The Daily

This Week’s Reading

Staff Picks: A Mongoose Civique and a Maestro of the Rant

June 26, 2015 | by

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Love Wins: our senior editor Stephen Hiltner designed this collage in honor of today’s Supreme Court decision.

heaven“Writing religious poetry in the twentieth century is very difficult.” So says Czeslaw Milosz in his 1994 interview with The Paris Review. This, he noted, could be one of the greatest challenges facing the poets of our time: “the incapacity of contemporary man to think in religious terms.” Twenty years later, Rowan Ricardo Phillips published a poem in our summer 2014 issue that begins “Not knowing the difference between Heaven / And Paradise, he called them both Heaven.” That poem appears again in Phillips’ new collection, Heaven. In contemporary poetry, there are few book-length meditations on heaven. It’s strange. What’s more, it’s strange how strange it is: Phillips constantly reminds us that the territory is well charted. His poems pinpoint and stitch together small, disparate nodes of heavenly wisdom scattered through our largely earthbound canon. (Ovid, Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, to name a few of the patron saints.) The flow of astronomical allusions, like the subject itself, feels mundane at a glance and somewhat trite to mention. But as Phillips brings them close with the tight scope of his scholarship and lyric observation, they become unfamiliar, and heaven becomes something new, “this star-seized evening that’s / Unreeling and unreals.” —Jake Orbison

I managed to get my hands on a copy of Elena Ferrante’s fourth Neapolitan Novel, The Story of a Lost Child (out in September), and have been able to focus on little else all week. In this final installment of the story of Elena and Lila, Ferrante delivers some seismic-level surprises that somehow don’t feel contrived, that instead unearth a new internal symmetry beneath the dynamics established in the earlier books. As Ferrante shapes and reshapes her narrative, she watches generations of Italian intellectuals do the same for that of their country, continuously redefining the acceptable terms for political and social engagement. When they’re not fixating on Ferrante’s anonymity, reviewers like to talk about “the inner lives of women” and “female friendship” in these novels, as if Ferrante is venturing into entirely uncharted territory—as if women’s interiority hasn’t dominated a good part of the past several hundred years’ fictional output. Maybe Ferrante’s femaleness gets emphasized because we don’t have the vocabulary to describe what is indisputably different about her books, to explain why they read like a revelation to so many readers—this one included. —Rebecca Panovka
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Staff Picks: Ditch Baths and Bee Lives

June 19, 2015 | by

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The Angulo brothers, in The Wolfpack.

9780307700322Two-thirds of Jane Smiley’s Last Hundred Years trilogy has been published—the second volume just came out a month or so ago—and if you haven’t started it yet, it’s not too late to begin. And you should: they’re so good. Smiley’s process is additive—three books’ worth of Langdon family history, a long recitation of individual lives with history and politics playing out in the background. They remind me of another book of hers I love, The Greenlanders, a medieval saga that follows the travails of a small community over some nine hundred pages. Smiley’s writing in all three books is spare and lean; she resists adding authorial commentary and is content, instead, to stand back and watch her characters make their own way. I wondered whether the second volume would be as satisfying as the first. It is and it isn’t: the story is utterly addictive and only left me wanting more. I’m grateful there’s a third one on the way, but I don’t know how I’ll cope after that. —Nicole Rudick

In last year’s profile of William Vollmann for The New Republic, Tom Bissell remarked of Vollmann’s forthcoming 1,300-page tome, The Dying Grass, “It sound[s] a bit like William Gaddis, except more insane.” I’m happy to report that it is, in fact, insane. This demented opus is book five in his seven-volume (!) series concerning the settlement of North America; The Dying Grass focuses on the Nez Perce War of 1877. After years of broken treaties and strained relations, the Nez Perce refused to give up their ancestral lands and move to an Indian reservation in Idaho, deciding they’d rather to take up arms against the “Bostons,” led by the devoutly Christian, and possibly inept, one-armed Civil War veteran General O. O. Howard. Though outgunned, the Nez Perce manage to slip Howard’s grasp at every turn, dragging the war though Oregon, Idaho, and much of Montana, for five months. The book plods along as the campaign must have, but it’s filled with vivid characters and rich history. Its layout can mystify: the left side of the page features dialogue occurring in real time, and right side of the page contains what must be these characters’ thoughts as they talk to one another. But if you’re interested in entering Vollmann’s headspace, The Dying Grass is worth it, even if you sometimes suspect he wrote the book faster than you can read it. —Jeffery Gleaves
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Staff Picks: Misspelled Marven, Messengered Mineral Water

June 12, 2015 | by

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A still from A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence.

