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This Week’s Reading

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 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 Films begins 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 WWII 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 »

Staff Picks: Philosophical Falconry, Monologuing Masseuses

May 15, 2015 | by

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A still from the video for Holly Herndon’s “Interference.”

NH477_GAndrés Barba’s August, October starts off full of charm: a teenage boy from Madrid ditches his family and the beach club to hang out with the local kids in a seaside town. Slowly the atmosphere darkens as he tries to adopt their code of violence. Although Barba has translated Melville, Conrad, and Defoe into Spanish, the writer whose ghost haunts August, October unmistakably is Harold Brodkey, with his deep interest in adolescent sexuality and his ability to conjure the last frontiers of childhood. Like Brodkey, Barba inhabits his young hero with a clarity that is both sympathetic and unflinching. —Lorin Stein

On Game of Thrones last Sunday, Stannis Baratheon won the hearts of grammar dorks everywhere when he corrected a soldier of the Night’s Watch who had made a fewer/less mistake. (Stannis is a stickler: he made the same correction in season two.) Though he is sometimes boring and occasionally creepy, Stannis pays attention to detail in a way that is not niggling but noteworthy, indicative of someone comfortable with power. Honestly, at that moment in the episode, I thought for a moment of Mary Norris, a “page OK’er” at The New Yorker and a self-proclaimed “comma queen,” who tells a story in her memoir, Between You and Me, about the surprising power she wields: “when [a young editorial assistant] heard I was a copy editor she jumped back, as if I might poke her with a red-hot hyphen or force-feed her a pound of commas.” But Norris isn’t Stannis—she’s far too entertaining and modest and candid; she devotes whole chapters (paeans, really) to pencils, commas, and hyphens. (Maybe she’s Sam? He did kill a White Walker, but he’s far more interested in scouring the library to figure out how he managed to do it.) —Nicole Rudick Read More »

Staff Picks: Crosscurrents, Kandy Kat, Casino Cohesion

May 8, 2015 | by

Charles Burchfield, Tile Roof, 1930–43, watercolor, gouache, and charcoal on paper, mounted on board, 24 3/8" x 35 7/8". Photo via D.C. Moore

In my mind, I’ve created a dream exhibition of portraiture by Alice Neel, Mickalene Thomas, and Hope Gangloff: crosscurrents of eroticism, identity, bodies, and embellishment. For now, I’ll settle for a show of new portraits by Gangloff, whose paintings are gratifyingly overstuffed with garish details rendered in contrasting patterns and in nips of fluorescent orange and extravagant swathes of hot pink. There’s a funny play between color and patterning in her work—the elements are at once discordant and of a piece, excessive and sensible. There’s something of that, too, in Charles Burchfield’s watercolors, on view a couple blocks south. Burchfield saw a second plane of reality, a spiritual palimpsest shimmering over the world you and I see. The scenes he painted are heightened versions of the real thing, electrified and otherworldly but always recognizable. In a study of what looks like a denuded landscape, his ghostly outlines of trees become visible, lightly filling in and giving life to the empty hills. Color also seems to exist in the spiritual realm. A note on an ink sketch reads, “Leaves a hot red (tinged with umber?), as glowing embers of a dying fire.” —Nicole Rudick
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Staff Picks: Grim Reaper Hex, Ouija Board Sex

May 1, 2015 | by

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Iris Apfel, in Iris.

The_Hidden_World_Jim_Shaw_0002_Layer_2_1024x1024The artist Jim Shaw began collecting printed media when he was still a teenager, and his extensive archive, which serves as a primary source of inspiration for his paintings, was recently published as The Hidden World. The small book is made to resemble a bible: the edges of the pages are stained red, and the black cover bears only the gold-embossed title. The roughly five hundred images are presented without captions or commentary and were originally produced for pedagogical religious purposes: Freemason, fundamentalist Christian, Mormon, Rosicrucianism, Jehovah’s Witness, Opus Dei, Branch Davidian, and much more. “The Hidden World” was shown as an exhibition a few years ago, but in book form, the same images don’t have the feel of artworks. If it’s a book, you can read it—whether the pages are filled with words or pictures. The unbridged sequences between various brands of faith create a strange narrative: from, say, Left Behind pop culture to beatific Christendom, homemade cultism to UFO-related arcana. A Bill Mauldin cartoon featuring the grim reaper at work sits across the page from a book cover that reads “Good News to Make You Happy.” It’s a creepy book, especially if you aren’t a member of any of these clubs, but it also testifies to how deeply people want to believe. —Nicole Rudick

