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This Week’s Reading

Staff Picks: Ghost-Forsaken Plains, Apocalyptic Libertarians

December 12, 2014 | by

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An illustration by Darrel Rees

I know it’s jumping the gun, since the book doesn’t come out till April, but I’ve been enjoying Devin Johnston’s new poetry collection Far-Fetched. His imagery is often unexpected—“Her kiss? Sweet, / and hard enough / to crack your teeth”—or else so familiar and right that its perfection is surprising, as when he observes the fixed interval between a father’s age and his son’s, comparing that even space to “two ruts [that] incise this ghost-forsaken plain / and keep their track width, never to part or meet.” His playfulness is refreshing and smart—“One finds escape through Stephen King, / as through a window left ajar”—and I’m more than occasionally in awe of his linguistic pairings, especially the lines “Clouds purl / in a conch whorl.” —Nicole Rudick

The new issue of Harper’s has a terrifying dispatch from Sam Frank, who has dared to insinuate himself into a community of “apocalyptic libertarians” in Silicon Valley. These are people who conduct polyphasic-sleep experiments, who dream of a program that can simulate “eons of moral progress” to extrapolate “a complete human goal structure.” They’re all fixated on the idea that an artificial superintelligence will, in the next century, attempt to eradicate humanity. And they revere a kind of functionalism that treats our brains as mere processors. One of them, the pluperfectly named Blake Masters, lives by the motto, “Your mind is software. Program it. Your body is a shell. Change it. Death is a disease. Cure it. Extinction is approaching. Fight it.” They are, in short, so cold and clinical that Ayn Rand looks like Oprah in comparison, and Frank captures them in moments of paranoia, hubris, and misogyny. Their rationalism isn’t contagious, but the underlying dread certainly is. By the time I finished reading, I felt that humankind was totally fucked. —Dan Piepenbring

“True, it all happened a long time ago, but it has haunted me ever since.” So begins S. Yizhar’s Khirbet Khizeh, published in Hebrew in 1949, in the aftermath of the 1948 War and the Palestinian nakba. It is the story of a company of Jewish soldiers tasked with clearing a Palestinian village, called Khirbet Khizeh, in the closing months of the conflict. It is a war novel that refuses all the pieties of that genre and develops into an anguished—and unresolved—meditation on Jewish history and the meaning of exile. Almost every episode screams out its relevance for today. —Robyn Creswell

That same Harper’s piece introduced me to Darrel Rees, whose willfully tacky, nineties-style graphics collages add a whole dimension of smart anxiety to the essay. You can see more of his illustration work here—his is an aesthetic that feels fantastically out of sync with the crisp, clean, pure designs you see in so many magazines today. —DP

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Staff Picks: Reading Aloud, Rayon Dresses, Red Phones

December 5, 2014 | by

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Straight to Moscow.

Our Summer issue this year included Garth Greenwell’s story “Gospodar.” Though I didn’t then know that Greenwell is also a poet, it now seems obvious: his language in the story is economical and precise and yet so fluid. Two and a half years ago, Greenwell’s friend, Max Freeman, a filmmaker and photographer, filmed him reading three of his poems. Greenwell is a superb reader, and I was transfixed by the movement of his face on camera—“enthralled like a bird before a snake,” as he says in the first poem. (Actually, I had to watch the video a couple times because I forgot to pay attention to the words the first time.) The oddly touching “Faculty Meeting with Fly” is the second poem, in which a fly provides interest and pleasure during an otherwise dull moment: “No one before has traced precisely that path / along the thinner vein of my wrist, yet you take / such delight there / … while / beneath you subterraneously my blood must roar / and thrum you like a lyre.” But it’s the last poem, “An Evening Out”—wistful, gorgeous, and sad—that makes the video, and Greenwell’s face, so compelling. —Nicole Rudick

I haven’t read many novels as spooky and sublime and psychologically acute as Forrest Gander’s The Trace. It’s the portrait of a couple in crisis and their misguided road trip through the Chihuahua desert, on the tracks of the writer Ambrose Bierce. Gander’s landscapes are lyrical and precise (“raw gashed mountains, gnarly buttes of andesite”), and his study of a marriage on the rocks is as empathetic as it is unsparing. —Robyn Creswell

