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Michiko Kakutani subtweeted the entire electorate in her review of a Hitler biography

Hitler with Goring, 1933 or 1938
Hitler reading Kakutani’s review
Wikimedia Commons / BArchBot

Happy Saturday! Let’s get right down to business: Here is the best the internet has to offer on books and related subjects for the week of September 26, 2016.

Hitler was often described as an egomaniac who “only loved himself” — a narcissist with a taste for self-dramatization and what Mr. Ullrich calls a “characteristic fondness for superlatives.” His manic speeches and penchant for taking all-or-nothing risks raised questions about his capacity for self-control, even his sanity. But Mr. Ullrich underscores Hitler’s shrewdness as a politician — with a “keen eye for the strengths and weaknesses of other people” and an ability to “instantaneously analyze and exploit situations.”

A teacher thought Shrek by William Steig was inappropriate because the ogres are described as ugly. I regretfully did not add a book about a transgender child because “our community is not ready for that,” and I serve at the whim of a board of trustees made up predominantly of parents.

When you go after books for swears or sex, you might also be threatening books that are truly subversive: the ones that confront our unconscious biases, whether it’s weight or race, and question the way we tend to think about ourselves and others.

To borrow a refrain from Sex and the City, Emma’s raison d’être is the pursuit of “labels and love”. Yet Flaubert’s early disapproval of his heroine’s self-absorption, “icy charm” and vanity is curiously transformed, in the last 100 pages or so, by a softening towards, even forgiveness of, her tawdry and narcissistic escapism. She becomes a flawed, tragic figure. Does this make Emma a pitiable prototype for the passive female gull of mass culture, operating mindlessly under “false consciousness”, or a feminist avant la lettre who subverts bourgeois morality and suffers the consequences?

Once upon a time there was a creature called the sensitive young man. Often he was awarded capital letters, thus: the Sensitive Young Man. He flourished at the time, in the shadow, and sometimes tucked into the shoulder, of Oscar Wilde. He wrote novels not because he had anything to say, but because he wanted to be a novelist. Being a novelist was, he thought, a fine thing.

Zink’s novels, while undeniably excellent, are so strange that it is hard to understand why anybody actually likes them. Zink satirizes average-to-privileged people in the manner of Jane Austen, but her books are too short to run to social commentary. She’s also wildly erudite, but straightforward, even plainspoken, in her vocabulary. American publishing today milks a reliably profitable herd of authors for bland, high-fat novels. Zink’s work is distinctly unpasteurized, and yet—here she is.

Another translation of ostranenie I occasionally find is "alienation," making the familiar alien, which brings us to science fiction. Whereas modernists tend to defamiliarize at the level of the image, line, or sentence, [science fiction] writers have been in the business of defamiliarizing at the level of story since the very beginning. This seems to be more or less what [science fiction] critic Darko Suvin meant when he coined the term "cognitive estrangement" some forty-odd years after "Art as Device," and indeed the idea bears family resemblances to the "sense of wonder" that so often makes its way into working definitions of science fiction.

I am tired of writing dainty little biographical things that pretend that I am a trim little housewife in a Mother Hubbard stirring up appetizing messes over a wood stove. I live in a dank old place with a ghost that stomps around in the attic room we’ve never gone into (I think it’s walled up) and the first thing I did when we moved in was to make charms in black crayon on all the door sills and window ledges to keep out demons, and was successful in the main. There are mushrooms growing in the cellar, and a number of marble mantels which have an unexplained habit of falling down onto the heads of the neighbors’ children.

Some nights I used to stand in the doorway of his bedroom, watching him thoughtfully edit the outfit he planned to wear to school the next day. He would lay out its components, making a kind of flat self-portrait on the bedroom floor—oxford shirt tucked inside of cotton sport coat, extra-slim pants (with the adjustable elastic straps inside the waistband stretched to button at the very last hole), argyle socks, the whole thing topped by the ubiquitous hat—and I would try to understand what the kid got out of dressing up every day like a pint-size Ronald Colman out for a tramp across the countryside of Ruritania.

I started counting up the prisons and imprisonments in the book. There are a lot of them. In fact, every one of the characters is constrained at some point in the play. This was suggestive. The play is about illusions: magic is the only weapon Prospero has. And it is about vengeance versus mercy, as in so many of Shakespeare’s plays. But it’s also about prisons. So I decided to set my novel in a prison.

Happy reading!