Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘books’

05 AUGUST, 2013

The Book of Mean People: Toni Morrison’s Children’s Allegory about Kindness and Context

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“Big people are little when they are mean. But little people are not big when they are mean.”

In 1999, Pulitzer-Prize-winning author Toni Morrison joined the ranks of other famous “adult” writers’ lesser-known and lovely children’s stories when she penned The Big Box — a darkly philosophical meditation on morality, imaginative freedom, justice, and self-sufficiency — in collaboration with her son, the painter and musician Slade Morrison. Three years later, the duo followed up with The Book of Mean People (public library), illustrated by the wonderful Pascal Lemaitre — a subversive allegory for the subjectivity of “good” and “evil,” how context and motive frame those, and why the power of optimism is our greatest psychological defense mechanism.

Somewhere between Twain’s irreverent advice to little girls and the faux-meanness of the facetious faux-unkindness Cat-Hater’s Handbook, the book nudges us to reconsider what “meanness” is and isn’t, and how a child’s assessment differs from a grown-up’s. The Morrisons’ dedication reads:

To brave kids everywhere
(mean people, you know who you are)

Though the book invites many interpretations, depending on your tolerance for the non-literal, its central premise returns again and again to the importance of kindness — something George Saunders would enthusiastically embrace — and reminds us that children, as well as the universal inner child in each of us, can always distinguish between “meanness” that is simply the discomfort of doing things we don’t want to do but should, and “meanness” that springs from truly mean-spirit intention, from anger, from one’s misguided attempt to feel big by making another feel small.

Complement The Book of Mean People with other previously uncovered children’s gems by Mark Twain, Maya Angelou, James Joyce, Sylvia Plath, William Faulkner, Gertrude Stein, Anne Sexton, T. S. Eliot, and John Updike.

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02 AUGUST, 2013

Bedroom via Kitchen: What Food Preferences Reveal about You and Your Romantic Partner

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“You can learn a lot about a person from the way he or she eats.”

The shared meal, Michael Pollan noted in his altogether fascinating exploration of how cooking civilized us, is where we “learn the art of conversation and acquire the habits of civilization.” But, beyond the mere mythology of aphrodisiacs and anti-aphrodisiacs, the careful observation of our relationship with food during those shared occasions can also reveal our rawest nature, most unfiltered preferences, and least civilized psychological tendencies. So argues Mimi Sheraton in The Seducer’s Cookbook (public library) — her charming 1962 guide to the lost art of seduction, illustrated by MAD’s Paul Coker — where she presents this curious culinary anatomy of romantic and sexual archetypes:

You can learn a lot about a person from the way he or she eats — about the extent of his physical appetites and the way they are satisfied. There are those who will try anything offered to them, no matter how new or exotic, while others refuse to accept any but the most familiar fare — obviously not the adventurous type to new experiences.

Sheraton argues that dietary preferences reveal a great deal about how good a dancer someone is in the intricate dance between abandon and restraint, so essential in intimate relationships:

Women who are diet-conscious should, when some tempting morsel is presented, throw caution to the wind and eat without a thought for tomorrow. An air of abandon must prevail sometimes, and if not at the table, then probably not in bed either; while a man who appears to be turning into one of Circe’s swine after dinner may display the same propensities when satisfying his other physical urge.

The act of ordering itself, Sheraton counsels, is remarkably revealing of a person’s overall authenticity:

While ordering in restaurants, you should be able to tell a great deal about someone’s tastes, sensitivities and pretensions. A man or woman who is completely honest and without airs, and already knows good food, will recognize it whether it be a hot dog at Nedick’s or a páté en croute at Pavillon. Beware of anyone who seems to recognize good food only when served in a currently fashionable restaurant. Such a person may be given to passing fads and is not to be trusted.

Sheraton goes on to offer a kind of gastronomic phrenology of personality types based on dietary preferences:

If a woman consistently orders sickeningly sweet, overelaborate whipped-cream desserts, she may be given to equally sticky goodbyes, and a man who overeats on one course and then has to pass up the rest of the meal doesn’t know how to pace himself and could be a problem later in the evening. And should you find yourself with a girl who orders a pastrami sandwich on whole-wheat toast with lettuce and Russian dressing (a meal I actually heard someone order in a New York delicatessen), you’d best be off before the waiter returns with the check.

