The Daily

This Week’s Reading

Staff Picks: BMX, BBQ, Brutes

January 8, 2016 | by

From an early edition of Black Wings Has My Angel

Dying is an experience that biographers tend to pass over in silence. That’s why Katie Roiphe’s forthcoming book The Violet Hour is a revelation, at least to me. Her case studies—of Susan Sontag, Sigmund Freud, Dylan Thomas, John Updike, and Maurice Sendak—focus on the last months of life, using each writer’s final struggle as a key to his or her character. This is the best book Roiphe has written. She shows that our interest in dying is not just an interest in endings, or in final things, or in posterity. Instead, it has to do with how we get along, how families and friendship work, in short, how we live. —Lorin Stein 

I spent Christmas on the beach in ninety-degree heat, so I wanted something pulpy to read. I took along Elliott Chaze’s Black Wings Has My Angel, a 1954 noir, just reissued. Its plot doesn’t break the mold: a lowlife dude busts out of the clink, picks up a gorgeous hooker, and embarks with her on a life of crime in big-sky country. But Chaze has a strange eye for details, ones that set him against the grain of most crime writers. (Seldom do you hear a hard-boiled guy extol the potato salad at a roadside BBQ joint or tell you about his hernia exam.) Black Wings gathers a bizarre, often comical head of steam that reminded me of Denis Johnson or Wild at Heart. What kept me turning the pages was the easy, blunt wit and endless disdain: “Both had the terrible conceit of little men,” he writes of his employers, “who through fortune or persistence had landed in positions where there were even littler men for them to boss around. I’m sure it never occurred to either of them that they were stupid.” And Chaze gave his hero an excellent nom de guerre: Timothy Sunblade. “I picked that name,” Sunblade tells us, “because it is a name that smells of the out of doors.” —Dan Piepenbring 

An illustration by Laurie Anderson for Heart of a Dog

Over the holiday, I saw Laurie Anderson’s latest film, Heart of a Dog, an experimental documentary steered by the loss of Anderson’s beloved rat terrier, Lolabelle, and narrated from start to finish by the artist herself. “Every love story is a ghost story,” she says, borrowing from David Foster Wallace, and Heart of a Dog comprises a series of these haunting tales. There are moments so heartrending they’re near unbearable, like when Anderson admits to having never loved her mother or when she speaks of the artist Gordon Matta-Clark’s final days (he spent them reading aloud to his friends in a hospital room). And yet the film isn’t as morose as I’ve made it sound—it’s also absurdly funny, philosophical, and visually stunning, with home videos, surveillance footage, quotes by Wittgenstein, charcoal drawings, and more as her backdrop. In just seventy-five minutes, Anderson hits her audience with nearly every emotion, and when the credits roll to her late husband Lou Reed’s “Turning Time Around,” it’s all over, at least it was for me: I was in tears. —Caitlin Youngquist

Life is bleak in Rock Springs, Wyoming. Growing up in its postindustrial, lower–middle-class wasteland, where the suicide rate is among the highest in the country, J. J. Anselmi fought for ways to stay away from the power plant that employed most of the town and the addiction that ensnared everyone he knew. In his gritty book Heavy: A Memoir of Wyoming, BMX, Drugs, and Heavy Fucking Music, Anselmi grasps for anything that might give him control, reclaiming the ruinscape with his BMX bike and validating his adolescent anger by screaming Pantera lyrics. Heavy has a grainy, thrash-music quality to it. On its surface, Anselmi’s story is that of an angry, white-trash kid (he admits this in his book) who never had the chance to fall from grace because grace never lifted him that high; beneath that it’s a book about control, and why destruction equals power for those who feel powerless. —Jeffery Gleaves

“A Lake Superior Winter Mail Line,” via NYPL

On the advice of a friend who recently saw Émile Zola’s play Thérèse Raquin on Broadway, I decided to pick up the unassumingly narrow novel, also Zola’s, on which the play is based. A fugue on Galen’s four temperaments, Raquin is, in premise, the literary equivalent of those diatribes that begin, “There are x kind of people in the world…” But Zola’s frankness takes us into a seductively horrifying tale of languor, lust, and the remorseless guilt of Thérèse and Laurent, the “human brutes” who are “absolutely swayed by their nerves and blood, deprived of free will, impelled in every action of life, by the fatal lusts of the flesh.” In such a novel of caricatures, characters with whom one can identify are few and far between—except, perhaps, Francois the all–seeing family cat who, like the reader, “must know everything,” harboring “thoughts in his strangely dilated round eyes,” a witness without agency. —Robert Magella

Earlier this week the New York Public Library released a treasure trove of out-of-copyright digitized material—more than 180,000 items—into the public domain. As tends to happen when I first discover these kinds of archives (the Prelinger Archives is another of my favorites), I looked up from aimlessly browsing to find that well over an hour had passed. Mostly I spent my time poking around the stereoscope collection—which, if you learn to cross your eyes just right, can offer a never-ending dose of what is arguably the oldest form of virtual reality. —Stephen Andrew Hiltner