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This Week's Reading

What We’re Loving: Taxidermy, Heroines, Bad Ideas

September 6, 2013 | by

MrPotterSquirrels

There are moments, on a red-eye flight, when your brain is too jumpy and raw to figure out what, exactly, n+1 is arguing in its attack on “global literature.” When you can’t go back to your (global?) novel and don’t want to plug your head into a cooking show, and when sleep is out of the question. For such moments, pack Kevin Barry’s Dark Lies the Island—a story collection that roams over the Irish landscape during and after the Boom, and through several dozen varieties of bad idea, from selling meth, to having children, to organizing an ale-tasting excursion in Wales. At the risk of indulging in cultural stereotypes, Barry is Irish: when he writes a story, he tells a story, and he’s not afraid of a sentimental ending, if one presents itself. Along the way, he takes such contagious pleasure in his flawed, incorrigible people that I was happy to be on a plane. —Lorin Stein

In Sorting Facts; or, Nineteen Ways of Looking at Marker, Susan Howe writes, “I have loved watching films all my life. I work in the poetic documentary form, but didn’t realize it until I tried to find a way to write an essay about two films by Chris Marker.” The films in question are La Jetée and Sans Soleil. Howe splices her thoughts about these works together with childhood memories of watching Olivier’s Hamlet, the early history of Soviet cinema, an elegy to her husband, and the fallout of Hiroshima, among other subjects. It is an investigation, as she says, of “the immense indifference of history” and “the crushing hold of memory’s abiding present.” It is also, one feels, about the discovery of kinship between a documentary poet and a documentary filmmaker, via the essay—whose root meaning, as both Howe and Marker remind us, suggests experiment rather argument, and a commitment to the art of surprise. —Robyn Creswell

I recently borrowed Kate Zambreno’s Heroines from managing editor Nicole Rudick. A work of scholarly research and nonfiction, Heroines takes as its subject the wives of great modernists. Zambreno weaves together the stories of these underrecorded lives, of voices systemically silenced and institutionalized, with her own experience of research and daily life. The book lacks chapter divisions and resists conformation to recognizable forms, yet it pulses along continuously in a familiar way. An eloquent plea that diaries and other traditionally “feminine” forms of writing be paid their due. —Kate Rouhandeh

Dorthe Nors is a writer of moments—quiet, raw portraits of existential meditation, at times dyspeptic, but never unsympathetic. Throughout Nors’s slim collection, Karate Chop—fifteen stories at ninety pages—she asks us to accept these characters as they are: from the increasingly unbalanced Buddhist to the young boy trying to understand his philandering father. You can read her story “The Heron” in this week’s New Yorker. As the author told Page-Turner, “It’s fun to take a look at the things that live in the shadow.” —Justin Alvarez

Our truest intimacies may not preclude pretenses. We fear this, and Eric Puchner perfectly conveys this fear. A novel that touches on goth-tinged, high-school poetry, real-estate ventures gone sour, and manic preteen genius, his Model Home is a saga of deceptions in the closest of quarters. Although the characters are constantly on the verge of collapse, the writing itself never falters—it feels impossibly real. —Taylor Anne Lane

The summer after my first year of college, my boyfriend and I went backpacking in the West Country of England. On one tramp, we ended up, by happy chance, at Mr. Potter’s Museum of Curiosities, which was at that time attached to the Daphne du Maurier–themed Jamaica Inn in Bolventor. Walter Potter was a taxidermist who made remarkable displays of anthropomorphic animals—a red-squirrel gentleman’s club, a kitten wedding—all of which, by the way, had died of natural causes. The museum featured these tableaux, as well as the usual Victorian assortment of random artifacts, deformed animals, and other natural curiosities. In 2003, the collection was auctioned piecemeal (despite Damien Hirst’s attempt to keep it intact); to get a sense of its onetime majesty, check out Walter Potter’s Curious World of Taxidermy, by Dr. Pat Norris. Or, to capture some of the true oddity of the experience, watch this unspeakably sinister video of “The Death and Burial of Cock Robin.” As my godmother commented after I posted the video to Facebook, “The bull’s awfully flat. And small. And … odd.” —Sadie Stein

 

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