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Viewing: Blog Posts Tagged with: Literature, Most Recent at Top [Help]
Results 26 - 50 of 2,148
26. Alan Thomas on Norman Maclean’s Young Men and Fire


Over at the Los Angeles Review of Books, University of Chicago Press editorial director Alan Thomas has a piece on the legacy of Norman Maclean’s now classic account of the 1949 Mann Gulch disaster, Young Men and Fire—carefully detailed and processed by an account of Thomas’s own experience of bringing the long delayed manuscript to publication. Below follows an excerpt from the longer essay, a must-read for anyone interested in Maclean’s stunning reportage or the contradictions and complexities inherent in a young man editing a posthumous manuscript from one of our most acclaimed storytellers, on furloughs in Japan, Chicago, and Missoula, Montana. Visit the LARB website for me.


Reading Young Men and Fire for the first time, you expect that the book will end with fire science and the definitive account it allows Maclean to give at the end of part two of the book. But there is a third and last part to come, a very brief section that feels like a coda. It is in some ways the most experimental part of Young Men and Fire, and Marie Borroff, for one, argued in her essay on the book that it is not a success, that the book should have ended short of part three. “I have to say,” writes Borroff, “and I say it hesitantly and with pain — that what we are presented with in the last twenty pages as his further attempts to bring the poetic imagination to bear on his subject strike me as just that: as attempts.”

Perhaps, but those last pages were important to Maclean. Part three, he says in his notes, entrusts itself “to the Imagination and Compassion of the Story-teller.” Imagination takes the form of an elevated view of the Smokejumpers’ last moments, extending an earlier reference to Thomas Hardy’s Sky Spirits, “who comment upon tragedies of man from distant horizons.” Compassion brings the storyteller, and us, back to the ground with the doomed men, “to project ourselves into their final thoughts.” He envisions, most importantly, their loneliness, which, he writes, “loomed up suddenly — they were young and not used to being alone.” Here, accompanying the men to their end, Maclean recalls his wife, who died of cancer of the esophagus: “Perhaps it is not odd, at the end of this tragedy where nothing much was left of the elite who came from the sky but courage struggling for oxygen, that I have often found myself thinking of my wife on her brave and lonely way to death.”

These are the last lines of the book — an abrupt, almost unbearable ending. All deaths are lonely, Maclean seems to say in these final pages, but acknowledging that his own wife was lonely in death may reveal a deeper sorrow. We think of his father’s words in A River Runs Through It: “It is those we live with and love and should know who elude us.” We think of Dodge, who at the crucial moment couldn’t save his men, and whose wife told Maclean, “I loved him very much, but I didn’t know him very well.” And we think of the loneliness of an old man spending his last years at a writing table, as the energy to finish leaves him.

The closing pages of Young Men and Fire may be imperfect and strained, but that is because Maclean is trying to grasp something ultimate — the quality of “a special kind of death,” the death of the young and unfulfilled. He speculates that for them the last emotions were fear, followed by self-pity and bewilderment, and then finally, as they each made a last lunge up the hill, “some firm intention to continue doing forever and ever what we last hoped to do on earth.”

Read Thomas’s essay in full at the Los Angeles Review of Books, here.

To read more about Young Men and Fire, click here.

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27. Drowning in Facts: A Conversation with Amy Stewart and Masie Cochran

Amy Stewart is the author of the novel Girl Waits with Gun and six other books, including The Drunken Botanist and Wicked Plants. Some of her earliest research for the novel happened right here in Portland, and Tin House editor Masie Cochran was there to witness it all. We've brought them back together to reminisce [...]

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28. Padgett Powell: The Powells.com Interview

"Padgett Powell is an extravagantly talented writer," raves The New York Times Book Review. We also think he's one of the funniest, saddest, and most innovative writers that you might not yet have read. His first novel, Edisto, was nominated for the National Book Award, and he's also won the Prix de Rome of the [...]

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29. Case and Crispin on The Dead Ladies Project


Below is an excerpt from an interview conducted by the editor/novelist Mairead Case with Jessa Crispin, about Crispin’s forthcoming book The Dead Ladies Project: Exiles, Expats, and Ex-Countries (publishing on September 22—my birthday, coincidentally). The two talk bathing rituals, auguring one’s future via hypothetically deciding whose role you’d play in the Odyssey, kitchen-adjacent and macaroni-sacrificing breakdowns, love, travel, jerks, and writing, among other things.


When do you not feel lonely?

There are moments.

I wish other people would write about loneliness more. It’s hard to remember that it’s not personal. That we live in a world that is built to make people lonely. That our society is structured around competition, so that we cannot connect we must always conquer. We are set up to think there is a finite amount of goodness in the world, and so if we are lacking in it it is because that bitch over there with the really good shoes is hoarding it. So it’s difficult to remember that your loneliness is not really about you and everyone has it.

