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This Week’s Reading

Staff Picks: Beckett, Boxtrolls, Bard

September 26, 2014 | by

Boxtrolls

A still from Boxtrolls.

Reading a collection of letters from the beginning straight through to the end is one step up from reading the phone book. I know there are valuable bits throughout literary letters, but they’re so often scattered among details like how much so-and-so paid for a ham sandwich and how hard it is to find a good Danish translator. So I have not read all of the third volume of Samuel Beckett’s letters, but I have nevertheless spent a good deal of time with it. The years 1957 through 1965 find Beckett at the height of his fame. He writes very soberly but with affection and appreciation, no matter the subject. In response to Robert Pinget’s highly unfavorable reaction to Comment c’est, Beckett writes, “I am grateful to you for being so frank. That is friendship.” My favorite parts in the letters are the seemingly rare moments in which Beckett seems to loosen up, as when he writes to the radio producer and translator Barbara Bray, with whom he was close, “Bought six pairs of socks today in the Wednesday market. Very colourful. Not the socks. 5 francs a pair.” Or, in another letter to Bray, “Still drunk this morning after sudden hopeless useless midnight bucket of brandy and sitting in special ever since 37 pub and have yours to hand and in head grinding old poem in vain by Hölderlin influences entitles Dieppe circa 37 also … ” —Nicole Rudick

I was appalled to learn from The New Yorker today of a London pop-up restaurant called Death Row Dinners, which will, for fifty quid, “incarcerate” you at “one of London’s toughest high-security restaurants, where our prison chefs serve up a five-course feast of their culinary twists on some of death row’s most interesting and popular last dinners.” It’s not that I find the concept tasteless—it’s that I thought of it first, two years ago, in a satirical essay about food and death. I was all set to litigate, but then I kept reading that New Yorker piece: turns out Death Row Dinners was deemed so offensive that the organizers shut it down, apparently after they were subjected to “seriously threatening behavior.” Still, I don’t want to miss out on any future business opportunities, so I’ll just go ahead and toot my own horn here: I had two other great restaurant ideas in my essay. One was Admiral O’Heimlich’s, a surf and turf pub where community actors feign asphyxia and the waitstaff teaches you how to save choking victims. The other was Turks and Cake-os, a turkey and cake shoppe kept at tropical temperatures and lit exclusively by sunlamps. I’m willing to speak to investors about either, or both. —Dan Piepenbring

Do the imaginative side of yourself a favor and go see Laika’s latest handmade creationThe Boxtrolls, which opens tonight nationwide. The film, based on Alan Snow’s Here Be Monsters!, is at times dark, at times heartwarming, and visually stunning all throughout—especially when you consider that a vast majority of the film, like its predecessors Coraline and ParaNorman, is painstakingly animated. (Full disclosure: my sister, Emelia, is one of the artists who designs and builds the puppets.) —Stephen A. Hiltner

As a Bard alumna, it would be unforgivably rude of me not to mention Alice Gregory’s magnificent profile on Leon Botstein, the president of the college, in this week’s New Yorker. In “Pictures from an Institution,” Gregory, a former Bardian herself, asks a question not unfamiliar to those who regard Leon as a beau ideal of intellectualism and progressive action: What is Bard without Botstein? He has, after all, “built [it] in his own polymath image,” and since he’s sixty-seven—having started as president in 1975, at age twenty-seven—the question of institutional identity is more pressing than ever. But Gregory doesn’t, can’t possibly, answer this. Instead, she shows us Botstein’s idiosyncratic mind. He is an educator; a father; an admirer of horology; a conductor; a raconteur; a man who used to be a boy who stuttered and was called Durachyok, or little fool; and the face not only of Bard but Bard’s Prison Initiative, a program that admits and awards college degrees to inmates. Gregory’s profile renders Botstein so well that we worry about Bard all the more acutely after reading it. —Caitlin Youngquist

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Staff Picks: Catharsis, Consumed, Containers

