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This Week’s Reading

Staff Picks: Murderous Teens, Mechanical Cities, Message Boards

October 14, 2016 | by


The first thing—maybe the only thing—we all learn about art history is that standards of beauty change. The ideal body gets fatter or thinner, different body parts get emphasized or flattered away—and the fashions of the time serve this ideal. At least, that’s how we usually think. Recently I’ve gone back to Anne Hollander’s 1978 masterpiece Seeing Through Clothes, which turns that way of thinking on its head. When we look at a nude body, Hollander argues, we are always seeing the clothes that aren’t there, whether we know it or not. The big pregnant-looking belly on an early Renaissance Eve is meant to support the heavy woolen gathers of a gown. The “unaccountable hummocks of flesh” on a Rubens nude evoke the satin she doesn’t have on. Whether Hollander writes about dresses or men’s tailoring or classical drapery, she leads us, like no other historian I’ve read, into the erotic imagination of the past. Seeing Through Clothes blew my mind when I first read it twenty years ago, and now it’s keeping me up late all over again. —Lorin Stein

One day during Salvador Dalí’s first visit to New York City in 1934, he woke “at six in the morning … after a long dream involving eroticism and lions.” He was surprised by the insistence of the lions’ roars—the savage cries of his dreams, which were so different than what he expected in a “modern and mechanical” city. Reading this, I thought of the Surrealist master dreaming of great orange cats roaring in his ears. But the roars weren’t in his imagination: he and his wife, Gala, were staying near the Central Park Zoo, and he discovered at breakfast that the sounds were real. It’s amusing to read Dalí’s impressions of the city, which he gives in his autobiography, The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí. During his stay, he hops from one cocktail party to another, drinks in a Harlem night club, attends a “surrealist ball,” visits an exhibition of his works, and does a fine bit of walking “all alone in the heart of New York.” Here’s his take on the city’s skyscrapers: “Each evening [they] assume the anthropomorphic shapes of multiple gigantic Millet’s Angeluses … motionless and ready to perform the sexual act and devour one another, like swarms of praying mantes before copulation.” Caitlin Love Read More »

Staff Picks: Mandolins, Meaning, Mr. Cui

October 7, 2016 | by

René Magritte, photographed by Duane Michals.

The Surrealist painter René Magritte apparently dressed like a banker (dark suit, tie) but under these “innocent allures,” a friend recalled, he “was a very revolutionary personality.” That makes him rather like the subject in his 1964 painting Le fils de l’homme, in which an apple obscures the visage of a man dressed in a suit and bowler: we see him but do not see him. Such is the sense I have of him throughout the newly published Selected Writings, a collection of unpublished bits and bobs written between 1922 and 1967. Of his own paintings, he observes, “What I paint does not imply that the invisible is superior to the visible: the visible is rich enough to create a poetic language, evoking the mystery of the invisible and the visible.” Though he withholds full meaning, his meaning is there. And when he writes, “It is difficult to think while thinking of nothing,” I know exactly what he means. —Nicole Rudick

Yesterday, after Rita Dove was named a finalist for this year’s National Book Award for Poetry, I read her 1986 collection Thomas and Beulah, a harrowingly gorgeous book that traverses the earlier half of twentieth-century America by way of Dove’s maternal grandparents. Comprising two parts—Mandolin, for Thomas, and Canary in Bloom, for Beulah—its forty-four elegiac poems reimagine the couple’s past, beginning on a Mississippi riverboat and moving effortlessly through the years from courtship to curtains, kneading in the somber truths of the era: the suicides of the Great Depression, the lynchings of black Americans. We see Thomas sleeping in his work barracks, wooing Beulah with his tater-bug mandolin, walking under the viaduct where men have jumped. Of all the poems, though, I find Beulah’s to be the most beautiful, her sorrow subtle yet profound. From “Daystar”: “Later / that night when Thomas rolled over and / lurched into her, she would open her eyes / and think of the place that was hers / for an hour—where / she was nothing, / pure nothing, in the middle of the day.” (You can listen to Rita Dove read from Thomas and Beulah here.) —Caitlin Youngquist Read More »

Staff Picks: Menace, Music, Melrose Place

September 30, 2016 | by

What’s Jean-Francois Lyotard's Libidinal Economy doing in an episode of Melrose Place? You can thank the GALA Committee for that...

