetically. Her writing, although lyrical, proceeds with a precise, searching sobriety—each sentence a controlled swoon.
We are told that novels are meant to teach us something. It’s as if the objective goals in life can be projected outward in the imagination, and novels are there to help us discern our trajectory through this projection. Each character’s choice marks the carving of a particular path, by which we might judge our own. There are some out there (Malcolm Cowley, among others) who believe that even an author’s choice to use a “hard” word as opposed to an “easy” word is an inherently moral decision — one that, we can assume — impacts the reader’s engagement with the text on moral terms (whatever those might be). It is tired news now to note that even when novels are not explicitly instructional, they can still be read as guides, with subtle ethical or behavioral insinuations. One can walk away from Madame Bovary — a novel in which moral and aesthetic tropes are continuously undermined — still having “learned” something: do not — you impressionable fool! — be brainwashed by popular, romantic novels, lest you run the risk of becoming the vulnerable, reckless, impulsive, naïve eponymous Emma.
But then there are those authors for whom even the most faintly moral suggestions are so foreign that they are simply out of the realm of possibility. These novels often have a certain coolness, a swiftness, or, alternatively, they charge forth with a certain brashness, a revelry, a laissez-faire. These are the words one might use to describe Fleur Jaeggy, in the first instance, and Thomas Bernhard in the second. How do we examine the work by these authors, whose parabolic qualities so thrillingly elude us?
This latest book presents a curiosity cabinet of topics: Jamison travels the world with a whale nicknamed “52 Blue,” takes a fraught trip to Sri Lanka, visits the Museum of Broken Relationships in Croatia and writes frankly about pregnancy after anorexia. It also includes criticism, such as a review of a major exhibition of Civil War photography and an essay on James Agee. (The collection’s lack of a consistent theme may stem from the fact that it’s largely composed of previously published magazine pieces.) These pieces have only the barest of connective tissues: Jamison wrestling with herself to find common ground with other humans or, as she puts it, “writing about lives or beliefs that others might have scoffed at.”