Thanks to our friend Edan, who is well-connected in the world of audio books, Mrs. Millions and I had a 6 cd, seven and half hour, unabridged work of literature to keep us company on our recent trip from Chicago to New York, where we’re picking up the dog, and various of our far flung possessions. The Outlaw Sea was a riveting work of non-fiction by an accomplished reporter. Langewiesche is a correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly and has written several books that combine hard reportage with the more ephemeral qualities of a travel writer. In this case, Langewiesche’s goal is to illustrate with bold examples the ungovernability of the sea. For him, this is a law of nature, but it is also a consequence of the inability of the laws of men to deal with sea’s expanses. His case studies, if you will, are many, but he spends the most time on a few memorable stories: the modern day pirate attack on the Alondra Rainbow in 1999; the post-apocalyptic landscape of the world’s most heavily trafficked ship graveyard, the beaches of Alang, India; and the wreck of the ferry Estonia on which at least 852 people died when it went down in a storm in the Baltic Sea in 1994. The subtext in all of these stories is that the tragedies contained within are, at least partly, a result of the inability of modern societies to govern the seas. The greater implication, as Langewiesche makes clear, is that such lawlessness and statelessness make the sea fertile for the operations of lawless, stateless terrorists. The sea is everywhere, but it is nowhere in the eyes of the law. These timely concerns, and Langewiesche’s sturdy prose elevate a book of riveting tales of disasters at sea to a book of more weighty importance.
Belly is a book about a man named Belly. Belly aka William O'Leary is a grandfather now, just out of jail after four years in for illegal bookkeeping, but he used to be a real big shot in Saratoga Springs. He was also a drunk, cruelly dismissive of his family and torn up by the death of his third daughter. When he arrives back home he finds that his old stomping grounds have changed and that his three surviving daughters are wary of his presence. The book encompasses Belly's first week of freedom and is more a character study of this difficult man than a plot-driven novel. Because Belly is so stubborn and belligerent, it is difficult to commiserate with his bitterness about the incursion of WalMart and fancy chain coffee shops. In fact, I found Belly, the man, to be so repugnant that I thought that Lisa Selin Davis was trying to point out that he was wrong, that those chain stores aren't so bad, but based on this interview, I can see that that is not the case. Belly is an admirable debut, with a handful of well-crafted characters, especially Belly and his oldest daughter Nora, but I would have more enjoyed reading about these characters in a more dynamic plot.
I approach any novel set in Istanbul with trepidation, ready for overbearing references to the sights and sounds of the city: bazaars, minarets, East-meets-West platitudes. I started reading Benjamin Wood's The Ecliptic the same week I had been watching a new screen adaptation of John le Carré's The Night Manager: a story partly set in Istanbul and a production that ticks every single orientalist trope on the list. But Wood’s captivating novel is not set in Istanbul proper; it opens in Heybeliada, an island half an hour from the old town by ferry, where the usual visual shorthand for Istanbul’s exoticism may not be readily available. And in fact, after the Heybeliada opening, most of the novel takes place in London and Scotland, where our narrator Elspeth Conroy’s character and artistic sensibilities are formed. The shifting landscapes are the first of many disorientations that Wood sets up for his reader in this haunting narrative. Plot lines unravel; characters appear and disappear -- the minute you think you’ve pinned them down, they turn out to be changelings. The action is set in a remote artists’ colony called Portmantle; Elspeth is a muralist who has sought refuge after suffering acute artists’ block. Thwarted artists are accepted to the Portmantle sanctuary through a very secretive, highly vetted process of recommendation. They are told to get rid of their watches, burn their passports, and hold on to a single ferry token that will take them home once they have completed the artwork they have come to the island to finish. These are measures to try to defeat time; there is nothing as destructive to the creative process as a ticking clock. Wood is already luring us in: The artists have left their worlds behind, dear reader -- escape into my fictional world and make time stand still for a while. Writing and painting have often been used as metaphors for one another; in The Ecliptic, painting