I know Patrick Hoffman as a real-life detective. So when I picked up his novel Every Man a Menace, I expected to find a bunch of believable lowlifes killing each other, believably, over a large shipment of drugs. I was not expecting—wasn’t demanding—subtle characterization, tricky narrative switchbacks, or vivid, moody prose. I also wasn't expecting the action to begin with a long acid trip. “In his mind’s eye, Raymond saw emeralds cut into shapes that couldn’t be described in human language … He saw the insides of stars like rooms in a house.” When Hoffman takes off his detecting hat, he’s closer to Denis Johnson than to Elmore Leonard. —Lorin Stein 

I’ve never watched much Melrose Place, but I’m always looking for reasons to start. I found the best one at Red Bull Studios, where Mel Chin and his team of artists, the GALA Committee, are displaying all the art they designed for the show. In an inspired marriage of fine art and pop culture, GALA convinced Aaron Spelling to let them pepper his sets with sly, subliminal artworks that most viewers never even noticed. (And how could they, with such melodrama unfolding around them?) A box of Chinese takeout with ideograms for “Human Rights” made a cameo in a post-Tiananmen Square episode; a dartboard with a silhouette of a woman who represents the show’s “target demographic” hung in the bar; and a blanket embroidered with the chemical structure of the morning-after pill found its way to one character’s bed just as she learned she was pregnant. The irony—such pointed social commentary in such hidden art—never got old; I wandered the premises long after most had left. It helped that a number of Melrose Place’s sets have been lovingly resurrected onsite. Yes, the pool is there. —Dan Piepenbring Read More »

Staff Picks: Border Towns, Brylcreem, Backstairs Intrigue

September 23, 2016 | by

Matamoros, Tamaulipas, 1978. © Alex Webb / Magnum Photos, via Aperture.

I’ve long felt that the best recommendations for photographic work come from other photographers. From Aaron Stern and Jordan Sullivan I learned about the work of Alex Webb, who, as luck would have it, has a show of photographs at Aperture right now. On view are Webb’s photographs from Mexico taken between 1975, when Webb was twenty-three, and 2007. He shot the images on the streets, in border towns, but it doesn’t feel right to call this street photography: there’s a theatricality to some of the photographs, but subdued, without the performative pomp of much American street work. One depicts a scene of mourning in which three anguished women are momentarily frozen in classical poses as they lament over a man’s body. Another shows a deserted boulevard of buildings under construction shot from an elevated perspective; the rocky terrain and buildings are mainly white, but in the foreground is a cardboard box from which an array of colorful women’s shoes bloom like a desert flower. There’s a sense of precariousness in many of these photographs, but it’s frequently offset by Webb’s brilliant use of color—acid green, sky blue, dusty rose—which light up each moment like a small celebration. —Nicole Rudick

I recently dove into C. K. Williams’s final collection of poetry, Falling Ill (which will publish posthumously early next year), and I’m in awe of it. As the title implies, it’s an unflinching chronicle of what it’s like to die, from terminal diagnosis—for Williams, the “alliterated appellation” multiple myeloma—to the difficulty of waking, to the things one says to oneself as the illness takes over, things like, Am I still hereCatch your breathAre you ready. Williams writes carefully, matter-of-factly, of death’s crippling seizure: the pops and farts and groans his body makes in defiance of him, the fear that has “outwitted me again / changed its costume sharpened its knives.” The book is slender, with fifty-two poems: one per page, each five stanzas of three lines apiece. Williams voids every poem of commas and periods as if to weave his unself-conscious urgency and unease into the very fibers of the collection. The last poem, “Farewell,” leaves us with these indelible, inconsolable words: “there must be // a way to cry goodbye aloud to leave you / these inadequate thanks without resorting / to rending farewell oh dear heart farewell” —Caitlin Youngquist Read More »

What Our Contributors Are Reading This Fall

September 16, 2016 | by

In place of our staff picks this week, we’ve asked five contributors from our new Fall issue to write about what they’re reading. 


From Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard.

