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.

Bertrand Russell’s terror of madness


Despite being a relatively committed agnostic, I’ve recently become obsessed with Bertrand Russell. I’m working my way through several of his books at once, and especially enjoying his autobiography. So far, not quite a fifth of the way through, it’s perceptive, precise, and often funny, but also serious — tormented, even — without being pretentious.

“Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong,” he writes, “have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind.”

Before Russell married his first wife, his aristocratic family, having failed in its efforts to prevent the union on grounds of her being a commoner, “found a weapon which very nearly gave them victory”: the idea of madness in the blood. Continue reading…

Outtakes from my talk with Susan Miller

The first installment of my new microcolumn, “The Historical Record,” ran in The New York Times Magazine on Sunday alongside some other quickies, including Lizzie Skurnick’s brilliant (and useful!) “That Should Be A Word.” This one concerns astrology, from Chaucer to Susan Miller.

A friend who, like me, is drawn to the stars, says astrology shouldn’t and possibly doesn’t work at all, that it’s just really easy for those of us who are attracted to and adept with metaphor to stretch the system to fit reality. I don’t disagree with her, exactly — of course I don’t, I’m a Gemini — but it doesn’t take more than a drink or two with friends before I’m pulling out my iPhone to look up their charts and their lovers’ charts and to ponder their synastry…

As I mentioned in the columnlet, Miller and I talked about Occupy Wall Street, which she attributes to a square between Uranus and Pluto that will recur into 2015; she believes the demonstrations will continue at least until then. Continue reading…

Didion’s Blue Nights: stitched in grief

joan didion

I reviewed Joan Didion’s Blue Nights, which is both gorgeous and terrible (terrible in the King James sense of tremendous and fearsome, like when God appears to Moses).

In 2003′s Where I Was From, Joan Didion tells of a long wagon journey on which her great-great-grandmother buried a child, gave birth to another, contracted mountain fever twice, and sewed a quilt, “a blinding and pointless compaction of stitches,” that she must have finished en route, “somewhere in the wilderness of her own grief and illness, and just kept on stitching.” Throughout the book, Didion ruminates on her female forbears, women “pragmatic and in their deepest instincts clinically radical, given to breaking clean with everyone and everything they knew,” even their own dead babies.

It was Didion’s adopted daughter Quintana, at age five or six, who first made all this heredity start to seem remote. And if the author harbored any lingering doubt about whether she shared her ancestors’ breaking-clean tendencies, the shattering effect of Quintana’s death in 2005, at age 39, must have swept it away. In her new memoir, Blue Nights, about life before and after the loss of her daughter, Didion writes, “When we talk about mortality, we are talking about our children.”

This book may be Didion’s harshest, most self-questioning book yet; it’s definitely her most beautiful. Like the stitches on her grandmother’s quilt, it covers the same material again and again, swooping down on its author’s grief with dogged, needle-like precision, from countless angles that don’t lead her anywhere soothing. “What if I fail to love this baby?” Didion worried as she carried the newborn Quintana home from the hospital. By the time of Blue Nights, the questions have changed. What if I didn’t love her right, the author interrogates herself. What if I didn’t love her enough?

You can read the full review at B&N Review, watch Didion reading from the book in a Daily Beast video, and listen to her talk about it at NPR.

Previously: Didion on psychiatric trends and diagnoses; the specter of the unanswered letter; “I didn’t want to be a writer. I wanted to be an actress”; and a short but revealing 1970 TV interview with Tom Brokaw.