Sarah Lazarovic sat down with her brushes and did not stop painting until she’d revealed her entire messy, colorful, and witty journey from a teenaged “fashion-maybe” to a bona fide adult shopping ambassador. In her charmingly illustrated new book, A Bunch of Pretty Things I Did Not Buy, Lazarovic explains how a mall-lovin’ middle-schooler’s early obsession with scrunchy socks later ballooned into a full-blown consumer obsession with clothes of every possible description. Lazarovic’s story will especially resonate for the late Gen Xer who may have similarly cycled through the Gap Girl to Thrift Girl to Goth Girl to I-just-can’t-have-enough-little-rayon-dresses-for-under-twenty-bucks Girl, who along the way also made good use of the venerable scrunchie and the ubiquitous safety pin when the outfit or occasion called for it. Lazarovic meditates on the “ill-defined distinction between fashion and shopping,” stating that “in childhood we create fashion with very little shopping (except you, Suri Cruise).” Her adult self craves a minimal wardrobe and a spare closet. She writes, “What I love best is how time often reveals a solution to what I need that doesn’t involve buying.” She closes her diary with expert tips on how to fill your own closet with quality over mass quantity. —Charlotte Strick
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Staff Picks: Absolution, Antipodes, Air Raid

November 28, 2014 | by

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From the cover of the new translation of Alexander Kluge’s Air Raid.

Last night, I finished Gerald Murnane’s The Plains, and this morning I started reading it again. It’s the story of a filmmaker who travels from the coast of Australia into the plains of the interior, where instead of flyblown pit stops he encounters a society of vast estates—latifundia meets British manor house—whose culture is based on avant-garde poetics and the art of heraldry. The plainsmen are melancholy philosophers whose koans would have made T. S. Eliot proud: “I’ve spent my life trying to see my own place as the end of a journey I never made,” one says into his beer. Murnane is a careful stylist and a slyly comic writer with large ideas. I know it’s the antipodes, but it’s hard to fathom why he isn’t a little better known here. —Robyn Creswell

I’ve been caught up in Alexander Kluge’s masterpiece Air Raid (1977), finally available in English—an unsettlingly oblique remembrance of the events of April 8, 1945, when Americans carpet bombed Halberstadt, a German town of no particular significance to the war effort. Eighty percent of the place was destroyed and thousands died; Kluge, who lived there, was thirteen at the time. Air Raid is composed of fragments: diagrams, photographs, interviews, vignettes of survivors. In Kluge’s affectless prose, the manager of a bombed movie theater watches as her patrons’ corpses are boiled by the hot water gushing from an exposed pipe; a confused cemetery groundskeeper goes to sleep in an open grave. The book is part fiction and part reportage, but Kluge makes no effort to say which is which; in fact, many of its more explicitly documentary sections, such as a long interview with an American brigadier, are entirely fabricated. It’s an affecting puzzle about the destabilized narratives of war. The reader has to construct some semblance of a story from the rubble. —Dan Piepenbring

While everyone is talking about Serial, you should be listening to another This American Life alum’s podcast, StartUp, in which Alex Blumberg attempts to launch his podcast start-up. (He’s aware of how meta this is.) Blumberg makes a failure of a pitch to venture investor Chris Sacca; he compares the search for a business partner to the awkwardness of the dating world. The podcast is a fascinating and insightful look at the nature of business. As Blumberg reflects, “You think it’s about numbers and bottom lines—but really it’s just about raw feelings?” —Justin Alvarez

Scott McClanahan has a new essay on The Fader’s Web site about how his love for Little Jimmy Dickens, and his wife’s dislike for the diminutive country star, broke up their marriage—or at least he should have taken her antipathy for Dickens as a sign. The essay traces his understanding of an aspect of his life through the filter of music, but it’s not the kind of autobiographical piece that retrospectively bestows wisdom and clarity on one’s life—the artificiality that ruins so many memoirs. McClanahan’s writing, both fiction and nonfiction, has the feel of real storytelling and often of catharsis; he writes a kind of ballad (or, in this case, maybe an antiballad) that country music does so well. Of Dickens’s most famous song, “May the Bird of Paradise Fly Up Your Nose,” McClanahan writes, “It was a song not interested in telling you about the mind of the insane, but one that wanted to produce that state of mind in the listener. It was a spell, a fever, a curse.” That’s a good description of the way McClanahan crafts a tale, too. —Nicole Rudick

