- Liz Brown reviews William Graebner's new Patty Hearst bio for Newsday: "Graebner looks . . . at Hearst's story writ large, touching on questions of class hostility, free will, paranoia and Stockholm syndrome . . . [but] doesn't always probe or reinforce the connections between his cultural touchpoints." At Kill Fee, Liz posts a photo of Hearst and a link to video of her famous bank robbery.
- For the New York Times Book Review, Hugh Eakin reviews Sharon Waxman's new book Loot, about the attempts to repatriate from Western museums cultural artifacts plundered both long ago and recently:
How did museums become looters? To Waxman, a former culture reporter for The Washington Post and The New York Times, the problem is part of a larger battle about history, in which “once-colonized nations” are seeking to reclaim the “tangible symbols” of national identity from the “great cultural shrines of the West.
- Rachel Donadio describes for the New York Times how Italy is reacting to Silvio Berlusconi's reference to Obama's "suntan."
- Henry Alford tries to induce remorse.
- Elaine Blair reviews Alison Light's Mrs. Woolf and the Servants (Bloomsbury) for The Nation (17 November 2008):
Woolf found it difficult to keep her distance from servants, to give orders in a way that established her authority over them (she hated the "measured sweetness" with which servants were supposed to be addressed). [Nellie] Boxall, who worked for Woolf for eighteen years, was an excellent but temperamental cook, and they fought regularly, their rows leaving Woolf surprisingly unsettled and vulnerable. "She doesn't care for me, or for anything," Woolf once complained in her diary, as if talking about a school friend or a lover. She schemed for years to let Boxall go, rehearsing the scene in her mind but losing courage at the last minute, or being won over by Boxall's attempts at peacemaking. Boxall gave and retracted notice dozens of times. She was high-strung and insecure: the parallels with Woolf's disposition are hard to miss.
- For Granta #102, Benjamin Kunkel describes and reminisces about the state of Colorado, in an essay also printed in State by State (Harper Collins), an anthology edited by Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey:
My parents' friends were amateur bee-keepers, gardeners, cabinetmakers, guitarists, and our more immediate neighbours likewise seemed to be making things up as they went along. One had a field full of junk cars, many children and a drinking problem; he was always driving off the road. Another ran the local airfield and kept a mountain lion for a pet; when he and his wife divorced later on, she married an arms dealer and moved to Istanbul.
There was nothing else I knew—we didn't have a TV—but even so I could tell our life was new and rare and unsponsored by tradition. . . . Everything was improvisation, with the thrill and risk the word implies. . . . And life up Salt Creek acquired a real enough frontier air on at least those occasions when a pack rat ventured out from the wall in the living room and my father picked up his .22 rifle to shoot it, a practice that could be unsettling to guests but which mostly impressed me as a display of good aim.
- Andrew Sullivan investigates the phenomenology of blogs in the November 2008 Atlantic:
There is simply no way to write about [history-making events] in real time without revealing a huge amount about yourself. And the intimate bond this creates with readers is unlike the bond that the The Times, say, develops with its readers through the same events. Alone in front of a computer, at any moment, are two people: a blogger and a reader. The proximity is palpable, the moment human—whatever authority a blogger has is derived not from the institution he works for but from the humanness he conveys. This is writing with emotion not just under but always breaking through the surface. It renders a writer and a reader not just connected but linked in a visceral, personal way. The only term that really describes this is friendship. And it is a relatively new thing to write for thousands and thousands of friends.
- For Undercurrent, A. S. Hamrah praises the film criticism of Manny Farber, who was also a painter:
Asked whether his painting and his criticism had things in common, he answered, "The brutal fact is that they're exactly the same thing." He did not accept the idea there was a difference between artists and critics. ("I get a laugh from artists who ridicule critics as parasites or artists manqués—such a horrible joke.") In fact, his prose equals the subjects he wrote about and often surpasses them. While this may be true of some film critics writing today, saying their prose equals the subjects they write about is not a compliment.
