WRB—Dec. 24, 2022
The Washingtonians understand books
Before this decade, the shoelace manufacturing industry was the last place in the world one could expect to find preponderant poets, but the recent pellmell pressures of the so-called “global economy” have produced among shoelaceers a proliferation of poets—and the accompanying pack of poetasters—rivaled only by the production of Parnassians during the Russo–Turkish War of 1877–78 [about which, more soon in the BRB].1
[I have missed this newsletter twice in the past month, which indicates that something has to give a little, activity wise. I will be taking a short break, and this will be the last issue of the WRB in 2022. I hope this tides you (yuletides you?) until then. It’s been almost a full year of the WRB—this being the 90th newsletter, I’m tempted to say too full—and I’m grateful to you all. Everyone who reads this newsletter is wonderful, and I want to meet more of you in 2023. We are going to have to figure out whether books are good or not very soon. Everyone who’s helped out and given us encouragement and shared this fun little project and paid us is wonderful too, and I encourage them to keep it up. Sarah and Grace are wonderful. We just added some little bits from Donald, but he’s great too. Nic and Julia are just ok, but they’re the best we’ve got. People who text me when they see a WRB tote bag in the wild: they’re the true heroes. Et cetera. The only people I don’t have any use for are the people who said they were going to submit a Classified ad and did not. In 2023 they’ll get a chance to fix the situation, and I’ll get a chance to do a whole lot more with the newsletter. Enjoy your holidays, please. See you right back here January 4. —Chris]
To do list:
and, now for a greatly (40% or so) reduced price for a yearly subscription through the end of the year,
Should We Care What Hegel Really Thought of Art? [I don’t particularly have the energy to. —Chris] Tom Whyman online for ArtReview on the discovery of new notes from Hegel’s 18-teens lectures on aesthetics.
And Barry Schwabsky for the New Left Review blog: should we care what Jed Perl thinks?:
In Perl’s view, today’s artists have lost the passionate commitment that artists of Guston’s time felt toward their artistic choices. They “appear to think that it’s possible to be a representational artist one minute and an abstract artist the next”, he huffs. And yet, while he loves the idea of a battle between abstraction and representation, he says they should not be “regarded as ideologies”. That puzzles me. If abstraction and representation don’t amount to what he calls “ideological absolutes”, then why dig yourself into the trenches for one of them?
Department of Making Merry and Bright:
The secrets of New York City’s Christmas Tree racket. [Gosh this is so fun. This has everything. —Chris]
The Mystery of Christmas Revealed! [Finally.]
Department of Links We’ve Run Out of Room For:
“Will the Real Mr. Heartache Please Stand Up and Cry? The surreal tragicomic legacy of Johnny Paycheck and David Berman” Rebecca Bengal, Oxford American
“Hospitality Industry: Get in the Wine Dark Sea! What Restaurants Can Learn From Homer.” Thom Eagle, Vittles
“Bob Dylan on Music’s Golden Era vs. Streaming: ‘Everything’s Too Easy’” Jeff Slate interviewing, Wall Street Journal
Now you might recall that about a month ago we enumerated a long list of previous WRB references to Helen DeWitt. [A reader finally prodded me to read The English Understand Wool yesterday evening, and I’m furious I put it off this long. —Chris] Well we’re got one more, because here’s Mark Clemens for The Bulwark:
The prose is elegant and balanced, with the clarity of good scientific or technical writing, or the better analytic philosophers—very little ambiguity. Showboat sentences in the classic manner of American prestige fiction are virtually nonexistent. This combination of technical precision and total saturation of voice is reminiscent of Joyce, who might admire her multilingual and typographic experiments, or Charles Portis. (It’s worth noting that DeWitt is as funny as either one.) But there is something in DeWitt’s work that looks back past the midcentury black humorists and the high modernists, past the Victorians even, to arrive among the satirists and moralists of the eighteenth century. Her omnivorous, polymathic approach recalls the philosophe’s easy conversance with history, science, classics, mathematics, and philosophy in a time when it was still possible to know everything there was to know. Her characters are like those of the era: vivid, but at least partial caricatures, lacking the delicate psychological shading of the intervening centuries. Her structures, too: The Last Samurai is a picaresque, Lightning Rods is ribald Swiftian satire, The English breaks into the epistolary mode at key moments.
You may too remember that in August we linked to Jillian Steinhauer’s review of Alexandra Lange’s book about shopping malls (Meet Me By the Fountain, June). Now in The Nation, Melvin Blackman has his own contribution.
The novel is dizzyingly, meticulously constructed, the orchestration of time—of passage, essentially—conducted rigorously, unfathomably, like a mathematical inquiry into the spiritual. For all the classic McCarthy turns here—the rowdy regionalisms and high rhetoric, the attention to the gear and tackle and trim of working life, the stratagems of music and conspiracies and spending gold, the stuff of things built, houses, oil platforms, violins—the primary, the overwhelming subject is the soul. Where can it be found? By what means does it travel? Is it frightened when we take leave of it? Can it find rest in the darkness? Animula vagula blandula. The soul. The freed and missing passenger.