Say what you will about Tom McCarthy’s novels: they bring out the best in their critics. Few other writers goad us into asking such broad, terrifying questions as, What should fiction do? Who is it for? And how can it undermine authority? In 2008, Remainder inspired Zadie Smith’s seminal essay “Two Paths for the Novel”; now McCarthy’s Satin Island has landed a series of reviews offering unusually acute observations on the state of the novel. Read Gideon-Lewis Kraus in Bookforum, James Lasdun in the Guardian, Christopher Tayler in the London Review of Books, and William Deresiewicz in The Nation: each unabashedly cerebral, and each proving that seemingly empty-isms—realism, postmodernism, postcolonialism, formalism, antihumanism—have life in them yet. —Dan Piepenbring

marvin-gardens-g-spotThe property names in Monopoly are taken from the boomtown ideal that was turn-of-the-century Atlantic City, with one glaring exception: Marvin Gardens, which does not, as such, exist. If you consider the game a metaphor for the dreams of the middle class, that absence bodes ill: it’s a coveted place you can never hope to get to. John McPhee’s 1972 essay “The Search for Marvin Gardens,” collected in his Pieces of the Frame, uses Monopoly to examine the significance of Atlantic City in the seventies, when it had fallen on hard times. As McPhee and a partner roll the dice, advancing their pieces and buying properties, a ghostly second narrator walks through the real St. Charles Place, Baltic Avenue, and New York Avenue, reporting that they’re all slums; the two players circle the board and the neighborhoods get worse. When McPhee realizes that his “only hope is Marvin Gardens,” his reportorial counterpart learns that it’s not even in the city at all; it’s one town over in Margate, New Jersey, and it’s spelled Marven. Rarely is McPhee’s writing as disjointed as it is in this piece; the essay’s aphoristic, time-traveling, jump-cut style asks so much of its readers that it’s astonishing The New Yorker published it. I haven’t seen anything as boldly form-defying in its pages for a while. —Jeffery Gleaves
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Staff Picks: Beach Brain, Polychromatic Plumage

June 5, 2015 | by

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From the cover of the Talk reissue.

In 1965, Linda Rosenkrantz summered in East Hampton—as one does, I guess—and had the good sense to bring a tape recorder with her. On the beach, she logged hours of her banal, brilliant conversations with two friends; in 1968 she published the transcripts as a novel, Talk, to be reissued next month. In many ways the book is as exasperating as you’d expect: Linda and her friends, all approaching thirty, seldom entertain thoughts beyond themselves or their coterie. They gossip about fucking and psychoanalysis; pubic dandruff is among their more elevated concerns. And there are moments when you can hear them ham it up for their imaginary audience, affecting even more weariness, intellect, and neurosis than they’ve already claimed. But who cares? Even at its most vapid, Talk captivates: it’s funny, honest, and not infrequently heartbreaking, and it still feels weirdly provocative almost fifty years later. The dialogue captures the sun-brained rhythm of beach talk better than anything I’ve read. —Dan Piepenbring

o-AMELIA-GRAY-900Amelia Gray’s last novel, Threats, was a weird and wonderful book set on the outskirts of reality. Her new story collection, Gutshot, is an episodic version of the same strange locale, one populated by a convulsive puker, a Brobdingnagian snake, and a couple who trap a woman in the air ducts of their house. It’s a place where “the sun beats the shit out of a dirty road called Raton Pass [and] the closet thing to a pair of matching earrings is a guy named Carl who punches you in the head with his fist.” The characters are all misfits of one kind or another, and they are dedicated to their stories even when they don’t seem to want to be a part of them. The title story (my favorite) reads like a shaggy-dog story, except that the ending is unexpectedly moving and meaningful. The membrane between Gray’s stories and our reality is often thin; it's sometimes breached by a pinhole, as in “Viscera,” in which the skin flakes and spittle of a paper-factory employee drift into the pulp, “baking the genetic evidence of his future heart disease into this very page, which you are touching with your hands.” —Nicole Rudick
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Staff Picks: Peasantry, Propaganda, Playground Crises

May 29, 2015 | by

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A still from Forbidden Films: a nitrate film vault in the Federal Film Archive in Hoppegarten, Germany.

