Displaying articles for: September 2010

The Englishman Who Posted Himself and Other Curious Objects

When every other day brings a headline detailing some unprecedented and unfathomable event of earth-shaking import, it's easy enough to miss notice of the lesser revolutions.  Thus, ultramodern citizens who focus exclusively on electronic means of communication might have failed to note the recent epoch-shattering news that the British government intends to sell off its Royal Mail Service.  A government institution since 1516, when Henry VIII established the office of "Master of the Posts," the vaunted and legendary service will now become a branch of Wal-Mart perhaps, or an arm of the Murdoch Empire.  And of course the US Postal System is plainly headed for an identical severance from Federal sponsorship.


Tom as Twain, and America

In his preface to the first edition of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain says that Tom is a composite of three boys from hometown Hannibal, Tom's adventures those of his friends rather than his own. Most Twain biographers treat these statements as unreliable disclaimers, and proceed as if young Sam Clemens is Tom—until, having grown "from careless mischief to extreme unruliness" (Andrew Hoffman, Inventing Mark Twain), he is Huck.


The Diaries of Sofia Tolstoy

Today I picked up The Diaries of Sofia Tolstoy in their new translation by Cathy Porter, and nearly dislocated my wrist. The book weighs in at slightly over 600 pages. How those Czarist gentry could write! Just think how many tweets it would take to amass that number of pages!


Selling the Sketches

Of the half-dozen books which Mark Twain published during the 1870s, two of his least remembered are also among his most important. Sketches, New and Old (1875, a detail from the frontispiece shown here) and Punch, Brothers, Punch! and other Sketches (1878) are collections from Twain's "alternate writing career"—brief magazine pieces, some short stories, a sprinkling of speeches, and other occasional material. Dating from as far back as his roving days in Nevada and California, the topics themselves jump all over the map, but their wide appeal and distribution kept Twain's name in constant view of the broader reading public.


The Grand Design

No one can accuse famed physicist Stephen Hawking and his co-author Leonard Mlodinow of pussyfooting around their controversial beliefs: "Philosophy is dead," they bluntly proclaim in the opening pages of The Grand Design, and only science can possibly offer any solace or solutions to a perplexed humanity scratching their heads over the great intellectual and spiritual conundrums that have eternally plagued us.


Orion & the Comet

On a midsummer morning in 1861, Sam and Orion Clemens lit out for the Nevada Territory together. Sam was twenty-five, and giving up steamboats for prospecting; Orion was ten years older and, having struggled as a lawyer and a newspaperman, eager to take up his appointment as the Territory's first Secretary. Each brother made a record of the three-week, 1700-mile trip from St. Joseph, Missouri to Carson City, Nevada, the two texts as different as the two men.


The Girls of Murder City

I must sternly advise readers not to approach Douglas Perry's The Girls of Murder City without being aware of the risks they run. Like the hero of Jack Finney's Time and Again, who steeped himself so intensely in vintage surroundings that he became unmoored in time and slipped back to Victorian-era New York, so too might the unwary readers of Perry's book find themselves sucked willy-nilly back down the decades to 1920s Chicago, as a result of Perry's incredibly visceral, sensual and hypnotic recreation of that era. Such a pleasant yet disorienting fate happened to me, I swear it. The man is simply a wizard of words, and must be approached with caution.


The Hartford Steamboat

When Mark Twain moved to Buffalo in 1869, taking his new bride and taking up his new position at the Buffalo Express, he expected to live in boarding house conditions. Instead, courtesy of his in-laws, he found himself the owner of a stately and comfortable home. When Twain decided to give up the newspaper job for full-time writing, and to move closer to East Coast literary society, he upgraded from comfort to splendor, if not to ostentation and eccentricity. The result was his nineteen-room Victorian mansion in Hartford, Connecticut, described by one biographer as "part steamboat, part medieval stronghold and part cuckoo clock."


July 23: Jessica Mitford died on this day in 1996.

Books, CDs, DVDs to know about now
The Hundred-Year House

When a poetry scholar goes digging through the decrepit estate of his wife's family to uncover a bygone arts colony's strange mysteries, he awakens a tenacious monster: his mother-in-law. A wickedly funny take on aging aristocracies from author Rebecca Makkai (The Borrower).

Watching Them Be

What makes a film actor into a larger-than-life movie star? James Harvey's passionate, freewheeling essays explain why there are some faces (from Greta Garbo's to Samuel L. Jackson's) from which we cannot look away.


What if you called up the spouse on the verge of leaving you -- and instead found yourself magically talking to his younger self, the one you first fell for?  Rainbow Rowell, author of the YA smash Eleanor & Park, delivers a sly, enchanting take on 21st-century love.