- A little dab of this and a little dab of that at the eye of the news shitstorm, a little droplet behind your chi — Rachel Monroe on the rise of the Essential Oils: “Oils are touted as something between a perfume and a potion, a substance that can keep you smelling nice while also providing physical and psychological benefits. They are often stocked on the same shelves as herbal remedies such as echinacea and St.-John’s-wort; big-box stores sell aromatherapy diffusers as an alternative to synthetic-smelling products like Febreze. The model Miranda Kerr used oils to help her get over her breakup with Orlando Bloom. The pop star Kesha tweeted that she starts off every day by sniffing essential oils: “They make me feel so peaceful.” Gwyneth Paltrow is a fan, unsurprisingly, but so are RuPaul, Alanis Morissette, and a trainer for the New York Knicks.”
- Snippets from Elizabeth Hardwick’s days at NYRB and at Columbia from Darryl Pinckney: “Elizabeth Hardwick wrote about what engaged her. Over the years, I would hear her say that she’d had to tell an editor she didn’t want to write about a certain book or author because she found she didn’t have anything interesting to say after all. […] it didn’t matter if she was writing for glossy publications with her eye on the word count, for a venerable quarterly with a thick spine, or for a newspaper book-review section not looking for controversy. Every assignment got Hardwick at full sail, all mind and style. Nothing is casual, she said. You are always up against the limits of yourself.”
- I have absolutely no idea whether Kazuo Ishiguro deserves the Nobel, but he is one of my favorite writers — he’s good, and you can find in any number of articles the array of things he’s good at; don’t ask me because I’m of those people who enjoyed Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled. But James Wood, who hated The Unconsoled, and who I also admire, is iffy about the whole business. Which puts me in a rather curious mood: Can it, dear god, be true that Wood is, or even worse, I am, wrong? Wood on the latest Swedish prize giveaway: “I hoped that the Albanian writer Ismail Kadare would win this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature—but, then, I hope that every year. Kazuo Ishiguro’s en-Nobelment is a surprise; I wonder how many readers had thought of him as a likely contender. […] [He has] supremely done [his] own kind of thing, calmly undeterred by literary fashion, the demands of the market, or the intermittent incomprehension of critics.”
- Perhaps the more Twittered author and critic disagreement today is one between Vanessa Grigoriadis and Michelle Goldberg, both of the Times. In the latest episode of the Longform Podcast, Grigoriadis, discusses her latest book, Blurred Lines: Rethinking Sex, Power, and Consent on Campus, Goldberg’s consequential review, the subsequent Twitter warfare. If you don’t want to listen to the whole thing, Jia Tolentino’s analysis of the contention is informative and concise.
- Bet twenty bucks this guy went to the game to leave it and to tweet about the leaving: “Vice President Mike Pence walked out of an N.F.L. game in his home state of Indiana on Sunday after nearly two dozen players on the visiting San Francisco 49ers knelt during the playing of the national anthem.”
- Speaking of gambling, what are the chances the Democratic Party will be properly up and running in time to win elections? The Times on the reformation of the Left: “It started as a scrappy grass-roots protest movement against President Trump, but now the so-called resistance is attracting six- and seven-figure checks from major liberal donors, posing an insurgent challenge to some of the left’s most venerable institutions — and the Democratic Party itself.“
In her 1985 interview with the Paris Review, Elizabeth Hardwick said, “In general I’d rather talk about other people. Gossip, or as we gossips like to say, character analysis.” Gossip and analyze character she does in her 1974 book of essays, Seduction and Betrayal with acuity, humor, and intellect one often does not find in everyday gossip. As Joan Didion points out in her introduction to the NYRB 2001 reprint of the essays, Hardwick seems to have seen no distinction between ‘the real and the literary’ and understood “that the women we invent have changed the course of our lives as surely as the women we are.” Hardwick’s essays on the Brontë Sisters, Sylvia Plath, or Zelda Fitzgerald are as much analysis of their works as explorations of writing as an act of transgression and actualization; they are, it becomes clear, characters in a broader history of women in literature as female characters in literature — Nora and Hedda of Ibsen, for instance — are reflections of women in history.
Hardwick writes of of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, “We may very well predict that [Nora] will soon be laughing and chattering again and eating her macaroons in peace, telling her friends – she is going back to her hometown — what a stick Helmer turned out to be. Otherwise her freedom is worth nothing.” She gives us not only an analysis of Nora as a character on stage, but what Nora is as a dramatized but recognizable extension of reality. Hardwick continues: “Nora’s liberation is not a transformation, but an acknowledgment of error, of having married the man. Her real problem is money — at the beginning and at the end. What will she live on? What kind of work will she do? Will she get her children back? Will she get a new husband? When the curtain goes down it is only the end of Volume One.” Through Hardwick, our concerns as readers of Ibsen are extended beyond the drama.