September 19, 2014 | by

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Photoville, in Brooklyn Bridge Park. Image via Photoville’s Instagram

“‘The first thirty days after that performance ... it hurt. I just wasn’t right. Whatever that was … catharsis … People don’t understand.’” In the new issue of Harper’s, Wyatt Mason has a moving, in-depth profile of Bryan Doerries, a director and translator who stages classical tragedies for veterans suffering from PTSD. —Lorin Stein

There’s no better way to savor the last of these summer evenings than to head to Photoville, a pop-up photography exhibition in Brooklyn Bridge Park. The exhibition comprises sixty-some shipping containers—surprisingly well suited for the purpose—and, over the course of its eleven-day run, will showcase the work of more than four hundred artists. Highlights include Josh Haner’s Pulitzer Prize–winning series on Jeff Bauman and a curated selection of James Nachtwey’s work from his thirty-year (and counting) tenure at Time. The Photoville runs through September 28. —Stephen A. Hiltner

As I read David Cronenberg’s debut novel, Consumed, I feared I was elevating its somewhat typical techno-thriller plot simply because of the filmmaker’s name. It’s too difficult to sum up here, but the story involves yellow journalism, Marxism, black-market organ trafficking, North Korea, 3-D printing, and sex—the latter “in an incredible number of varieties,” as the jacket states. But I needn’t have worried. Hints of what makes Cronenberg’s filmmaking so unsettling and enthralling began to seep in: the detailed horror of violence and its repercussions, unexpected humor (the Marxist philosophers are named Celestine and Aristide Arosteguy), and the plot’s transition from the tech world to the inner turmoil of our finite existences. As Cronenberg once said, “Consciousness is the original sin: consciousness of the inevitability of our death.” —Justin Alvarez

In this weekend’s Times Magazine, along with John Jeremiah Sullivan’s excellent profile of Donald Antrim, is Matt Bai’s piece about Gary Hart, a name that will fire cobwebbed synapses if you followed presidential politics in ’87. (I didn’t. I was a one-year-old.) Hart was the Democratic front-runner that year until a reporter from the Miami Herald got a tip that he’d been sleeping around. As Bai writes, the Herald’s sanctimonious coverage of these events—or nonevents—has had ramifications not just in the media but in the very essence of our political character. For fear of being crucified as Hart was, politicians no longer do, say, or believe in anything interesting; they’ve purged themselves of personality, conviction, and contradiction. Buried in Bai’s critique is a canny, surprisingly ardent defense of humanism: “As an industry, [the media] aspired chiefly to show politicians for the impossibly flawed human beings they are: a single-minded pursuit that reduced complex careers to isolated transgressions. As the former senator Bob Kerrey, who has acknowledged participating in an atrocity as a soldier in Vietnam, told me once, ‘We’re not the worst thing we’ve ever done in our lives, and there’s a tendency to think that we are.’ That quote, I thought, should have been posted on the wall of every newsroom in the country, just to remind us that it was true.” —Dan Piepenbring

With all the sunshine we’ve been enjoying in New York this September, it seems hard to believe that the autumnal equinox is almost here. As I’m returning to England tomorrow, where it will probably be winter and almost definitely raining, the realization that summer is over is now sinking in. And my mental countdown was only intensified by revisiting Elizabeth Bowen’s The Last September, a novel that centers on Ireland’s Anglo-Irish community during the early twenties, when the War of Independence finally broke through their isolated bubble of tennis and tea parties. Okay, so our situations are not quite analogous. But the magnetism of Bowen’s writing pulls you into a smoldering autumnal landscape that only heats up as the novel progresses, and the Irish rebels close in on “the big house” and its inhabitants. Growing up as an Anglo-Irish child herself, Bowen once remarked that she grew “accustomed to … being enclosed in a ring of almost complete silence.” It’s the breaking of this silence that The Last September captures so well, with those seasonal reds and oranges transforming into warning signs for an inevitable fall. —Helena Sutcliffe

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Staff Picks: A Field in England, A Desert in the Mind

September 12, 2014 | by

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A still from Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England.

