• print • June/July/Aug 2007

    Red State

    In 1896, in a text that anticipated Borges’s merger of the essay and the short story, Paul Valéry introduced readers to a character he called Monsieur Teste. This was the modernist hero as creature of pure intellect, capable of an almost inhuman intensity of self-conscious lucidity. Through a “frightening discipline,” M. Teste had “[set] his pleasures to killing his pleasures.” He had not withdrawn from social life entirely. But while living in the world, he was not of it—a mind preparing itself to tear up everything and begin anew. “What,” asks the puzzled narrator, “had he done with his

    Read more
  • print • June/July/Aug 2007

    Tanked

    “You never knew what you were drinking or who you’d wake up with. . . . We wore wishbone diaphragms that weren’t always reliable. There was a woman doctor who handled abortions for our crowd. She would take a vacation at Christmastime to rest up for the rush after New Year’s Eve.”

    So wrote Lois Long, a twentysomething correspondent for the New Yorker, the smart-set weekly that debuted in Prohibition-era Manhattan and thrived thanks to nervy, candid tales of the city’s demimonde like hers. The madcap indulgence in New York’s speakeasies and nightclubs in the ’20s that Long chronicled— not just

    Read more
  • print • June/July/Aug 2007

    Shocking Life: The Autobiography of Elsa Schiaparelli

    Elsa Schiaparelli begins her memoir by comparing Saint Peter’s Basilica and Piazza in Rome to the claws of an enormous crab, thereby revealing the protean, anthropomorphizing imagination for which the designer was revered in 1930s Paris. Like Picasso, this short, magnetic, dark-haired Mediterranean woman captivated prewar society with her creative ferocity. A New Yorker cartoon from 1939 portrays a shopgirl showing a futuristic ball gown to a stodgily dressed older woman: “Why should Madam be afraid? Schiaparelli isn’t.”

    Schiap, as she called herself, published Shocking Life in 1954, just as

    Read more
  • print • June/July/Aug 2007

    Exit Wounds

    In the graphic novel Exit Wounds, Israeli taxi driver Koby Franco finds himself on a reluctant quest to discover the fate of his estranged father after being contacted by a young female soldier who believes the elder Franco has died in a suicide bombing. Nothing is quite as it seems in this offbeat romantic comedy from Rutu Modan, one of the best artists to emerge from the vibrant Tel Aviv cartooning scene of the past decade. The story of her first booklength work moves along at a brisk clip, urged on by a series of small but jolting revelations, starting with Koby’s discovery that Numi, the

    Read more
  • print • June/July/Aug 2007

    Like a Thief’s Dream

    Photographer Danny Lyon has spent much of his career documenting the overlooked and underreported, be it an outlaw motorcycle gang (The Bikeriders [1968]) or the nineteenth-century buildings demolished to make way for the World Trade Center (The Destruction of Lower Manhattan [2005]). In 1967, his quest to photograph society’s outsiders took him to the Texas Department of Corrections. There, Lyon knew he would find a subject most people had never seen. (It would be four more years before the tragic Attica uprising brought prison life into public consciousness.) In a facility nicknamed “the

    Read more
  • print • June/July/Aug 2007

    At Large and At Small

    Anne Fadiman is a specialist in what she stubbornly calls the familiar essay, a genre that reached its prime in the early nineteenth century. Most readers and writers today are acquainted with its cousin, the personal essay. Fadiman’s word choice, then, acts as a small protest. Personal, she notes in the preface to At Large and At Small, has increasingly come to mean “confessional,” and Fadiman is not one for theatrics. Critical doesn’t quite do it either, because so often what she writes involves personal experience. In the end, Fadiman practices the familiar through a series of wide-ranging,

    Read more
  • print • June/July/Aug 2007

    Storming the Gates of Paradise: Landscapes for Politics

    In Rebecca Solnit’s River of Shadows (2003), the life of Eadweard Muybridge initiates an expansive meditation on technology, the motion-picture industry, Leland Stanford, Silicon Valley, and, ultimately, the Western landscape. It is terrain that Solnit likewise seeks in her other books, among them Savage Dreams, Wanderlust, and A Field Guide to Getting Lost. So it is unsurprising that in her agile, impassioned collection of essays, Storming the Gates of Paradise: Landscapes for Politics, Solnit returns to familiar ground—the California earth blasted away by the devastating hydraulic mining of

    Read more
  • print • June/July/Aug 2007

    Hubbub: Filth, Noise and Stench in England, 1600–1770

    As its subtitle indicates, Hubbub: Filth, Noise and Stench in England, 1600–1770 is about the dirtiness, clamor, and odor of seventeenth- and eighteenthcentury urban England. It is also about dentistry, furniture, food, hygiene, houses, sewage, and hair. Framed as an investigation of “how people were made to feel uncomfortable by other people” in London, Oxford, Bath, and Manchester, Emily Cockayne’s book succeeds in bringing the overlooked and sometimes downright disgusting details of the period to life without, unfortunately, ever revealing what the upshot of such discomfort might have been.

    Read more
  • print • June/July/Aug 2007

    Samuel Beckett CDs

    No one has done the voice inside the head, ever present as we dice and chop life’s minutiae into apposite syllables— that “murmur, now precise as the headwaiter’s”—so accurately as Samuel Beckett. He remains the master of depicting mental paralysis, registering with circular syntax (there is always another but, yet, perhaps, or) the provisional, self-consuming logic that mires the soul at the starting line. Beckett achieved a kind of apotheosis of this style in three novels—Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable—all composed in the late ’40s while he was living in France. In these works, as in

    Read more
  • print • June/July/Aug 2007

    Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations

    “Predictably—and understandably— more pressing problems than saving dirt usually carry the day,” writes David R. Montgomery. But as his new book, Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations, details, we are losing the brown stuff far, far too quickly. Unlike maritime dead zones and radical climate change, cases in which we have little historical knowledge on which to draw, we do have some sense of what happens to civilizations that abuse and lose their dirt. The book’s conclusion takes little comfort in history: “Unless more immediate disasters do us in, how we address the twin problems of soil degradation

    Read more
  • print • June/July/Aug 2007

    Books 360

    As a young man growing up in Omaha, Kurt Andersen dreamed of moving east. His parents were big readers; his mother was an amateur Willa Cather scholar who gave talks on the Nebraska novelist at women’s groups and book clubs. Andersen wrote for his junior high school paper, and at fifteen he discovered Emerson and Thoreau. His eldest sister went to graduate school in Chicago, which suggested to him the possibility of an academic career. When Andersen got to Harvard and started writing for the Lampoon, he began thinking about the life of a writer instead. “George Plimpton was hanging around, and

    Read more
  • print • June/July/Aug 2007

    Auf Readersehen

    It may be an odd thing to do, but whenever I’m in another country, I always go to as many bookstores as I can, even when the language is Greek to me. I love seeing the differences in how books are made and promoted, the variations in cover designs and trim sizes and colors. Although I realize I’m looking through rose-colored glasses, there seems inevitably to be a cheeriness in window displays and a pleasant languor in browsing that, at least on the surface, are lacking at home. In the process of visiting sundry foreign bookstores, some places have become like old friends to drop in on when

    Read more