As a kid, I would watch Forrest Gump every day. I don’t remember why, but I do remember the day the VHS tape started to deteriorate: as Forrest ran out of the football stadium, the crowd yelling for him to stop, the sound morphed out of sync with the image. I enjoyed this: it was a kind of personal imprint, like a folded page in a well-read book. I thought of this moment as I made my way through Nicholas Rombes’s excellent and nightmarish The Absolution of Roberto Acestes Laing, about a writer’s search for a lost filmmaker. Through various conversations between the writer and filmmaker—who has destroyed many of his own films—Rombes explores the thin line between fiction and reality, “something there, in between the frames, something that wasn’t quite an image and wasn’t quite a sound ... an impossibility that, because it expressed or represented a new way of being, had to be destroyed.” As my copy of Forrest Gump further deteriorated, I would have to describe the missing scenes whenever my friends and family watched the tape. Over time, my descriptions transformed into something much different than the scenes themselves had been, as a DVD copy later proved. Rombes’s novel is a love letter to this art of misremembering: these “destroyed films” become as real as any film playing in a theater near you. —J.A.

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Staff Picks: Staircases, Sister Mountains, Self-Help

November 21, 2014 | by

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A still from The Staircase.

In The Program Era, Mark McGurl illuminated postwar American fiction’s inextricable ties to universities and creative-writing programs; his new paper, “The Institution of Nothing,” undertakes a reading of David Foster Wallace in the framework of “the program,” and it’s one of the most thoughtful exegeses I’ve found of Wallace, whose work has enjoyed no shortage of critical insight. (Remember Wyatt Mason on Oblivion?) McGurl finds that the bulk of Wallace’s writing is fixated on institutions—it invokes them as a kind of safe harbor, a respite from the nihilism of the world at large. (This is borne out not just in his books but in his life, which he spent almost entirely in the thrall of institutions of higher learning.) In this light, a certain unnerving conservatism emerges in his work: what should be questions of sweeping political import are recast as matters of individual ethics. McGurl writes, “Clinging to the institutional order, clinging for dear life, Wallace’s commitment is … to a conception of therapeutic community in which what might have become political questions—and, by implication, motives for political contestation—are obediently dissolved.” —Dan Piepenbring

Natalie Lyalin’s poetry collection Blood Makes Me Faint But I Go For It has an intriguing title, but I’ve felt mildly daunted by the illustration on the cover—of a woman who stares straight into my eyes whenever I look at her. It turns out, though, that such feelings of discomfort aren’t inappropriate. Lyalin’s poems are weird, wide-eyed, and bold, and I feel uneasy reading them—in a good way. Like this, from “On the Beaches of Majorca”: “Aboard ships they snapped goodbye to their cities / They sparked like knives / And the oceans took them in with oceanic slurps / In a parallel moment we were on the beaches / Mute pastel puffs / Smoking around a cult-like fire.” Her poems remind me of Karen Russell’s fiction: at once familiar and otherworldly, tame and frightening. Lyalin’s “A Lemon Sweat Over Everything” is almost a poetic version of the title story from Russell’s Vampire in the Lemon Grove:

You can find my bones in the sister mountains
Identify me by the gold fangs
The fangs I showed you in the lemon orchard
almost two hundred years ago
You said they were sexy
The sun blinding you from my mouth
We were both smirking
and then I snarled 
It was very foreign
chasing you around the trees

Nicole Rudick

I could write about the addictive nature of Serial, the true-crime podcast from the This American Life team, but millions of others beat me to the punch. Instead, thanks to a recommendation from my friend Josh Lieberman, I advise you to fill these next two weeks until the next Serial episode with Sundance Channel’s eight-part documentary series, The Staircase. The crime saga follows the case of the novelist Michael Peterson, whose wife, Kathleen, was found unconscious at the bottom of a staircase in the couple’s Durham mansion. Was the death an accident, the result of falling down the stairs after consuming alcohol and Valium—or was she murdered by Peterson? While the twists and turns are captivating and the series is filled with a cast of characters so interesting and bizarre it’s difficult to appraise anyone involved, it’s the fly-on-the wall–style of Jean-Xavier de Lestrande’s filmmaking that kept me going from one episode to the next. —Justin Alvarez