is not the metaphor but the signified. The novel is above all concerned with the creative process, and the real and imagined obstacles artists struggle against. From the very start Elspeth’s magnetic voice draws us into this space where time stands still, with elliptical sentences and vague references to the present day. Wood is very deft at establishing a sense of timelessness on the island; only after a dozen pages do we learn that that the story is set in the 1960's. ‘The year I arrived was 1962, but since then I had watched so many winters frost the surrounding pines that they begun to blur into one grey season, as vast and misted as the sea," Elspeth tells us. The novelist prudently avoids placing too many signposts to give period detail, a fallacy we see often in historical fiction. Wood is more interested in intricacies of human character, the artistic process, and the way we perceive time. When it comes, detail is very evocative in its subtlety: the indented ferry tokens, international calls that you have to put through an operator, the kind of tinned food that people had to make do with in London, transatlantic passages on ocean-liners as viable alternatives to flying. Similarly, the setting is muted. A group of artists is working on an island which happens to be off the coast of Istanbul; the author is more interested in the demons they are fighting than he is in the skyline, and Wood is very good at painting artistic death-drive through the artists at the sanctuary. The conversations on the island are fueled by a Turkish beverage called sahlep, one of the few concessions that Wood makes to the setting. We hear the staff speak Turkish; there is backgammon playing, and some references to the food (and a blasphemy: some of the artists detest ayran, a national yogurt drink). The head of the community is a Provost speaking perfect English—the sort of person into whose making the whole of Europe seems to have contributed, like Conchis in John Fowles’s The Magus. Everyone at Portmantle has a code name, so that expectations attached to real names, like passports, can be left behind. There are long-timers and short-timers on the island, and Elspeth, aka Knell, is one of the close-knit group of long-timers. These are all artists who have known success, many of whom believe that the best of their work are already behind them. Asking one another about the nature of their work, and particularly about “progress” is the highest taboo in the colony. Conversation are a strange, dreamy mix of expressions of desire to leave the island and fear of the real world beyond. At times it is unclear, even, whether they are on the island of their own volition. Elspeth explores the pinewoods on the island and discovers a kind of mushroom that glows blue in the dark, adding to our sense of enchantment. Wood gives us an elaborate description of Elspeth’s trials and errors trying to make paint from these mushrooms, a commentary on an artist’s need for precision when it comes to the ingredient and medium. The paint she eventually produces helps her make a breakthrough with the mural project she’s trying to finish, a representation of the constellations commissioned by a planetarium. The book takes its name from the apparent trajectory the sun follows in the earth’s horizon, and Wood takes us on a beautiful diversion on astronomy, navigation, and movement. Elspeth’s voice when telling us about the ecliptic is dirge-like and incantatory, inviting us to feel like sailors who tell their positions by the stars, putting their trust in a virtual path. Taken with the ecliptic’s overall bearing on the story, the narrative becomes a poem about the different forms of traveling and staying put. Into this odd, charged mix comes a young artist for whom Elspeth develops protective instincts. One night, she discovers him naked and semi-unconscious in the cupboard where she keeps her magic mushrooms. He is there and in that state not because he has sampled the flora but because he is a sleepwalker, a condition complicated by the nightmares he has when he wanders around the sanctuary half-asleep. This is a novel in which the novelist is always more than a few steps ahead of the reader, and by the time Wood reveals the identity of the mysterious boy, I had hatched all kinds of improbable theories. But I seem to be marooned on the island myself-- that’s the kind of place it is. Although the novel opens there, Elspeth soon turns the story to her formative years in Scotland and London. We see her defy the art school establishment with a little help from a professor, and become apprenticed to painter James Culver, a reluctant mentor who will become a life-long obsession. She starts life in London in an attic -- we see what you did there, Wood -- in the studio owned by Culver, a painter of the Francis Bacon