WRB—Nov. 19, 2022
No one ever sent us a witticism.
“For a Managing Editor, Pascal’s wager is very relevant today. Personally, I very much doubt that book reviews have any meaning. Yet I wager that they have, so I’m in a Pascalian situation.”
To do list:
Follow us on Twitter [I guess? I mean what else are we going to do?];
avail yourself of our world-famous classified ads, now stored on this page for non-paying readers to access, either by placing or responding to one;
It’s Saturday and the weather is finally a little cold. Read this long thing about bonsai trees and the eccentrics who style them, by Robert Moor in The New Yorker: “It’s not difficult to create a tiny tree: you just need to restrict the roots and prune the branches. This has been known since at least the Tang dynasty in China, circa 700 A.D. One method was to plant a seedling in a dried orange peel and trim any roots that poked through. With a smaller root base, the tree cannot find the necessary nutrients to shoot upward, and thus remains small. In certain environments, like rocky cliffsides, this can occur naturally. The artistry, then, lies in shaping the tree. For most bonsai practitioners, “styling” a tree is a question of which branches to cut off and how to bend those which remain, using metal wire, so that the plant’s over-all form elicits a feeling of something ancient and wild. The usual aim is not to imitate the profile of big trees—which are considered too messy to be beautiful—but to intensely evoke them. In culinary terms, bonsai is bouillon.”
Or maybe this, from Smithsonian Magazine, Matti Friedman’s extensive survey of the history of the humble date: “Most cultures in these parts had a role for the date palm in the story they told about the world, as the Iraqi-born food writer Nawal Nasrallah describes in her 2011 book Dates: A Global History, an invaluable compilation of lore. The Sabians of Mesopotamia associated the tree with lunar worship and called it sindirqa, or “road to the moon.” The ancient Sumerians believed the palm was the first tree ever created, and that it was tended by a godly raven. The Roman chronicler Pliny the Elder believed the date palm to be the nesting site of the phoenix, the self-incinerating, self-resurrecting bird of myth.”
And in the TLS, Mick Herron writes about John le Carré: “Failure has become a leitmotif of the author’s—prominent even in those novels written during more optimistic times—and to be one of Le Carré’s people means accustoming oneself to it; accepting that every triumph knocks hollow and every mole uncovered reveals the devastation done to the lawn. Which is why it never ceases to thrill to read that, ‘from these quite dismal beginnings … George Smiley went over to the attack.’”
Merve Erme [About whose scholarly work, more below.] interviews Norwegian author Jon Fosse, who “converted to Catholicism in 2012, quit drinking, and remarried. He then started writing Septology, a seven-volume novel written in a single sentence and exemplifying what he has described as his turn to ‘slow prose,’” [Whew! —Chris] for The New Yorker: “But then I wanted to slow down my writing, my life, my everything. That’s how I started: I wanted to write prose and make it slow, these long, flowing sentences. And Septology was very long. When I was through with it, it was fifteen hundred pages at least. And then I had to cut some of the essayistic parts. I had some hundred or more theological essays written that I took away from Septology.”
Sanaë Lemoine interviews Aliza Abarbanel and Tanya Bush about their new volume of Cake Zine (Wicked Cake, November), which if you’re not keeping up, is “a hedonistic exploration of history, pop culture, literature, and art through sweets.” [Whew. —Chris] for BOMB magazine: “And then, after Humble Pie, we’ll do Midnight Snack. That said, we’re never going to move away from cake completely. Cake is the foundation. We’ve talked about publishing cake content in our newsletter, even when we’re working on projects that aren’t tied to cake. I think for ourselves and for the contributors, we didn’t want to only be talking about how cake can be endlessly subverted in different ways. We want to move onto other topics, before cake becomes stale.”
