Friday, December 27, 2013


In the fourth chapter of his novella Flaubert's Parrot, Julian Barnes—punning on Gustave Flaubert's repeated comparisons between himself and a bear—writes:
It is not known whether Flaubear ever ate his namesake. He ate dromedary in Damascus in 1850. It seems a reasonable guess that if he had eaten bear he would have commented on such ipsophagy. 
Ipsophagy, you ask? What's that? Self-devouring, like the Ouroboros, presumably—a combination of Latin ipso-, meaning "itself" (as in the phrase ipso facto, by the fact itself) and the suffix -phagy, as in "anthropophagy" (cannibalism), "bacteriophage" (a microbe that eats bacteria), "coprophagous" (like these guys), and so forth.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The best short stories I read this year

The British conductor Thomas Beecham once said something to the effect that good music leaves the memory with difficulty, while great music never escapes. Beecham was a man who sometimes let the sound of his own words get the better of him. Still, I've always liked this little rule-of-thumb memory test for what's worth revisiting—in music and in other walks of life. To be sure, not everything great seems great at first glance. But it's rarely the case that something that makes a strong first impression doesn't yield richer insights on revisitation—even if the luster fades, and the insights take the form of nicks and imperfections you hadn't noticed before.

The short story, as I've written before, is a genre that we can't just dismiss; still, I have to admit that many short stories are eminently forgettable. I rarely forget a novel entirely, but when I look at a list of short stories I've read recently, I often can't remember a thing about them. On the other hand, the stories I do remember come back to me all the time—when I'm at the grocery store, or in the shower, or reading another short story. In other words, they do what good literature so often does: they rewire the way you think from day to day.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

A Very Roman Christmas

... okay, so not Christmas, not exactly. The Romans didn't have Christmas—or at least not until the conversion of the Empire, and even then, it's a little unclear at what point Christmas properly speaking started. But they did have an end-of-December holiday that they called Saturnalia. Saturnalia was a multi-day festival in honor of the god Saturn. We actually have a wealth of sources surrounding the holiday (though never quite as many as we'd like to have), which sounds a bit more like Mardi Gras than Christmas, involving the crowning of a kind of "Lord of Misrule," a lot of temporarily legalized gambling, and the giving of small trinkets as gifts. Oh, and there was animal sacrifice, too. (Which I guess we still have, in a sense; we just eat the animals.)

And the holiday drew a certain amount of Scrooginess from some quarters, as well. This passage from Seneca's letters to his friend Lucillus (which, I fully admit, I scavenged from Wikipedia), gives some sense of what it would have been like to be around for that particular Roman holiday. He sounds exactly like a contemporary person complaining about how Christmas starts ever earlier, resenting the shopping crowds and Christmas music, and wanting nothing so much as some peace and quiet:
It is now the month of December, when the city bustles the most. Legality is accorded to public frivolity; everything resounds with great preparations, as if there were some real difference between Saturnalia and the normal work-week. Nothing matters—to such an extent that it seems to me that the person who said, "Once it was the month of December, now it's the whole year," wasn't wrong. If you were here with me, I'd gladly ask you what you think we should do—whether we should do nothing in our usual way, or, so that no one sees us at odds with the spirit of the season, have a more festive dinner and throw off the toga. (Letters 18.1-2)*
*"December est mensis; cum maxime civitas sudat. Ius luxuriae publicae datum est. Ingenti apparatu sonant omnia, tamquam quicquam inter Saturnalia intersit et dies rerum agendarum. Adeo nihil interest, ut non videatur mihi errasse, qui dixit olim mensem Decembrem fuisse, nunc annum. Si te hic haberem, libenter tecum conferrem, quid existimares esse faciendum: utrum nihil ex cotidiana consuetudine movendum an, ne dissidere videremur cum publicis moribus, et hilarius cenandum et exuendam togam."

Monday, December 2, 2013

New Books in December

December is a quiet month in the publishing world—presumably because everyone is trying to encourage people to buy more copies of the past eleven months' books as gifts. But, as usual, we're here to point out this month's new releases:

The Empty Chair: Two Novellas
Bruce Wagner
Blue Rider Press
352 pp.

After courting some notoriety last year for sketching a soullessly decadent L.A. in his novel Dead Stars, the publisher's blurb for this new book promises something altogether different: "In First Guru, a fictional Wagner narrates the tale of a gay Buddhist living in Big Sur, who achieves enlightenment in the horrific aftermath of his child’s suicide; in Second Guru, Queenie, an aging wild child, returns to India to complete the spiritual journey of her youth."

The Selected Stories of Frederick Busch
Frederick Busch, ed. Elizabeth Strout
W.W. Norton & Co.
480 pp.

The New York Times's obituary of Busch does a good job of capturing the sensibility and material of his writing—at least, to judge from the one story of his I know, which is also his most widely anthologized, "Ralph the Duck." There's also an interview with Busch available online, conducted by Michael Cunningham.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Common misconceptions

xkcd #843, "Misconceptions"
Wikipedia's "List of common misconceptions" is full of delightful trivia, ranging from:
"Older elephants that are near death do not leave their herd and instinctively direct themselves toward a specific location known as an elephants' graveyard to die."
"Human blood in veins is not blue. In fact, blood is always red due to hemoglobin. Deoxygenated blood has a deep red color, and oxygenated blood has a light cherry-red color. The misconception probably arises for two reasons: 1) Veins below the skin appear blue. This is due to a variety of reasons only weakly dependent on the color of the blood, including light scattering through the skin, and human color perception. 2) From the way diagrams use colors to show the difference between veins (usually shown in blue) and arteries (usually shown in red)." 
The impulse to correct apparently true, apparently "scientific" beliefs belongs to a certain kind of disputatious mind. You must like truth more than peace. (I betray no bias at this juncture toward either virtue.) You must be skeptical and a little persnickety. You must be willing to call others' bluffs. In short, you must be a bit like the mid-17th-century English physician and writer Thomas Browne.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

A little riff on "One Art" and Sumerian writing

Early proto-writing tablet from Sumer.
Walters Museum, Baltimore (via Wikipedia).