school (picture empty chairs in glum rooms). We hop on the bus with Elspeth to run errands on the Marylebone High Street. It is a joy to travel on London buses with Elspeth as she describes the scenes before her, and talks us through how she transcribes her impressions onto the canvas. Shortly after she is commissioned to put on her own show through Culver’s influence, he disappears from the London art scene, and her life, leaving her without her father figure and muse. ‘Though all artists strive for recognition, they cannot foresee how it will come to them or how much they will compromise to maintain success,” Elspeth pronounces as she tells us about her days without Culver. We see her once experimental and visceral art become commodified in the London art scene. Despite her commercial success, the lack of an immediate, intimate relationship with a truthful fellow artist leaves her lost. Her descent into despair is precipitated by an unfortunate adventure with the critic Wilfred Searle, whose observations cut too close to the bone: “You need critics like me,” he says “or nobody will notice what you paint.” Not long after a night of “love” which neither of them enjoy, and a subsequent scathing review by Searle, Elspeth has a breakdown on an ocean-liner en route to New York, where she hopes she may find Culver. She is saved from utter destruction by a psychiatrist on board, Victor, who is the most benevolent character in the novel and who, from the moment he opened his mouth, I imagined as being played by Hugh Bonneville. Much as I appreciated Victor’s calm voice, it did feel like Elspeth was being passed from one man to another, from art school professor, to master/muse, to critic, to shrink. Elspeth gets a second chance with Culver. After a brief period of happiness and clarity, the ellipsis and the ecliptic make themselves felt again: there are holes in both Elspeth’s and Culver’s stories of the time they were apart; the oblique trajectories they narrate to one another don’t quite seem to add up as they head for another separation. Their time together remind us that the mind is really a lonely hunter, how it builds whole worlds out of fragments chanced upon in disparate places. When the narrative returns to Portmantle we also see how, inadvertently, people can become the stuff of one another’s nightmares. Elspeth’s narrative carries the reader effortlessly from Heybeliada to Scotland to London to New York and back to Heybeliada again. Her cadence goads you on to the next sentence, makes you loath to put down the book and break the melody. Her voice reminded me of Serena Fromme in Ian McEwan's Sweet Tooth (perhaps there is a particular manner in which male authors assume female voices that draws in the female reader). Like an artist working toward some final, perfect expression, the novel’s incantatory tones make you believe that if you persevere with the tale, it will reveal to you the secret at its center. But the secret turns out to be one we already know: that sanctuaries that we seek out or build for ourselves are vulnerable to the demons we take with us wherever we go.
Smith charts the wake left by the words. She seems most interested in talk: a genre without form or discipline, that can match the mess of grief. Through sentences slung and stuttered, forced to double back and revise, people give and receive solace.
Near the end of Listen to This , his newest collection of essays, Alex Ross quotes the philosopher John Dewey in his 1934 treatise, Art as Experience: “When an art product once attains classic status, it somehow becomes isolated from the human conditions under which it was brought into being and from the human consequences it engenders in actual life experience.” It would be near impossible for Ross’s readers to be as well-versed as he is in classical tradition—it takes a well-schooled listener to distinguish one opus from another, a chacona from a zarabanda. But Ross has established himself as one of today’s most valuable cultural critics for one particular reason: he can not only show you the qualities of music, but makes you understand why the qualities matter. He makes believers out of know-nothings. In Ross’s book, a collection of work published in The New Yorker, he brings the same characteristic clarity and enthusiasm that made his first book, The Rest is Noise, such a runaway success: Ross writes from an informed yet never didactic perspective, even when he is giving his take on modern recording technology’s effect on the way we experience music. He says “Music is no longer something we do ourselves, or even watch other people do in front of us. It has become a radically virtual medium, an art without a face.” Ross’s major passion, as both a critic and fan, is to bridge the gap between how we talk about music and how we feel about