"He [Henry James] drew friends out in his intent and attaching way; he 'preyed,' said Eliot, 'upon living beings,' so that the character he came to know was 'the victim of a merciless clairvoyance.'
Eliot's James had been confirmed for me by the experience of the two women who allowed him to know them. They allowed it because they wanted what women want more than anything in the world: to be known for what they feel themselves to be."
—Lyndall Gordon in Lives for Sale
Another review of mine appeared in The Washington Times' book section on Sunday. I examined Susan Vreeland's collection of short stories, Life Studies:
We remain fascinated by artists because they are some of the clearest manifestations of genius we have seen. We cannot help but try to comprehend the incomprehensible. "Olympia's Look" is told from the perspective of Manet's recent widow, Suzanne, who still cannot get her husband's indiscretions out of her mind:
"She took up reading Vasari again to occupy her mind, although if she admitted the truth, it was really to discover just how frequently artists made their models into lovers." Of one of her husband's most famous paintings, she thought only that "Olympia had mocked her with that barefaced impudence every day of her married life." We see a beautiful, nude woman; she saw a rival.
Everyone has his list of movies that were robbed of Oscar nominations. I'm no exception. My latest Brainwash column takes a look at Oscar's most egregious error this year—the exclusion of Closer from the major categories.
Feeling down today? It's no wonder—a British psychologist has calculated January 24 to be the "most depressing day of the year":
The equation is broken down into seven variables: (W) weather, (D) debt, (d) monthly salary, (T) time since Christmas, (Q) time since failed quit attempt, (M) low motivational levels and (NA) the need to take action.
My new American Enterprise Online books column is a review of the latest in the Penguin Lives series:
F. Scott Fitzgerald famously declared, "There are no second acts in American lives." He clearly hadn't been paying attention to one of his contemporaries, America's greatest architect, Frank Lloyd Wright...
From the front page of the Washington Post site:
Dietary Guidelines Revamped
Government encourages Americans to eat fewer calories and exercise more.
"That’s the writer’s curse: we can’t help but 'see' the world through our own words, instead of using our eyes and ears. The problem is that words are never good enough."
Dan: If you love her, you'll let her go so she can be happy.
Larry: She doesn't want to be happy.
Dan: Everybody wants to be happy.
Larry: Depressives don't. They want to be unhappy to confirm they're depressed. If they were happy they couldn't be depressed anymore. They'd have to go out into the world and live. Which can be depressing.
Two items on technology and culture:
Novelist Margaret Atwood is now an inventor. Toronto's Globe and Mail reports that she has created a device that allows authors to autograph books from a remote location:
The first will consist of a screen, where the author can see and speak to the book reader in real-time, and a tablet on which the author will write the inscription. The second unit will be with the book reader, and will also include a screen to communicate with the author in real-time, and will have a flat book holder as well as an electronic arm and pen that will scrawl out the autograph.(Why the bestselling author calls herself "an old-age pensioner" is anybody's guess.)
The system will allow the inscription to be edited or spell-checked before being committed to paper and the quality of the signature should be identical to one done in person, Atwood says. The book reader will also be able to keep a record of the on-screen interaction with the author for posterity.
Today's New York Times features a story on the never-ending quest of writers and others looking for open electrical outlets to charge their laptops and other electronic devices:
It is not uncommon for users of electronics with more ravenous appetites to camp out for hours near an electrical outlet. In some cases, those staking a claim do so by plugging in a device - even a $2,000 laptop - only to leave it unattended while fetching a $4 coffee.
Literary blogging queen Maud Newton writes charmingly in Maisonneuve about how her obsessive nature led her to blogging:
I bought a round of drinks and tried to stop thinking about the twelve links I’d emailed myself earlier but hadn’t posted. After all, we were at a bar. Our songs had started to play on the jukebox. We were carefree and intoxicated and could not have cared less about blogging. Except that, unlike my friends, I went home at midnight and posted about books until 5 am. I might have stayed up longer, but my husband emerged from the bedroom and gave me the raised-eyebrow look that means, “Maybe you really should consider that Paxil prescription your therapist keeps recommending." ...
I may flout office conventions more than most, but the majority of the bloggers I follow also spend a significant chunk of their workdays updating their sites. A friend who’s the proprietor of the popular blog The Minor Fall, The Major Lift (TMFTML, for short) told the New York Observer last fall, “I’m actually curious as to what people did in offices before the Internet. My theory is that every job only requires about thirty minutes of hard work a day and the rest is bullshit.” He may be exaggerating, but only slightly. For those lacking corporate ambition, who are unfulfilled by office chatter and obsessive about subjects unrelated to their work, blogs are a good way to fill company downtime.
Apropos to Terry Teachout's clarification of his view on specialization among critics, The New York Observer reports that The New Republic television critic Lee Siegel will add to his résumé the titles of book critic at The Nation and art critic for Slate:
Mr. Siegel said he's looking forward to being able to think and write about books and TV at the same time. "I think if you're trying to reflect seriously on stuff, then you reflect in different keys, in different modes," he said.Greater involvement in more artforms will undoubtedly make Siegel a better critic.
Doing TV criticism, he said, means "you're more directly in touch with what's happening in the culture." Reviewing books, he said, means "swimming in deeper waters, but in waters more removed from cultural immediacy."
I suspect Terry Teachout would agree with this conclusion: "'Maybe the era of specialized critical fields is coming to an end,' Mr. Siegel said. 'It probably should.'"
My new American Enterprise Online column celebrates Nick Hornby's latest. The Polysyllabic Spree is a collection of his Believer magazine columns on the reading life, and one of the few great books of its genre:
Is there a more unalloyed not-quite-guilty pleasure for bibliophiles than reading books about books? A veritable genre has sprung up in the last few years of writers detailing their reading, usually of the big books of the Western Canon. Volumes like David Denby's Great Books, Sara Nelson's So Many Books, So Little Time: A Year of Passionate Reading, and, perhaps the most original, Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books, all provide the pleasure of talk about the classics without the pesky problem of actually reading them.I also name my favorite novel published last year.
Slate's Daniel Gross declares, "Gift cards are evil."
Finally, depending on the recipient's self-esteem and level of paranoia, gift cards can seem a wee bit paternalistic and controlling. Gift cards are tailor-made for recipients who are irresponsible or deficient in taste and self-awareness—or who are simply prone to feeling that way. Give your teenager $50 and she might blow it on midriff-baring halter tops at Abercrombie & Fitch. But that J. Crew gift card can be spent only on presentable clothing. Dismayed that your boyfriend's recent reading list extends only as far as Maxim? A Border's gift card could send a message. For the insecure male on your list, a Thomas Pink gift card could be a not-so-subtle hint that his shirts are blighted with ugly stains.
"The really heroic thing about Nick Hornby is that he lives in north London and rarely leaves it... Every English writer needs their corner that is forever England—but only a few brave men choose to make that corner Highbury."
—Zadie Smith(More literary amusement here.)
Men Made Out of Words
What should we be without the sexual myth,
The human revery or poem of death?
Castratos of moon-mash -- Life consists
Of propositions about life. The human
Revery is a solitude in which
We compose these propositions, torn by dreams,
By the terrible incantations of defeats
And by the fear that defeats and dreams are one.
The whole race is a poet that writes down
The eccentric propositions of its fate.