WRB—Nov. 15, 2023
Dost thou see a Review of Books before thee?
Now, Doyle, don’t tell me that he’s just an unemployed Managing Editor amusing the neighborhood with his email newsletter. Don’t tell me that.
In Commonweal, Sam Adler-Bell on George Scialabba’s most recent collection of essays (Only A Voice, August) [The Upcoming book in WRB—Aug. 5, 2023.] and why he tends to inspire gratitude in his readers, especially fellow critics:
What I have felt most consistently is gratitude. Scialabba toiled for thirty-five years at a desk job in the windowless basement of Harvard’s Center for Government and International Studies, writing book reviews in his spare time; he has much to say about the economic conditions that enable or disable the life of the mind. (A sufferer from chronic depression, Scialabba credits his union for enabling him to take several paid medical leaves. “This is one of many ways in which strong unions are a matter of life and death,” he writes in How To Be Depressed.) And yet, for Scialabba, the essence of intellectual and creative exchange remains a gift economy: “When we’re young, our souls are stirred, our spirits kindled, by a book or some other experience,” he once said, “and in time, when we’ve matured, we look to pay the debt, to pass the gift along.” Gratitude, deeply felt, enables generosity. And never has a writer of such enviable talents displayed such undiminishing patience for his reader, such evident and unpretentious pleasure in the pedagogical function of good prose.
[Conservatives I have known refused to shut up about both of these guys. —Steve] [Walker Percy is okay! Leave Walker Percy alone! —Chris] [It wasn’t a value judgment. There are many things I refuse to shut up about, and they’re all good. —Steve]
Brian A. Smith on Walker Percy for the Acton Institute blog [I believe they prefer Religion & Liberty Online. —Chris]:
Percy’s questions help us see the real deficiency of virtually all self-help literature: these works presuppose that by simply learning the “habits of effective people” or practicing some slate of life management strategies, we will emerge as better versions of ourselves. What most people learn from embracing these fads is that even if we succeed in living out the advice, the self we help is still human and remains stuck in an inescapable predicament—a crisis driven by the inadequacy of our self-understanding.
Matthew Schmitz on Russell Kirk’s ghost stories in First Things:
Kirk’s sympathy encompasses the ghosts themselves. M. R. James, one of the form’s great practitioners, held that the specter in a ghost story always “should be malevolent or odious.” Kirk stood this dictum on its head by depicting ghosts who are friends to the innocent and guides to the lost. For James, a ghost’s touch—hairy, clammy, dead yet moving—is terrible. For Kirk, it can be strangely comforting. In “An Encounter by Mortstone Pond,” Kirk describes an orphan boy who recently buried his mother. One day the boy’s sad thoughts are interrupted by the frightening realization that some spirit has drawn near. But then, inaudibly, words of comfort come to him, and he feels “the faintest pressure upon his right hand.” Someone, somehow, has eased his suffering.
Isadora’s reach exceeds her grasp. Her desire to write the whole world notwithstanding, Fear of Flying is a sexual self-portrait, kin to the self-examinations women’s groups undertook on living room floors, or to “The Dinner Party,” the installation of sculpted vulvas on ceramic plates that the artist Judy Chicago was working on in 1973. It is also a road novel, a hedonist-feminist Kerouac. Isadora flees her husband, and his psychoanalytic conference in Vienna, to race through Europe with a manifestly deficient paramour, Adrian Goodlove, in pursuit of a “platonic ideal” she calls “the zipless fuck”: sex without past or future.
[“The marriage plot, the abortion plot, the screw-me-sideways-without-a-zipper plot: Each has run its course without effecting the longed-for revolution.” Have the novelists hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways, and is the point to change it? —Steve] [Anahid Nersessian has a book about this (Keats’s Odes: A Lover’s Discourse, 2021). I quote from it, during a somewhat, if I’m being honest, downright mopey period, in WRB May 13 and May 24 of this year. May 13 also has what is perhaps my favorite subject line of the year: “Sober essays by the oldest female inhabitant of Baltimore,” from the Rebecca West passage towards the end. And a Robert Hass poem, which Julia, of course, illustrates through copious Levis quotation—all themes you’ll find taken up if you read this email thoroughly this morning. —Chris]
- on the philosophical and theological sources of the geometrical understanding of Gothic architects:
Many have noted that these tall and slender structures suggest upward movement and transcendence. But they also reflect the architects’ fascination with geometric harmony. This is demonstrated by the minutes of a meeting between French, German, and Italian architects in the fourteenth century, who debated which modular figure should be used for Milan cathedral—they all agreed that it would be built according to a geometrical formula. In fact, the French expert accuses the others of ignoring the dictates of geometry; his opponents deny the accusation, but are happy to concede that they have nothing but contempt for such an architect.
The headline of this piece in Texas Monthly is “The Great Cajun Turtle Heist.” What more could you want? [Man, I love stuff like this. —Chris]:
It took twenty minutes before Viola inquired about her own fate. “A question for you: Is it me that’s in trouble or my family?” she asked. Stinebaugh replied that she was the primary focus of his investigation but that her sons and boyfriend were also targets. He added that he was aware of her brother, Colo, who claimed to have caught more turtles than anyone alive. Viola took umbrage at this characterization. “Colo caught a lot of turtles, but so did I, back in the day,” she replied.
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