So I try to remember that. It’s been a really long time, though, since I’ve been in a relationship that anybody else would recognize as a relationship, and that is hard. I’ve never felt like I’ve had a family where I could go back to if I were in trouble. But there are compensations. I have “family” scattered all over the world now, and no matter where I’ve lived I’ve always managed to have a dining room table crowded with others with full wine glasses and some divine hunk of meat steaming in the center. I am currently in a city where I don’t live, but I managed to cobble together a rowdy dinner party and I made pot roast with sour cherry couscous and we all drank too much wine and it went on until the next day, and it was wonderful. I was not lonely then.

Read the interview in full, here.

To read more about The Dead Ladies Project, click here.

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30. How well do you know Sherlock Holmes? [quiz]

Test your knowledge of Sherlock Holmes with this quiz, based on the novels and short stories, the canon's history and its place in modern day life.

The post How well do you know Sherlock Holmes? [quiz] appeared first on OUPblog.

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31. A fairy tale is more than just a fairy tale

When some one says to you "that's just a fairy tale," it generally means that what you have just said is untrue or unreal. It is a polite but deprecating way of saying that your words form a lie or gossip. Your story is make-believe and unreliable. It has nothing to do with reality and experience. Fairy tale is thus turned into some kind of trivial story.

The post A fairy tale is more than just a fairy tale appeared first on OUPblog.

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32. How well do you know Shakespeare’s influences? [quiz]

Many Shakespeare fans prefer to imagine him as an untrained genius, but, in reality, Shakespeare drew inspiration from many classical sources for his own writing. His most famous plays, such as Othello, Antony and Cleopatra, and Hamlet, allude to and reference external sources that Shakespeare was already familiar with. How much do you know about the influence of other writers on, what some would call, the greatest English dramatist to date?

The post How well do you know Shakespeare’s influences? [quiz] appeared first on OUPblog.

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33. Powell’s Q&A: Salman Rushdie

Describe your latest book. Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights is a fairy-tale of New York (well, mostly New York). New York with added genies (jinn). It's about a jinnia princess, Dunia, who acquires a large number of human offspring, and uses them to help her battle an invasion of our world by the [...]

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34. Eight Essential Attributes of the Short Story and One Way It Differs from the Novel

1) There should be a clean clear surface with much disturbance below. 2) An anagogical level. 3) Sentences that can stand strikingly alone. 4) An animal within to give its blessing. 5) Interior voices which are or become wildly erratically exterior. 6) A novel wants to befriend you, a short story almost never. 7) Control [...]

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35. Bill Clegg: The Powells.com Interview

In January of this year, eight months before its release date, the buzz was already starting to build for Bill Clegg's Did You Ever Have a Family. Bookseller colleagues were passing around the few advanced reader copies we could get a hold of and telling each other, "You have to read this!" Four major review [...]

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36. Summer Friction

I was crying or almost crying for most of Fun Home: The Musical — I already loved Alison Bechdel's graphic novel, and I've always been a sucker for the way musicals make melodrama catchy. The song that got me most was "Ring of Keys," a song about a primal moment of identification: Sydney Lucas, playing [...]

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37. Jonathan Ames on Anthony Powell


The novelist and occasional raconteur Jonathan Ames was asked by the Big Issue to name his “Top 5 Books for American Anglophiles.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, he named a cadre of authors instead, Anthony Powell among them, and Ames had this to say, in particular, about Powell and his work:

About 15 years ago some snobby writer in New York told me he was reading Powell’s epic 12-novel series, A Dance to the Music of Time, and wanting to be this writer’s intellectual peer (a hopeless endeavour), I set out to read it as well. I spent nearly a year absorbing all 12 books, and especially enjoyed the beautiful edition that had been put out by the University of Chicago Press—the spines of the books, when all lined up, formed the painting of the same name by Nicolas Poussin, which had been, in part, Powell’s inspiration for the work. A lot of Dance was rather boring but it was also quite wonderful to follow Powell’s characters over 70 years, and I saw resonance in my own life—how we keep re-encountering the same people over and over, how we keep struggling with the same issues over and over. Powell certainly intended this, as he wished to demonstrate in his fiction, I believe, aspects of Nietzsche’s theory of eternal recurrence.

To read up on the many works of Anthony Powell published by the University of Chicago Press, click here.

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38. Powell’s Q&A: Christopher Moore

Note: Join us this Thursday, August 27, at Powell's Books at Cedar Hills Crossing for an author event with Christopher Moore. Describe your latest book. Secondhand Souls is the sequel to my bestselling novel A Dirty Job, which was about a single dad in San Francisco who gets the job of being Death and runs [...]

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39. Last Bus to Wisdom

The final novel from one of the Northwest's most beloved writers, Ivan Doig's The Last Bus to Wisdom is the story of 11-year-old Donal Cameron and his travels across the country by Greyhound bus. Each of the cast of characters Donal meets during his journey have stories to tell and insights to offer. Doig does [...]

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40. Fortune Smiles

These six substantial stories by the Pulitzer Prize–winning Adam Johnson range in topic from hurricane Katrina to North Korea; his convincing characters are trying to make the best of some very difficult circumstances. Wrenching, masterful, and occasionally grimly funny, Fortune Smiles is one of the strongest story collections of the year. Books mentioned in this [...]

