odds and ends / 4.7.2021












Jacqueline Hassink, from Views, Kyoto, 2004-2014.

*

Painted wooden fire screen, early 20th century.

*

Agate fossil coral (showing small flowers), found on Reddit

*

From How to Read the Aura, Practice Psychometry, Telepathy and Clairvoyance by W. E. Butler, via stopping off place.

*

In Your Garden by Vita Sackville-West-West, 1951, first edition.

*

The greatest hibernator of all is the snail. When the weather gets cold or dry, snails first go in search of places where they feel safe, among rocks or leaf litter. There they close themselves up. The snail moves in a shell that is its dwelling, and when it wants to hibernate, it makes a covering over the entrance. This is called an epiphragm, Greek for “lid.” The snail concocts it of mucus and calcium. The lid seals in moisture and keeps the snail from drying out. Inside its damp chamber the snail sleeps and waits for rain. Sometimes it sleeps for years. No one knows if snails dream. Someone may know. 


John Jeremiah Sullivan, "Uhtceare.The Paris Review, Issue 236, Spring 2021.

*

As a poet I feel like it is my task to protect consciousness from the tech lords and the moon from Elon Musk, but I am not so delusional as to think I could lead an organized resistance to this process of enclosure. Nor do I think I can, alone, defend those poet things: the moon and love. But I also can't forget that there are people who want to own, as data, the bacteria in our intestines and the salt in our tears. I have watched people being conditioned into screen addiction and once-unimaginable interpersonal viciousness. I have lost loved ones to paranoid screen holes and conspiracies and seen even self-identified leftists align themselves fully to corporate entities. Even as I stepped away, almost entirely, from most everything online — even, for a time, giving up email — I have felt such survivor guilt about those left behind, the ones still compulsively refreshing their twitter or facebook feeds. I also know it didn't have to be like this: that the technologies developed in my life could and sometimes were used for what was beautiful and good.


Anne Boyer, "the earthly shadow of the cloud." MIRABILARY, 3/30/2021.

*

Honestly, the more I think about it, the more the internet in these novels starts to feel like that one awkward white guy who knows he can’t dance but tries to let you know that he knows it so that he can bop along in the background at the party just the same. It feels like one of White Media’s greater farces that they have deceived us into thinking that the internet as described and proscribed in these novels is a thing that is actually worth arguing over. Aesthetically. I mean, really, think about it. The huge tracts of digital life that these novels don’t touch. None of the transformative capacity or will to change that animates so much of online life for black and brown and queer people exists in these novels. For some of us, the democratic dream and the populist impulse of digital life is alive. Not perfect, no. Not entirely democratic even. But it’s still there. Singing. 


Brandon Taylor, "i read your little internet novels / it's all very gothic up in here.sweater weather, 3/23/2021. 

*

I was, unconvincingly, so many people as a teenager—a rebel, a sophisticate, a drama nerd, a go-getter, a witch. I could try on a persona for size and then return it, tags on. There was no social media then and no one wanted me on any reality series, so I never had to curate a self before I had one. But I did stupid things for love. What would I have done for likes? What would that have made me?


Alexis Sokolski, "'Kid 90' and the Days When Even Wild TV Teens Had Privacy." NYT, 3/26/2021. 

*

Whatever this mode of production is, that it eats brains as well as bodies seems key to how it works, and how it is made. Capital extracts the energy out of the laboring body and makes it over as a thing apart, as capital in the form of the machine, which subordinates living labor to it. This other, more recent mode of production extracts information from bodies, and makes of it a thing apart, forms of artificial intelligence, over and against the thinking, feeling body.


McKenzie Wark, interviewed by Jessica Caroline at filthy dreams, 10/14/2019.

*

Books, like vacuum cleaners, are increasingly judged on their ability to deliver what they appear to offer. They are consumer products. The customer has paid and must get what he wants. Pity the writer who falls foul of the vacuum cleaner purchaser. 


