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This Week's Reading

What We’re Loving: George Packer, Joe Carstairs, Nick Laird

June 7, 2013 | by

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In a virtuosic long poem from his recent collection, Go Giants, Nick Laird inveighs against “the monotony of always being on a side!” Laird was born in Northern Ireland, but the complaint isn’t aimed only at sectarianism. His poetry, which shuttles between New York, Rome, and Cookstown, in County Tyrone, consistently escapes monotony and one-sidedness (including, in this case, a cricketeer’s pun on the word side). His book includes versions of Juvenal, Antoine Ó Raifteirí—a wandering bard and one of the “giants” of Laird’s title—and Anglo-Saxon poetry. You can also hear the nimble diction of Muldoon (“an atmosphere / flecked like emery paper, the finest grade, / that whets the seriffed aerials and steeples”) and the more ponderous music of Heaney (a summer job at a meatplant is spent “lugging plastic / crates of feathercut and paddywhack / and prime off the belt and onto palettes”). “Progress,” a long poem that rewrites Bunyun’s allegory, is a gathering of all these voices and ends up sounding like no one except Laird: “A fine baroque example / of how successfully the choral template / might adjust itself to fit an elliptic / non-contiguous life.” —Robyn Creswell

I recently visited my parents to help them sort through a lifetime of acquisitions in anticipation of a mammoth yard sale. Looking through boxes of my old books, I came across a favorite, The Queen of Whale Cay, and promptly reread it. Kate Summerscale’s biography is a vivid picture of Marion Barbara “Joe” Carstairs, a flamboyant figure of the Lost Generation. A boat racer, womanizer, dandy, and, yes, queen of her own island, Carstairs (an oil heiress) was also known for traveling everywhere with a doll, Lord Tod Wadley, who sported an equally dapper wardrobe. Summerscale was working on the Telegraph’s obit desk when she ran across the story of this forgotten figure; I’m so glad she did, and that I rediscovered my copy. (The office also acquired, from this foray, a brass whale, a crystal ball, and a harpoon.) —Sadie O. Stein

The East Village Eye is in the process of scanning all seventy-two of its issues (originally published from May 1979 to January 1987) with an eye (no pun intended), one hopes, toward making them available. In the meantime, they’ve posted ten of the magazine’s most fashion-relevant issues online, to coincide with the Met’s punk exhibition. My favorite so far is the “War and Fashion” issue, from 1980. All angles and and futurescapes, the clothes and fashion shoots are an odd combination of postrevolutionary Russian clothing design (think Victory Over the Sun) and Vice fashion spreads circa the 2000s (low-budget settings and wonderfully hokey poses). With essays on John Cale and Hiroshima music and the “slum journals” of Richard Hell, the issue also contains a curious yet apropos interview with an NYPD lieutenant on Crisis Relocation Planning (aka evacuation) for New York. The opening question: “We went to speak with Bob Jones about Crisis Relocation Planning. He believes it is eminently feasible to move nine million people upstate in the event of nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union, and he advised us to get your opinion on that.” —Nicole Rudick

I’ve spent the last week forcing George Packer’s The Unwinding on everyone I know. Subtitled “A Secret History of the New America,” this is the book Packer was always meant to write. The history he tells has to do with financial deregulation, the growing power of corporate lobbyists, the degradation of public discourse, the decline of manufacturing, the collapse of the housing bubble—stuff you read about in the paper every day. The secret is what it’s done to our lives, how it’s changed the way we think and feel. Packer doesn’t deal in theories. Instead he gives us a series of profiles, mainly of people you’ve never heard of, plus a few you have: Jay-Z, Newt Gingrich, Oprah Winfrey, Colin Powell. Readers of Packer’s reportage (and his book on Iraq, The Assassins’ Gate) know his uncanny ability as an interviewer: he gets people to open up who’ve never told their stories to anyone else. But Packer began his writing career as a memoirist and a novelist, and The Unwinding is, among other things, an experimental novel, a book that will remind some readers of U.S.A., and others of Infinite Jest, in its scope, in its feel for the textures of contemporary life, and in the way it inhabits different minds, from a community organizer in Youngstown to a libertarian Internet tycoon. The biographical essay on Powell would not have been out of place in The Paris Review, for this is a work not just of fact, but of wit, irony, and astounding imagination. —Lorin Stein

“Prose is like glass in this respect. The bigger you go, the more opportunities for cracks. We cut more ambitious works slack not out of pity but in just measurement. There are places, like pressures, to which you can’t go without a little weakening of the structure.” If you have yet to read our Southern editor, John Jeremiah Sullivan, on James Agee, check it out. —S.O.S. 

 

 

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