Narrative, a great online literary magazine, has a new issue out featuring a new story by Rick Bass and a classic by Frank Conroy. You can sign up for a free “subscription” to get access to the above stories as well as everything in their archives.
Reuters’ “Oddly Enough” column ventures this week into the realm of literary history and intrigue: The mystery of Schiller’s skull. When he died of tuberculosis in his forties, Friedrich Schiller, the eighteenth-century German Romantic poet, playwright, and philosopher, was buried in a mass grave. Several decades later, the mass grave was dug up and Schiller’s skull identified by comparison with his death mask and its size, and placed in a more distinguished tomb in the city of Weimar. In 1911, the mass grave was turned up again and another skull found that was claimed to be the real memento mori. This second skull was also placed in Schiller’s tomb.Now, DNA researchers attempting to tell the true skull from the false by comparison with DNA samples taken from Schiller’s relatives, have discovered that neither is a match.In one of Lucian of Samosata’s second century Dialogues of the Dead, Diogenes tells Pollux that in death, “man and man are as like as two peas… when it comes to bare skull and no beauty.”So it would seem.
Initially I found yesterday’s announcement of Philip Gourevitch’s hiring as editor of the Paris Review to be odd. I know him best for his journalism in the New Yorker and his much praised works of non-fiction, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families and A Cold Case, but he didn’t seem to have the proper pedigree to head a magazine that is so prominent in its championing of short fiction. However, a look at the press release accompanying the announcement reveals that “Gourevitch holds an M.F.A. in fiction writing from Columbia University, and has published a number of short stories in literary quarterlies. He worked as cultural editor of the Forward in the early nineties, before turning to writing full time,” which would indicate that he does indeed have experience both as a writer of fiction and an editor. Beyond that, perhaps from his experience with the New Yorker, Gourevitch may have inkling of what it takes to make an unabashedly highbrow publication both a critical and financial success. Many were dismayed, or at least apprehensive, when former editor Brigid Hughes was forced out, but I think that Gourevitch’s appointment should leave Paris Review devotees cautiously optimistic. For more details and background on Gourevitch, visit Galley Cat.
What to call David Brooks’ column in the New York Times this morning? “Appalling” is the word that comes most readily to mind, but that is not quite what I mean. It is a hard piece of writing to classify. I think it was intended to be a parody of Obama’s speech, but what it seems more like is a free-writing exercise performed by a hardened misanthrope under the influence of 15 martinis or some kind of psychotropic substance. In short, it seems like it was written by a crazy person. This possibly dangerous crazy alter-ego also wrote – interestingly, tellingly – an equally crazy column some time ago called something like “The Two Obamas” in which frequent references were made to “Fast Eddie Obama,” a man who was fond of throwing people under trucks. If you happened to read Brooks’ column of the day before Obama nominated Biden, this impression of madness is heightened: that piece was a matter-of-fact political analysis that might well have been written by someone of no party affiliation.Dear Millions readers, do you have any insights into the mystery of the two faces of David Brooks? I find his duplicity fascinating and genuinely troubling and would be delighted to have it illuminated.
Most reviews of Andrew Keen’s anti-blogger screed The Cult of the Amateur have been pretty unflattering; take for example James Marcus’ assessment in the LA Times. But apparently Kakutani is a fan, “calling it a shrewdly argued jeremiad against the digerati effort to dethrone cultural and political gatekeepers and replace experts with the ‘wisdom of the crowd.'”I haven’t, and likely won’t, read Keen’s book, and I’m skeptical of the position that freely available tools allowing anyone anywhere to express themselves to the world are a bad thing. The intermet’s (alleged) damage to highbrow culture is more than obviated by its contribution to democracy. For every 100 mindless bozos on YouTube, there’s a whistle-blower revealing injustice somewhere or a witness to history offering up a first-hand account. To me, the trade-off is plenty worth it, and even if we are going to make the blanket claim that the internet is nothing but “superficial observations of the world around us rather than deep analysis, shrill opinion rather than considered judgment,” there is value to be found in at least some of those superficial observations.It’s hard to say where Kakutani is coming from here, but I suspect she’d back any philosophy that might staunch the flow of all those “amateurish” books she’s forced to read and then summarily dismiss in the pages of the Times. (This is in keeping with my image of Kakutani as the ultimate harried reviewer, who long ago lost the ability to enjoy books and loathes on sight every tome that crosses her desk.)
As some of you know, I read the New Yorker, more or less methodically, every week, and as a result the magazine very much becomes a fixture in my schedule. The problem is, I’d gotten used to my copy showing up in the mail every Wednesday, but recently and unaccountably, my issue has been showing up on Fridays, throwing my reading schedule out of whack and making me feel like I’m a little behind the curve.So, having finally gotten a chance to delve into the most recent issue, I was quite amused by Alec Wilkinson’s Talk of the Town piece about lost books that are retrieved from the New York subway with help from the “Operations Specialist, Asset Recovery Rejected Material, Material Division.” The idea of lost books on public transit sort of added a new element to my recent hobby of spotting what books people are reading on Chicago’s El. I also recently discovered that this is a hobby that I share with some other people including the folks at the CTA Tattler (who were kind enough to link to me last week. The Tattler is a blog about what is “seen and heard on the Chicago Transit Authority” and is a must read for any Chicagoan.)Though outnumbered by iPods and tabloid newspapers, according to my unscientific research, books are the third most popular public transit accessory.
I got the most recent National Geographic in the mail yesterday. The issue is devoted entirely to one subject, Africa, and, according to the AP, is notable for being the first one-topic issue in the magazine’s history and only the second (since they started using cover photographs) to not have a photo on the cover. National Geographic always provides broad, colorful stories, but never before have they delved so deeply on a single subject, and having read through this issue, I think they ought to do it more often. Some notable names make appearances in the Africa issue. Jared Diamond (Guns, Germs, and Steel, Collapse) pens the issue’s introduction with a discussion of why Africa has fallen behind the rest of the world but is not doomed to this fate in the future. Joel Achenbach, Washington Post reporter – and blogger – looks at some of the current shortcomings of paleoanthropology. And Alexandra Fuller (Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight) returns to Zambia, the country of her youth, in a piece that is more personal and less straightforward than a typical National Geographic article.