The rest of The Seducer’s Cookbook similarly oscillates between the delightfully outlandish and the surprisingly insightful, and remains an absolute treat from cover to cover. Sample more of it here and complement it with unbeknownst gastronome Alexandre Dumas on the three types of appetite.

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02 AUGUST, 2013

Frida Kahlo’s Politics

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“I am only a cell in the complex revolutionary mechanism of the peoples for peace in the new nations … united in blood to me.”

Though Mexican painter and reconstructionist Frida Kahlo was born on July 6, 1907, she insisted on listing July 7, 1910, as her birth date — the start of the Mexican revolution — so that her life would parallel the birth of modern Mexico. But how, exactly, did the iconic artist arrive at her strong political convictions? The Diary of Frida Kahlo: An Intimate Self-Portrait (public library) — the same magnificent volume that gave us her passionate hand-written love letters to Diego Rivera and her poignant meditation on how we are all connected in our pain — offers a fascinating glimpse of the evolution of Kahlo’s political beliefs, which were heavily inspired by Marxist ideology but still reflective of the underlying ethos of her art, a profound celebration of our shared existence and the connectedness of the universe.

1st. I’m convinced of my disagreement with the counterrevolution — imperialism — fascism — religions — stupidity — capitalism — and the whole gamut of bourgeois tricks — I wish to cooperate with the Revolution in transforming the world into a class-less one so that we can attain a better rhythm for the oppressed classes

2nd. a timely moment to clarify who are the allies of the Revolution

Read Lenin — Stalin — Learn that I am nothing but a “small damned” part of a revolutionary movement.

Always revolutionary, never dead, never useless

From a handful of pages dated 1950–1951, which follow a lapse in her diary after seven grueling surgeries on her spinal column, and open with her gratitude for Doctor Farill, the surgeon whom Kahlo believes saved her, she offers this meditation on the urgency she feels to find a political utility for her art:

A despair which no words can describe. I’m still eager to live. I’ve started to paint again. A little picture to give to Dr Farill on which I’m working with all my love.

I feel uneasy about my painting. Above all I want to transform it into something useful for the Communist revolutionary movement, since up to now I have only painted the earnest portrayal of myself, but I’m very far from work that could serve the Party. I have to fight with all my strength to contribute the few positive things my health allows me to the revolution. The only true reason to live for.

Frida Kahlo, reconstructionist

A five-page entry dated November 4, 1952, marks a turning point for Kahlo’s work as she begins to see her painting not merely as the subjective, inward-turned reflection on her inner world but as a Marxist interpretation of reality, which she terms “Revolutionary Realism”:

Today I’m in better company than for 20 years) I am a self and a Communist.

I know
I have read methodically
that the main origins are wrapped in ancient roots. I have read the History of my country and of nearly all nations. I know their class struggles and their economic conflicts. I understand quite clearly the dialectical materialism of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin and Mao Tse. I love them as pillars of the new Communist world. Since Trotsky came to Mexico I have understood his error. I was never a Trotskyist. But in those days 1940 — my only alliance was with Diego (personally)

Political fervor. But one has to make allowances for the fact that I had been sick since I was six years old and for really very short periods of my life have I enjoyed truly good HEALTH and I was of no use to the Party. Now in 1953. After 22 surgical interventions I feel better and now and then I will be able to help my Communist Party. Although I’m not a worker, but a craftswoman — And an unconditional ally of the Communist revolutionary movement.