I can’t quite imagine, when thinking of a cliché image of gossips, Elizabeth Hardwick’s acutely original voice discussing suicide as performance in Plath’s poems; for this, I have in mind the Greek chorus. But I like to imagine how natural and, to a degree, fun it must have been for her to discuss such matters over, say, a light lunch in her Upper West Side apartment. Perhaps the facts that she was, with Robert Lowell and the late Bob Silvers, one of the founders of the esteemed New York Review of Books, was friends with Mary McCarthy, and was acquainted with Billie Holiday influence the way I read and review her essays.
But it is less my admiration for the author of Sleepless Nights and more for the quick and revealing sentences that carry her judgments and ideas — such as, “[Plath’s] fate and her themes are hardly separate and both are singularly terrible” — that make the essays stand out as examples of creative, original, and truly revelatory literary criticism.
Hardwick once wrote in her famous 1959 essay, “The Decline of Book Reviewing”, published in Harper’s, “The flat praise and the faint dissension, the minimal style and the light little article, the absence of involvement, passion, character, eccentricity — the lack, at last, of the literary tone itself — have made the New York Times into a provincial literary journal, longer and thicker, but not much different in the end from all those small-town Sunday ‘Book Pages.'” In Seduction and Betrayal, it’s easy to see what Hardwick meant by involvement, passion, character, and eccentricity; she has them all and more to offer her readers. Her scathing review of the Times is humorous but also frightening to one such as myself daring to add on to the conversation. All reviewers — or at least all that one should care to read — should fear adding on to ‘a puddle of treacle’ faced with Hardwick’s work. But good thing she also showed us what to aim for.
I’ve been known to stand on line early in the morning to get a ‘fresh’ signed copy of a book — most recently, M Train by Patti Smith, on a rather chilly October day. Though to say I was ‘on line’ is misleading as usually — much publicity and fanfare preceding the publication of certain books notwithstanding — I’m in the company of a few $1 book mongers and anxiety driven individuals haunted by the very real possibility of a last copy being picked up by some unreasonable old lady à la Marble Rye. Which, in turn, would push me toward a criminal life of thievery and extortion. Then I would have to quit my job and move out of the apartment and peddle $1 books by the park. Better to get up early and stand on line.
Needless to say, I like books. As such, all I want for Christmas is you to pick the right book and maybe leave me alone to read it for a while in the corner by the fireplace, and come check in once in a while to see that my hot toddy is refilled. Dinner is only served once I finish this chapter. That sounds just about Goldilocks right.
Dear reader, you may, God willing, be blessed with blessings upon blessings with such a presence in your life, in which case, you have a serious job to do this Holiday Season: PICK THE RIGHT BOOKS! Fortunately, the following list has been vetted and approved. These are the books that will make the book lover in your life feign Sade and sing Cherish the Day come Christmas morning. This, dear reader, is the Holiday Hookup for the Bookish or the Gift for the Cooped Up, Lonely, and Bitter but Still Totally Sane & Dateable Individual, AKA the Analog Reader.
A Subscription to the Paris Review and the NYRB Classics Book Club
There’s a prejudice against English majors that we’re terrible at math, to which, though it’s true, I take umbrage as a matter of principle. But even I know that $140 for a year’s subscription to the Paris Review and the New York Review of Books Classics Book Club is a miracle of a deal of grand mathematic mystery and unforeseeable consequences. That’s four issues of one of the best literary magazines to ever exist + twelve classics from the imprint famous for rescuing masterpieces from dusty shelves. It’s a thing of dreams. Go get it here.
Strand Bookstore Book Hookup
If the one you love is more into being in the loop for new releases, the Book Hookup from Strand Bookstore offers three subscription boxes — Fiction First Editions, Young Adult First Editions, and Art/Photography — that can be purchased as a single installment or a recurring installment up to four times a year. Not only are all the books signed, the deal includes Strand exclusive merchandise and literary knickknacks from the store’s many partners, such as Hearth & Hammer No. 23 and Cavallini & Co. The books are picked by possible future Patti Smiths or Fred Basses; also, that all Strand Bookstore employees took its famous literary quiz assures extra quality control. The Hookup.
