The Chimerist: my and Laura Miller’s new site

ipad lock screen

One thing I really like about my friend Laura Miller is that she, like me, is fascinated by literature and technology, and interested in the places they meet. Sometimes that intersection feels like a lonely place to hang out.

We both have iPads and (though we’re appalled by Apple’s employment practices) are excited about the potential of tablet computers. But we haven’t found many sites that talk about them in the way we would like them to be talked about. So we decided to start The Chimerist: Two iPad lovers at the intersection of art, stories, and technology. And fun.

My first post is here, and, if you’re also a tablet lover, we’re looking for your screenshots.

Ray Bradbury’s robots, and more


I’m behind on everything around here, even linking to my New York Times Magazine mini-columns. Recently I’ve written about: plans to turn the old Miami Herald building into a casino; Laurie Anderson’s stint as Andy Kaufman’s sidekick; the (partial) realization of Ray Bradbury’s dream of robot teachers; and, courtesy of Madeline Miller and Plato, The Iliad as love story between Achilles and his man Patroclus.

Bradbury’s comments about robot teachers appeared in a 1974 letter to Brian Sibley. And his short story, “I Sing the Body Electric,” about a girl and her electric grandmother, inspired one of my favorite old Twilight Zone episodes — favorite even though it gave me nightmares — and a mini-series (clip above).

The orangeless childhood of Bertrand Russell

I’m still obsessed with the life and writings of Bertrand Russell, and I keep meaning to post the passage from his autobiography that inspired one of my recent New York Times Magazine microcolumns, on Victorians’ belief that fruit was bad for children. Here it is:

I remember an occasion at lunch when all the plates were changed and everybody except me was given an orange. I was not allowed an orange as there was an unalterable conviction that fruit is bad for children. I knew I must not ask for one as that would be impertinent, but as I had been given a plate I did venture to say, ‘a plate and nothing on it’. Everybody laughed, but I did not get an orange. I had no fruit, practically no sugar, and an excess of carbohydrates. Nevertheless, I never had a day’s illness except a mild attack of measles at the age of eleven. Since I became interested in children, after the birth of my own children, I have never known one nearly as healthy as I was, and yet I am sure that any modern expert on children’s diet would think that I ought to have had various deficiency diseases. Perhaps I was saved by the practice of stealing crabapples, which, if it had been known, would have caused the utmost horror and alarm. A similar instinct for self preservation was the cause of my first lie. My governess left me alone for half an hour with strict instructions to eat no blackberries during her absence. When she returned I was suspiciously near the brambles. ‘You have been eating black-berries,’ she said. ‘I have not,’ I replied. ‘Put out your tongue!’ she said. Shame overwhelmed me, and I felt utterly wicked.

I was, in fact, unusually prone to a sense of sin. When asked what was my favorite hymn, I anwered ‘Weary of earth and laden with my sin’. On one occasion when my grandmother read the parable of the Prodigal Son at family prayers, I said to her afterward: ‘I know why you read that — because I broke my jug.’

A little earlier on, Russell establishes that this grandmother, who raised him, “ate only the plainest food, breakfasted at eight, and until she reached the age of eighty never sat in a comfortable chair until after tea.”

The impression Russell leaves of his boyhood self is a lonely, anxious, and searching one. Reading about his long, solitary days, I kept wishing someone would swoop in, give him some candy, and whisk him off on a fishing trip or to the fair or something.

His friend Annabel Huth Jackson recalls him in her A Victorian Childhood (which he quotes) as “a solemn little boy in a blue velvet suit with an equally solemn governess…. [E]ven as a child I realised what an unsuitable place it was for children to be brought up in. Lady Russell always spoke in hushed tones and Lady Agatha always wore a white shawl and looked down-trodden. Rollo Russell never spoke at all. He gave one a handshake that nearly broke all the bones of one’s fingers, but was quite friendly. They all drifted in and out of the rooms like ghosts and no one ever seemed to be hungry.”

The image above is W.C. Rainbow’s watercolor of Pembroke Lodge, Russell’s childhood home, painted in 1883. And below is an 1884 photograph of Russell’s grandmother, the Dowager Countess Russell; you can read an entire book about her, and if this fixation continues I probably will.

At Full Stop: The situation in American writing

Full Stop interviewed me about literature, politics, criticism, and the responsibilities of writers, as part of a series called “The Situation in American Writing.”

Others who’ve answered the same questions: Marilynne Robinson, Alexander Chee, Victor LaValle, Porochista Khakpour, Geoff Dyer, Gary Shteyngart, T.C. Boyle, Roxane Gay, George Saunders, Aimee Bender, Siddhartha Deb, Christopher Bollen, Steve Himmer, Laura van den Berg, John Warner, Dana Spiotta, Philipp Meyer, Kio Spark, Danielle Evans, Lars Iyer, and Darin Strauss.

Muriel Spark + Maggie Smith = a better January

Muriel Spark, Jean Brodie, Maggie Smith, and Downton Abbey feature in my most recent New York Times Magazine micro-column.

Smith is best known now for her role as the Dowager Countess, but she won the Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of Muriel Spark’s dramatic and overbearing schoolmistress in the 1969 adaptation of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. It’s the perfect apéritif for the second season of Downton Abbey, which airs on PBS this Sunday. And obviously the novel is even better.

Speaking of drinks, if you’re looking for something wintry to cut the sting of January, and if you have good heat and don’t mind juicing a big bag of clementines, I recommend Rosie Schaap’s wondrous Bitter Darling, my last drink of 2011.

William Faulkner’s hot toddy recipe



Twitter was so excited about William Faulkner’s mint julep yesterday that it seemed wrong, especially at the holidays, to withhold his cure for anything from “a bad spill from a horse to a bad cold, from a broken leg to a broken heart.” (So said Dean Faulkner Wells.)

