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This Week’s Reading

Staff Picks: Country Life, City Life, Future Life

January 23, 2015 | by

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From the cover of The Edge Becomes the Center.

When we ran Sylvain Bourmeau’s interview with Michel Houellebecq earlier this month, a number of readers tweeted their distaste for Houellebecq’s new novel, as described by Bourmeau and by Houellebecq himself. They may want to think again. To American eyes (at least, to mine), Soumission is not a xenophobic screed, nor is it a dire prediction that Muslims will take over France. In the book, Muslims certainly do take over France and impose a form of Sharia. They also impose economic policies based on the theories of G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, and appoint a minister of education with links to the Belgian far right. This is, in other words, a fairy tale premise, played deadpan; Houellebecq uses it to make fun of, and to vent his scorn upon, the firmly secular France of today. Whether it is tactful (or prudent) to invent a Muslim Brotherhood party led by Chestertonians is a fair question, but Houellebecq has never been celebrated for his tact or, thank heavens, for his good sense. —Lorin Stein

Before I picked up DW Gibson’s The Edge Becomes the Center, I would’ve told you it was impossible to write a significant book about gentrification, as fraught and ubiquitous as it is. But Gibson’s oral history, out in May, is a generous, vigorous, and enlightening look at class and space in New York; it ought to be required reading for the next generation of transplants. In the stories of tenants, buyers, landlords, architects, real estate agents, contractors, and politicians, Gibson has found vibrant humanity in a subject that is, paradoxically, lacking in it. If it seems obvious that gentrification is about people, then why has a book like this been so long in coming? The Edge Becomes the Center raises critical questions about what we expect from our cities and how groups become communities. Mainly, though, it’s a joy to read, its chorus of voices a reminder of oral history’s power. Anyone who cares about the shape and gestalt of life in New York—and anyone who believes in cities as centers of culture—will come away moved. —Dan Piepenbring

There are a number of reasons to love Pitchfork’s new interview with Björk: the unabashed feeling with which she discusses her new album; the way she describes trying to unite (sometimes unsuccessfully) motherhood, family, and work; and the glimpse into her extraordinary mind. It’s most important, though, for the candor with which she admits to finding it difficult to be a working woman, that despite her fame and success and obvious talent, she has felt the need to have her ideas annexed by men in order to have them heard. After at least a decade of seeing her own creative efforts passed off in the press as belonging to men, she exhorted herself to speak out: “You’re a coward if you don’t stand up. Not for you, but for women. Say something.” Her experiences—for instance, that “everything a guy says once, you have to say five times”—are now a refrain among women. (How did we cope before we’d coined mansplaining?) But the elephant turd on the carpet, as Rebecca Solnit once called it, should be pointed out at every opportunity. —Nicole Rudick

I first heard about Ben Metcalf’s Against the Country from The Paris Review’s Southern editor, John Jeremiah Sullivan. Set in poor, rural Virginia, Against the Country is narrated by an unnamed farm boy who was “worked like a jackass for the worst part of my childhood, and offered up to climate and predator and vice, and introduced to solitude, braced against hope, and dangled before the Lord our God, and schooled in the subtle truths and blatant lies of a half life in the American countryside.” The narrator’s father wants to flee town for a simpler life, so the family moves from suburban Indiana to Goochland, Virginia, where the narrator spends his later days ruminating over the evil they found in the country soil. Against the Country doesn’t preach against rural America’s perceived moral superiority—it holds it up, allowing readers to examine its farcical nature. Hilarious and dark, like most of Metcalf’s writing, the novel and its thick, rambling sentences had control of me from beginning to end. —Jeffery Gleaves
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Staff Picks: Diarists, Dowsing, Dolphin-safe Tuna

January 16, 2015 | by

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Egon Schiele, Portrait of Gertrude Schiele, 1909.