music. When Ross writes about classical music, you can tell he knows his stuff: try to find another music critic working today who was steeped in Berlioz before he discovered the Beatles. But perhaps Ross gained an unusual advantage by coming late to the pop music game: he writes about all genres with a consistent and thorough approach to each genre’s structure and theory. His essay on Björk, compares a piece of music she’d written at the age of 15 with the beginning of the second part of The Rite of Spring. (One can only imagine what his treatise on post-breakdown Brittany Spears might read like.) And his take on Bob Dylan in “I Saw the Light” isn’t so much an actual study of Dylan as it is a take on how the rest of the world is trying to pin him down. Ross rails against the marginalization of classical music as a dead and unpopular art form, and he plays defense against accusations of classical music being arty and too, well, classy for pleasure listening. Every music fan, classical or contemporary, will find something to savor in this collection. Among Ross’s subjects are Mozart’s struggle to find emotional balance in his work and his personal life; attempts to revitalize the Los Angeles Philharmonic audience, and the emergence of Western classical music fans in China. His brief portraits of Cobain and Sinatra are fun, but it’s John Luther Adams and the St. Lawrence Quartet who get the rock-star treatment. (He may also make the New York cabaret act Kiki and Herb the hottest ticket in town.) His essay on Radiohead could sit with the best of Rolling Stone’s think-pieces, except Ross has the ear for the band’s classical roots. “The doubling of the theme, a very Led Zeppelin move, has thunderous logic, as if an equation had been solved. The interplay was as engaging to the mind as anything that had been done in classical music recently, but you could jump and down to it.” The one previously unpublished essay, and the highlight of the book, will blow the minds of even the best-read music aficionados. “Chacona, Lamento, Walking Blues” is Ross’s study of the basso lamento, a repeating bass line meant to represent sorrow across multiple styles of music, from the earliest flamenco melodies to modern-day blue riffs. (He points the reader to both Bach’s 1714 cantata “Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen” and Skip James’s “Devil Got My Woman” as viable examples of this weepy progression.). He traces this melodic marker not only as a strand of sonic DNA across different genres, but as a narrative device that marks storytelling from different kinds of musical authors. (The book’s illustrative playlist is available on iTunes for $20.00, or you can go to the book’s website to sample mentioned songs for free.) It would be a shame to read Ross’s criticism without your headphones on: his description of Marian Anderson’s voice is lush and accurate—“caressing little slides from note to note and a delicately trembling tone adding human warmth”—, but one has to listen to the recording to get the full effect. His affection or derision is so perfectly pitched, you want to run to your radio, your iPod, whatever source you prefer, to share in his enthusiasm. Ross can make you hear his interviewees as well as their music: the laugh of the pianist Michiko Uchida (“wildly oscillating . . . like a flock of songbirds ready to be transcribed by Olivier Messiaen.”) He gives life to the most wooden of composers—who knew the instability of Schubert’s personal life could explain the way his compositions fluctuated between the light and beautiful and the harmonically violent? But it’s in his chapter on the crisis in music education, “Learning the Score,” that the real thrust of Ross’s argument emerges. His time at the Malcolm X Shabazz High School in Newark, New Jersey is an impassioned defense for music in elementary education. It only takes a few lines of Ross’s description of a child tentatively approaching a piano and churning out his own West End variation on Beethoven’s Fur Elise, juxtaposed with the ever-increasing cuts in the availability of such opportunities, to see the vulnerable future ahead for classical music. Real music appreciation, whether it comes to us through nuanced research or infused criticism, is not easy to find. Ross sees audiences falling into a rut: we repeat the classics over and over, canonizing them and crippling their ability to move us. He fears the increasing sterility of music: “Celebrity maestros and virtuosos assumed ersatz creative roles, lending a patina of novelty to superfamiliar music. Living composers became curiosities and nuisances. Almost nothing about the enterprise had any tangible connection to contemporary life.” Yet in Ross, we have heard one wildly entertaining basso lamento that bemoans, and celebrates, the qualities of great art.