Like Nicole, I thrilled to Jed Perl’s essay on Jeff Koons in the current New York Review of Books. I also loved Dan Chiasson’s review of Boyhood in the same issue. In its quiet way this essay amounts to a defense of fiction in the age of social media: “If Boyhood were a documentary, it would involve much more acting, with the subjects self-consciously shaping their on-screen personae (this happens, to an extent, in the Up series). Here, there is nothing to be done: time itself is the real actor.” Both Linklater’s movie and Chiasson’s review reminded me of another experiment with the longue duréeThis Is Autism, the 2011 concept album by Anders Danielsen Lie. American filmgoers know Lie as the brooding lead in Reprise and Oslo, August 31, but he is also an accomplished musician and composer. This Is Autism is a song series built on compositions that Lie made as a kid (starting at the age of ten), then revisited as a grown-up; the music seems to have soaked up a childhood’s worth of listening, mainly to parental vinyl in what Lie likes to call the “autistic” tradition, from Steely Dan and Keith Jarrett to Kiss. —Lorin Stein

For me, the description of Ben Wheatley’s most recent film, A Field in England, was instantly appealing: a handful of deserters from the English civil war traipse across a field; ensnared by an alchemist, they are forced to help him hunt for treasure supposedly buried in the field. Oh, and they’re tripping on mushrooms. The film is moody and spare—it’s shot in black-and-white—and the mind-altering effect of the mushrooms adds another textural layer on the progressing horror, making it strange and abysmal. I kept turning to my husband to ask whether he understood what was going on, thinking that I was missing something. He’d recite the plot, as he’d comprehended it, and I realized that I’d managed to grasp exactly what was going on. It’s just that everything seemed, well, kinda trippy. The setting helps to circumscribe the film’s disturbing events, a theater both expansive and enclosed. (It makes sense that Wheatley’s next film is an adaption of J. G. Ballard’s High-Rise.) When one character tells another that he cannot escape the field, he replies, “Then I shall become it!” —Nicole Rudick

Last week I noted the excellent epigraph to Roberto Bolaño’s A Little Lumpen Novelita, but I neglected to say that the novella itself is excellent, too: brisk, nervous, and curiously compassionate, with a conceit I can only describe as Bolaño-esque. A young woman loses her parents and, to make money, visits a blind, withered bodybuilder who likes to slather her in oil before sleeping with her. As usual, Bolaño’s characters endure their miseries with unnerving equanimity; there’s no amount of suffering, we’re led to believe, that can’t be shrugged at. And since this is Bolaño, the book has a surreal, tragicomic dream sequence. (As Jonathan Lethem pointed out in his review of 2666, M.F.A. praxis maintains that dreams make for dull fiction—digressive, freighted with easy symbolism—but Bolaño writes them often and well, with skewed logic and foreboding mental detritus.) The narrator, Bianca, dreams of plodding through the desert with a heavy, white, possibly flightless parrot on her shoulder: “He weighed too much (ten pounds at least, he was a big parrot) to be carried for so long, but the parrot wouldn’t budge, and I could hardly walk, I was shaking, my knees hurt, my legs, my thighs, my stomach, my neck, it was like having cancer, but also like coming—coming endlessly and exhaustingly—or like swallowing my eyes, my own eyes … ” —Dan Piepenbring