You might have heard that Sam Lipsyte used to be in a punk band called Dungbeetle. This Saturday night at Le Poisson Rouge, they’re reuniting—with LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy on drums, no less—as part of the launch party for Radio Silence, a lit-and-music mag that’s just released its third issue. I suspect magic will be in the air. Bring earplugs and a taste for the bizarre. —DP

I had never heard of Lorrie Moore when I tried to sit in on her M.F.A. workshop at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. It was 2009, and I was barely eighteen. She kicked me out pretty quickly. Now, having spent the better part of five years recovering from the embarrassment, I have finally read Self-Help, Moore’s first collection of stories. About two-thirds are written in the second person, and this is both refreshing and compelling. It serves an almost didactic purpose in “How,” as Moore guides us, step-by-step, through the motions of dumping a (maybe) dying boyfriend. In “How To Be an Other Woman,” the second person puts a delightful twist on a recycled story: her protagonist struggles to find herself in (and as a result of) a messy extramarital affair. Witty and deft, Moore demands that her readers believe the story could be about them … not that it is about them, but that it could be. She blends comedy and tragedy so seamlessly that I found myself merrily caught between sadness and mirth, cynicism and optimism. —Alex Celia

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Staff Picks: Megg, Mogg, Maxim Maksimich

November 14, 2014 | by

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From the cover of Megahex.

Last month, Simon Hanselmann’s comic book Megahex entered the New York Times Graphic Books best-seller list at number 8, both above and below volumes by Neil Gaiman. No small feat, especially when you consider the Times’ droll description of the book: “Meet Megg. She’s a witch and has a black cat named Mogg. She is also depressed and addicted to drugs.” It’s not inaccurate, but it sure misses the point. Megg and Mogg are druggy reprobates who tease and torture their roommate, Owl, who is himself a rather unsavory fellow, but  Megg’s depression isn’t your garden-variety Prozac episode. She’s so invariably and subtly disconsolate and experiences such disturbing mood swings that it’s impossible not to feel at least a tinge of that heavy sadness. And because the book is funny, too—they smoke lots of pot—her depression seems that much more real. —Nicole Rudick

In recent weeks—when I haven’t been poring over Greif’s Crisis of Man—I’ve been unwinding with classic short stories: Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin and Randall Jarrell’s Book of Stories, in which the great poet and critic presented an idiosyncratic mix of all-time favorites, from fairy tales, to the Russian masters, to poems by Frost and Brecht. —Lorin Stein

Most writers are failures, and C. D. Rose knows that. His Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure is a compendium of fictitious authors, all of whom are spectacularly unsuccessful. Spend an hour with it—ideally not an sober hour—for a bracing, mordant reminder of why almost nothing is really worth bothering with. My personal favorite fake failures: Maxim Maksimich (“he died in 1912, impaled by an icicle, a casualty of the thaw for which he had waited so long”), Belmont Rossiter (“he challenged Dickens to a duel and allegedly tried to poison Wilkie Collins … He told George Eliot she looked like a horse”), and Elise La Rue (“she wrote longhand, naked, voluptuously, lying on her divan, usually covered in the fur of a snow leopard which she claimed she had herself skinned … accompanied by her favorite cocktail of schnapps and Dubonnet”). —Dan Piepenbring

I hate to admit this, but I found myself mesmerized by Kickended, a new archive of Kickstarter’s zero-dollar-pledged campaigns created by Silvio Lorusso with the help of Kickspy’s data analysis. Click on the Random Campaign button, and you’ll bring an array of crowdfunding flops to light, from a kid’s book on Occupy Wall Street to the restoration of The Commodores’ 1947 cargo van. It’s easy to poke fun at these projects—especially with campaigns like this and this and this. But it’s more than just an exercise in schadenfreude; it’s a fascinating look at why certain projects succeed and others don’t. Why is there a place in this world for fruit-themed plush toys but not The Amazing Spider-Pig piggy bank? A tool to shotgun beer better but not a bra that doubles as a pocket? Is one better than the other, or is it simply the way the project is presented? Maybe it’s the fact that no one wants to be the first to donate to these “abstract ideas.” Everyone knows you always put a few dollars out of your own pocket into the tip jar. —Justin Alvarez

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Staff Picks: Tom Magliozzi and Dr. T

November 7, 2014 | by

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A still from Dr. T and the Women, 2000.