Alice Jolly, "In Praise of Boring Books." 3:AM Magazine, 3/22/2021.

*
And it’s this question of “the business of reading,” of how we read, why we read, and what reading does for and to us, that I keep turning over in my mind.


Yaa Gyasi, "White people, black authors are not your medicine." The Guardian, 3/20/2021.

He was trying to persuade someone, anyone, to go with him, and only after everyone else had refused did he ask me.

Barbara Greene, quoted by Lucy Scholes in a review of Greene's book Too Late to Turn Back about traveling in Africa with her cousin, Graham (he wrote about their trip in Journey without Maps.)

*

 A deep dive.

*

Dandelion paperweights.

*

A sonic atlas of phantom islands.

book report: march 2021



This month I read books that frustrated me, books that amused me, books that bored me, and books that gave me nightmares, plus one book I loved, probably problematically.

Filed under clever har-har!, was George and Weedon Grossman's The Diary of a Nobody. I'm sort of compiling an idiosyncratic reading list on suburbia and suburbanites (with Danielle Dutton's Sprawl and Lucy Hellman's Ducks, Newburyport in the to-be-read stack), and this 1892 novel in the form of a diary seemed as though it might be some sort of foundational text for the rich vein of complacent literary derision dedicated to all things suburban (have to dig more, though, to get to the roots of that). It is a mock diary of one Charles Pooter, happy, dull, and oblivious, faithfully jotting down the events of his small life in a London suburb sometime in the late 1800s (the format and tone will be familiar to anyone who ever read any of Sue Townshend's Adrian Mole books) .

Josephine Tey's The Daughter of Time (1951) was more of a clever, ho ho! read. Inspector Allen Grant is laid up in a hospital bed recovering from a back injury, but his agile brain demands occupation, so he begins to unravel the mystery behind the disappearance of the little princes in the Tower of London, allegedly done to death by their uncle Richard the Third. Grant, a British police inspector who prides himself on discerning character through a person's face (cue 21st-century wince), sees a portrait of Richard and concludes he does not look like a villain. It's an entertaining inversion of the classic whodunit, with the inspector stuck in one place and shadowy suspects lurking between the lines of suspect historical accounts, that expands into a meditation on how (and why) we construct "truth."

John Banville's Snow (2020): Ireland, 1950s, Catholic priest gruesomely murdered in a decaying Protestant country house, mad women and damaged young men and a sinister reform school for boys ... the plot here hinges on easily guessed horrors. It mostly left me wondering just exactly what a sex scene is supposed to do in a book that seems mostly written to entertain. The ones in this book come in three flavors—sordid, boring, and abusive—and none of the them felt particularly illuminating or necessary (except maybe to indicate that BAD people have BAD sex and GOOD people have WHOLESOME sex). If you want to write about sex between consenting people, go crazy, but once you start writing about someone sexually abusing children, for me, you've just skipped right out of the "reading for fun" zone into "this needs to be worth it, somehow." It wasn't.

As a brain cleanser, I read about disastrous fungal pandemics in Nicholas P. Money's The Triumph of the Fungi (2006). It was a welcome corrective to the current wave of pop-culture mushroom veneration, and a reminder that fungus are complex living things, not merely agents of redemption or inspiration for humans. The author's pop-culture references were eye-rollers (amazing to find a Britney Spears slam in a book detailing various fungal blights!), but he compellingly illustrated how human choices (clear-cutting forests, monoculture agriculture, global trade) set the scene for predictable catastrophes. 