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41. The Fall of Princes

Some books are meant to be sipped and savored, others consumed whole. The Fall of Princes should be ingested in a single marathon session like one of the cocaine- and champagne-induced benders it so vividly depicts. Goolrick perfectly captures the arrogance and hubris of New York in the 1980s. His characters wallow in the Gatsbyesque [...]

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42. Ramie Targoff shortlisted for the Christian Gauss Award


The Phi Beta Kappa Society recently announced the shortlists for their 2015 book awards, and several books published by university presses made the cut. The awards include the Phi Beta Kappa Award in Science, the Ralph Waldo Emerson Award (which honors the book “that contribute significantly to interpretations of the intellectual and cultural condition of humanity”), and the Christian Gauss Award, described below:

The Christian Gauss Award goes to books in the field of literary scholarship or criticism. The prize, created in 1960, honors the late Christian Gauss, the distinguished Princeton University scholar, teacher, and dean who also served as President of The Phi Beta Kappa Society.

Among those books shortlisted for the Gauss Award was Ramie Targoff’s Posthumous Love: Eros and the Afterlife in Renaissance England, which considers the boundaries that Renaissance English poets drew between earthly and heavenly existence, as they transformed the concept of posthumous love—so dominant in the days of Dante and Petrarch—and instead introduced a new mode of poetics that derived its emotional and aesthetic power from its insistence upon love’s mortal limits.

Winners—each of whom will receive a $10,000 prize—will be announced on October 1, 2015.

To read more about Posthumous Love, click here.

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43. Like Every Other Survivor

Note: Join us at Powell's City of Books on Saturday, August 29, for an author event with Ellen Urbani. I have an uncommon penchant for aligning myself with disaster and death. Tornadoes and wildfires and armed guerrillas have chased me. Riptides have caught me. Earthquakes have knocked down the walls around me. Pestilence has rained upon [...]

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44. Books on the Rilla Shelf

books to read with my 9yo

These are the books I’ve collected in one place for Rilla to pull from this year. They may be read-alouds or read-alones, depending on what we’re in the mood for. I expect Huck will listen in on a lot of the read-alouds. (And probably the older kids too, sometimes, because we’re like that.)

No particular order here. This is how they landed on the shelf. Will we read them ALL? It’s a long list! Most likely we won’t, but the idea is to pull together a rich selection of books to choose from. The history, science, mythology, and poetry selections (second half of list) form a kind of homeschooling core library, and the fiction and picture book choices (up top) will provide read-aloud and solo reading options for months to come. I’ve listed those first because they’re what we’ll lead off with most mornings, to make sure life doesn’t crowd out the very best part of the day.

dorothywizardinozI’m quite sure other titles will join the list as we go. I can already think of a few I’ve left off, but which she may be ready for by the end of the year. (It doesn’t help that Jane keeps thrusting more books at me. “I loved this one at her age!” She’s my daughter, all right.) 😉

Naturally I expect Rilla will spend a lot of time revisiting some of her own favorites, especially the Oz graphic novel adaptations by Eric Shanower and Skottie Young and other comics.

Also!! We have Swallows and Amazons, Ballet Shoes, and Dancing Shoes on audio to listen to during our Saturday night art-and-audiobook sessions, now that we have made our way through most of Roald Dahl. (This, by the way, is the only reason Ransome, Streatfield, and Dahl aren’t on the list below. I imagine Rilla will return to Matilda, James, the BFG, and Charlie at some point during the year—they were great favorites.)

I suppose I should also mention that Scott is currently reading her my Charlotte series at bedtime. He reads all my novels to the kids. I can’t do it because I always want to tweak the writing. :)

For a look at what besides books will fill Rilla’s days, see “High Tide for Huck and Rilla.”


*An asterisk means the book has one or more sequels which may be added to this list

family under the bridgeencyclopedia brownthe rescuers by margery sharpturtle in paradise

The Family Under the Bridge, Natalie Savage Carlson
Encyclopedia Brown, Donald Sobol*
The Rescuers, Margery Sharp
Turtle in Paradise, Jennifer Holm

stories julian tellsgreen embercalpurnia tatepeterpan

The Stories Julian Tells, Ann Cameron*
The Green Ember, S. D. Smith
The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, Jacqueline Kelly*
Peter Pan, J.M. Barrie

akiko on the planet smoobook of threehomer pricepippi longstocking

Akiko on the Planet Smoo, Mark Crilley*
The Book of Three, Lloyd Alexander*
Homer Price, Robert McCloskey
Pippi Longstocking, Astrid Lindgren*

half magicgone-away lakeamong the dollsmiss happiness and miss flower

Half Magic, Edward Eager*
Gone-Away Lake, Elizabeth Enright
Among the Dolls, William Sleator
Miss Happiness and Miss Flower, Rumer Godden