I taught Elizabeth Bishop's poem "One Art" a lot this summer. This poem is one of those weird hallmarks that divides people who spend a lot of time around poetry from people who don't. People who don't read much poetry have often never even heard of it. But people who spend even a little time around poetry, or took a poetry class once, usually know it right away, like a pop song that has been played so often that you don't even have to try to place it. It's just, "Oh, that's 'One Art,'" in the same way as it's just, "Oh, that's 'Hey Jude.'" Some people might even go so far as to say that if there's an "overplayed" American poem from the second half of the twentieth century, this is it.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Commonplace book: Why ideas?

κριβς μν τοτο κ τοιούτων μεθόδων, οαις νν ν τος λόγοις χρώμεθα, ο μήποτε λάβωμεν—λλη γρ μακροτέρα κα πλείων δς π τοτο γουσα—σως μέντοι τν γε προειρημένων τε κα προεσκεμμένων ξίως. 
... we will never get a precise answer using our present methods of argument—although there is another longer and fuller road that does lead to such an answer. But perhaps we can get an answer that's up to the standard of previous statements and inquiries.
—Socrates in Plato, Republic 435d

... we shall enjoy ourselves hereafter by having what we called happiness on Earth repeated in a finer tone and so repeated. ... The simple imaginative Mind may have its rewards in the repetition of its own silent Working coming continually on the spirit with a fine suddenness.
—From Keats's letter to Benjamin Bailey, November 22, 1817

There is no intellectual exercise that is not ultimately pointless. A philosophical doctrine is, at first, a plausible description of the universe; the years go by, and it is a mere chapter—if not a paragraph or proper noun—in the history of philosophy. In literature, that "falling by the wayside," that loss of "relevance," is even better known. The Quixote, Menard remarked, was first and foremost a pleasant book; it is now an occasion for patriotic toasts, grammatical arrogance, obscene de luxe editions. Fame is a form—perhaps the worst form—of incomprehension.
—Jorge Luis Borges, "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote"

If Jefferson, as smart and as well-read as he was, had illusions about the future, there is not much hope for the rest of us avoiding illusions about our future. But that is precisely the point of studying history. Before we become arrogant and condescending toward these people in the past, we should realize that we too live with illusions, only we don't know what they are. Perhaps every generation lives with illusions, different ones for each generation. And that is how history moves from one generation to another, exploding the previous generation's illusions and conjuring up its own.
—Gordon Wood, The Idea of America, introduction (22)

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

New Books in November!

My monthly list of books I'm excited to see come out this month, sight unseen:

Raja Alem
The Dove's Necklace
November, Viking

I'd try to summarize the publisher's blurb to make you want to read this novel—but really, you should just read this interview instead. It doesn't come out in the U.K. until next year, and getting a copy while I'm home at Christmas is going to be one of my highest priorities, along with eating kosher hot dogs and Cheez-Its. It was one of two winners of the 2011 "Arabic Booker," and you can read a thorough description of the book here.

Laura van den Berg
The Isle of Youth: Stories
November 5th, FSG

Word on the street is that this is a writer to keep your eye on. If you're short on time, you should read this very short story; those who are a little more willing to see a longer piece unfold should read this. And it seems like there will be a novel out in the near future, too, at least from the sounds of this engaging interview with American Short Fiction.

Gottfried Benn, trans. Michael Hofmann
Impromptus: Selected Poems and Some Prose
November 5th, FSG

Obviously the product of a lot of hard work, if you're at all curious about this project, you should read the several poem translations that the Paris Review published in 2011. "Never Lonelier" has haunted me since first reading it, and while I'm sure that "counterhappiness" is a rendition of some German compound, the English seems perfect. Because things translated from German are worth reading even when the translator isn't named Franzen.

Flannery O'Connor
A Prayer Journal
November 12th, FSG

Because the excerpt the New Yorker published was too interesting to not want to read the rest. I like O'Connor at her least oblique, which may entirely miss what most people love about her—but even if the fiction occasionally leaves you cold, as it does me, this annealed and concentrated prayer journal (how many American writers would even keep such a thing?) seems like it's going to blaze with heat. 

Other books to look for:

Jürgen Leonhardt
Latin: Story of a World Language
Harvard UP, $30

Pierre Rosenvallon
The Society of Equals
Harvard UP, $35

Benjamin Elman
Civil Examinations and Meritocracy in Late Imperial China
Harvard UP, $45

James Fallon
The Psychopath Inside: A Neuroscientist's Personal Journey Into the Dark Side of the Brain
Viking, $28

Joseph R. Blasi, Richard B. Freeman, and Douglas L. Kruse
The Citizen's Share: Putting Ownership Back into Democracy
Yale UP, $38