- Who's finer: the Temptations or the Four Tops? At Moistworks, Sean Howe answers by imagining the romance and disappointment of a couple named Bill and Liz:
Tonight, he puts on "Ain't Too Proud To Beg" and starts singing along, and before long is thinking about the ridiculousness of the idea that begging Liz would do any good at all. As if life was anything like a Motown song. And at the part where Ruffin sings about a crying man being "half a man, with no sense of pride," Bill can't sing along anymore. Ruffin is hitting way too many high notes to be nearly as upset as he claims, and Bill begins to get furious at the record. It feels like some kind of cruel facsimile of pain. The way the other four Temptations buoy Ruffin at every turn, he's not alone, not by a long shot; his buddies have his back, and he's still dancing. Bill thinks that maybe The Big Chill had it right, and that "Ain't Too Proud To Beg" is simply a way to make doing the dishes more enjoyable. He tries not to think about how he is now older than the Kevin Kline and Glenn Close characters.
- For the London Review of Books, Mark Greif parses the disingenuous chic of the television series Mad Men (subscription required):
Beneath the Now We Know Better is a whiff of Doesn’t That Look Good. The drinking, the cigarettes, the opportunity to slap your children! The actresses are beautiful, the Brilliantine in the men’s hair catches the light, and everyone and everything is photographed as if in stills for a fashion spread. The show’s ‘1950s’ is a strange period that seems to stretch from the end of World War Two to 1960, the year the action begins. The less you think about the plot the more you are free to luxuriate in the low sofas and Eames chairs, the gunmetal desks and geometric ceiling tiles and shiny IBM typewriters. Not to mention the lush costuming: party dresses, skinny brown ties, angora cardigans, vivid blue suits and ruffled peignoirs, captured in the pure dark hues and wide lighting ranges that Technicolor never committed to film.
Sooner or later, though, unless you watch the whole series with the sound off, you will have to face up to the story.
- In an essay commissioned for my boyfriend Peter Terzian's forthcoming anthology Heavy Rotation: Twenty Writers on the Albums that Changed Their Lives and pre-printed in the November 2008 Harper's, John Jeremiah Sullivan remembers calling up legendary blues savant John Fahey for help in deciphering lyrics:
A front-desk attendant agreed to put a call through to Fahey's room. From subsequent reading, I gather that at this time Fahey was making the weekly rent by scavenging and reselling rare classical-music LPs, for which he must have developed an extraordinary eye, the profit margins being almost imperceptible. I pictured him prone on the bed, gray-bearded and possibly naked, his overabundant corpus spread out like something that only got up to eat: that’s how interviewers discovered him, in the few profiles I’d read. He was hampered at this point by decades of addiction and the bad heart that would kill him two years later, but even before all that he’d been famously cranky, so it was strange to find him ramblingly familiar from the moment he picked up the phone. A friend of his to whom I later described this conversation said, "Of course he was nice—you didn’t want to talk about him."
Fahey asked for fifteen minutes to get his "beatbox" hooked up and locate the tape with the song on it. I called him back at the appointed time.
"Man," he said, "I can't tell what she’s saying there. It's definitely not 'boutonniere.'"
We switched to another mystery word, a couple of verses on: Wiley sings, "My mother told me, just before she died/Lord, [precious?] daughter, don’t you be so wild."
"Shit, I don’t have any fucking idea," Fahey said. "It doesn't really matter, anyway. They always just said any old shit.
- Liz Brown reviews a new biography of Emily Post for the Los Angeles Times: “Claridge tracks Emily’s rise from vivacious debutante to poised but neglected society wife and mother against the backdrop of the Gilded Age, deftly tucking in such capsule anecdotes as the déclassé Vanderbilts vying for high-society acceptance and instructions for preparing terrapin, which includes a directive one isn’t likely to forget: ‘Remove the skin from the feet.’ “
- Interviewed about his forthcoming book How to Live, Henry Alford admits to thinking, as he accompanied his mother to buy a Chiquita banana costume, “I bet Joan Didion doesn’t do this kind of research.” Bonus: On his new blog, Henry deconstructs Louise Bourgeois’s love of spirals.