Next, I gave myself nightmares reading Jessica Bruder's Nomadland after watching the equally unsettling movieBruder spent years following a group of older Americans living in RVs, vans, and cars, piecing together seasonal work at factories, Amazon fulfillment centers, and campgrounds, eventually building out her own van and working at some of the same jobs in an attempt to understand the experience. A sixty-something woman named Linda May is her main touchstone and guide through this precarious world; Linda May also appears in Chloe Zhao's film adaptation of the book. Richard Brody wrote a snitty review of the movie, lamenting the way it blurs real people and actors—"it’s two movies in one: a documentary and a fiction" (Note to RB: 21st-century literature is going to be a real bummer for you...) and "exalts the working class, but doesn't let working people present themselves." Other writers have similar complaints, arguing that Zhao somehow makes Amazon and the gig economy look great, which left me wondering if we had watched the same movie, because what I saw was a depiction of a person moving through purgatory, aware enough to feel moments of grace but knowing hell was a hand's-breadth away. (The filmmakers described Frances McDormand, who plays a wholly imagined character, as a "docent," which made me think of Virgil leading Dante through the various rings of eternity.) And while Bruder's account is sobering, Zhao's movie hit me on a deeper emotional register, because there was a power in hearing people speak and watching McDormand listen. 

I find myself wondering whether the people playing versions of themselves got paid; something I don't think they do in documentaries or for subjects of nonfiction books. Reading about how Zhao and McDormand approached the project of the movie—imagining a story between the truths Bruder reported, working closely with the people she knew and including their input and perspective—strikes me as perhaps a more ethical choice than trying to bend someone's actual lived life into a narrative arc, but maybe that's because my mind lives mostly in various sorts of stories where real and true are not always the same.

Take, for example, "autofiction," a genre of stories that mostly feel neither true nor particularly real, at least to me. These are novels, usually with a nameless narrator or a narrator that shares the author's name (though not always), that use elements of the author's own life in a story somewhat fictionalized, sometimes resulting in good books, but mostly leading to boring hermetic claustrophobic reads about anxious writers living their writerly lives thinking writerly thoughts, or "wan little husks," if you ask Joyce Carol Oates (cue performative online writerly outrage, Twitter being mostly a platform for real-time autofictional creation). But this is where my brain and its blindspots (theater major from an engineering school here) gets tripped up. From St. Augustine to Sylvia Plath, tweaking lived stories for various effects is nothing new, yet somehow, sometime in the 2000s, "autofiction" arose as a category unto itself. In a Vulture piece from 2018, Christian Lorentzen argues that the "fiction" is more important than the "auto," but I am skeptical. Autofiction is a very handy label for authors—as personalities, it sticks them smack dab at the center of the story and the reader's attention, grants them unassailable power (because only the writer knows what is really "true"), and provides the helpful cover of ambiguous lived experiences as a "right" to write about whatever it is they are writing about, even if they really don't have anything illuminating to say about it and only want to use it as a pretense to talk about their own special selves (see: Sheila Heti, Motherhood). 

Peter Ho Davies' The Fortunes (a series of four stories about the experiences of Chinese immigrants to the U.S.) was wonderful, so when I saw his new book, A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself, on my library app, I checked it out. Here, Ho Davies is in full autofictional mode, with a nameless neurotic writer narrator recounting the particular anguish and implications of parenthood shaped by choice—the choice to terminate one pregnancy, the choice to continue another, the choice to turn the experience into content:

Telling a story about a child, though? Telling a version of a life that is still soft, still forming? Like a fontanel. In his writing classes the father talks about appropriation, the taking and telling of other people's stories. Young writers get exercised about these things, what they are and aren't allowed to write. They just want to be good people, he knows, except that he's not sure writers are good people ... Certainly they're no respecters of rules. All fiction is appropriation. Only the narrowest, most solipsistic memoir—of life on a desert island, say—doesn't appropriate from others. Still some appropriations, he knows, are more charged than others. It's a challenge for a woman to write a male character, but it's a different challenge for a man to write a female character (and yes, for a man to write about abortion). For a Black writer to write a white character is one thing, for a white writer to write a Black character something else again. Something shaped by society, and history, by the power and the abuse of power. Writers are no respecters of rules, of "don't" or "can't," but he wants his students to understand them in order to break them. To be good writers, if not good people. Yet isn't the ultimate power imbalance between parents and children? For a child to write about a parent is one thing; for a parent to write about a child something else. And he still wants to be a good parent.