understood betsyall of a kind familybetsy-tacy treasurybeezus and ramona

Understood Betsy, Dorothy Canfield Fisher
All-Of-A-Kind Family, Sydney Taylor*
Betsy-Tacy series, Maud Hart Lovelace (see my Reader’s Guide to Betsy-Tacy)
Beezus and Ramona, Beverly Cleary*

ginger pyetwenty-one balloonssearch for deliciouslast of the sandwalkers

Ginger Pye, Eleanor Estes*
The Twenty-One Balloons, William Pene du Bois
The Search for Delicious, Natalie Babbitt
The Last of the Sandwalkers, Jay Hosler

penderwicksfive children and itfarmer boythe borrowers

The Penderwicks, Jeanne Birdsall*
Five Children and It, E. Nesbit*
Farmer Boy, Laura Ingalls Wilder*
The Borrowers, Mary Norton*

gammage cuprowan of rinlittle princesszita the spacegirl

The Gammage Cup, Carol Kendall* (my review)
Rowan of Rin, Emily Rodda*
A Little Princess, Frances Hodgson Burnett
Zita the Spacegirl, Ben Hatke*


hattie and the wild waveseleanoronly opal

Hattie and the Wild Waves, Barbara Cooney
Eleanor, Barbara Cooney
Only Opal, Barbara Cooney

bedtime for francesbest friends for francesbread and jam for frances

Bedtime for Frances, Russell Hoban
Best Friends for Frances, Russell Hoban
Bread and Jam for Frances, Russell Hoban (nine years old is a perfect time to revisit Frances)

lady with ship on her headgiraffe that walked to parispleasant fieldmouse

The Lady with the Ship On Her Head, Deborah Nourse Lattimore
The Giraffe that Walked to Paris, Nancy Milton
Pleasant Fieldmouse, Jan Wahl

saint george and the dragonChanticleer and the FoxThe Mouse Bride
Saint George and the Dragon, Margaret Hodges
Chanticleer and the Fox, Barbara Cooney
The Mouse Bride, Judith Dupre

Chin Yu Min and the Ginger CatThe Swan MaidenMufaro's Beautiful Daughters

Chin Yu Min and the Ginger Cat, Jennifer Armstrong
The Swan Maiden, Howard Pyle
Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters, John Steptoe

(The folk and fairy tales could easily go with the group below, so I’ve stuck them kind of in between)


Barefoot Book of Animal TalesFavorite Greek MythsD'Aulaires' Book of Greek MythsA Wonder Book for Girls and Boys

Barefoot Book of Animal Tales, Naomi Adler
Favorite Greek Myths, Mary Pope Osborne
D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths
A Wonder Book for Girls and Boys, Nathaniel Hawthorne

The Green Fairy BookThe King of Ireland's SonTatterhood and Other TalesAmerican Tall Tales

The Green Fairy Book, Andrew Lang*
The King of Ireland’s Son, Padraic Colum
Tatterhood and Other Tales, Ethel Johnston Phelps
American Tall Tales, Mary Pope Osborne (finishing this one up)


Handbook of Nature Studydrawing birds with colored pencilsUsborne Science Activities, Volume 1

Handbook of Nature Study, Anna Botsford Comstock (with some Outdoor Hour Challenges)
Drawing Birds with Colored Pencils, Kaaren Poole
Usborne Science Activities, Volume 1
Various field guides: Insects, Birds, Rocks

A Rock Is LivelyAn Egg Is QuietA Nest is Noisy

A Rock Is Lively, Dianna Aston & Sylvia Long
An Egg Is Quiet, Dianna Aston & Sylvia Long
A Nest is Noisy, Dianna Aston & Sylvia Long

Enid Blyton's Nature Lovers BookOne Small Square- BackyardOutside Your Window

Enid Blyton’s Nature Lovers Book
One Small Square: Backyard, Donald M. Silver
Outside Your Window, Nicola Davies (nature poems)


A Child's History of the WorldOne Day In Ancient RomeDetectives in TogasA Street Through Time

A Child’s History of the World, Virgil M. Hillyer (2-3 chapters a week)
One Day In Ancient Rome, G.B. Kirtland
Detectives in Togas, Henry Winterfield
A Street Through Time, Anne Millard

A World Full of HomesMaterial WorldTree in the TrailMinn of the Mississippi

A World Full of Homes, William A. Burns
Material World: A Global Family Portrait
Tree in the Trail, Holling Clancy Holling (finishing from the spring)
Minn of the Mississippi, Holling Clancy Holling (a lot of nature/science crossover here)


The Mouse of AmherstJoyful NoisePoetry for Young People- African American PoetryPoetry for Young People- William Butler Yeats

The Mouse of Amherst, Elizabeth Spires (yes, again)
Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices, Paul Fleischman
Poetry for Young People: African American Poetry
Poetry for Young People: William Butler Yeats

The Oxford Illustrated Book of American Children's PoemsFavorite Poems Old & NewAll the Small Poems & Fourteen More

The Oxford Illustrated Book of American Children’s Poems, Donald Hall
Favorite Poems Old & New, edited by Helen Ferris (a family treasure!)
All the Small Poems & Fourteen More, Valerie Worth