Hiroshi Sugimoto: Theaters
Ever wonder what it’d be like to watch a movie in a single frame as a camera? Well, Hiroshi Sugimoto did too, and way earlier than any of us. Sugimoto’s beautiful and eerie photographs are layered meditations on the passage of time as seen through the shining screens in classic movie palaces with their ornate architecture, drive-in movies, and disused and run down theaters of Europe and North America. If you feel that this might dampen the Holiday mood, it won’t, I promise. Personally, I’m super excited to see Holiday romcoms in this manner!
John Derian Picture Book
This big book of various printed matter is not for a coffee table. It belongs, open to a random page, on a podium somewhere in the house that’s conducive to long musings and deliverance from ennui. Published by John Derian Company Inc. of New York that deals with eclectic and rare collection of prints, this colorful book is a full arsenal of beauties and curiosities. One of my personal favorites is the Devil’s Toboggan Ride, which shows a man riding a toboggan labeled ‘Cider,’ ‘Beer,’ ‘Wine,’ and ‘Whiskey’ toward ‘Death’ with a polite welcoming skeleton. Other highlights include various typography and highly detailed illustrations of flora and fauna of the world.
Essays Against Everything by Mark Greif
Mark Greif has published remarkably brilliant essays in n+1, the magazine dubbed “The best goddamned literary magazine in America” by none other than Mary Karr. Essays Against Everything is a collection of Greif’s essays on cultural, political, and philosophical concerns. This highly intelligent and often hilarious collection is, therefore, not for a joy reader, looking to knock back a few pages before bed. Reserve this beautiful hardcover for the intellectually astute. Or at least for the one who claims to be so. Or, better yet, if the one receiving the gift is that rarified person of the mind, gift it to each other and compare notes.
I Must be Living Twice: New and Selected Poems by Eileen Myles
Eileen Myles is a popular poet, the nearest thing to a poet-celebrity we have (her Instagram, by the way, is on fire). But her poetry is often polarizing. To see if someone will appreciate Myles, one must do the following: 1) Read to them a poem by Robert Lowell, perhaps Child’s Song; 2) Tell them about Lowell’s life, its many brushes with tragedy, illness, etc.; 3) Read to them Myles’s On the Death of Robert Lowell, which begins with, “O, I don’t give a shit”. If they do not laugh, Myles, unfortunately, is not for them. Too bad, since she’s so damn good. Incidentally, this might also be a good way to rid your friends-list of unnecessary clutter à la Marie Kondo: Keep only those with a sense of humor.
In Gratitude by Jenny Diski
Jenny Diski was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer in 2014. She was told she had three years to live. In Gratitude is the closest thing to knowing what was on the brilliant mind behind the Sixties and Skating to Antartica between what she calls the ’embarrassment’ at the doctor’s office and her death in April this year. This book on illness and childhood memories is both hilarious and solemn. But her ability to continue to be an eloquent detached observer is truly a marvel. It’s funny, hopeful, and intelligent.
The Ladybird Book for Grown Ups
These hilarious books on time old questions regarding, among others, the mechanics of a husband and the secrets of mindfulness are key to a successful afternoon on Christmas Day. Don’t let the snow outside and the overbearing family presence lull you into a mindless perusal of a copy of Ex’s Life — Special Holiday Edition. The Ladybird Book for Grown Ups series is a gift, dear reader, you must give yourself in order restore some kind of a balance between the winter blues and general contentedness. Laughter, after all, is the best temporary measure.
The Enchanted Wanderer and Other Stories by Nikolai Leskov
These 17 stories by Nikolai Leskov, who’s suffered the fate of obscurity and rediscovery threefold, make the reader have fits of imagination and often lurid and hilarious visions. Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky of the Dostoyevsky translations fame, this beautiful edition promises not only Leskov’s wonderful stories but a true rendering of the writer’s use of skaz, what Pevear describes as a Russian term for ‘oral writing’; it’s no wonder that there’s a sense of channeling Leskov’s voice while reading his stories. It’s an ideal book to read aloud to family by the fireplace or to yourself by your nightstand. Either way, Leskov delivers.
M Train by Patti Smith
To be honest, there was no particular reason for waiting on line for Smith’s M Train. Some time earlier in the week, I had listened to Horses and was thinking of Smith. Then, later that day, as if by fate, I saw her face, enlarged, on the window of a bookstore. And for whatever reason felt compelled to wake up and stand on line to get her book as soon as I possibly could. The book retroactively justifies my seemingly silly ordeal by the bookstore. It is beautiful and thoughtful, the kind of book you don’t want to talk too much about because it feels somewhat like a violation of a secret and sincere handshake. Get this book for whoever you want to spend some real time with.