WRB—Feb. 25, 2023
MAY BE ENTIRELY NORMAL
Come then, and let us pass a leisure hour in storytelling, and our story shall be the education of our Managing Editors.
To do list:
order a tote bag or a mug;
avail yourself of our world-famous classified ads, either by placing or responding to one;
For the new issue of The Believer, Paul La Farge claims that Nicholson Baker MAY BE ENTIRELY NORMAL (with reference to Nabokov and Howells and whomever else ):
Reading Nicholson Baker sometimes has the same effect on me. I admire his ability to bring the small features of the world to light; and in principle I agree that everything is interesting, and worthy of careful study, but there are times when I just don’t want to look. But Baker’s writing—like those nodules, probably—is contagious. Whether I want it to happen or not, I find my way of thinking about the world changed by an encounter with his books, and my way of writing, too—how else could I have come to a dense little phrase like “small mucoid ejecta”? To read Baker is to be infected by the desire to put every experience, however small, into words that describe it precisely. Having read a short stack of his novels by way of preparation for this review, I found myself considering pieces of refuse on the street with ferocious care. Grocery receipt, I thought, looking at a white scrap on the sidewalk, small purchase. Small store, too: you can tell from the purple ink. Big supermarkets use black ink nowadays. And so on, to the point where I had to turn off the tiny Nicholson Baker in my head, repeatedly, lest my attention be utterly absorbed by the world around me, leaving me paralyzed in the middle of a crosswalk. That’s one thing you can say about Baker: More than almost anyone writing today, he makes you look.
[I have this exact style of mental progression probably once or twice a week because of having read Baker. —Chris]
And for the new issue of The Point, Emily Ogden claims that Elizabeth Hardwick might have been a bit weird:
Hardwick had a way of being cruel while seeming to regret the necessity of cruelty, the high-style equivalent of blessing people’s hearts. The quality is on sparkling display when she says of Monica Lewinsky, “she, who has no more sense of nuance than a coyote, could well have believed that lawyers, jobs, lunches came her way because she was a friend people would naturally want to help.”
For the Fare Forward newsletter, Mark Clemens writes about nineteenth-century Austrian writer Adalbert Stifter and his collection of novellas reissued by NYRB (Motley Stones, 2021):
a reader might pick up Motley Stones, a collection of his tales newly translated by Isabel Fargo Cole, expecting to meet a daring formal innovator or a master of irrational psychology. Instead she will find: landscapes. Lots and lots of landscapes, from various parts of the Austrian countryside, minutely described. If no landscapes are readily available—a tale set in the city, for example—Stifter makes do with describing the interiors of houses. There are people in these settings, of course, and they dutifully go about enacting whatever plots Stifter has in mind, but it is sometimes tempting to think he regards them and their activities as a regrettable formality he must deal with if he is to continue describing the landscape.
And Matthew Bevis on the new Auden collected volumes (August 2022) for LRB:
These vistas owe something to Auden’s first love, Thomas Hardy, and especially to what he described as Hardy’s way of ‘looking at life from a very great height’, his willingness ‘to see the individual life related not only to the local social life of its time, but to the whole of human history, life on the earth, the stars’. At his most characteristic, Auden manages to sound both omniscient and a little lost. A cool vertigo.
For the Cleveland Review of Books, Yongyu Chen reviews Johannes Göransson’s book of poems from last summer (Summer, August 2022):
In Johannes Göransson’s Summer, another word for summer could be toxin, could be wound, could be debt—could be violence, rabble, inflation, angel, döttrar, poetry, translation. To draw the lines of contagion linking each term to the others in their reticulation+circulation, uncartesian grid, would offer something like the topography of Summer. A summer map.
And for the New York Times, Robert Pinsky reviews the final, posthumous poems (True Life, February) translated by Clare Cavanaugh from Polish poet Adam Zagajewski, who died in 2021:
One way to define his importance is related to the title True Life—characteristically large, with an equally characteristic, gentle smile at its own unlikely and much-thwarted ambition and its limits. Poetry’s great mission is the pursuit of truth on a human scale, bound by the measure of each person’s mortal voice. Truth—unattainable or unspeakable or as illegible as the Sibyl’s trillions of leaves, blown every which way by the wind—remains the object of pursuit. The book’s epigraph is from the philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas: “The true life is absent. But we are in the world.”
Phil Christman review of the Lauck book for the New Republic: “When we read and write history, we are not always looking for models—which is good, because they aren’t always there—but we are at least looking to make sense of something, to situate ourselves against a background. Every historian is a moon-struck theorist.”
“We’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but we can love a book by its spine.”
National Review is accepting applications for its summer editorial internship.
The Catherine Project’s Spring Seminar will occur throughout the day on Friday, March 10th and consist of one-off discussions of the short story “The Dead’’ by James Joyce.
Spring issue of the Yale Review coming soon.
From a reader: “The DC Jazz Jam (a pre-pandemic staple) is having two open jam sessions at Haydee's in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood, on March 5th and March 19th. I think these are worth promoting.”
Public Lecture: art historian Sarah Bond on “The Human Figure in Art,” Friday, April 14.
On Wednesday we shared that DCist story about the Eckington Buy Nothing group. Here’s a big Wired feature about Buy Nothing groups.
Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lear run has been extended through April 8. They’ve also announced their 2023–2024 season, “Greater Wonders.” Evita, MacBeth, MacBeth in Stride, As You Like It, etc.
Tonight at the Kennedy Center, Simone Young conducts Brahms’ Symphony No. 2 and Chen Reiss sings Mozart with the National Symphony Orchestra.
March 7 | FSG
by Eleanor Catton
From Kirkus: An eco-activist group in New Zealand becomes entangled with an American billionaire in Catton's first novel since the Booker Prize–winning The Luminaries (2013).
Mira Bunting is the brainchild behind Birnam Wood, an “activist collective” of guerrilla gardeners who plant on unused land (sometimes with permission) and scavenge (or steal) materials to grow food. Mira is a “self-mythologising rebel” whose passions are tempered only somewhat by Shelley Noakes, who sees herself as Mira’s “sensible, dependable, predictable sidekick.” This role is starting to chafe—as is the lack of money—and Shelley plans to leave Birnam Wood. Just as Shelley’s about to cut ties, Mira makes an announcement: On a recent scouting trip near Korowai National Park, she located a farming property owned by a Kiwi farmer named Owen Darvish, temporarily abandoned due to a recent earthquake. This land is soon to transfer ownership from Darvish to an uber-rich tech CEO looking for a spot to doomstead. When the businessman, Robert Lemoine, catches Mira scouting on the land, he offers to bankroll the group to the tune of $100,000 since the act will help his bid for New Zealand citizenship. What could go wrong? Catton swirls among perspectives, including those of Mira, Shelley, Lemoine, Darvish and his wife, and a former Birnam Wood member called Tony, whose aspirations to fame look within reach as he suspects he’s got a major scoop concerning Lemoine’s real motives. In many ways, the novel is as saturated with moral scrutiny and propulsive plotting as 19th-century greats; it's a twisty thriller via Charles Dickens, only with drones. But where Dickens, say, revels in exposing moral bankruptcy, Catton is more interested in the ways everyone is cloudy-eyed with their own hubris in different ways. The result is a story that’s suspended on a tightrope just above nihilism, and readers will hold their breath until the last page to see whether Catton will fall.
This blistering look at the horrors of late capitalism manages to also be a wildly fun read.
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to The Washington Review of Books to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.