Poetry for Young People- William ShakespeareBeautiful Stories from Shakespeare for Children

Poetry for Young People: William Shakespeare
Beautiful Stories from Shakespeare for Children, E. Nesbit (one story a week)


MichaelangeloWhat Makes a Bruegel a BruegelWhat Makes a Picasso a Picasso

Michaelangelo, Diane Stanley
What Makes a Bruegel a Bruegel
What Makes a Picasso a Picasso

roundbuildingsA Short Walk Around the Pyramids & Through the World of ArtRound Trip

Round Buildings, Square Buildings, Buildings That Wriggle Like a Fish, Philip M. Isaacson (posted about here)
A Short Walk Around the Pyramids & Through the World of Art, Philip M. Isaacson
Round Trip, Ann Jonas (a favorite with my babies, but if you look at it you’ll see why it works for art as well)

Usborne Big Book of Things to Docreature campDraw Africa

Usborne Big Book of Things Do
Creature Camp: 18 Softies to Draw, Sew, & Stuff, Wendi Gratz
Draw Africa by Kristin J. Draeger

So many books!

As I said, I don’t expect to read this entire list in a single year, especially the fiction selections at the top. And I’m sure Rilla will encounter other enticing titles along the way. Or maybe she’ll get hooked on Redwall or Warriors like her sisters did at this age, and read those obsessively to the exclusion of things on this list. The point is for us to have a rich bounty to draw from, a shelf she knows she can go to whenever she needs something new. I would hazard we’ll manage 1-2 read-aloud novels per month, depending on length. The rest will be options for her to read on her own. I’ll let you know which ones we pick for read-aloud time.

The lower chunk of the list will serve as the spine for our high-tide mornings. A typical day’s reading looks something like:

• Chapter of current read-aloud novel
• A poem or two, sometimes to memorize
• A chapter of Child’s History of the World or a passage from Handbook of Nature Studies (alternating days)
• A Greek myth, folk tale, or Shakespeare story (about twice a week, and this may include longer picture books)
• Something from the art, science, or history lists (perhaps we do an experiment from Usborne Science Activities, or maybe we spend some time poring over Brueghel’s paintings, for example)
• Whatever other books she is reading on her own

Some days have more reading aloud, some days less. Some days I focus more on the teens. Or a big sister might read to Huck and Rilla while I work with the other teen. Some days (or weeks) we’ll follow a rabbit trail that may involve a library trip or two. But we always circle back to the tried-and-true favorites above (plus one or two new treasures). I love this list so much. These books live in that wonderful late-elementary space I love so dearly—as a writer, a reader, and a mom.

Next up: Huck’s list! (Give me a few days.) 😉

Companion post: High Tide for Huck and Rilla


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45. Wind/Pinball

Murakami's first two novels never saw wide English-language distribution and have long been out of print. Now packaged together as Wind/Pinball, the books are finally available again and include a new introduction by the author. These remarkable stories serve as a coming of age, not just for their characters but for Murakami as well. Books [...]

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46. The Marriage of Opposites

Hoffman's novels are storytelling magic. Set on an island in the Caribbean, this beautifully written and engrossing tale of family and forbidden love is an enchanting portrait of a headstrong woman who defies her community to follow her heart. Books mentioned in this post The Marriage of Opposites Alice Hoffman Sale Hardcover $19.59

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47. Eli Gottlieb: The Powells.com Interview

Eli Gottlieb has done something unusual — he's written two novels, 20 years apart, from opposing but connected perspectives. The Boy Who Went Away, his first novel, draws from Gottlieb's own childhood to chronicle a young boy's coming of age in a family with a severely disabled, classically autistic brother. It won the American Academy's [...]

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48. A comma in Catullus

Only Oscar Wilde could be quite so frivolous when describing a matter as grave as the punctuation of poetry, something that causes particular grief in our attempts to understand ancient texts. Their writers were not so obliging as to provide their poems with punctuation marks, nor to distinguish between capitals and small letters.

The post A comma in Catullus appeared first on OUPblog.

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49. Discussion questions for Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

We're just over a fortnight away from the end of our third season of the Oxford World's Classics Reading Group. It's still not too late to join us as we follow the story of young Pip and his great expectations. If you're already stuck in with #OWCReads, these discussion questions will help you get the most out of the text.

The post Discussion questions for Great Expectations by Charles Dickens appeared first on OUPblog.

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50. Excerpt: The Dead Ladies Project


“Berlin/William James”

from Jessa Crispin’s The Dead Ladies Project: Exiles, Expats, and Ex-Countries


Here is the real core of the religious problem: Help! Help!

William James, Varieties of Religious Experience


“You’re in Berlin because you feel like a failure.”

I had met this man all of ten minutes ago and he was already summing me up neatly. I made subtle readjustments to my clothing, as if it had been a wayward bra strap or an upwardly mobile hemline that had given me away. More likely it was my blank stare in response to his question, “So, what brings you to Berlin?”

