Welcome to Grove at Home!
Every weekday, from now until we’re all out of the house again, we’ll be sharing a couple of links — some fresh, some from the vault — to say hi, remind you to keep reading, and let you know what’s on our minds.
Friday, January 15
Tomorrow marks the 88th anniversary of literary critic Susan Sontag’s birth. Today, we’re preparing by watching this interview, in which known genius Michelle Dean talks with PBS NewsHour’s Jeffrey Brown about Sharp, her resounding depiction of ten brilliant women who made paths as intellectuals in an age when sexist condescension toward them, at all levels of male-dominated cultural hierarchy, was the norm. Speaking from the 2018 LA Times Book Festival, Dean unpacks the book’s title, her own background as a critic, the tricky position of being the smartest person in the room, and more.
Will Self on How We Should Read
“There was no street life in leafy middle class English suburbia in the 1960s,” the great Will Self writes in an excellent new essay, published yesterday at Literary Hub, “unless you liked watching lawns grow.” Self didn’t, and instead became a voracious reader, to the good fortune of a massive global readership that has for decades treasured his mordant, precise, and abundantly rich prose. You can tell we’re among those readers from the fact that we’ve published nineteen of his books so far. In this firecracker of an essay, Self looks at what and how we read, and at what and how we might read, to offer his own suggestions, as a writer, reader, and critic, about creating and preserving literary culture.
“How should we read? The S-word makes it sound, like it or not, like a moral injunction—deep, passionate and enthusiastic readers we may well be, there nonetheless remains something about the way we transform marks on a page or screen into images and ideas in the mind that leaves us feeling like failures. Modish neuroscience may provide at least some of the answers: the ability to read and write—unlike speech—isn’t hard-wired into the human mind-brain, but rather, such is our neural plasticity, that we’re constantly changing in our very essence so as to refine these skills. Perhaps this is why reading always feels a little like striving—unless we’ve mastered the facile trick of reading entirely for pleasure, a subject to which I’ll return.” Continue reading…
Yesterday, we received the sad news that Sylvain Sylvain, guitarist for the legendary New York Dolls, has died of cancer at the age of sixty-nine. Sylvain is a major figure in Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain’s Please Kill Me, the oral history of punk that may be the movement’s most definitive document. In a statement, Sylvain’s wife, Wanda O’Kelley Mizrahi, urged fans, “Please crank up his music, light a candle, say a prayer and let’s send this beautiful doll on his way.” Here’s some of his music to crank — the Dolls performing “Trash,” co-written by Sylvain and appearing their eponymous debut album — live on TV in 1973.
Thursday, January 14
Leila Aboulela in Nigeria
In July 2017, the incredible Leila Aboulela, who was born and raised in Sudan and has lived for many years in Scotland, visited Nigeria for the first time, to headline the inaugural Kabafest, the annual Kaduna Book and Arts Festival. In comments filmed during the week’s festivities, Aboulela offers some excellent advice for writers, and speaks about her perceptions of Nigeria, the impact of winning the Caine Prize for African Writing (in 2000, Aboulela became the first author to receive the honor), the respective values of boycotts and engagement in lodging political protest, and more. It’s wonderful footage of a writer whose prose the San Francisco Chronicle has called “amazing.”
Today would have been the ninety-sixth birthday of the enigmatic, brilliant, and controversial Yukio Mishima, whose failed coup against the post-war Japanese state and consequent death by ritual suicide we commemorated a few months ago, on its fiftieth anniversary. For those unfamiliar with Mishima’s arresting literary voice and unusual, disquieting life story, here’s Thomas Graham writing at the BBC, also on the fiftieth anniversary of Mishima’s failed coup and seppuku, about his work, his image in contemporary Japanese society, and his unusual death.
“Standing on a balcony, as if on stage, the small, immaculate figure appeals to the army assembled below. The figure is Yukio Mishima, real name Kimitake Hiraoka. He was Japan’s most famous living novelist when, on 25 November 1970, he went to an army base in Tokyo, kidnapped the commander, had him assemble the garrison, then tried to start a coup. He railed against the US-backed state and constitution, berated the soldiers for their submissiveness and challenged them to return the Emperor to his pre-war position as living god and national leader. The audience, at first politely quiet, or just stunned into silence, soon drowned him out with jeers. Mishima stepped back inside and said: ‘I don’t think they heard me.’ Then he knelt down and killed himself by seppuku, the Samurai’s ritual suicide.” Continue reading…
Bookseller Rosemary on Wilmington’s Lie
As Americans, and people all over the world, continue trying to make sense of last week’s events in Washington, it’s an excellent time to watch this short video from Rosemary, ace bookseller of Asheville, NC’s Malaprop’s Bookstore and Cafe, recommending Wilmington’s Lie, the detailed account of the white supremacist uprising that shook Wilmington, NC, in 1898 — the only successful coup ever perpetrated on American soil — by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Zucchino. “It is a book that will really shake up your head,” Rosemary says, adding after some more comments, “Educate yourself, and realize sometimes how fragile our democracy can be.” Thanks to Rosemary, and all the booksellers currently working hard to connect readers with books that can enrich and expand our historical understanding!
Wednesday, January 13
Today is the 66th birthday of the wonderful Jay McInerney! A novelist, wine expert, and stalwart of American writing’s “brat pack,” Jay is also an accomplished cook — as becomes clear in this video of his appearance on chef Éric Ripert’s show, “On the Table.” Jay talks about his peripatetic childhood, getting fired from his job as a New Yorker fact-checker, writing one of Angelina Jolie’s first movie parts, and, of course, many kinds of wine. You simply won’t anywhere find a more delicious twenty-minute clip of two great raconteurs cooking braised lamb shanks together while reminiscing about the old New York and discussing cinema and literature. Enjoy!