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1. Hookup culture is destroying relationships and intimacy, Nancy Jo Sales declared in a 2015 Vanity Fair article. She quoted everyone from banking bros who bragged about their numbers of Tinder conquests, to social scientists who believe hookup culture is as revolutionary as the introduction of marriage 10,000 years ago. But what if you aren’t hooking up? Where do you fit in? Emma Rathbone asks these questions in her second novel, Losing It. Her protagonist, Julia Greenfield, is a directionless 26-year-old fixated on the fact that she’s still a virgin. Not for lack of interest, but misplaced optimism -- she declines a high school boyfriend’s request to have sex in a pool, assuming she could “afford to decline, if only to make the next proposition all the more delicious.” Except the next proposition never comes, and as the years pass Julia’s fear of having to tell men she’s a virgin consumes her and ruins any chance she has of sex. When her parents suggest she spend the summer with her maiden aunt Vivienne in Durham, North Carolina, Julia decides this will be her opportunity to lose “it.” A new girl in town during a hot North Carolina summer seems like the perfect scenario, but awkward Julia self-sabotages: taking a boring office job where everyone is old and married; going on online dates with misogynists; and learning that Vivienne is a 58-year-old virgin, Julia’s own worst nightmare. As she writes, “That was the problem -- to want something so badly was to jam yourself into the wrong places, gum up the works, send clanging vibrations into the cosmos. But how can you step back and affect nonchalance?” We’re supposed to be rooting for Julia, but just as Julia concludes that there is something “too much” about Vivienne’s personality that prevented her from pairing up, there is something likewise lacking in Julia’s that keeps her single. She picks bad lovers, says the wrong thing, and completely misjudges any romantic moment to tragicomic effect. It’s a testament to Rathbone’s writing that we still find Julia sympathetic even as it becomes clearer that Julia’s own poor decision-making is part of the issue. She is an anti-hero of her own story, solely because of a fluke of sexual chemistry and opportunity. As a middle-class, well-educated, heterosexual white woman, Julia should’ve had dozens of opportunities to have sex, but she is a statistical anomaly, who doesn’t quite fit in with the hook-up generation of her peers, or with the self-declared spinster Gen-Xers before her. 2. If there is a poster girl for sex-positive millennials, it’s Lena Dunham. In the 2012 pilot of her HBO show Girls, we see Dunham’s character engaged in bad couch sex with her not-quite boyfriend. This was her sexually liberated battle cry, that millennial women were hooking up and not ashamed of it. Dunham’s own writings have followed suit, with much of her essay collection, Not that Kind of Girl, devoted to her own sexual experiences in college and beyond. In “Take My Virginity (No, Really, Take It),” Dunham writes about being “the oldest virgin in town” (with “town” being Oberlin college) as a college sophomore; already, virginity is a burden that must jettisoned to fit in with the anything-goes sexuality of her liberal arts school and her later career. This freewheeling upper-middle-class millennial archetype appears frequently in fiction, too. Adelle Waldman explores the male perspective in The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P (a book Dunham also praised), in which the titular protagonist sleeps with his intellectual circle as a distraction from the book he’s writing. Sex is presented as an afterthought, though clearly it seeps into all aspects of life, even as everyone pretends not to care. The challenge of so-called laissez-faire sex is the main theme running through Katherine Heiny’s short story collection, Single, Carefree, Mellow. The characters are anything but what the title suggests, spending most of the stories conflicted about their supposedly casual affairs. In these books, it’s never a question of will they or won’t they, but whether it will mean anything after they do. The very impetus of the story is sex, hence there are no stories for the sex-less, intentional or not. The generation ahead of the millennials has reclaimed singledom as a social movement. Kate Bolick’s memoir/history book Spinster is about redefining the formerly pejorative word. To Bolick and the women she profiles -- among them Edith Wharton and Neith Boyce -- spinsterhood isn’t about virginity or chastity, but rather about proudly living as an unmarried, and thus unemcumbered, woman. She concludes that “spinster” is a dated concept: “The choice between being married versus being single doesn’t even belong here in the twenty-first century.” Rebecca Traister develops the thesis further in All the Single Ladies, her nonfiction examination of just what it means socially and politically when women have more choices than just marriage. The first single women spawned revolutionary movements from abolition to suffrage, and with only 20 percent of Americans married by age 29 today, single women could continue to change the dominant culture. “Single women are taking up space in a world that was not built for them. We are a new republic, with a new category of citizen,” she writes. Being single is a call to action in these books, but it’s also a choice. Of course, this new singledom can come with unexpected hitches. “In a culture that has more fully acknowledged female sexuality as a reality, it is perhaps more difficult than ever to be an adult woman who does not have sex,” Traister writes. She continues to tell the story of sexually willing women who couldn’t find the opportunity to have sex, including herself (Traister didn’t lose her virginity until age 24), describing it with increasingly negative vocabulary: freighted, loom, frigid, cumbersome. Virginity is pathologized after a certain age. 3. While millennials and Gen-Xers ultimately have different views on singledom and sex, both are fighting against a previous narrative that dictated social mores (particularly for women). But someone like Rathbone’s Julia Greenfield was never part of the narrative to begin with. This doesn’t leave her much room in literature or even culture. Indeed, literary virgins with any agency are few and far between. The most infamous example is Charles Dickens’s Miss Havisham in Great Expectations. After being left at the altar, she retreats to a mansion, where she never takes off her wedding dress and is described as a witch. She is a pitiful wreck whose forced virginity pushes her to mental breakdown and full removal from society. Even Jeffrey Eugenides’s titular virgins in The Virgin Suicides are more figurative than literal virgins. They are trapped by both their strict parents and the narrative the neighborhood teenage boys impose on them, effectively fetishizing their virginity. All of these women’s fates are decided and described by men, both by the domineering men who keep them virgins and the male authors who write about them. They are modern-day cautionary tales. This is what makes Losing It subversive. We understand Julia’s hesitation, which is almost radical in this world of swipe-happy 20-somethings. But even though her characters may be ashamed of their virginity, Rathbone isn’t ashamed on their behalf, and so gives voice to a silent subgroup. This isn’t just Julia’s story; it’s also Vivienne’s, and Rathbone decides not to give us a definitive reason for why Vivienne is still a virgin. There are no Miss Havishams here. Sometimes nothing is wrong; sometimes it just doesn’t happen. (And sometimes, in Julia’s case, it does.)