Given that Chaucer provides us with the earliest example of the verb “to twitter,” it seems appropriate that his Twitter persona, “Chaucer Doth Tweet,” has now attracted an impressive 29,800 followers. And he’s not the only medieval writer to venture into social media, with the Christian mystic Julian of Norwich, the poet John Lydgate, and the author Sir Thomas Malory all joining him in popularizing #MiddleEnglish. Perhaps the most surprising member of this group, though, is the late fourteenth-century mystic Margery Kempe, who has not one, but four rival Twitter accounts. Best known for dictating The Book of Margery Kempe, Margery spent most of her life repenting for her sins “wyth gret wepyng and many teerys,” being abused by her local community and abstaining from the “abhomynabyl” act of sex with her husband. While it may initially strike us as astonishing that a mystic visionary should have more official Twitter pages than Jay-Z, the online world has more in common with medieval Norfolk than you might think—maybe Margery can no longer be imprisoned by angry priests, but slander and public shaming are still ever present on the web. As @tweetyng_teres puts it: “dey seyn this creatur cryin / dey haytin #wepyn.” Plus ça change, it seems. —Helena Sutcliffe
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Staff Picks: Beard-Burdened and Beer-Branded

September 5, 2014 | by

History of Bluebeard

The Jeff Koons show has a little more than a month to go in its run at the Whitney Museum, and it’s been perplexing to see critics fall in with an artist whose work is the archetype of the money-driven art production about which many of them complain. To me, Koons’s work is all surface—literally and figuratively—and he seems to avail himself of Duchamp’s and Warhol’s legacies in order to promote, in art, wily marketing strategies gleaned during his years as a Wall Street commodities trader. It was a pleasure, then, to read Jed Perl’s assessment in The New York Review of Books. Perl rebuffs the idea that Koons’s work critiques middle-class values, concluding instead that it is the “apotheosis of Walmart” and “a habit-forming drug for the superrich” and that Koons is a too-confident exhibitionist. I find something immensely powerful in Perl’s tracing of the tradition of doubt in art—from Pliny to Michelangelo to Chardin—and in his conclusion that “where there is no doubt there is no art.” —Nicole Rudick

The story of Bluebeard, the wife-murdering aristocrat made famous in Charles Perrault’s seventeenth-century folktale, has captured the imagination of writers from the Brothers Grimm to Angela Carter. But William Thackeray’s lesser-known sequel to the hero’s bride-butchering, Bluebeard’s Ghost, tells the story through new eyes—specifically those of the final Mrs. Bluebeard, who escapes her husband’s clutches and goes on to inherit his estate. Pursued by numerous suitors, she opts for the equally hirsute “Captain Blackbeard, whose whiskers vied in magnitude with those of the deceased Bluebeard himself.” In true Thackeray style, he manages to transform a famously macabre narrative into a comic and playful study of human foibles, with the subjects inflated into caricatures of their former selves. Fittingly, September 5 marks the day that Tsar Peter the Great issued his “beard tax” of 1705, presenting those men determined enough to protect their hair with a hundred-rouble fee and a token bearing the words “the beard is a superfluous burden.” Thackeray’s tale is surely the other side of this coin: although his take on one of the most famous beards in literature is undeniably far-fetched, it is by no means a superfluous addition to the original. As he puts it himself, “Psha! Isn’t it written in a book? And is it a whit less probable than the first part of the tale?” —Helena Sutcliffe

If you’re looking to become productively, righteously, vindictively angry, read this piece in the Times about Crested Butte, Colorado, a town that will become, this weekend, an advertisement for Bud Light. Yes, entirely: “The town’s main thoroughfare, Elk Avenue, has been adorned with outdoor hot tubs, a sand pit, concert lights and a stage. Restaurants and hotels have been stripped of many local markings and given beer-branded umbrellas and signs instead. When the filming starts, drinks will be unlimited, access to the main street will be restricted to people with company-issued bracelets, and beautiful, mountain-ringed Crested Butte will be rebranded as ‘Whatever, USA.’ ” The mayor made the deal in secret, for $500,000; his name is Huckstep. The whole thing seems like an episode from a lesser George Saunders story. One can react only with scorn, and then one must trot out that shopworn but ever more vital statement of Philip Roth’s, from 1961: “The American writer … has his hands full in trying to understand, describe and then make credible much of American reality … It stupefies, it sickens, it infuriates and finally it is even a kind of embarrassment to one’s own meager imagination. The actuality is continually outdoing our talents.” —Dan Piepenbring