Gabriel Byrne in conversation with Karl Geary
Yesterday, we published Walking with Ghosts, a stunningly candid and beautifully crafted memoir by Gabriel Byrne, the star of The Usual Suspects and HBO’s In Treatment. Today, at Literary Hub, we’re reading a wonderful interview Byrne gave with fellow Irish actor-author Karl Geary. The topics their broad and fascinating conversation touches on include the legacies of trauma, facing down the blank page, immigrant life, and much more.
“I always remember that image of Joyce writing Ulysses in Trieste, on the back of a suitcase and Nora sweeping under him, saying, ‘you lift up your legs Jim.’ I don’t know why that image stays in my head. [Laughs] You know, isolation, distance, are those things necessary to write? I mean, I’ve always written in cafes because I can’t bear the idea of sitting in a room, looking at a wall. It reminds me too much of school. I want to be out among people. But what’s interesting there is you talk about isolation and loneliness. I think that we’re all isolated in our own particular ways. And I think one of the things that writing does, or reading or being exposed to art, it makes us feel less isolated and it makes us feel connected to the world.” Continue reading…
Sixty-eight years ago today, in the Soviet Union, an article in Pravda announced the so-called “Doctors’ Plot,” a notorious anti-semitic campaign of baseless allegations against mostly Jewish Soviet doctors. As Simon Ings writes in Stalin and the Scientists, the allegations were publicized “in an article heavily edited by Stalin and under the title ‘Ignoble Spies and Killers under the Mask of Professor-Doctors.’ ‘Some time ago,’ the TASS news agency reported, ‘the bodies of State Security uncovered a group of terrorist doctors who set themselves the task of cutting short the lives of prominent public figures in the Soviet Union by administering harmful treatments.’” Less than two months later, Stalin would be dead, and the investigation would unravel; within a month of Stalin’s death, newly-named Soviet Internal Affairs Minister Lavrentii Beria — who would himself be executed within the year — announced that the charges against the doctors had been dropped. The Doctors’ Plot is one of a number of riveting stories told in Stalin and the Scientists. In this long-form interview on the “Autocracy Now” podcast, Ings discusses the book in wonderfully compelling detail.
Tuesday, January 12
Today marks the 69th birthday of the absolute legend Walter Mosley! The author of more than fifty books, Walter is perhaps best-known as the creator of detective Easy Rawlins; his work also includes the bravura 2018 novel of ideas John Woman, the invaluable writing guide Elements of Fiction, and, most recently, the acclaimed short story collection The Awkward Black Man. Here, from last November, is Walter’s remarkable speech on receiving the National Book Foundation’s 2020 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, presented by Edwidge Danticat and introduced by Jason Reynolds.
Walter Mosley on whiteness
In summer 2014, Walter Mosley put his thoughts on race — and, in particular, on the construction of the “white race” — into language for an essay published by CBS News titled, simply, “There is no ‘white’ race.” A lot has changed over the past seven years, but Mosley’s thinking remains perfectly clear and tremendously useful. The essay is worth reading.
“The white race is a fiction created by aggressive colonization and slavery. In the colonies destined to become the United States, the European colonists found themselves pitted against the indigenous (red) people while enslaving Africans (blacks). In between these two colors, the white race was born, creating an antithetical identity that distinguished the supposed rightful owners from the slaves and (so-called) primitives. White was not a racial identifier in ancient Europe. In Britain alone, there was a plethora of races: Celts, Anglo-Saxons, Norse, Scots, Druids, and subgroups such as the Picts. There were as many races as there were languages in old Europe, but when colonization began, they founded an illusory identity where Christian men of European descent were called white regardless of their coloring, features or culture. Florid-faced, pale-skinned, olive-hued, and pink people of every size and build were called white people, and they still cling to that identity today.” Continue reading…
Walter Mosley in conversation with Howard Zinn
For the 2007 Harlem Book Fair, Walter Mosley had a public conversation with historian Howard Zinn, best-known as the author of A People’s History of the United States. Their remarkable and wide-ranging conversation covers topics including the relationship between grassroots movements and political change, inmate disenfranchisement, the September 11 attacks, the differences between the working class and the middle class, and much more. It shows Walter ahead of the curve on many of the pressing issues that have become increasingly central to public discourse in the past decade.
Monday, January 11
Strong Women, Soft Power: Japanese literature by women in translation
Recently, the tireless cultural advocates at the Japan Foundation, New York have announced a new event series, the JFNY Literary Series, that will feature contemporary Japanese authors, and their English-language translators, in discussion about their own work, the art of translation, and the literary scene in Japan today. Last week, the JFNY released a video promoting the new series, hosted by the Foundation‘s Koji Nozaki, and featuring Allison Markin Powell, Lucy North, and Ginny Tapley Takemori, whose translations include both Convenience Store Woman and Earthlings by the great Sayaka Murata, one of the authors discussed most extensively in the clip. Do yourself a favor, watch this immediately!
Roxane Gay on “the ugly truth about America”
The world is still trying to make sense of the events of last week. Few intellectuals are as widely and deservedly praised for their ability to make sense of the world than the legendary Roxane Gay — and last Thursday, not even twenty-four hours after the attack on the Capitol, Gay took to the New York Times to share her invaluable reflections on what had just happened, and what the future may hold.
“On Wednesday, the world bore witness to white supremacy unchecked. I nearly choked on the bitter pill of what white people who no doubt condemned Black Lives Matter protesters as ‘thugs’ felt so entitled to do.” Continue reading…
Gold Star for Robot Boy
We live in interesting times. Why not start your week with the burst of energy provided by this exhilarating 2011 live recording of Guided by Voices performing Gold Star for Robot Boy, off their seventh album, 1994’s Bee Thousand.