He has had to do this a lot, I imagine: greet lost boys and girls, still wild with jet lag, still unsure how to make ourselves look less obviously like what we are, we members of the Third Great Wave of American Expatriation to Berlin. This man before me was second on the list of names that everyone gets from worried friends when resettling overseas: Everyone I Know in the City to Which You Are Moving (Not Totally Vouched For). I had lasted about a week before I sent e-mails tinged with panic to everyone on my list. He had been the first to answer.

I must have blushed at the accuracy of his remark, because he immediately qualified it. “Everyone who moves to Berlin feels like a failure. That’s why we’re here. You’ll have good company.” Still embarrassed, I scanned the menu for one of the four German words I had mastered and, failing, pointed helplessly to a random item when the waiter returned. It would prove to be a strange Swiss soda of indeterminate flavor. It tasted like the branch of a tree, carbonated. It was not unpleasant. I had been shooting for something alcoholic, but I was already too laid bare to have admitting to a mistake and reordering left in me.

At this moment it seemed unlikely this American could commiserate. My own failings were too grandiose, the depths to which I had fallen too abysmal. I was narcissistic in my failings, and he looked like he was doing pretty okay. He sat across from me confident, knowledgeable. He had ordered in German. The people in the restaurant had greeted him by name. He talked about artistic projects he was working on. He was certainly sweating less than I was on this hot July day. Later a tale would unravel, one that mimicked the stories of so many of the Americans who had flocked here over the last decade. Unable to survive financially in New York without having to abandon their writing, their art, their music, they came to a city of cheap rents, national health insurance, and plentiful bartending jobs that could cover a reasonable cost of living. He had an apartment. It had hardwood floors. A failure, my eye.

In contrast, there I was, ten days into my new city and still stumbling around like a newborn calf. I was tired of being the person I was on an almost atomic level. I longed to be disassembled, for the chemical bonds holding me together to weaken and for bits of me to dissolve slowly into the atmosphere. It was not a death wish, not really. Not anymore. I was hoping something in the environment, some sturdier, more German atoms, would replace them.

Because there does seem to be something about Berlin that calls out to the exhausted, the broke, the uninsurable with preexisting mental health disorders, the artistically spent, those trapped in the waning of careers, of inspiration, of family relations, and of ambition. To all those whose anxiety dreams play out as trying to steer a careening car while trapped in the backseat, come to us. We have a café culture and surprisingly affordable rents. Come to us, and you can finish out your collapse among people who understand.

* * *

Let’s say, for a moment, that the character of a city has an effect on its inhabitants, and that it sets the frequency on which it calls out to the migratory. People who are tuned a certain way will heed the call almost without knowing why. Thinking they’ve chosen this city, they’ll never know that the city chose them. Let’s say, for a moment, that the literal situation of a city can leak out into the metaphorical realm. That the city is the vessel and we are all merely beings of differing viscosity, slowly taking on the shape of that into which we are poured.

If that were the case, what to make of the fact that Berlin is built on sand? Situated on a plain with no natural defenses, no major river, no wealth of any particular resource, it’s a city that should not exist. It can’t be any wonder that Berlin has for hundreds of years—no, longer than that, past Napoleon, past the medieval days when suspected witches were lined up at the city gates and molten metal was poured between their clenched teeth, past the whispers of the Romans that those who inhabited these lands were not quite human, back to the days of the people residing here who are now known to us only by some pottery shards and bronze tools—been a little unstable. It would explain the city’s endless need to collapse and rebuild, even as the nation that engulfs it marches on confidently, linearly.

Perhaps its unstable nature is what beckons the unstable to its gates. The Lausitzer. The Jastorf. The Semnonen. The name-less and the preliterate. A shifting bunch of conquerors and the conquered. On through invaders and defenders, and populations reduced by half in war, disease, and the destruction of whoever pulled the short straw for being the scapegoat this century. The process merely sped up in the twentieth, oscillating madly through world wars and grotesque ideas, crashing economies and blind eyes turned.

It plays out seasonally as well here in the northern reaches of Germany. The lush highs of summer, everything green and tangled with a sun reluctant to leave its post at night and overly enthusiastically trying to rouse you from bed in the very early hours of the morning, crash endlessly down toward the darkness of the winter solstice. The trees that had been blooming in a state of fecund glory when I arrived in the city lost their leaves, revealing that the only things behind them were the endless concrete boxes of Soviet midcentury “architecture.” The sun shunned us and rarely peeked out from behind its thick cloud cover. When it deigned to, it gave off all the glow and heat of a porch light. The gray of the sky matched the gray of the buildings matched the gray of the thick coating of ice that remained on the sidewalks all winter. I fell on it one night, or early one morning, I guess, a little worse for wear, accompanied by a man I met at a bar, whose entire seduction strategy was just to follow me home, despite the fact that I kept trying to shoo him away like a stray dog.

I was six months into my Berlin residence. And from my akimbo position I threw the holy tantrum of a sailor-mouthed two-year-old. “Fuck this city. Fuck it. Why the fuck did I ever move here, god fucking damn it.”