In 1995, on a trip to Australia, the performance artist and writer Kathy Acker met McKenzie Wark, a new-media theorist. They had a weekend-long affair and then, on Acker’s return to San Francisco, engaged in a candid two-week e-mail correspondence—now published for the first time—in which gossip, cultural criticism, daily activities, queer theory, and personal problems are inextricably tangled. A searching discussion of Blanchot, Bataille, and totalitarianism is together with a back-and-forth about pissing and coming at the same time. Very quickly, the gendered sex talk—of butch, femme, and super-femme; straight girls and queer ones; gay guys, straight guys, and just “guys”—becomes confused: Who’s talking about whom? But it doesn’t matter. As Acker says, “Me, straight queer gay whatever and where do nut cakes like me fit in who like getting fistfucked whacked and told what to do?” Wark responds, “I like this idea of a refusal to be called other. As normal as the next human.” Acker died not two years later of breast cancer. This book is a wonderful reminder of her quick mind and remarkable intellect. How lucky Wark was to have gotten it all firsthand. “I forgot who I am,” he writes to Acker. “You reminded me of who I prefer to be.” —Nicole Rudick

“What I love about university libraries,” Susan Howe says in her interview with The Paris Review, “is that they always seem slightly off-limits, therefore forbidden. I feel I’ve been allowed in with my little identity card and now I’m going to be bad.” How bad? Dowsing for buried manuscripts is, she says, a kind of “civilly disobedient telepathy.” Howe’s new book, Spontaneous Particulars: The Telepathy of Archives, is an elegiac essay for the old archives of paper and ink, now being off-sited by digital technologies. The book pieces together Howe’s work on the papers of the eighteenth-century divine Jonathan Edwards with the third book of William Carlos Williams’s Paterson, about the burning of the library. I can’t think of another work that evokes the romance of research in the way this one does. It captures that moment when you find exactly the thing you didn’t know you were searching for. —Robyn Creswell

Keep an eye out for Elliot Ackerman’s first novel, Green on Blue, coming next month. Ackerman, who served five tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, caught my attention in recent weeks with essays in the New York Times Magazine (on skateboarding in Southbank) and The New Yorker (on a visit he paid to a military outpost on the front line of the war with ISIS), both of which betray the informed sensitivity of his observations. (If you dig deeper into ’net history, you’ll find his reflections on Fallujah.) Green on Blue, already on the Times’s Reading List of Modern War Stories, tells the story of a young boy coming of age in Afghanistan—the premise of which, alone, serves as an impressive act of empathy. —Stephen A. Hiltner Read More »

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Staff Picks: Birthdays, Bluegrass, Baked Alaska

January 9, 2015 | by

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From the first-edition cover of Appointment in Samarra.

Cold, biting January made me reach for Simon Van Booy’s The Illusion of Separateness. This deceptively slim novel transcends time and geography to explore the lives of six unwittingly connected strangers, each rendered with stunning incisiveness and warmth. (If Raymond Chandler had swapped gin for chamomile tea he might have written some of Van Booy’s sentences.) However, the prose is so rich—so resonant—it’s easy to miss the real treat on offer: an exceptionally compassionate lens through which to view the world. Search no more. This is that book, the one you carry through the midwinter doldrums toward spring. —Emilia Murphy 

Over Christmas I read Is He Popenjoy?, Anthony Trollope’s tale of a rich girl who marries an impoverished Lord and finds herself in the middle of a battle over his inheritance. This is late, minor Trollope (he wrote forty-seven novels altogether), but Trollope is one of those writers in whom minorness and greatness are hard to tell apart. He makes everything look so easy. His experiments are hidden in plain view. So is his special brand of moral skepticism. For Trollope, every character is the hero of his own story, or the heroine; every character thinks he or she has to deal with villains (sociopaths, we’d say). From time to time every character is right. Or may be. But the most powerful force in Trollope’s fiction is not good or evil, but group dynamics, the ever-shifting relations between family members and friends. Among other things, Is He Popenjoy? is the best novel I have ever read about in-laws and how to get along with them. For the moment, I'm so deep under its spell I wouldn’t trade it for Anna Karenina. —Lorin Stein

