WRB—June 24, 2023
Books and covers
The WRB ricochets from the slow burn of the present to the all-at-once rush of the past.
Joy Williams foron Rachel Ingalls:
Rachel Ingalls, who died in 2019 at the age of seventy-eight, is a writer whose fate was to be, even when she was alive, rediscovered again and again. Rediscovered, repackaged. Her selected and collected works now have forewords, afterwords, forewords and afterwords. Her preferred length is the inexact one of the novella, though some are deemed novels and presented as such—Mrs. Caliban, Binstead’s Safari.
Charlie Savage, who is now a Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington correspondent for the NYT, reflects on helping popularize “The Dark Side of the Rainbow” (the thing where you sync The Dark Side of the Moon with The Wizard of Oz) in the early days of the internet:
Part of the enigma of “The Dark Side of the Rainbow” is that even today nobody knows its origin. Back in 1995, my effort to figure out who first did it went nowhere, and no one has made a credible claim to being its originator in the decades since then. We are left to speculate why anyone would have thought to try putting the two works together—or if it was instead born of a coincidence itself. Perhaps the album was playing in the background when someone channel surfed to the movie on television and noticed what was happening—as hard as this is to imagine, it’s at least statistically more likely to happen with two of the most popular mass entertainments of the last century.
Other technological forces were at work in the early ’90s, making the pairing more likely to be discovered. As a practical matter, the experience could not be replicated until the arrival of the VCR. And since being off a few seconds in either direction would ruin the effect, it also helped to have the album available on compact discs, which played straight through without needing to be flipped over like records or cassettes. And then, of course, there was the internet, where a strange rumor sourced to some people in Los Angeles could wend its way to a college freshman in Boston.
Rachel Yoder in Harper’s on her Amish and Mennonite heritage and the folk medicine tradition “called, depending on whom you ask, powwow or Braucherei or pulling pain or active prayer or witchcraft or folk-cultural religious ritual”:
If Rachel were smarter she might say something insightful here about the nature of reality. That experience is not so much an objective reality as a projection of the self. That as she moved into God, the Rachels around her multiplied, moments constellated in complex webs, and the people of our lives and stories began to stack on top of one another, until eventually, when she looked into one face, she was looking into every face: She was the middle-aged writer who had lost her history just as she was the opportunistic old woman who had built a business based on her electricity and then too her dubious daughter, confronting the opportunistic writer, protecting the electric mother. The Pennsylvania Dutch scholar reminded her of her autodidact father reminded her of the curious man she married reminded her of a long-lost friend. The old woman of the dream was the healer she would meet soon on this trip was the therapist she saw biweekly was the daughter she never would have. The glimmer.
- in the New Statesman on the intellectual journey of Leszek Kolakowski:
His friend Zygmunt Bauman saw it coming: Kolakowski, he suggested, was a jester in the process of becoming a priest. Drawing on the work of the Romanian historian Mircea Eliade, Kolakowski argued that the “sacred order” of myth, including religion, was an “unconditioned reality” without which reason itself would lose all coherence. “Christ cannot be removed from our culture,” Kolakowski warned in “Jesus Christ, Prophet and Reformer” (1965), “if that culture is still to exist.” Christ is a living model, continuing to reveal the “wretchedness” of our world, continuing to show us how to speak the truth, to “defend it without evasion”, and, if necessary, how to “resist to the end”. It was not an expression of religious faith, but nor was it a disavowal either. Evasive and indirect as the essay is, it was enough to turn old allies into enemies. And old enemies into friends. The archbishop of Krakow, Karol Wojtyla, quoted his essay in a sermon. Ten years later, he recommended it to the Pope. In the space of a decade, Kolakowski had inverted himself. Criticism of Heaven was trumping criticism of Earth.
- reports back from The Villages in Florida for The Lamp:
The rain had died down now, but Robert still insisted on driving me back to Spanish Springs. The town square steamed with petrichor, and Robert surprised me by pointing out a bar he knew and suggesting we head in. His self-imposed house arrest seemed to crumble as soon as he had someone to go out with. But Robert did not have an easy time at the bar. There was a basketball game playing loudly on the big screens, and loud country-rock over the speakers, and a table of loudly obese middle-aged women in skimpy outfits roaring just to our left. Robert sucked dejectedly at his Guinness. “I can’t be rushing about like this,” he said. He kept hobbling out of his seat to wander around and look for a guy he knew. This guy was a friend of his, and before Robert had gone into house arrest his friend was reliably in this bar at this time, every single day. But today he wasn’t there. “He’ll be along later,” Robert said. But he must have known, as I did, that his friend was almost certainly dead.
Robert might be the best and kindest person I’ve ever met. I haven’t changed his name.