“You’re strange,” said the German man, still resolutely standing by.

“Help me up.”

* * *

That’s when I took my William James essays off the shelf. I found in his works of philosophy a friend, a mentor, a professor, and some sort of idealized father. It was his works on the more mundane matters that I relied on—how to make changes in your life, how to believe you can make changes in your life, how to convince yourself to get out of bed in the morning, how not to be a worthless slug—rather than his more important pieces about war or whatever.

James is now a bit of an odd fellow in philosophy. More widely influential than widely known, his theory of pragmatism and his groundbreaking work in the field of psychology make him something of a hidden mover. If you do seek him out, it’s not generally in the way one reads Descartes or Kant or Nietzsche, as a refinement of the intellect or in the pursuit of one’s studies. One finds James when one needs him. He makes quiet sense of the world in all its glories and deprivations, its calamities and its beauties. As a philosopher, James is able to hold all of the sorrow and violence and pain of the world in his mind and remain somehow optimistic. It doesn’t wipe out the goodness of the world, it just sits beside it. It’s no wonder then that people get a little religious about this agnostic philosopher, this man who can restore your faith in the world without necessarily bringing god into it.

I sought out William James because I needed him. He and I were now separated by about a century of death, but we found ourselves occupying the same biographical eddy: bottoming out in Berlin.

* * *

Here is how William James found himself in Berlin: a failure. He had tried and failed to become a painter, failed to become a doctor, failed to become an adventurer. He was not yet a writer, but he was almost certainly still a virgin. He was in his mid-twenties and painfully aware that he had failed even in deciding what it was he wanted to do. He stood there, absolutely calcified with indecision and doubt, while his soon-to-be-famous friends like Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. made decisions and started careers, and his soon-to-be-famous younger brother, Henry, started his literary apprenticeship with the Atlantic.

Whereas he—well, he fled. First to Dresden and then to Berlin. He arrived under the pretext of furthering his education, but that may have simply been a way to convince his parents to pay for the trip because, despite his advancing age, he had yet to make an income. At any rate, he failed to go to class, ever. Instead he holed up in his Berlin guesthouse, learning German, training his telescope on the legs of the occupants of the all-girls’ school across the street, and failing to figure out a way to flirt with the pretty woman who played the piano downstairs. All the while in his letters to his brother he was alluding to a daily battle not to do himself in.

James lightly fictionalized this time in his life in Varieties of Religious Experience, passing off the breakdown to someone he knows who told him about it. (He’s French, you don’t know him.) In that work he described the sensation of his suicidal idyll as “desperation absolute and complete, the whole universe coagulating about the sufferer into a material of overwhelming horror, surrounding him without opening or end. Not the conception or intellectual perception of evil, but the grisly blood-freezing heart-palsying sensation of it close upon one, and no other conception or sensation able to live for a moment in its presence.” And while his letters to his parents hint at some of this darkness, there he mostly chats about that other Berlin experience, the roast veal and the beer and the music and the philosophy.

Here is how Berlin responded to William James’s time in Berlin: they built a center in his name. At the place of his greatest misery and torment, they built a permanent structure. Although maybe at this point they couldn’t help it. After all the documentation they had to do of the horrors of the twentieth century, maybe now it’s an unconscious reflex to throw up a memorial on the site of every trauma.

Well, not really a structure, I guess. More like a small room. The minute I learned of the center’s existence, I sent off an e-mail to make an appointment. I expected a hall of philosophy on the university campus, maybe in that glorious red brick so many of the buildings in James’s time had been constructed with. I scribbled the address down on a piece of paper, and I took the train to the outskirts, to the University of Potsdam campus. It’s situated next to Sanssouci and its gardens, the former playground of the Prussian king. While the main path through the gardens is still marked with magnificent elm trees, most of the grounds have been allowed to go to seed. It’s not a tourist destination on par with Versailles, and so it is kept in only middling shape. There is a lovely rose garden, but that is surrounded by tangle and bramble. It’s been let go in the Berlin way, all of those straight German lines blurring a little into chaos.

Past the garden gates, into the campus, into the main philosophy hall, up the main staircase, down a hallway, to the left and then right, I came to my destination. It was a small door. The William James Center proved, despite its authoritative name, to be the work of one man. Herr Doktor Professor Logi Gunnarsson. Or is it Herr Professor Doktor . . . I should have remembered to look up the proper order before I left. “It’s Logi, call me Logi.” Luckily Dr. Logi is Icelandic and not beholden to the German titling system. The center’s archives are really just the contents of Dr. Logi’s office. A desk, a computer, some bookcases. Dr. Logi is slight and sandy, and he has the wonderful awkwardness that comes with too many hours spent in the company of dead men.

He is, he tells me, attempting to re-create William James’s personal library as part of his administration of the center, so that he can be surrounded by the same books that surrounded James. It’s a devotional act couched in a scholarly one. It’s an act I can understand. Dr. Logi pours me a cup of tea, and we chat about our good friend William James. Up for discussion, a traumatic encounter with a prostitute, alluded to in letters to his brother and in a journal. He did, it seems, either lose his virginity to the prostitute or, perhaps even more traumatically, fail to.