Joy Clarkson interviews Rowan Williams, who’s, you know, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, about his new plays [We linked to Mark Clemens’ Fare Forward review in August.] for Plough quarterly: “You put your finger on what I think is an absolutely fundamental human dilemma. We need to tell our stories because if we can’t speak of what we’ve endured, then it festers and eats away. On the other hand, if we can only ever speak about the past, we remain trapped with it. That is exactly what art tries to negotiate. How do we speak about our traumas without just recycling them?” [For more on the “stories”’ front, see the end of the Reviews section. Quoted: “We have fictions in order not to die of the forlornness of our condition in the world.” Whew… —Chris]
In the NYRB, Edward Mendelson writes about Mrs. Dalloway in two recent editions (Annotated, from Liveright, ed. Merve Erme, 2021, and Critical, from Norton, ed. Anne Fernald, 2021): “The German critic Erich Auerbach seems to have been the first to recognize Woolf as a writer in the epic tradition, not merely a great novelist. His magisterial survey of European literature, Mimesis (1946), begins with the visible outer world of action portrayed in the Odyssey and ends—in a triumph of the inner life—with the invisible world of thought portrayed in To the Lighthouse. The writer whom Auerbach most loved was Dante, and he saw in To the Lighthouse ‘a similarity to Dante’s Comedy.’ Woolf’s novel points toward universal meanings through the undramatic and ‘externally insignificant’ events of two days—a mother of eight gives a dinner party at her summer house in Scotland; ten years later one of her sons steers a sailboat to an island while, out on the lawn, an amateur painter struggles to finish her canvas. Auerbach’s insight applies with equal force to Mrs. Dalloway.”
[I think I’ve put in like five different Ogden review links in this section this year. Sorry!! —Chris] (Maggie Doherty for the new journal Parapraxis, which we mentioned earlier this month.)
Note from Sophia Stewart on Peter Brooks’ new book (Seduced by Story: The Use and Abuse of Narrative, October) [We already mentioned the Times review last month.]: “[T]here’s a powerful narrative force at work today that Brooks, 84, understandably fails to consider in Seduced by Story: the internet. In doing so, he doesn’t just badly circumscribe his argument; he misses how the ability to read critically and recognize the way a narrative is constructed is even more important now than when the novel, the subject of most of his focus, reigned as one of the most prominent forms of media. His sole mentions of the internet—vague acknowledgments that ‘Twitter and the meme dominate the presentation of reality’ and that ours is an ‘era of fake news and Facebook’—fail to grasp that on the internet especially, more attentive, analytical reading is essential.”
NYRB Sale. It’s the big tiered one. [Probably a trite joke about Stoner or something tk. —Chris] [My wife and I are considering picking up In the Freud Archives, Lucky Jim, Kaputt, and The Recognitions. —Nic]
The Paris Review is looking for an intern.
Dan Sinykin and Laura McGrath are launching a new permanent section at Public Books called Culture Industries, which will continue their series “Hacking the Culture Industries.” [Which attentive readers may remember from WRB Oct. 12, 2022.]
Meanjin Quarterly launched an online book review section this month, with a lot of great little takes on recent books.
Martin Morse Wooster, one of our more devoted readers, who always wrote in when he found a typo (often), was recently killed in a hit-and-run accident. John J. Miller wrote a touching tribute to him in National Review. Rest In Peace.
David L. Schindler, editor-in-chief of the North American edition of Communio: International Catholic Review, longtime head of the John Paul II Institute in Washington, D.C., author and writer, and beloved professor, passed away this week. Rest In Peace.
January 10 | Fourth Estate
The Wolf Hall Picture Book
by Hilary Mantel, Ben Miles, and George Miles
From the publisher: Hilary Mantel, Ben Miles, the stage’s celebrated Thomas Cromwell, and his brother, photographer George Miles, spent many years exploring the locations we know Thomas Cromwell visited and inhabited—Putney, Austin Friars, Wolf Hall, the Tower of London—to capture the faint traces of Tudor England and his extraordinary life. Accompanied with extracts from The Wolf Hall Trilogy, some of them published here for the first time, and including a stunning new essay by its author, these photographs reveal a world that is shadowy, frightening, sometimes whimsical – a portrait of a country in conversation with its past.
[Not saying that there’s anything wrong with this one per se, but I definitely sometimes choose books for this section just because the idea of them is abstractly amusing. —Chris]
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