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This Week's Reading

What We’re Loving: Spiders, Spaces, Stinkin’-Hot Nights

May 2, 2014 | by

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An exhibition image from Marc Yankus’s “The Space Between,” at ClampArt.

If I had to teach a class on the Framing Device, the first thing I’d make them read is Jeremias Gotthelf’s 1842 novella The Black Spider, recently published in a new and (to this non-German-reader) magical translation by Susan Bernofsky. The opening scene is a christening in the Swiss countryside: idyllic, sentimental, lovingly detailed. Then one of the guests notices a strange blackened post in the house where the festivities are held, an old man begins to tell the story of how it got there … and in no time things have gotten very weird indeed, and they continue weird even when the story ends, the idyll stained by the past. A fairytale for grownups, an early horror story, an allegory of the Black Death or of sin—however you read it, it has the deep logic of a dream. —Lorin Stein

Sometimes I’ll Google some nouns with a writer’s name, hoping to discover that said writer has miraculously published a piece about said nouns. This usually doesn’t work out for me—zero results for “Norman Rush + Botswana + heavy-metal leather subculture,” and zero more for “Jonathan Lethem + Larry Levan + Paradise Garage + disco”—but lightning can strike, as it did with “Richard Ben Cramer + baseball + Baltimore.” That led me to Cramer’s “A Native Son’s Thoughts (Many of Them Heretical) About Baltimore (Which Isn’t What It Used to Be), Baseball (Which Isn’t What It Used to Be) and the Steadfast Perfection of Cal Ripken Jr. (Which Is Ever Unchanging, Fairly Complicated and Truly Something to Behold),” published in Sports Illustrated circa 1995. Hot dog! As its forty-four-word title indicates, this piece has it all. There’s baseball, which, for reasons that remain unclear, I’ve begun to enjoy watching; there’s Baltimore, where I grew up; and there’s the vigorous prose from Cramer, whose masterpiece on the 1988 election, What It Takes, I’ve just finished, thus creating a void that can only be filled with more Cramer. When I read the first clause (“It’s a stinkin’-hot night at the ballpark”) I knew I was safe for a little while longer. —Dan Piepenbring

The Space Between,” Marc Yankus’s show at Clamp Art, is on now through May 17; it reveals a new side of the artist. His earlier images explored his love of color washes and blurred shapes—photography that sometimes looked as though it had been printed on a wet surface. With this new body of work, Yankus has written a love letter to the stonemasons, bricklayers, and architects of an ever-evolving New York City landscape. The detail captured in these photographs is unreal and meditative; he’s shot these monumental buildings sometimes at great heights and always from their best angles. A master of minute detail, Yankus invites us to study the individual bricks right down to the fine cement layers that seal them together. Though people are ever-present in these works, there’s not a soul to be found. It lends a ghostly beauty to these prints, making it exceedingly difficult to pick a favorite. —Charlotte Strick

I’ve been reading Adam Shatz’s vivid remembrance of the journalist and historian Patrick Seale, who died last month. Seale wrote the two best books on modern Syrian politics, in English or any other language. The Ba’athists in Damascus trusted him and the Western spymasters learned from him. And what a time it was for foreign correspondents, especially if you lived in Beirut. As Shatz writes, “It was the Mad Men era of Middle East reporting, a time of high living and high-stakes intrigue … The correspondent’s calendar was marked by revolutionary conspiracies; many were first reported as rumors, sometimes overheard at the bar of the St. George Hotel, where spies, arms dealers, diplomats and other adventurers gathered at the end of the day.” —Robyn Creswell

A Woman in Berlin, a diary of the final days of Nazi Berlin, and its fall to the Russian army of 1945, by an anonymous German woman, tells a story that is sometimes left out of World War Two narratives: the horror that Hitler inflicted on ordinary German people. All the violent savagery that German troops dealt out to their “inferior” Slavic neighbors is returned tenfold as Russian troops rape and pillage their way through what is left of German homes, answering Hitler’s scorched earth policy with their own form of angry nihilism. The author, whoever she is, wrote the diary for her husband, so he could understand what had happened after their lives had been rebuilt, though their marriage didn’t survive their different experiences of the war. The language in the translation by Philip Boehm is beautiful, and the book is not nearly as depressing as I’ve made it seem. —Anna Heyward

Every day the poet Gilberto Owen weighed himself at the 116th Street subway station, and every day his weight was always less. “I suppose that’s what illness is like: you stand down and are replaced by the ghost of yourself.” This is just one of the three stories that weaves its way through Valeria Luiselli’s masterful Faces in the Crowd, a novel in which people die many times just to wake up right where they left off; people come and go by the whim of a pen tip; and Ezra Pound stands on a platform for a train he’ll never board. —Justin Alvarez

On Afghanistan’s border, Pashtun women sing Landays—couplets that end with the sound “ma” or “na,” with nine syllables on the first line and thirteen on the second. Anonymity is key to their survival and their tradition; these poems are supposed to belong to no woman and every woman. We always see Afghan women portrayed as weepy or silently suffering; here they chortle, roll their eyes, bitch, and suffer on their own terms. “Making love to an old man / is like fucking a shriveled cornstalk black with mold.” Black and white photos contextualize these “scraps of song” with uncomfortable clarity. I especially like one of fluffy black goats sniffing around a ruin that could have been ruined by time or drones or both. —Nikkitha Bakshani

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