- At Slate, Christine Kenneally reviews Henry Hitchings’s history of English (which I reviewed not long ago for the now-defunct New York Sun) along with books on English by John McWhorter, Mark Abley, David Crystal, Roy Blount Jr., and Ammon Shea: “It’s hard to resist the urge to pick a particular kind of animal as the perfect emblem for English. McWhorter says it’s a dolphin among deer. He calls German, Dutch, Yiddish, Danish, and other close English relatives antelopes, springbok, and kudu. English has evolved so far away from the basic language body plan, he says, that it swims underwater and echolocates.”
- On her new blog, Laura Miller notes that Pauline Baynes, illustrator of C. S. Lewis’s Narnia books, died this summer: “Lewis, it must be said, had no real eye for art, and he used to gripe about Baynes behind her back, complaining (in a letter to Dorothy Sayers) of her poor grasp of animal anatomy. He doesn’t seem to have recognized how well she captured Narnia’s distinctly Medieval flavor.” (A side note: I had the good fortune to be able to read in galleys Laura’s new book on Lewis, The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia, and I can’t recommend it highly enough, especially to anyone who was as besotted as I was by the books as a child.)
- My boyfriend, Peter Terzian, recently interviewed the graphic novelist David Heatley for Time Out New York: “I was getting fan mail from a couple twentysomething boys, saying, ‘Oh, your strip gave me a boner,’ and I thought, This isn’t what I had in mind.”
- Peter has also reviewed Jed Perl’s Antoine’s Alphabet: Watteau and His World for the Abu Dhabi National: “Perl’s tour de force is an analysis of Gersaint’s Shopsign, a panorama of a shop interior. . . . The mirrors, clocks and toiletries that the customers peruse and assess ‘raise certain questions: Who are we? What can we make of ourselves? What will we become?’ “
- Insanely prolific, Peter has also reviewed Julian Barnes’s Nothing to be Frightened Of for Bookforum:
We survive in the genes we pass along and in memory, Barnes reasons, but for how long? Here’s where he really scares the bejesus out of you. In a couple of generations, everyone who ever knew you will be dead, and your grave will go unvisited. This may hold true for all of the bodies in the cemetery, and, in any case, it will eventually be paved over to make room for suburban housing. A writer like Barnes, who is childless, at least leaves behind his collected prose. But just as there will be that last person who remembers you and visits your grave, there will be, at some point, the last reader of a Julian Barnes book.
- On the n+1 blog, A. S. Hamrah tries to discover what movies mean to northern California:
At the town’s unmanned used bookstore there’s chart next to a lock box with a slot in it for money. The chart tells book lovers to leave whatever they think a book is worth in the box—$10 for great books down to a dollar for ones that are just okay. You pick out a book, shove in a dollar or two, then turn around to confront a sign reading something like “This store is under constant video surveillance.” “California Über Alles,” I thought, as I left with a volume of S. J. Perelman’s letters.
- Matthew Price reviews Wojciech Tochman’s Like Eating a Stone: Surviving the Past in Bosnia for the New York Times Book Review: Tochman “describes the efforts of Ewa Klonowski, a Polish forensic anthropologist connected to the Bosniak Commission on Missing Persons, as she works at a mass grave: ‘Now the first white body bags are coming up. The workmen lay them out on the grass. The relatives of the missing people stand around as Dr. Klonowski examines the bones, identifying their age and sex.’ “
- In the same issue of NYTBR, Craig Seligman reviews Marcella Hazan’s Amarcord: “Maybe a strong editor could have given it more shape, but the Hazans are not what you would call putty in an editor’s hands. I know this partly from having done a stint at Food & Wine during a period when they had a column in the magazine. I never dealt with them directly, but I don’t remember anyone who did getting off a call from them with a sunny smile.”
- In Paper Monument, Keith Gessen explains the corruptions of life in Putin’s Russia:
Seven years and many suspicious deaths later, Ksenya Sobchak, the deceased mayor’s pouty, blonde, 24-year-old daughter, appeared in jeans and a tank top on the cover of hte Russian edition of Gala. The top button of her jeans was undone so that readers could see more of her midriff. . . . Panyushkin’s first question to the magazine’s first celebrity cover model was whether her father had been murdered. Sobchak’s response was both cruel and correct. “I don’t think that’s a suitable topic for a glossy magazine,” she said.