And this, I think, is why we have FICTION. Throw off the shackles of the narrated self, writers! Give your friends and loved ones and colleagues and children the friendly scrim of MAKE BELIEVE!

It's such a good scrim:
Behind the scrim of fiction, the writer is able to stop performing as an author and devote his energies to being a storyteller instead.

Maybe this is my real problem with a lot of autofiction—it's mostly a genre of writers writing to be read by other writers. 

The last two books I read in March unabashedly mixed facts, memories, assertions, and exaggerations, and both were a pleasure. I hadn't read Bruce Chatwin's In Patagonia (1977) for years, and was startled to see in it traces of things that became very important to me much later (Osip Mandelstam being one). Chatwin's books were lightning bolts for me when I first read them in my teens, illuminating whole new landscapes of what a book could do, what a book could hold. I knew very little about him as a person, or how the books came to be, or even whether they were "true" or not. I didn't really care; what was fascinating was watching his mind work, following along as he constructed a story from scraps of mylodon fur, lost colonies of Welsh settlers, half-true tales of Butch Cassidy, and fading pieces of family history.

I finished Paul Wilson's new translation of The Gentle Barbarian, Bohumal Hrabal's memories of the artist Vladimir Boudnik, on the last morning of the month, then lay in bed for fifteen minutes marveling at the strange turns of history that made it possible for me to read a '70s-era piece of samizdat Czech literature describing the antic lives of radical artists and poets and writers on a little hunk of plastic.

*

Moomin panel by Tove Jansson.

set of three / 3.11.2021

 






Who could have dreamed them up? At least snails
have shells, but all these have is—nothing.


Brian Swann, from "Slugs."

*
I began to read about the slime itself, and discover that like all mucus, it is a liquid crystal, with some properties of liquid and some of solid.


Emily Wick, "The Shimmering Slime Drawings of Snails and Slugs." Learning How to See, 4/25/2018. 

*
Here in this spring, stars float along the void;
Here in this ornamental winter
Down pelts the naked weather;
This summer buries a spring bird.

Symbols are selected from the years'
Slow rounding of four seasons' coasts,
In autumn teach three seasons' fires
And four birds' notes.

I should tell summer from the trees, the worms
Tell, if at all, the winter's storms
Or the funeral of the sun;
I should learn spring by the cuckooing,
And the slug should teach me destruction.

A worm tells summer better than the clock,
The slug's a living calendar of days;
What shall it tell me if a timeless insect
Says the world wears away?


Dylan Thomas, "Here In This Spring."

*

From top:

Nagasawa Rosetsu, Slug. 18th century, Edo period. Via Stephen Ellcock.
David Arnold, Chain of Letters, 1976. Via Letterform Archive.

odds and ends / 3.7.2021













Photo of a frozen daisy, found here.

Maria Sybilla Merian, drawings of two moths from Merian's Drawings of Surinam Insects &c, ca. 1701-1705. The British Museum.

*

Quilted Robe à la Francaise, ca. 1750. In the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Rennes stocks a covetable modern version of the luxury quilted housedress by Maku.)

*

Unknown artist, lover's eye ring, ca. 1890. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Other eyes.)

*

Judy Kensley McKie, Butterfly chest, 1993. 

*
We live on a wild planet, a wobbly, erupting, ocean-sloshed orb that careens around a giant thermonuclear explosion in the void. Big rocks whiz by overhead, and here on the Earth’s surface, whole continents crash together, rip apart, and occasionally turn inside out, killing nearly everything. Our planet is fickle. When the unseen tug of celestial bodies points Earth toward a new North Star, for instance, the shift in sunlight can dry up the Sahara, or fill it with hippopotamuses. Of more immediate interest today, a variation in the composition of the Earth’s atmosphere of as little as 0.1 percent has meant the difference between sweltering Arctic rainforests and a half mile of ice atop Boston.


Peter Brannen, "The Terrifying Warning Lurking in the Earth's Ancient Rock Record." The Atlantic, 3/2021.