I could write about how much I’ve been watching the U.S. Open: how captivating the sport’s collision of intelligence and athleticism is, with its displays of raw emotion every time a player lunges to return a serve. But after reading Ben Rothenberg’s excellent essay on what it takes to be a line umpire, I’ve found my eyes veering toward the edges of the television set. While the task seems simple—“to sit or stand around the perimeter of the counter and monitor one specific line”—the preparation is intense. Understanding the patterns of each specific player helps to ensure no sight goes obscured. What’s even more fascinating is just as players advance through the tournament, so do line umpires. As Rothenberg writes, “By the final, the cream of the crop remains.” —Justin Alvarez

I was excited to see that the NYRB unlocked an essay, from 1985, by Umberto Eco on Krazy Kat and Peanuts. He’s good on the former, but on the latter, I found him to be inadvertently hilarious in his too-Freudian approach. He refers to Charlie Brown and the gang as “monster children,” distillations of modern industrial society’s neuroses. Poor Chuck is perhaps the most victimized: “This is why he is always on the brink of suicide or at least of nervous breakdown: because he seeks salvation through the routine formulas suggested to him by the society in which he lives (the art of making friends, culture in four easy lessons, the pursuit of happiness, how to make out with girls—he has been ruined, obviously, by Dr. Kinsey, Dale Carnegie, Erich Fromm, and Lin Yutang).” —N.R.

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Staff Picks: Pop, Rock, and Bear Hock

August 29, 2014 | by

From Barry Guy's Witch Gong Game ll/l0 (1993).

From Barry Guy’s Witch Gong Game ll/l0 (1993).

John Swartzwelder has written more Simpsons episodes than any other writer (fifty-nine in total). He’s also one of the most eccentric writers in the business: one story goes that “when he could no longer smoke in restaurants, he bought his favorite booth from his favorite diner and had it installed in his home.” Since leaving The Simpsons in 2003, he has self-published a novel each year, all of which are available on his Web site. After reading his first novel, The Time Machine Did It, I’m not surprised that Swartzwelder is the same person who introduced now-classic Simpsons characters such as Cletus Spuckler, Stampy the Elephant, and the three-eyed fish Blinky (who has now become a symbol among pundits for nuclear waste and wildlife mutation). The novels are pure screwball, honoring the comedies of the Marx Brothers and Preston Sturges as Swartzwelder dismisses any narrative rule for laughs. In The Time Machine Did It, a private detective named Frank Burly (“to give prospective clients the idea that I was a burly kind of man ... and who would be frank with them at all times”) finds himself traveling through time for a supposed multimillionaire who wakes up one day to find that everything he owns is gone. The plotline includes a homemade time machine and a town taken over by criminals, but why the novel works is the simple fact that it never takes itself too seriously. “On an impulse I mooned most of the 1950’s as I went by. I don’t know what makes me do these things. I guess it’s just part of my charm.” —Justin Alvarez

In outline, it reads like something made up by Roberto Bolaño: an Austrian writer crosses America, wracked by nightmares and visions and pursued by his mysterious, estranged wife. Peter Handke’s 1972 novella Short Letter, Long Farewell helped inspire the American “road movies” of Wim Wenders, and if Bolaño didn’t know the book, there is a strong family resemblance. As the critic Wayne Koestenbaum put it, the two writers share an “ability to sound sane (though vacant-souled) about insane circumstances,” whether these involve a desert sunset or a restaurant serving bear hock à la Daniel Boone. —Lorin Stein