“The poor dear,” I say.

“Yes, quite. He was hopeless with women. It seems, though, that after he married Alice Howe Gibbens, the physical ailments he was treating in Berlin, the bad back and so on, disappeared.”

“Were they caused by the burden of a protracted virginity?”

“Perhaps. The poor dear.”

I am keeping Dr. Logi from professional duties, but I don’t care and it appears he doesn’t either. I imagine it might be a relief for him, as it is for me, to have someone to converse with about our favorite person. Or willingly converse, as I’m sure he inflicts William James on the people around him like I do.

“What do you make,” I ask slowly, “of the fact that his first book wasn’t published until he was forty-nine?”

Part of William’s freakout, Dr. Logi had mentioned earlier, sprang from an enormous need to be seen. By the public, by his friends, by his father. He wanted to “assert his reality” on the world, as he wrote in his letters, and it took approximately twenty years after writing that statement until he would.

“Surely not . . .” Dr. Logi starts, but then he does the math in his head. “I guess I knew that but had forgotten. I mean . . . And he could not have known he would eventually succeed.”

We both sit quietly, drinking the dregs of our tea and feeling the long expanse of the years before us. The weight of uncertainty. Whether it’ll be a late blooming or whether the soil will prove to be infertile.

* * *

Whenever James was corresponding with a colleague or an inquirer, Dr. Logi told me, he would request from them a portrait. It was important for him to see the whole of the person, at least a bit of their humanity, and not only their written representation.

In that spirit, I have before me two images of William James. The first was taken around the time he moved to Berlin. He looks stricken, pale and withdrawn. It is as if he had recoiled into a permanent flinch. He looks off to the side, unable perhaps to meet the camera’s gaze. There is something fractured deep at the heart of him.

In the other, it is a few decades on. There is gray in his beard and his face is worn. He exudes charm, warmth, and wisdom. It is a William James in whose lap you want to sit and listen to stories. He is keeping some secrets, but he will share them if you draw near.

It is the distance between these two photographs that is so fascinating. Not simply in age but in substance of the man. Biographers are interested (I am interested) in the Berlin breakdown because of the distance traveled between the two Jameses and the quality of the end result. It’s a favorite myth in our culture that hardship makes you a better person, that it is merely the grindstone on which your essence is refined and polished. But the truth is that scarcity, depression, thwarted ambition, and suffering most often leave the person a little twisted. That is the territory where mean drunks and tyrannical bastards come from.

Not so with James. He may have always been a little hopeless with women (he sent a series of hilarious and heartbreaking letters to his Alice in the months before their wedding, in a vein that will be instantly recognizable to anyone who has ever gotten a little sullen after a bottle of wine and decided to start texting), and the weight of depression did occasionally re-descend, but he walked out of that phase with dignity and great compassion. He used his experiences, both the good and the ill, for the base of his incredibly humane body of work.

So then what’s the magic formula? Can his transition be distilled down to a scientific protocol to be reproduced at home in your own basement laboratory? Could we use William James’s example to turn our respective chemical imbalances into alchemical processes?

* * *

There are persons whose existence is little more than a series of zig-zags, as now one tendency and now another gets the upper hand. Their spirit wars with their flesh, they wish for incompatibles. Wayward impulses interrupt their most deliberate plans, and their lives are one long drama of repentance and an effort to repair misdemeanors and mistakes.

William James, Varieties of Religious Experience

It is difficult today to imagine the Berlin that James encountered in the nineteenth century. So much of the city was reduced to rubble and ash in the intervening years. I can look at photos and get a sense of who the city might have been. But when I’m out, actually walking around on the streets, it is an entirely different place.

Most of the surface of the city was bulldozed after World War II, and the unsalvageable and the unclaimed was dumped in Grunewald on the outskirts of town. The pile of junk that used to be houses, used to be bakeries and hat shops, used to be attached to human bodies, was covered in dirt, and the wild was allowed to reclaim it. Now it is something of a park or nature preserve, with hiking trails through the woods—the trees still looking suspiciously young—up and down this artificial hill. One of the only hills in this swamp-turned-into-a-city.

The Germans may look like proper churchgoing Lutherans on the outside, but they are all at heart tree-worshiping animists from way back, starting with the pagan cults in the Schwarzwald, to the nature idolatry of the romantic and counter-Enlightenment movements in the nineteenth century. It still bleeds through in their songs and in their art. A few decades before James arrived, Bogumil Goltz wrote, “What the evil over-clever, insipid, bright cold world encumbers and complicates, the wood-green mysterious, enchanted, dark, culture-renouncing but true to the law of nature must free and make good again.”

So maybe that is where James’s Berlin still resides, out in Grunewald, buried in some sort of purification rite inspired by a mysterious calling from deep within the German DNA. The wood-green making all of those horrors good again. It’s a calm place, soothing. But also policed by territorial wild boar.


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