*

Life with an obsessive, often absent, geologist must have been hard. In one recollection Mary Ann is described as 'an eccentric little round-faced woman,' oddly dressed, with rouged cheeks and black curls, often seen walking a few paces behind Smith, 'who plodded steadily on his way, apparently too much immersed in his geological meditations to give a thought to her who followed behind.' Occasionally she had tantrums. Smith never argued but walked quietly out of the room, locking the door behind him. More than once she was known—and who could blame her—'to dash some object through the window of her temporary prison as he passed outside of it.' In February 1842 she was sent to York Lunatic Asylum, where she died two years later. Hers is a story that asks to be written.


Jenny Uglow, "The Reader of Rocks." The New York Review of Books, 3/11/2021. 

*

For rock hunters: A jazz musician explains how to find micrometeorites.

*

She has freed me from the nagging worry about relevance, because, reading her, I know I am entirely irrelevant, nearly extinct or saved from extinction by some kind conservationists who allow me to graze on austere pastures.

Mary Gordon, "Beatifying Patricial Lockwood." LitHub, 2/24/2021. 

*
Everything is too long these days, isn’t it? Every series is at least two episodes too long, podcasts go on for hours, you have to scroll through pages of someone’s barely disguised eating disorder mania to get to the recipe on their blog, and every documentary on Netflix is four hours long, forcing me to go to Wikipedia halfway through just to finally find out what happened ...


Jessa Crispin, "Why I Am Obsessed with this Podcast's Merciless Little Romps." The Spectator, 2/27/2021. 

*
This notion of oneself as a kind of continuing career—something to work at, work on, “make an effort” for and subject to an hour a day of emotional Nautilus training, all in the interests not of attaining grace but of improving one’s “relationships”—is fairly recent in the world, at least in the world not inhabited entirely by adolescents.

Joan Didion, "Letter from 'Manhattan.'" The New York Review of Books, 8/16/1979.

*
Yes, writing is very hard, and no book really lives up to its aspirations, but once you’re an adult you can’t be writing bad books all over the place. People might read them! It’s not your right to be a writer. It’s not your right to be read. It’s not your right to be a public figure. A just society is one where everyone has a home, food, healthcare, an education, and vacation for four weeks a year. A just society does not mean everybody gets to be a celebrated writer if they want to be. 


Lauren Oyler, interviewed at The End of the World Review

*


*


*
The blues are both a feeling and a situation, [Angela] Davis writes. America is in the blues now, and the blues are in our history. The United States isn’t occupied by Nazi Germans, it’s occupied by the same people it has been occupied by since it was colonized. “Occupied territory is occupied territory,” James Baldwin wrote in 1966, “even though it be found in that New World which the Europeans conquered, and it is axiomatic, in occupied territory, that any act of resistance, even though it be executed by a child, be answered at once, and with the full weight of the occupying forces.”


Eula Biss, "The Resistance." The Paris Review, 2/23/2021. 


*


*
I have striven hard to be pleased with my new situation. The country, the house, and the grounds are, as I have said, divine. But, alack-a-day! There is such a thing as seeing all beautiful around you—pleasant woods, winding white paths, green lawns, and blue sunshiny sky—and not having a free moment or a free thought left to enjoy them in. The children are constantly with me, and more riotous, perverse, unmanageable cubs never grew. As for correcting them, I soon quickly found that was entirely out of the question: they are to do as they like.

Charlotte Brontë, writing to her sister Emily in 1839, via Lapham's Quarterly Vol. IV, No. 2, Spring 2011.

*

"One person is the hider, and the other person is also the hider."

*


book report: february 2021


The Nova Zemlya effect is an optical illusion, a false sunrise that appears during the perpetual dark of polar winter:

In the polar regions, where the sun disappears entirely for part of the year, it's possible for an inversion layer, where warmer air is trapped above cooler air, to generate a mirage that's both real and unreal. In the inversion layer stretched uninterrupted for hundreds of miles, and the rate of temperature changes inside the inversion hit just the right window, sunlight can bend along a tunnel in the atmosphere, refracting sunlight.