That Olivier Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time” is, in part, a transmutation of birdsong into lines of music has oddly come up several times over the past month, in the course of putting together the Fall issue and elsewhere. At the same time, I’ve found myself returning periodically to Music & Literature’s impressive fourth issue to gaze at the work of British composer Barry Guy, whose graphic scores are translations of sensory experiences relating to literature, painting, and architecture and visual reflections of movement, energy, and pitch. So it felt like the stars had fully aligned when I read Christian Wiman’s “translations” of Osip Mandelstam, from a small collection called Stolen Air. Instead of faithfully translating Mandelstam’s poems, Wiman has created versions of them: though some closely resemble the originals, others, he says, are “liberal transcriptions” and “collisions and collusions” between the two poets. Wiman sought to get at the sound of Mandelstam’s language, its music, without having any knowledge of Russian but feeling buoyed by Mandelstam’s notion of a poet’s “secret hearing.” And so we get silvery, jostling lines like “I love the early animal of her, / These woozy, easy swings” and “Better to live alluvial, / Better to live layered downward, / To be a man of sand, of hollows, shallows / To cling to sleeves of water / And to let them go—” —Nicole Rudick Read More »

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Staff Picks: Moo, Maine, Malfeasance

August 22, 2014 | by

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This collage helped solve a crime. Robert Rauschenberg, Collection, 1954-55; image via the New York Observer.

“From the outside it was clear that the building known generally as ‘Old Meats’ had eased under the hegemony of the horticulture department.” So begins Jane Smiley’s 1995 campus satire, Moo; from that first sentence I knew it was the only book I needed for the weekend. It had that tone—that late-century Midwestern tone. You hear it in Jonathan Franzen’s first two novels, and in Infinite Jest, too. It’s the sound of an omniscient narrator who is sophisticated and slightly wry and who, at the same time, belongs to a safe, stable, neighborly community, the sort of place where things can be “known generally.” Maybe because I grew up on the East Coast, in a city—or maybe just because it is so manifestly pre-Internet—that kind of sentence is as soothing and inviting to me as “Once upon a time.” And Moo lived up to its promise. —Lorin Stein

What happens when myth becomes reality? For the residents around Maine’s North Pond, a legend about a hermit became strikingly less legendary when the hermit, a man by the name of Christopher Knight, was found and arrested last year during a burglary attempt. For twenty-seven years, Knight had lived in the woods of Maine in a tent, never communicating with the outside world (except once, when he passed a hiker). “Silence is to me normal, comfortable,” he tells Mike Finkel, a journalist for GQ. “I’m not used to seeing people’s faces. There’s too much information there.” What’s remarkable about Knight’s story is that there wasn’t any particular reason he chose to disappear. He merely started driving one day and didn’t stop until he came across his camp in the woods. “I found a place where I was content.” Thoreau couldn’t have summed it up better himself. —Justin Alvarez

Sixty years ago in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, the NYPD pinned a crime spree on four innocent men. What else is new, you might say. Well, a researcher has brought the malfeasance to light, and a collage by Robert Rauschenberg helped solve the mystery. Specifically, it was “Collection,” which Rauschenberg composed in the mid-fifties from newspapers containing accounts of the crimes. The Observer tells the story, which is full of crooked cops and falsified documents and botched autopsies and noirish goings-on under the Williamsburg Bridge; Rauschenberg’s involvement, however peripheral, makes the whole thing impressively surreal. —Dan Piepenbring

Many clichéd things can be said of the stories in Justin Taylor’s new collection, Flings. They’re hilarious and heartbreaking; there’s an existential loneliness to their characters; there’s a stark beauty in their sentences. But these sentiments smooth over the messy truths that Taylor works with—he’s managed to gather up all the confusion, repressed aggression, and misplaced acceptance of growing up in the nineties and becoming a young adult in the twenty-first century. Taylor isn’t afraid to place his characters squarely in our place and time. The narrator of “Sungold” manipulates his boss—a coked-up, alcoholic, trust-funded man-baby who owns an unnamed pizza chain—into not being so much of a fuck-up. In “Mike’s Song,” a brother and sister and their divorced father attend a Phish concert together. But behind his contemporary premises, Taylor is practicing a brand of acute, oblique realism that stretches back to Carver and Yates and even to Sherwood Anderson, in which events act as triggers for memories that are the real story. —Andrew Jimenez Read More »

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