You may remember that last month we linked to Scott Bradfield’s review of Lucy Worsley’s recent biography of Agatha Christie (Agatha Christie: An Elusive Woman, September). Now in the DRB, Patricia Craig has this to say:
All this is fine and entertaining, but when it comes to assessing Agatha Christie, it really isn’t sensible to place her alongside the luminaries of the Modern movement, or even to add her name to the avant garde list. Christie was not “an unrecognized modernist” as the critic Alison Light asserted and Worsley quotes. And really, there is no need to try to elevate her accomplishment. Her novels and stories have their own logic and momentum, and are perfectly adapted to enthral their extensive readership. Christie herself was not deluded about the nature of her achievement. “She thought the detective stories she wrote were quite good of their kind,” says the author’s alter ego Mrs Ariadne Oliver in a late novel, Elephants Can Remember (1971). She goes on: “She was a lucky woman who had established a happy knack of writing what quite a lot of people wanted to read.”
You may also remember that in that same issue, Chris shared his notes on A.E. Stallings’ latest volume of selected poems (This Afterlife, December). Now in the LRB, Boris Dralyuk has a glowing review:
Rooted in Athens for more than twenty years, the American-born Stallings has not forgotten the song that imbued her earlier work. If anything, her variations on myth and reflections on the modern world around her, with its overlapping crises, have grown at once more intricate and more assured. Like the broken wineglass in the hitherto uncollected “Shattered”, they reveal that “wholeness won’t stay put”—yet by sweeping up “what’s overlooked, / the sliver of the unseen, / faceted, edged, hooked”, they make the “shivered, shimmering / brokenness complete”.
“Jenna Bush Hager, Progeny of Presidents, Is Now a Publishing Kingmaker” [George Bush’s daughter distributing copies of The Secret History at Rockefeller Center is so perfect an image of our sense of humor that Nic and I are worried that the we might have sprung a leak. —Chris]
On his Substack, Henry Oliver just posted a sad little transcript of a phone call between George Bush and Margaret Thatcher. We have a lot more on the subject of books we couldn’t stand down below in What we’re reading, but this post from Henry is making Chris want to revisit his initial impression of Sally Rooney’s last book (Beautiful World, Where are You, 2021): “If Beautiful World feels ersatz, that’s a sign of its success: Rooney is recreating the ersatz nature of modern culture and showing it up for what it is. Lorentzen wants more from his novelists. That’s fine. But in these retro, pseudo, post-postmodern times, the real escapism is sometimes highbrow complexity.”
And Art Kavanagh on his “Talk about books” has Chris reevaluating his distaste for Ishiguro’s last book (Klara and the Sun, 2021).
Oh, and here’s an interview with Rooney’s Chinese translator, Na Zhong: “These Irish elements feel like decorative icing on a cake, because the way her characters think and relate to the world feel extremely American to me, which is probably why the books are so well-received by U.S. readers, because they share so much more in common: They are hyper-conscious of themselves. Very outspoken about their political stances. They like to flaunt their intellectual superiority at each other. Rooney’s Irish characters are constantly talking about what’s happening in London, New York, and the U.S. in general.”
Department of “Sure, more Bookforum links”:
Anne, always perceptive, at Notes from a Small Press: “So, if there were a new book review publication started by a collective of editors/workers, the obvious first question should be, ‘how will it make money to pay those editor/workers and the writers it commissions’?” We’re working on it.
And here’s the New Yorker take: “Criticism has a way of surviving despite a lack of infrastructure. The past few years have seen a profusion of Substack newsletters in which writers are free to rant at length about whatever irks or obsesses them at a given moment.” We’re hard at work on that, too.
Paul Fussell (Class: A Guide Through the American Status System, 1983): “I’d say these are vulgar, but in no particular order: Jerry Lewis’s TV telethon; any ‘Cultural Center’; Beef Wellington; cute words for drinks like drinky-poos or nightcaps; dinner napkins with high polyester content; colored wineglasses; oil paintings depicting members of the family; display of laminated diplomas.”
Alan Jacobs with two (1, 2) quick posts on his blog about writing in books: “Among the many—too many—things I own, the most valuable to me are books that I have read and annotated as thoroughly as I have read this one. Family photos? I have digital copies of those. Similarly, my computer could be replaced, as could my guitars. Furniture, ditto. I could buy replacements for my guitars, my camera, my clothes. But the annotated books? Irreplaceable.”
March | The Song Cave
From the publisher: Michael Silverblatt, described as “the guy authors go to when they want a serious literary conversation about their work,” is the host of KCRW’s Bookworm, a nationally syndicated radio program showcasing writers of fiction and poetry. Describing his interviews as “conversations,” Silverblatt has hosted hundreds of our most celebrated writers including John Ashbery, Toni Morrison, Susan Sontag, and David Foster Wallace. His formidable knowledge comes from close reading and analysis of a writer’s entire oeuvre. As the guiding spirit of this weekly show, Silverblatt has reinvented the art of literary conversation, introducing listeners to new and emerging authors along with writers of renown. He also regularly hosts literary conversations for Lannan Foundation’s “Readings and Conversations” series in Santa Fe, New Mexico. In 2018, he was the inaugural recipient of A Public Space’s Deborah Pease Prize, awarded to a figure who has advanced the art of literature. With more than three decades’ worth of shows, Bookworm has become one of the best centers to hear the voices of contemporary writing, any time, anywhere, locally and globally via the Internet.
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