After a long dry spell, my interest in reading renewed recently when I read the opening lines of Rachel Cusk’s forthcoming book, Transit: “An astrologer e-mailed me to say she had important news for me concerning events in my immediate future. She could see things that I could not: my personal details had come into her possession and had allowed her to study the planets for their information. She wished me to know a major transit was due to occur shortly in my sky.” As readers of Outline will know, Cusk absorbs other people’s stories, letting them rest in her mind and retelling them as her own. In one section of Transit, the narrator has a student over to her house. The student is in her late thirties, and has three hundred thousand words of notes about the painter Marsden Hartley, whose work she saw once in Paris. Marsden Hartley and the student are, the student says testily, the same person. After asking a few questions about the student’s research, the narrator asks her what happened the night before she saw the paintings. The next sixteen pages are the story of that night. I admire and envy Rachel Cusk for her maturity and her shameless intelligence, and her coldhearted willingness to steal stories from her students. —Amie Barrodale (“Protectors”)

I’ve been (very slowly) reading and enjoying Richard Brody’s Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard after a recent rewatching of Pierrot le Fou. My girlfriend and I were actually trying to watch a Rohmer movie, but the Internet stream kept cutting out, so we turned to our scattered DVD collection. The low-key charm of Full Moon in Paris gave way to the hyperactive extravagance of Pierrot, and neither of us was at all sure how we felt about the change in tone. We were simultaneously overstimulated and a little bit bored. We wondered how seriously we were supposed to take any of it; somehow it had all made a lot more sense when we first saw it in college. An incident described early on in Everything Is Cinema presages our viewing experience. Before either Godard or Rohmer had made a full-length film, Godard directed All the Boys Are Called Patrick, a short film based on a script of Rohmer’s. “Little in the film suggests that Godard had any particular devotion to the story,” Brody writes. “Eric Rohmer was surprised and dismayed by the changes Godard had wrought upon his script and ended their collaboration.”  —Andrew Martin (“No Cops”)Read More »

Staff Picks: Stage Fright, Substitute Teachers, Skin

September 9, 2016 | by

Photo: Charlotte Strick

Alex Prager’s brilliant ten-minute film La Grande Sortie in its U.S. debut, is looping in the upstairs screening room of Lehmann Maupin Gallery through October 23. Prager has imagined for us the marvelously grotesque descent of a prima ballerina into a state of hysteria provoked by our worst fears of stage fright. Witnessed through the shifting perspectives of the dancer (the remarkably theatric Émilie Cozette) and her ever more repulsive and hostile audience, the ballerina’s derangement reminds one of a desperate Mia Farrow surrounded by equal parts evil and camp in Rosemary’s Baby. Even on the fourth viewing, my heart rate surged in time with the stabbing string instruments in the film’s score, sampled from Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” and composed by Radiohead’s producer, Nigel Godrich. Layered under these orchestral notes is the amplified tap-tap-tap of scraping toe shoes across the wooden stage, the flapping of the dancer’s tulle skirt, and the noisy fidgeting of her restless audience. I marveled at Prager’s ability to create such a polished and darkly humorous examination of the extremes of human anxiety and artificiality. And the artist delivers up a panic-filled surprise ending worthy of a Hollywood horror flick. —Charlotte Strick

Type our education system into Google and Autofill will finish your thought: “is broken.” “Is outdated.” “Is flawed.” Any Joe on the street can tell you that. But Nicholson Baker strode bravely into the classroom to see just how defective our schools are: for six months in 2014, he subbed for K–12 teachers in Maine. His new book, Substitute, is a close record of the hairline cracks and scotch-tape fixes that are comprised by a public education. Rather than fulminate or theorize, Baker offers a lively day-by-day account of everything he saw and heard in the classroom. It’s storytelling as commentary, and it means that Substitute’s seven hundred pages fly by, filled as they are with the mulch of student life: the iPad games, the idle chatter, the dioramas and worksheets and silent-reading blocks. Fans of Baker’s know he can elevate any subject—this is a man who’s written compellingly about vacuum cleaners—and the tedium of teaching finds him pressing his gift for metaphor to ever more creative ends: “We all walked to the cafeteria, where there was a massive molten fondue of noise.” Or: “We were swimming in a warm, lifeless salt pond of geopolitical abstraction.” —Dan Piepenbring Read More »