I’ll stick with Kate’s hot toddy, personally. But here, as told to The Great American Writers’ Cookbook by Faulkner’s niece, are directions for making his version.

Pappy alone decided when a Hot Toddy was needed, and he administered it to his patient with the best bedside manner of a country doctor.

He prepared it in the kitchen in the following way: Take one heavy glass tumbler. Fill approximately half full with Heaven Hill bourbon (the Jack Daniel’s was reserved for Pappy’s ailments). Add one tablespoon of sugar. Squeeze 1/2 lemon and drop into glass. Stir until sugar dissolves. Fill glass with boiling water. Serve with potholder to protect patient’s hands from the hot glass.

Pappy always made a small ceremony out of serving his Hot Toddy, bringing it upstairs on a silver tray and admonishing his patient to drink it quickly, before it cooled off. It never failed.

See also Rosie Schaap’s glogg and gingersnaps, Eudora Welty’s recipe for “Charles Dickens’ eggnog,” Faulkner’s bourbon trolley, Kate Christensen’s food (and life) blog, Ford Madox Ford’s Provencal chicken, and my winter cold Rx.

Portrait of William Faulkner by Carl Van Vechten, via the Library of Congress.

Better science through sci-fi: Stephenson & NASA


My most recent New York Times Magazine mini-column concerns Neal Stephenson’s — and NASA’s — efforts to encourage scientific and technological innovation through speculative fiction.

See also Stephenson’s “Innovation Starvation” speech, NASA’s partnership with TOR Books, Arthur C. Clarke’s predictions for the future (made in 1964), Isaac Asimov’s Visions of the Future (he starts speaking at 6:45 of part 1, above; here are parts 2, 3, and 4), and Asimov on the Golden Age of Science Fiction.

When the place outlives the preaching

The Crystal Cathedral of “Hour of Power” fame is the subject of my latest New York Times Magazine mini-column. Not so long ago the most lavish symbol of U.S. Protestantism, the building sold in bankruptcy last month to a Catholic diocese.

Although the congregation has agreed under the terms of the deal to vacate the premises after three years, pastor Sheila Schuller Coleman, daughter of founder Robert H. Schuller, assures her flock, “lest you think that it’s too late for a miracle, I want to reassure you and remind you that it is not too late. There is still time for God to step in and rescue Crystal Cathedral Ministries.”

Bonus reading: Joseph Clarke’s “Infrastructure for Souls,” on the “parallel histories of the American megachurch [including the Crystal Cathedral] and the corporate-organizational complex.”

A secret chord that David played

My mini-column for last week’s New York Times Magazine is on poetry and song. King David viewed them as natural companions, but these days they’re seen as distinct, unrelated arts.

Accepting Spain’s Prince of Asturias Award for Letters recently, musician and poet Leonard Cohen implicitly took David’s view. He spoke of learning a progression of six flamenco chords from a mysterious young Spaniard who soon killed himself. “It was those six chords,” Cohen said, “it was that guitar pattern that has been the basis of all my songs and all my music… Everything that you have found favorable in my work comes from this place. Everything. Everything that you have found favorable in my songs, in my poetry [is] inspired by this soil.”

And he expressed unease over the honor. “Poetry comes from a place that no one commands and no one conquers. So I feel somewhat like a charlatan to accept an award for an activity which I do not command. In other words, if I knew where the good songs came from, I’d go there more often.”

Related: Christopher Ricks, Jonathan Lethem, and Lucinda Williams on the case for Dylan as poet; PEN New England’s new prize for excellence in song lyrics, judged by Paul Simon, Elvis Costello, Rosanne Cash, Paul Muldoon, and others; The Village Voice’s jokey list of contenders for the award; and, courtesy of my friend Michael Taeckens, Rimbaud and Jim Morrison. And, just for fun, Roger Miller and Dave Hickey on Hank Williams’ hooked-up verse.

From du Maurier & Hitchcock to grudge-holding crows

Angry birds — and especially smart, angry birds — aren’t just the subject of my latest NYT Mag mini-column. Because my mom collected and bred parrots, they’re something I’ve spent far too much time pondering.

Did you know that crows develop grudges against individual people that they impart to their flocks? Or that African Greys are capable of labeling and counting objects and grasping the concept of zero? Or that birdsong appears to be in some sense grammatical? Often parrots use their powers for good, and not evil, of course. As far as we know.

Daphne du Maurier (above) said the idea for her avian-apocalypse novella, “The Birds,” came to her after she saw a farmer ploughing a field while seagulls dived above him, and she imagined the birds “becoming hostile and attacking.” Evidently she disapproved of Hitchcock’s also-harrowing, more famous adaptation.

Unfortunately, this BBC interview doesn’t seem to be viewable in the States these days. In it she talks about her life and work for almost 50 minutes. The clip opens at her typewriter, “the standard ‘the author at work’ establishing shot except for du Maurier’s super-strong finger-punching technique on the keys.”

The Grapes of Wrath, the real-life sequel?

My latest New York Times Magazine mini-column looks at a sandstorm — “Steinbeck-ish in its arrival,” according to a city councilman — that rolled through Lubbock, Texas last month, as the harbinger of a likely impending Southwestern Dust-Bowlification.

“I expected at any moment to see a line of Model Ts coming through headed to California,” the councilman said. “It really did look like pictures I had seen of the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.”

Also: The ending of The Grapes of Wrath; retracing the characters’ journey in 2009; Woody Guthrie’s “Talking Dust Bowl Blues” (above); and Even Nobel laureates get the blues.