In Icebound: Shipwrecked at the Edge of the World, Andrea Pitzer tells the tale of the Dutch navigator William Barens and his crew. In the late 1600s they sailed north and east, hoping to find a warm sea beyond the ice offering a direct route to China, but ended up stranded in the Russian Arctic on Nova Zemlya, wintering in a cabin built of scavenged driftwood, eating Arctic foxes and ship's biscuit, feeling their teeth loosen with scurvy, and living in terror of marauding polar bears. They encountered this strange mirage, and the false sun threw them into confusion. Gerrit de Veer, the ship's officer, recorded the experience in his diary:

We had not expected to see [the sun] for some days yet, so that my feeling was rather one of pain, of disappointment, that we must have drifted farther south than we thought. So it was with pleasure that I soon discovered that it could not be the sun itself. The mirage was at first like a flattened-out glowing red streak of fire on the horizon ...

But think of the ordinary sailors, with their loose teeth and frostbitten toes and fingers. They must've been wild with hope that they were seeing the dawn at last. 

In this engrossing history, Pitzer excels at showing savagery of the so-called "civilized" Dutch, who never see a thing without wanting to kill it, never attempt to learn the languages or customs of the people they meet, take whatever they can grab, and think they can claim whatever they see for themselves, unless, of course, it belongs to an investor. The freezing sailors left cases of woolen goods earmarked for trade untouched as they shivered. 

Reading accounts of perilous expeditions are one of my favorite coping mechanisms (Everest: The West Ridge got me through the early months of parenthood.) It's helpful perspective; after all, no matter how isolating this winter has been, at least I haven't been stuck in a cabin with dozens of smelly men. False dawns, though—uncomfortably relatable. 

*

Staying northerly, I flew through the pages of A. Kendra Green's Vagrants & Uncommon Visitors, an oblique account of Sigurgeir's Bird Museum in Mytvan, Iceland. Though the writing teetered on the edge of self-aware too-muchness (yes, yes, I can see that you have a degree in Fancy Writing), I cannot resist lists of bird names or anecdotes about collecting eggs. And the length (short!) was just right, taking just about as long to read as an afternoon wander through a little museum. It's part of a trilogy on Icelandic museums, and I hope to find a copy of the one about stones.

*

I needed to look at something beautiful, so I picked up See Shells. It opens with a peculiar, dreamy short story by Gioia Timpanelli about two Italians—a woman and a baker—in New York circa 1905, who find in each other something they miss, but who are too enmeshed in other lives and loves to share anything more than recognition. The bulk of the book is casual-seeming, uncaptioned color snapshots of Barry Rosen's shell collection, sometimes jumbled in with an assortment of everyday things: peonies and plastic Muji trays and dollar bills and dusty books.. Apparently, there are specimens that cost a small fortune and others you can pick up for pennies, though there is nothing in the book that will tell you that. Flipping through is like rifling a treasure. The shell's textures intoxicate: stair-step whorls and prim pleats, ruffles and ruckles and knuckle-y knobs; spines and specks and striations; and the xenophora specimens, hoarders of the sea, with their found assemblages of smaller shells, both charm and make a sort of joke-in-a-joke on the shell collector. 

*

More beauty: a facsimile copy of The Starsan artist book by Vija Celmins and Eliot Weinberger. From the jacket flap: "Weinberger has assembled a catalogue of descriptions of the stars drawn from around the world, and from an array of historical, literary, and anthropological sources." Now, if I could make a book myself, I wish I could make a book like this. It's the sort of reading sets the soul square to the universe.

*

It was probably a mistake to pick up Nancy Campbell's Fifty Words for Snow in the giddy afterglow of Weinbergerian sidereal glory, but I did. This is a collection of fifty short essays—some beautiful, some banal—paired with fifty words for snow from various languages and cultures around the world. Campbell has a genius for titles (see also: The Library of Ice) but the books themselves are somehow less than they should be. Marvelous source material, though.