Kathryn Schulz, in The New Yorker, reviews Michael Finkel’s new book on the art thief Stéphane Breitwieser (The Art Thief: A True Story of Love, Crime, and a Dangerous Obsession, June 27) [It is my impression that all of our subscribers are huge sickos who love nothing more than reading about art theft. —Steve] [In my experience this is in fact always the case. —Chris]:
Unlike most art thieves but very much like a classic heist hero, Breitwieser steals art because he loves it. He spends his free time reading histories of art, biographies of artists, and catalogues raisonnés, and he tells Finkel that beautiful objects should be liberated from the “prison” of museums so that they can be experienced appropriately: at length, up close, in the privacy of his bedroom. Almost any of the works he steals could net him a small fortune, and plenty of them—a Brueghel, a Watteau, a Lucas Cranach the Elder—are worth a large one, yet he refuses to sell any. Instead, he lives off his mother’s patience, his girlfriend’s meagre salary, and intermittent low-wage jobs, leaving him so short on money that, Finkel writes, “even on getaway drives he avoids paying highway tolls.” But then, Breitwieser isn’t big on getaway drives in the first place; like the classic heist hero, he disapproves of haste, violence, and drama of all kinds. The best theft, to his mind, is not so much stylish as invisible.
Reading Jack Skelley is like driving in a Corvette up the 101 in Malibu on fairy dust while a steady stream of lingual ephemera smacks you repeatedly in the face. Throughout Fear, Jack acts as a conduit or force field that phrases, tropes, and fantasies can pass through; despite his readily apparent alienation, he cannot help but revel in the hideousness of consumer culture. On nearly every page of Fear, America’s raunchiness comes out in spurts, as if unable to be suppressed (think of a piece of duct tape placed over a gushing geyser). As Sabrina Tarasoff puts it in her brilliant afterword, “FOKA is a cosmic system, a ride script, an entertainment architecture.” Not unlike Ulysses, it is a novel that often seems to write itself, to possess a mind of its own, despite ultimately taking place within the mind of a character.
Jo Livingstone reviews Bonnie Gordon’s new book on the production of sound by humans and machines in 4Columns (Voice Machines: The Castrato, the Cat Piano, and Other Strange Sounds, May):
This is how and why Gordon discusses the castrato in the language of machinery. The book’s subtitle mentions a “cat piano,” a horrid and hopefully apocryphal notion formed by kittens supposedly penned in a row and made to squeak by keyboard-connected spikes striking their tails. Gordon shows how, in the context of new Galilean telescopes, which prosthetically enhanced the human eye, and advances in hydraulic and air-powered musical organs, the cat piano and the castrato—a human musician like, say, mezzo-soprano Loreto Vittori, composer of the opera La Galatea (1639)—fall into the same category of instruments “mechanized” by technologies like surgery, training programs, and cages. (Gordon is wise to leave much of the detail of the surgeries and the traditions that formalized them to the end of the book, which will at least make readers hoping for scandalous tidbits work for their gratification.)
- in the local Post with a dual review of the new books by Caroline Calloway (Scammer) and Natalie Beach (Adult Drama: And Other Essays, June) [The Upcoming book from June 14. Amusing enough! —Chris]:
The important thing is that Scammer is good: outrageous, turbulent and as raw as a wound, but good, the kind of book you read in a single shudder. Like Adult Drama, it is electric with the urgency of adolescence. I might not want to be Calloway’s friend, much less her publisher, but we don’t want the same things from our intimates or associates that we crave in our fictions—and Calloway is, by her own admission, first and foremost an invention.
[I noted above that our subscribers are huge sickos for reading about art theft. I believe they are also huge sickos for reading about the possibility of cataclysmic natural disasters. —Steve] [Again, basically yeah they love it. —Chris]
New developments in Dad Studies.
“We are in the throes of a reading crisis.” [That’s why we have the WRB.]
Where do book covers come from? [Mrs. Krabappel and Principal Skinner were in the closet making book covers and I saw one of the book covers and the book cover looked at me! —Steve]
- will discuss her forthcoming book (Self-Made: Creating Our Identities from Da Vinci to the Kardashians, June) with at the Connecticut Avenue Politics and Prose on the evening of Thursday, June 29.
June 27 | Doubleday
A Thread of Violence: A Story of Truth, Invention, and Murder
By Mark O’Connell
From the publisher: Malcolm Macarthur was a well-known Dublin socialite and heir. Suave and urbane, he passed his days mingling with artists and aristocrats, reading philosophy, living a life of the mind. But by 1982, his inheritance had dwindled to almost nothing, a desperate threat to his lifestyle. Macarthur hastily conceived a plan: He would commit bank robbery, of the kind that had become frightfully common in Dublin at the time. But his plan spun swiftly out of control, and he needlessly killed two innocent people. The ensuing manhunt, arrest, and conviction amounted to one of the most infamous political scandals in modern Irish history, contributing to the eventual collapse of a government.
At once propulsive and searching, A Thread of Violence is a hard look at a brutal act, its subterranean origins, and the long shadow it casts. It offers a haunting and insightful examination of the lies we tell ourselves—and the lengths we’ll go to preserve them.
June 27 | Crossway
Elisabeth Elliot: A Life
by Lucy S. R. Austen
From the publisher: Elisabeth Elliot (1926–2015) is one of the most widely known Christians of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. After the death of her husband, Jim, and four other missionaries at the hands of Waorani tribesmen in Ecuador, Elliot famously returned to live among the same people who had killed her husband. Her legacy, however, extends far beyond these events. In the years that followed, Elliot became a prolific writer and speaker, touching the lives of countless people around the world. In this single-volume biography, Lucy S. R. Austen takes readers on an in-depth journey through the life of Elisabeth Elliot—her birth to missionary parents, her courtship and marriage to Jim Elliot, her missions work in Ecuador, and her private life and public work after she returned to the United States.