Two authors walk into a room. One - brooding, macho, fixated on war, fighting, hunting, and conflict in general. The second - driven to drink, floating above the revelers, with a crazy wife to deal with. If the mythmakers have done their job over the decades, you know exactly who I'm talking about. Even if the facts deviate from, or even contradict, the myth. Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald - two pillars of early twentieth century fiction. Two fixtures of 1920s Paris. Two writers whose actual lives weren't quite what the mythological line would have us believe. Morley Callaghan's That Summer In Paris, written in 1962, reveals Hemingway's and Fitzgerald's true nature, and offers an insider's view of the events in Paris, in the summer of 1929. Callaghan in the mid 1920s was still years away from being the Canadian literary lion that he would become. A college student in Toronto, Callaghan had written a handful of short stories and was employed as a reporter for the Toronto Star. Returning to the newsroom after several years writing European dispatches for the Star was another writer of fiction, a few years Callaghan's senior. That correspondent was Ernest Hemingway, and for the next few months in Toronto, Callaghan and Hemingway struck up a friendship. Recognizing a kinship, they became sounding boards for each other's fiction. Fast forward to 1929. Hemingway had by then left the Star, had decamped and returned to Paris to focus on his fiction. Already established, with In Our Time and The Sun Also Rises behind him, and A Farewell to Arms well underway, Hemingway was already a legendary figure in Paris, at times helping to cultivate his own public persona. He'd stayed in touch with the young Canadian and helped him get some attention from publishers when, in 1929, 26-year-old Callaghan and his wife moved to Paris. It was a heady time, but one which seemed to be entering some kind of transition. Scott Fitzgerald - wealthy and established - was there, but his legendary friendship with Hemingway was fragile, and when Callaghan arrived, they weren't speaking. Ford Madox Ford was in town. So was James Joyce. These were the closing months of what Hemingway would dub the "moveable feast." Callaghan, becoming a hot young writer, became part of the scene, and his encounters with these legends make for a fascinating memoir. More fascinating still are the close friendships that he developed - separately - with Fitzgerald and Hemingway. In private moments, as they read each others' manuscripts, we see glimpses of their lives away from the glare. We realize that the myths that surround them - then and now - are only a small part of a bigger picture. Not that they didn't propagate their own myths, but their quieter selves shine through - sometimes sweet and shy, sometimes arrogant - but often surprisingly insecure. Fitzgerald, in particular, comes off as a gentle - and gentlemanly - sort. Eager for Hemingway's friendship which had gone off the rails, Fitzgerald always remained Hemingway's biggest fan, and took it personally when others slighted his old friend Ernest. Hemingway was a bit harder to get a read on. He could be thoughtful and sweet, and he was a good companion - and sparring partner in the boxing ring - to Callaghan during his early weeks in Paris. But as his strained relationship with his old friend Scott demonstrates, he could also be remote, withdrawn. Morley Callaghan's memoir covers much the same ground as Hemingway's own masterpiece of memoir A Moveable Feast - a set of perfect vignettes, each reading like a short story. Callaghan's memoir is more conventional in style, but its insider's view makes is essential for anyone interested in Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and the closing moments of 1920s Paris.