*

The exhibition catalog for Jane Wildgoose's Promiscuous Assemblage, Friendship, and the Order of Things is a confection of another order. In the late 1700s, Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Portland (not to be confused with the other great Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle and inventor of blazing worlds of the 17th century), compiled a collection of curiosities—shells, botanical specimens, porcelains—that was a wonder of the age; when she died, it took 38 days for her children to sell it all off. Mary Delany (she of the nimble scissors) was her dear friend, and in 2009, Wildgoose created an installation at Yale's Museum of British Art celebrating their friendship and intellectual passions. It included objects pulled from the natural history collections at Yale, plaster casts based on the Duchess's collections, and various other oddities, all presented in gleaming custom cabinets (we took the train up from New York to see it, and I think about it, and the wall of Constable clouds there, all the time.) Was rapt reading about the two women spending their days building shell grottos, lacquering cabinets, and turning amber on lathes.

*

Fired with Delany-mania, I turned to Molly Peacock's The Paper Garden: Mrs. Delany Begins her Life Work at 72. In it, I learned that Peacock's father was an alcoholic and her mother a disappointment; when she first had sex with her husband (sex and the body dominate Peacock's perspective—she describes Mrs. Delany's botanical collages as shining "a flashlight on nine hundred and eighty-five flower's cunts"); that her husband was a cancer survivor; that his mortality worried her until it didn't; and that she felt many mystical coincidences while writing about Mrs. Delany.  Beneath the encrustations of Peacock's fancy, memoir, and conjecture, there is also a biography of Mary Delany, though I had the sense that Mrs. Delany was perhaps not quite who Peacock wished her to be. The story of Ruth Hyde, Delany's descendent and unlikely biographer, buried near the close, was an unlooked-for gem (that is the true story of someone discovering a whole new vocation in midlife; from childhood, Mrs. Delany was an accomplished maker, so not quite a septuagenarian botanical artistic savant). Knowing that Mrs. Delany wrote thousands of pages of letters made me wish for a biography akin to Ruth Scurr's brilliant John Aubrey, My Own Life.

*

Edith Wharton's The Custom of the Country was an acute delight, not least for the names: Undine Spragg! Indiana Frusk! Elmer Moffatt! (Moffat, a self-made billionaire with a rapaciousness to collect all and only the very best things, made me think of the many dazzling gifts of Pierpont Morgan lingering in vitrines in various New York museums.) Undine is "fiercely independent and passionately imitative," and Wharton charts her careening career through New York and Parisian high society near the turn of the 20th century, as she uses everything (and everyone) around her to chase her insatiable need for status:  

Even now, however, she was not always happy. She had everything she wanted, but she still felt, at times, that there were other things she might want if she knew about them.

It's a book that chills, as you recognize behaviors and attitudes unchanged in a hundred years. (This NYT feature on the cost of Undine's splendid gems and clothes makes plain the level of eye-popping wealth she craved.)

*

Claudia Rankine's didactic one-act The White Card offers other chills. Written in response to a white man who asked her after a reading, "What can I do for you? How can I help you?" it stages two interactions between a wealthy white collector of Black art (who makes his money building prisons) and a Black artist. The first is a disastrous dinner party with whiteness, personified by the collector's wife, his art dealer, and his radicalized son; the second is an encounter at the artist's studio, when the patron realizes he has become the subject of the artist's work. The finale struck me as grim yet too optimistic.

*

Back to wandering. Years ago, a I read a much-lauded book about a walk through the Himalayas described as a spiritual masterpiece that was mostly a masterpiece of selfishness. The author's wife died of cancer so he went on an epic, dangerous trip to look for leopards and process his big feelings. Fine, fine, fine, but—he left behind their two young children. As I read about his struggles, the yaks, his guilt, the Sherpas, his inner conflicts, these children, little children who had just lost their mother, hovered over everything. Because of this, I found pretty much everything he had to say—no matter how sublime—suspect. I could not understand why this evidence of pure ass-hattery was not a more salient point for other readers. 