I was lucky enough to attend the New York premiere of Albert Maysles’s last documentary, Iris. As one might expect, the film offers no shortage of celebration for the buoyant and idiosyncratic style of Iris Apfel; well into her nineties, she’s still very much a commanding force in the world of fashion. But what interested me more than Iris’s style were the glimpses into the relationship between the “Rare Bird of Fashion” and Maysles himself, whose presence, more often than not, manifests only as a voice from behind his camera. To me, the film was an endearing look at two aging artists brought together by the longevity of their art—and, more largely, a tribute to their indefatigable grace. —Stephen Andrew Hiltner

hammerbookcoverFrom a distance, I’d always cast a cool eye on James Merrill’s epic poem The Changing Light at Sandover—his famous experiments with Ouija boards struck me as superstitious gimmickry, a rich boy’s attempt to swath himself in the aura of Yeatsian occultism. Well, file that under “moronic snap judgment.” Langdon Hammer’s new biography, James Merrill: Life and Art, has shown me the light. Merrill, who led a truly singular life, came to the Ouija board not for some self-serious dalliance with the afterworld but to buttress his playful, skeptical, fecund approach to poetics; as Hammer writes, he “renewed poetry’s ancient task of soliciting speech from the gods. He activated a source of inspiration existing in language itself.” And I hadn’t known that the poet and his partner, David Jackson, used the board in 1955 to commune with Wallace Stevens, who had just died and who expanded their sexual vocabulary from a higher plane: “‘Do you not know the lovely prologue kissing of nostrils, tongue in nostril and on rims?’ He described scenes of sex at court with Ethiopian slaves, dogs, oils, multiple positions and partners, and a tiger licking sweets from the genitals of the orgiasts.” —Dan Piepenbring

Stefan Zweig is one of those writers who mastered the art of memory—reading his short stories on prewar Vienna feels like walking into a sepia photograph. “Mendel the Bibliophile” definitely has that effect. The misfit book peddler Jakob Mendel, endowed with an encyclopedic memory, is typical of the vanished Vienna Zweig is always mourning in his work: a breeding ground for intellectuals where old books are cherished like secular relics, a comfortable, stimulating cocoon, doomed to splinter during the war. The tenderness of its nostalgia makes “Mendel” a gem. —Charlotte Groult

Staff Picks: Man-boys, Musicals, Multimillionaires

April 24, 2015 | by

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From the cover of Sphinx.

thirlwell“In one corner of the room there was a television, and I find it difficult to avoid a television—not because I am so intent on the game shows and confessions, but just because a moving image is very difficult to ignore. If I’m trying to read on one of those ancient planes where they silently display the film on a screen at the front, I keep looking up at it and losing my concentration, just as in the airport lounge already I will have been distracted by the silent news, and the mini frenzy of its montage.” Usually when we say that something sounds like a translation, it’s a bad thing, but Adam Thirlwell’s new novel Lurid & Cute sounds like brainy colloquial English translated into some slightly brainier (more formal? more poetic? more European?) idiom. We don’t go around talking about “ancient planes” or “the game shows and confessions,” but Zeno might. That interplay between banality and beauty—between the merely cute, or merely lurid, and deep ironic observation—kept me hurrying back to the book. It is, as James Wood might say, “unreliably unreliable”—either a parody or else the end point of a certain kind of wide-eyed man-boy narrator, like Jonathan Safran Foer on crystal, with a gun. —Lorin Stein

“The incident was really quite typical, but still curious … And that’s all.” Most of Daniil Kharms’s writing could be summed up this way—this is, in fact, the way he began and ended a certain forty-five-word story. Several of his stories end with “And that’s it, more or less” and plenty more do so in spirit. They’re so casually, almost indifferently, related that they read like fables—inexhaustible, with an underlying wisdom or moral that, in the case of Kharms’s work, is difficult to pinpoint. That’s because, as Ian Frazier points out in his wonderful recent essay in The New York Review of Books, Kharms’s work falls into a “subgenre of cheerfully moronic writing” that rejects any form of rationality. It’s a kind of humor that can easily get lost in translation (or not—I wonder how many Russians get it). Frazier’s piece sent me running back to my own copy of Today I Wrote Nothing, a selection of Kharms’s writing. I find that reading his prose and poetry requires a kind of release, a letting go of expectations and a faith that the nonsense will pay off. And it does. A man pummels another man with his dentures. A man meets another man who’s bought bread. A succession of women fall out the window until the narrator gets tired of watching. And that’s it, more or less. —Nicole Rudick Read More »