9781555974466After several years of hearing Norwegians describe Dag Solstad as their greatest living novelist, I finally read Shyness & Dignity—and got some idea of what the fuss is all about. Like the title, the plot is defiantly unprepossessing: a high school teacher notices something new about the play he’s teaching (for the umpteenth time), and this discovery triggers an existential crisis on the playground. The part that every Norwegian remembers is when the hero beats his umbrella to death against a water fountain, but behind this moment of high drama lies an amazingly compact story of one career, two marriages, and the history of Western philosophy, with particular attention to Kant and 1968. It is suggestive, sad, and extremely funny. I’ve already forced my copy on a friend. —Lorin Stein

Felix Moeller’s disturbing new documentary, Forbidden Filmsbegins outside the fortified bunker where Nazi propaganda films, still banned by the German government, are stored. There’s such a high quantity of nitro-celluloid, an archivist tells the camera, that the facility officially qualifies as an explosive device. It’s a somewhat heavy-handed attempt to literalize Moeller’s central metaphor: seventy years after their creation, the films still have the capacity to ignite controversy and endanger viewers. Moeller documents the rare screenings the government allows, as audiences turn up in droves for … what, exactly? the novelty? the danger? a dose of national guilt? (Film archives take note: turns out you can sell out a black-and-white movie just by slapping on a ringing endorsement from Joseph Goebbels.) I left the theater stunned at the propaganda films’ ability to grab and sway 2015 audiences—to frighten elderly Germans, to shock students, and to galvanize neo-Nazis, who still use the films to attract teenage followers. It’s worth seeing the look on the face of a middle-aged German man as he walks out of a screening and praises an anti-Polish film for its educational qualities: more people should know, he says, that it was really the Polish who started Word War II by persecuting and interning ethnic Germans. —Rebecca Panovka
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Staff Picks: Girls, Gangs, Gimlet Eyes

May 22, 2015 | by

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A still from A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night.

I’m hard-pressed to pick a favorite moment in Ana Lily Amirpour’s Iranian New Wave vampire western, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, which was released late last year. It could be the opening scene, when the high-cheekboned Arash, dressed like a rebel without a cause, steals a big tabby cat. It could be the gorgeous silent scene of the transgender rockabilly character dancing with a balloon. But it’s probably the scene in which our heroine, the chador-clad vampiress known only as the Girl, is pressed against a wall, floating a few inches off the ground. Or appearing to float—turns out she’s actually standing on a skateboard. The shot is brief, but it epitomizes what’s so remarkable about the Girl: she’s never quite who you expect her to be, a monster, an angel, a victim, a hero. She’s all those and more—she’s a girl. —Nicole Rudick

If you pull Elfriede Jelinek’s Wonderful, Wonderful Times off the shelf for its seemingly sunny title, you should know up front that it’s ironic—but that’s no reason to put the novel back. Set in 1950s Vienna, it follows a gang of four teens, all of whom nourish an obsessive anger against their parents and society. From their outbreaks of brutality and cruelty, which fall somewhere between juvenile delinquency and amateur terrorism, Jelinek draws the features of a society in agony, one that refuses to come to terms with its fascist past. Rainer, the gang leader, deforms existentialist philosophy to legitimate his desire for revenge. As Jelinek puts it, once intellectual concepts have been perverted, ideas become devious and deadly weapons. And this is where she’s most convincing: in demonstrating a kind of private fascism inherent in language itself, between friends, husbands and wives, parents and children. —Charlotte Groult Read More »