I much prefer the awareness and astringent honesty of Jamaica Kincaid. In Among Flowers: A Walk in the Himalaya, she chronicles a seed-gathering expedition in the Himalayan foothills, and through her relentless noticing, the reader sees all sorts of things more sharply: the quantity of human labor is required to support the pleasure of tourists, how easily self-justification comes for whatever one wants to do, the peculiar greed that propels people from one place to another, the need to purchase and acquire and take. There are also rhododendron forests, encounters with leeches, and Maoist insurrection, all described in twining, barbed sentences. Sharper still is My Garden Book, a collection of essays on making (and understanding) gardens that explores notions of home and homemaking, and excavates the tangled, troubling roots (whiteness, racism, colonialism) lurking beneath the cheery world of seed catalogs and specimen plants. Her sentences, with their twists and sharps, are a particular pleasure.

Now, on to March!

*

Various publishers, bookstores, and public domain versions are linked in case you can't find these at your own beloved libraries and bookstores; none of the links are sponsored or monetized.

*

Takanori Hayashi: Untitled (Photo of books falling in an earthquake), 3/17/2011.


odds and ends / 2.15.2021













*


*

Salvador Dalí: Rosa papillonacea (Butterfly Rose), 1968.

*


*

Unknown artist: Heart-and-Hand Love Token, ca. 1840-1860. American Folk Art Museum.

*

Endpapers for the Faber edition of Klara and the Sun, the new Kazuo Ishiguro novel.

*

Guda Koster: Houseman, 2016.

*
'I love you,' Daniel told his mother, 'but with your inundation of fake news, you have created a reality for yourself that doesn’t exist, and by doing so, you are actively distancing yourself from your family. It is making it harder for us to connect with you because, unfortunately, we feel that you are just not living in the world that we live in, and it’s frightening for us.' 

His mom’s response laid bare the degree to which QAnon had warped her worldview: 'Oh, honey,' she said. 'That’s how I feel about you.'


*
Originally home meant the center of the world—not in a geographical, but in an ontological sense. Mircea Eliade has demonstrated how the home was the place from which the world could be founded. A home was established, as he says, "at the heart of the real." In traditional societies, everything that made sense of the world was real; the surrounding chaos existed and was threatening, but it was threatening because it was unreal. Without a home at the center of the real, one was not only shelterless but also lost in nonbeing, in unreality. Without a home everything was fragmentation.​

 
John Berger, "The Meaning of Home." 

*

Robert, in coat and tie, took to the podium. In recent years, he explained, he and Suzanne had turned their attention to the prophetic visions that a number of experiencers have undergone during, and sometimes after, their NDEs [near-death experiences]. While the visions themselves were invariably apocalyptic, the Mayses spoke of them with an almost clinical detachment. Their work encompassed several methodologies: “an extensive literature review of prior research,” surveys they had sent to twenty-two subjects, and analyses of fifteen accounts by “published NDE authors.” From this material, they had identified five categories of NDE-related prophetic visions, including “current political conflict and civil strife in the United States”; “economic and social chaos caused by widespread power failures”; “severe tsunamis, earthquakes and natural disasters.” My favorite was the fourth category, described as “reset of the Earth, millions to billions of people die: supervolcano, asteroid hit, or nuclear war.” (The fifth was “post-reset world.”) It seemed appropriate that the first interesting PowerPoint I had ever seen would augur the end of civilization.


Emily Harnett, "Back from the Afterlife." The Baffler, January 2021. 

*

Being nice ... is not a naïve denial of the darkness of life. It’s a cleareyed adaptation to it. The series recognizes that nice guys do sometimes finish last. It just argues that other things are more important than finishing first.

James Poniewozik, "'Ted Lasso,' 'The Great North' and the Art of Nice." NYT, 2/11/2021.