“One of the striking features of the discourse of man to modern eyes, in a sense the most striking, is how unreadable it is, how tedious, how unhelpful. The puzzle is why it is unreadable.” Thus, Mark Greif in his exhilarating study The Age of the Crisis of Man: Thought and Fiction in America 1933–1973. By “the discourse of man” Greif means the vast midcentury literature on human dignity, from Being and Nothingness, to the “Family of Man” photo exhibition, to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—a discourse that Greif interrogates with verve, erudition, sympathy, and suspicion, and that he follows into the fiction of our time. I’ve been toting The Age of the Crisis of Man around for the last month, using a pencil for a bookmark, because there’s something to underline on every page—and I haven’t even got to the chapters on O’Connor and Pynchon. —Lorin Stein

Like many nineties kids, I received my first doses of NPR while buckled up in the backseat of my parents’ car; Saturday-morning drives, often to visit my grandparents, meant one thing: Car Talk. The show has been a constant in my life ever since. (In fact, if you’ve ever wondered what occupies The Paris Review’s staff on our five-hour quarterly drives to our press in Pennsylvania, look no further than the Car Talk podcast.) So many of the tributes to Tom Magliozzi, the elder “Tappet” brother who died this week of complications from Alzheimer’s disease, focused on his inimitable and infectious laughter—and rightfully so. But the somberness of the occasion reminded me of a letter Tom and Ray once fielded from a troubled freshman at Mount Holyoke College, a young listener named Lea. (You can listen to Tom read Lea’s letter here; she later called in to the show.) Give them a listen and you'll be reminded of just how much the show provided: laughter, yes, and advice about cars—but also the occasional window, especially for its young listeners, into the sort of life one might aspire toward, one where the adults of the world still engage in “water-pistol fights, with whipped cream.” —Stephen Andrew Hiltner

I can’t in good faith claim that Robert Altman’s Dr. T and the Women (2000) is a “good” movie, but it captivates, in its quietly provocative way. Imagine the eye rolls after this pitch meeting: “Well, it’s this sexy, envelope-pushing comedy where Richard Gere plays a hunky gynecologist in upper-crust Dallas, but he doesn’t boink his patients or anything lewd like that—he just treats everyone really respectfully, including his daughters and his wife, who goes insane, in fact, because of how deeply loved she is and how well her personal needs are met.” Dr. T is a farce, a riff on the “Book of Job” and the suffering of the virtuous; all of its women are kooky and dependent in some way on the ministrations of the good doctor, with his boundless patience and his way with the speculum. Altman wrings a lot of jouissance from his ensemble cast, especially Gere, who really does seem too sensitive for this milieu. But what is this milieu? Why are all these rich ladies so gabby, so troubled, so sad? That’s where Dr. T is ultimately thwarted: in spite of its lead’s genuine (and believable) reverence for the feminine, the film can’t help but lapse into misogyny. It’s called Dr. T and the Women, for god’s sake. But right up to its positively outlandish ending, it asks questions about chivalry, materialism, and gender that not many movies would dare to touch, then or now. It’s audacious filmmaking—and that alone makes it worth watching. —Dan Piepenbring

In 1892, long before the O. J. Simpson trial or the Lindbergh kidnapping, there was a court case that swept the nation’s interest. It wasn’t because the violence of the crime—one woman publicly slashing the throat of another—but the motivation: a same-sex love affair. Using love letters, archives, newspaper articles, and government records, Alexis Coe’s Alice + Freda Forever brings to life the story of Alice Mitchell and Freda Ward, who lived in a much too-familiar world intolerant of any relationship outside the norm. Coe’s narrative covers the perceptions of sexuality, women’s role in society, racial hierarchy, media manipulation, and even mental health, but she never strays too far from the heart of the story: the tragic romance between two women forty years before the word lesbian would be in circulation. —Justin Alvarez
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