I’m Telling You for the Last Time, and Other News


A postcard by Alfred Mainzer.

First, an announcement: this is my 874th On the Shelf column, and my last. I’m leaving my post at The Paris Review to seek my fortune as a writer, after which, impoverished and bruised, I’ll come crawling back, begging for your forgiveness. I’ll give a more proper farewell in a post on Monday. For now I’d like to say: it’s been a pleasure and a privilege to start my day this way for the past three and a half years. The Internet, as we know, is full of garbage, but it’s also full of profound, inventive, incisive writing (it is very large, this Internet), and I’ve enjoyed using this space to share some of my favorites with you. We’ve had some fun, haven’t we? And some coffee. I’m sorry for all the occasions this roundup kind of sucked: when I was hungover, say, or when I overslept, or when I looked out the window and saw a cop standing at my car writing a parking ticket. But I’ve just checked, and, for the moment, there are no cops at my car. So let’s have one last go at it: 

  • A. S. Hamrah has surveyed the pop-cultural landscape in the era of Trump, and it’s a grim thing indeed: “Since the Trump retrenchment, the dinosaur broadcast networks have brought back American Idol and Big Brother. While networks are desperate to get viewers to watch live television in prime time, they have less of a problem in the off-hours. The inauguration, White House press conferences, the Comey hearing—these are examples of reality television unfettered from prime-time scheduling and its half-hour- or hour-long formats. As streaming drama can leech into viewers’ lives in the form of binge watching, so can the constant stream of Trumpian reality TV consume viewers’ lives in the form of browser-based live bingeing, a back-and-forth between news sources with a heavy thumb on the refresh button. The scheduling of this kind of reality TV is unpredictable, spontaneous, and extends out from live television into social media. It starts and stops according to Donald Trump’s whims, while viewers wait for it. It can assemble itself quickly and appear suddenly, going from buffering to full-on catastrophe in a second, with twenty-four-hour news networks trailing behind. Its goals are to monopolize our time and waste our lives as we feed it and keep it alive.”
  • To hear English at its asinine and impenetrable best, hop on the UK’s Southern Rail. Adrian Tahourdin has a collation of the service’s most bureaucratic verbal excesses: “How about ‘This service is short-form this morning and the first-class accommodation has been declassified’? Short-form means you will probably have to stand even if the ‘declassified’ first-class ‘accommodation’ offers some hope of a seat. In fact, first-class seats are clearly quite an issue: ‘Customers sitting within the first-class area and not holding a first-class ticket please vacate the seat or be prepared to purchase a first-class ticket.’ And I simply don’t know what this means: ‘This is a booked four-coach service.’ ‘Short formation’ is another common phrase; we also occasionally hear ‘reverse formation,’ as in ‘This train is in reverse formation. In plain English, that means first class is at the rear.’ (Yes, that’s the train manager translating his own jargon!) … And I’m not sure what to make of this statement: ‘If you are partaking of an alcoholic beverage, please drink responsibly by pouring it into a glass.’ ”
  • Arthur Brand is “the Indiana Jones of the art world,” and he’s hoping to recover thirteen masterworks that disappeared from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum twenty-seven years ago. He’s betting they’re in Ireland: “ ‘We have had talks with … former members of the IRA—and after a few Guinnesses, after a few talks—you can see in their eyes that they know more,’ Brand said. ‘How do we believe you?’ Doane asked. ‘Well, I have a track record. We have found some pieces back before. So let’s give this a shot,’ Brand said. Brand’s highest-profile find to date came working with German police to recover bronze horse statues which stood in front of Adolf Hitler’s Grand Chancellery building. He also helped recover Salvador Dali’s Adolescence … To find pieces on the black market, Brand claims to have brokered deals with terrorist groups, the mafia and a slew of shady characters. ‘On one hand you have the police, insurance companies, collectors, and on the other hand you have the criminals, the art thieves and the forgers. So there are two different kind of worlds and they do not communicate. So I put myself in the middle,’ Brand said.”
  • Mythili G. Rao looks at a collection of short stories that have, somehow, emerged from the hermit kingdom: “The seven stories in The Accusation are tightly constructed and closely observed; together, they paint a devastating portrait of life in North Korea in the late days of Kim Il-sung’s reign, which ended in 1994 … Bandi’s stories are not about outright rebellion but about the slow onset of despair; their protagonists are, for the most part, hopeful strivers struggling to keep their spirits from shattering in the face of mounting evidence that their government has betrayed them. In ‘Record of a Defection,’ a devoted wife disguises her near-starvation and hides the sexual harassment she endures from a Party boss so that her husband, who is talented but comes from a disgraced family, might advance in his career. Another story, ‘Life of a Swift Steed,’ finds an aging Party stalwart confronting the ugly fact that his lifelong service to Party and country has been squandered—that the prosperity and security he thought he was building will never materialize.”

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