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This Week's Reading

What We’re Loving: Aliens and Birds

April 12, 2013 | by

The-Neighbors

“Repressed Soviet writers had the chance to become political heroes, even when (as in the case of Joseph Brodsky, for instance) their writing was not explicitly political. Every ‘unofficial’ story or poem became an act of bravery, of protest. Illicit literature was circulated among friends and smuggled abroad; the sheer effort devoted to reading and sharing samizdat texts was a testament to their significance. America has its share of homegrown graphomaniacs, hellbent on becoming the next John Grisham or Jonathan Franzen, but it’s just not the same.” In The Nation, our frequent contributor Sophie Pinkham asks what happened to Russian writing. —Lorin Stein

Lately I have been returning to the work of John Thorne. Thorne, who has published an idiosyncratic and resolutely un-foodie newsletter for thirty years, is acknowledged in the trade to be one of our finest food writers. I think he’s one of the best essayists working, full stop: humane, eccentric, incisive. Start with his book Simple Cooking, although you can’t really go wrong. As Thorne writes in his essay “Perfect Food,” “Our appetite should always be larger and more curious than our hunger, turned loose to wander the world’s flesh at will. Perfection is as false an economy in cooking as it is in love, since, with carrots and potatoes as with lovers, the perfectly beautiful are all the same; the imperfect, different in their beauty, every one.” —Sadie Stein

“What is writing, what is writing in a book, what is a page? A page is essentially a score, like a musical score for voice.” So says Margaret Atwood, after reading Mavis Gallant’s “Voices Lost in Snow” on a recent fiction podcast from The New Yorker. And she’s right: a good story is a thing to be heard and seen and felt. Hear Atwood tell Gallant’s story of a little girl in Canada with absent, distracted, sad parents, and you also hear Atwood’s experience of the story, Gallant’s exploration of parental fumbling and the strangeness of childhood, and the voice of a little girl with red mittens trying to survive her parents. All this while you cook dinner, or lie in the dark when the electricity goes out, or sit on the subway. Even while you brush your teeth. —Olivia Walton

I picked up When Women Were Birds for its cover appeal. (With the exception of Hitchcock, most bird-themed things soothe me.) In the course of fifty-four variations, Terry Tempest Williams meditates on the amalgam that is her voice: Mormon tradition, her mother, mythology. Not just a lyrical account of all the influences that make a voice, it also serves as a free-form field guide to southeastern Utah: “The moss in Owl Canyon was so dry it could not even accept the water we poured on it.” —Kendall Poe

I haven’t read Jean-Claude Izzo’s Mediterranean trilogy, the modern noir series that made him famous, nor have I visited his beloved Marseilles. Reading Garlic, Mint, & Sweet Basil: Essays on Marseilles, Mediterranean Cuisine, and Noir Fiction, a collection of his short nonfiction, makes me want to do both. Izzo imparts the aura of his hometown without giving anecdotes and history lessons; Marseilles is, he says, a “culture, diverse, mixed, where man remains master both of his time and of his geographical and social space.” At times passages brought back Edmund White’s The Flâneur or Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s “Travels in Greece,” two disparate but masterful works of place; Garlic, Mint, & Sweet Basil is as different from them as they are from each other, but shares the ability to distill a part of the world into just a few pages. —Clare Fentress

Maybe it’s the fact that after a long day at work all I want to do is watch silly television. Maybe it’s that I was instantly won over by The Neighbors’ alien population, the Zabrovians, dressed in matching golf wear and named after famous American athletes. Maybe it’s simply that the relationship between the human and alien families is one of the realest things on television. Whatever the explanation, I quickly devoured the entire first season. —Justin Alvarez

 

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