For the first time in my life my painting is trying to help in the line set down by the Party: REVOLUTIONARY REALISM

Before it was my earliest experience — I am only a cell in the complex revolutionary mechanism of the peoples for peace in the new nations, Soviets — Chinese — Czechoslovakians — Poles — united in blood to me. And to the Mexican Indian. Among those great multitudes of Asian people there will always be the faces of my own — Mexicans — with dark skin and beautiful form, with limitless grace. The black people would also be freed, so beautiful and so brave. (Mexicans and negroes are subjugated for now by capitalist countries above all North America — U.S. and England.) xxxxxxxxxxxx

Illustration by Lisa Congdon for The Reconstructionists project

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02 AUGUST, 2013

How Much Edna St. Vincent Millay Loved Her Mother

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“Almost all people love their mothers, but I have never met anybody in my life, I think, who loved his mother as much as I love you.”

Edna St. Vincent Millay is one of the most extraordinary creative icons of the twentieth century — beloved poet, eloquent lover of music, delinquent schoolgirl, writer of passionate love letters and playfully lewd self-portraits, literary gateway drug for children, the recipient of the 1923 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, only the third woman to win the award. But one of Millay’s most exceptional qualities is the rare relationship she shared with her mother, Cora B. Millay, whom Edna loved profoundly enough to make any daughter jealous of this deep bond and whom she frequently addressed with terms borrowed from the vocabulary of romance — “dear,” “dearest,” “sweetheart,” and even “my Best Beloved” — to imbue this great platonic union with the intensity, if not the nature, of romantic passion.

In a letter from June 15, 1921, found in the altogether wonderful The Letters of Edna St. Vincent Millay (public library), 29-year-old Edna — who customarily signed her letters to her loved ones as “Vincent,” an oft-discussed preference in the context of her open bisexuality — writes to her mother and two sisters from Paris:

I am always button-holing somebody and saying, “Someday you must meet my mother.” … I do love you very much, my mother.

* * *

It is nearly six months since I saw you. A long time. Mother, do you know, almost all people love their mothers, but I have never met anybody in my life, I think, who loved his mother as much as I love you. I don’t believe there ever was anybody who did, quite so much, and quite in so many wonderful ways. I was telling somebody yesterday that the reason I am a poet is entirely because you wanted me to be and intended I should be, even from the very first. You brought me up in the tradition of poetry, and everything I did you encouraged. I can not remember once in my life when you were not interested in what I was working on, or even suggested that I should put it aside for something else. Some parents of children that are “different” have so much to reproach themselves with. But not you, Great Spirit.

I hope you will write me as soon as you get this. If you only knew what it means to me to get letters from any of you three over there. Because no matter how interesting it all is, and how beautiful, and how happy I am, an dhow much work I get done, I am nevertheless away from home — home being somewhere near where you are, mother dear.

If I didn’t keep calling you mother, anybody reading this would think I was writing to my sweetheart. And he would be quite right.

The following month, on July 23, Edna sends another loving letter to Cora:

Dearest Mother, —

You do write the sweetest and most wonderful letters! They are so lovely that very often I read parts of them aloud to people, just as literature. It was delicious what you told me about the turtle, — you are so gentle and kind to everything, dear — and all the things you write about birds and animals I love. Thanks for the little flower. I never saw one like it, either.

[…]

And, sweetheart, how would you like, in place of the birthday present I did not send you from the 10th of June, sometime in the late fall or winter, depending on how much money I can make between now and then, to come over here, and play around with your eldest daughter a while in Europe? We could go to Italy and Switzerland and to England and Scotland, and, if there are not too many riots and street fights there at the time, — mavourneen, we would go to Ireland! … and then, my Best Beloved, you and I will just have ourselves a little honey-moon.

With all the love of my heart,

Vincent

Millay adds a charmingly self-aware postscript:

P.S. — Do you suppose, when you & I are dead, dear, they will publish the Love Letters of Edna St. Vincent Millay & her Mother?

As an aside, as fantastic as The Letters of Edna St. Vincent Millay may be in its entirety, it is hard to decide what’s more tragic — that this magnificent volume is long out of print, or that it bears one of the most hideous covers ever designed, belying the spirit of such a beautiful woman and beautiful poet to a degree bordering on travesty. Please oh please, dear overlords of publishing, won’t you consider reprinting this gem and having someone like Chip Kidd, Jessica Hische, or Coralie Bickford-Smith design a fittingly glorious cover?

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