Every year around the holidays, I try to fill in one of the gaps in my knowledge of the canon. When you’re revisiting classics, I’ve found, it’s always good to seek out the ones that people hated when they were first published—so I took up John O’Hara’s Appointment in Samarra, which Sinclair Lewis called “nothing but infantilism—the erotic visions of a hobbledehoy behind the barn.” And what visions they are! Sex and class are O’Hara’s great subjects, and in Appointment—wherein a rich, high-society guy ruins himself for no good reason, really, except that the straitjacket of Depression-era life demands it—he treats them with a candor that most novelists still can’t muster eighty years later. He’s known, rightly, for his dialogue, but there’s a kind of O’Hara sentence, precise but faintly ostentatious, that sounds utterly American to me. “The festive board now groaned under the Baked Alaska,” for instance. Or: “Frank Gorman, Georgetown, and Dwight Ross, Yale, had fought, cried, and kissed after an argument about what the team Gorman had not made would have done to the team Ross was substitute halfback on.” —Dan Piepenbring
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Staff Picks: Crayoned Cartoons and Computer Corruption

December 19, 2014 | by

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James Hoff, Stuxnet No. 1, 2014, chromaluxe transfer on aluminum, 30" × 24". Image via BOMB

I caught Susan Te Kahurangi King’s exhibition at Andrew Edlin Gallery before it closes this weekend, and I’m glad I did. I'd never heard of her, but her cartoony, figurative drawings have affinities with work by some of my favorite artists: Gary Panter, Gladys Nilsson, Jim Nutt, Barry McGee, and Peter Saul. King hails from New Zealand (her middle name is Maori), and has drawn prolifically since childhood. The show contains work she made when she was only about a decade old; these drawings aren’t notable for their technical prowess but because their imagery and composition carry over into the drawings she made when she was older. That is to say, these are forms and arrangements that have preoccupied King for much of her life. Tightly packed configurations of Bugs Bunnies and Donald Ducks and other figures—sometimes colored with bright crayons, other times left as outlines—are frequently cloistered on one side of the paper, resembling fragments of ancient tablets. Most works in the show are from the sixties and seventies; King mysteriously stopped drawing in the eighties and has only now taken it up again. Here's hoping this is only the first of many exhibitions to come. —Nicole Rudick

For a few months now I’ve been irritating my friends, colleagues, and loved ones by using one of the artist James Hoff’s contaminated ringtones. Call me up and anyone nearby will hear a version of Apple’s standard iPhone Marimba ringtone infected with the ILOVEYOU virus, a computer worm from 2000. This sounds like exactly what it is: broken. A familiar motif corrupted with static, screeches, and squelches, and so rendered at once annoying and unsettling. (“Your phone is fucked,” a guy once told me on the street, his voice suggesting that a close relative of mine had just died.) The infected ringtones are part of Hoff’s vast, viral canon: he’s reduced a stunning variety of images and songs to code and then reconstituted them with corrupt code inside. “My newer work definitely draws from everyday phenomena inside the background noise of pop culture,” Hoff told BOMB earlier this year: “computer viruses, ear-worms, and syndromes. All of these are illnesses, broadly speaking. Viruses, like art, need a host, preferably a popular one … Like traditional illnesses, computer viruses travel through networks of communication or trade … A few years back I felt the need to try and to reconcile my creative process with the language of code, which is touching everything these days. It’s to the point where I don’t even know if you could say that this table right here (knocking on table) doesn’t have code underneath it.” It’s hard to think of an artist today engaging more profoundly with the seamy underbelly of our technocracy—and as hacking scandals continue to make headlines, his work only becomes more relevant. —Dan Piepenbring

Blanche McCrary Boyd was my creative-writing advisor at Connecticut College. For more than twenty-five years, she’s collected scores of young writers—many of us inattentive, hungover, and horny—vying for a seat in her twelve-person fiction seminar. To call her a deft storyteller would be an understatement; Blanche would routinely fill our three-hour sessions with tales of addiction, recovery, and everything in between. I picked up her second novel, The Revolution of Little Girls (1991), in an attempt to recapture the awesome terror of her voice—and it did not disappoint. Blanche’s familiar tone is unavoidable, especially so in her protagonist, Ellen Burns. A delightfully wry and impulsively adventurous southern belle, Ellen stumbles headlong into an affair with another woman. But not before spending her early years stealing fish, getting drunk on spirits of ammonia, and hypnotizing a dean or two at Duke. Ellen is charming when graceless and wonderfully nasty when need be. A definite mainstay in lesbian literature, Blanche’s novel is a wild trip of insight, uncomfortable giggles, and old-fashioned wisecracks. —Alex Celia

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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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