The Daily

This Week’s Reading

Staff Picks: Light, Lust, LiveJournal

May 20, 2016 | by

Alfred Stieglitz, Equivalent [251b], ca. 1923, black-and-white photograph flush-mounted on card, mounted to board, 4 9/16" x 3 9/16".

In 1925, Alfred Stieglitz began a series of moody, diminutive photographs of cloud patterns (abstracted, they resembled curls and skeins of smoke); he called it Songs of the Sky, before later changing it to Equivalents. He showed the images to his friend, the composer Ernest Bloch, who, according to Stieglitz, declared it to be music. Partly in response to his friend’s photographs, Bloch composed “Poems of the Sea.” A show at Bruce Silverstein Gallery takes its name from Stieglitz’s series and presents five pairings of art and music, including Stieglitz/Bloch. The idea is to listen to a piece of music while looking at artworks that were inspired either by that composition, that composer, or by music more generally. Though it’s not always convincing, the idea of having two mediums respond and react to and provoke one another is intriguing. I love Frederick Sommer’s ink drawings of musical notation (they’re hieroglyphs and also stacked Futurist cityscapes), but his coupling with Chris Washburne is too on the nose. The obliqueness of Lisette Model’s photographs of people’s shadows resonates well with Arnold Schoenberg’s atonal Pierrot lunaire. My favorite, though, may be Aaron Siskind’s black-and-white photographs of male bodies tumbling through space set to a string-quartet arrangement of John Cage’s delicate, gorgeous Cheap Imitation: neither transcends its medium, but instead seems more acutely, more exquisitely itself. —Nicole Rudick

I spent some time this week on websafe2k16.com, an Internet project dedicated to cataloging memories of the early web. Built by three artists—Ben Sisto, Josephine Livingstone, and Joe Bernardi—the “literary/graphic” project asks writers to draw inspiration from one of the 216 web-safe color codes, such as the offending #66FF33 or the wistful #0099CC, writing personal recollections in 216 words. I scrolled through Web Safe’s rainbow grid, reading lyric memories about the conversant gargle of dial-up (Andrew Blevins, #CC6600), multiplayer computer games (Adrian Chen, #33CC00), LiveJournal (Anna Weiner, #003366), and other relics of the early web. Colors in the palette regularly inspire memories of braces and prom, group chats and forums. I wondered, reading about MySpace and MSN, what the colors of the early Internet trigger for me. Maybe Ask Jeeves, the first man in my life to whom I never could ask the right questions. Or Xanga, where I lurked on blogs written by my classmates. Or maybe Machu Picchu, an obscure nineties computer game I’ve lost nearly all memory of and haven’t ever found again. All that’s left is the name, and the bellow of nostalgia. —Caitlin Love Read More »

Staff Picks: Fear, Fumes, That Fucking Cardinal

May 13, 2016 | by

From the cover of Esopus 23. Photo © Estate of David Gahr

Horacio Castellanos Moya published Revulsion in 1997, less than a decade after the official end of the Salvadoran civil war. The book—the first English edition of which is forthcoming from New Directions this July—began as an exercise in style, an attempt to ape the unrelenting antagonism of Thomas Bernhard. The result was a slender, scalding diatribe that brought Moya death threats and infamy. With no plot, no real action, and only the slightest sketch of two characters, Revulsion is barely a novel, and nowhere near its author’s best. (For that, try Senselessness or The She-Devil in the Mirror.) But its sprays of vituperation are often funny, and even nineteen years on, the book’s atmosphere of exasperated rage feels itchy, jagged, and real. —Robert P. Baird

You don’t have to be a Stones fan to fall in love with Rich Cohen’s The Sun & the Moon & the Rolling Stones. Part rock history, part memoir, it’s so charming, so candid, such a mixture of sweetness and disillusionment and deep fanboy research, that I found myself reading the first four chapters out loud to Sadie—then staying up late, racing to finish, so she could take my copy. —Lorin Stein  Read More »

Staff Picks: Milk-guzzling Sheriffs, Metallic Fiber, @MythologyBot

May 6, 2016 | by

A still from Flamingo Road.

In 1955, Stith Thompson, a folklorist at Indiana University, published the first volume of his Motif-Index of Folk-Literature. Betraying every bit of the gumptious optimism of the midcentury milieu in which it was conceived, the work was intended as “a systematic arrangement of the whole body of traditional literature.” Eventually it grew to six volumes, but lately it has found a new life on a microscale. Every three hours, @MythologyBot raids Thompson’s index and drops a new motif, a sort of freeze-dried folktale, into the feeds of its thousand-plus followers on Twitter: “Fetish betrays fugitive,” “Ghost laid by prayer,” “Rainbow as loincloth.” Given the primary-election season that we’ve all just cowered through, it’s hard to insist that any of us needs more bewilderment in our lives. But @MythologyBot’s little gusts of absurdity are often just the thing, I’ve found, to disperse the mental drear. —Robert P. Baird

I’ve been going to the movies a lot since I moved to New York, particularly to Metrograph, an art-house theater on Ludlow Street that grandly claims to be “the ultimate place for movie enthusiasts.” Last week, my boyfriend and I saw Flamingo Road (1949), a work of high Hollywood melodrama starring Joan Crawford as Lane Bellamy, who begins the film as an impoverished carnival dancer stranded in a small town in the South. Glowing and assured, Bellamy gets a job at a local diner; her goal is to live on the town’s most prosperous street, the eponymous Flamingo Road. But when a flirtation develops between Bellamy and the town’s deputy sheriff, her ruin becomes the obsession of Sheriff Semple, a milk-drinking political wire-puller who’s grooming the deputy for the governor’s seat. It’s luminous to see a woman in early Hollywood assume a role so empowering. In her own life, Crawford had recently reemerged as a star—Flamingo Road mirrors all the energy of her comeback and is blighted only by knowing of Crawford’s self-destructive final years, when she became a recluse after seeing an unflattering photograph of herself. “If that’s how I look,” she said, “then they won’t see me anymore.” —Caitlin Love Read More »

Staff Picks: Blackass, Academic Robes, Floppy Disks

April 29, 2016 | by

Photo: Anil Dash

There’s a scene in The Producers in which Max Bialystock finds Kafka’s Metamorphosis as a script and rejects after reading the first line; “It’s too good,” he complains. I thought of this as I began reading A. Igoni Barrett’s novel Blackass, which takes Gregor Samsa’s experience as its starting point: Furo Wariboko wakes to discover that he has metamorphosed from a black Nigerian to a white Nigerian, which is a sort of person who doesn’t really exist. It’s hard to improve on Kafka’s original, but, luckily, that isn’t Barrett’s aim. Furo’s transformation into an impossible creature puts him in a unique position: he is white, and so has a natural power over his black countrymen, and he can speak Nigerian pidgin, which gives him influence with that same group; he is feared and respected. In Furo’s navigation from one of Lagos’s many struggling unemployed young people to a man of privilege and agency, Barrett deftly transmutes him from metaphor into full-fledged character. Barrett also employs a handful of secondary characters who metamorphose in other, less spectacular ways that are likewise tied to issues of race, gender, money, and status. (I thought, too, of Charles Johnson’s Middle Passage, another novel that mixes reality and the fantastical to great effect.) The freedom that reinvention engenders proves intoxicating. As one character marvels, “I was whoever I wanted me to be.” —Nicole Rudick

I trust you weren’t expecting me to discuss anyone or anything other than Prince this week. I’d like to share three of the many remembrances that have moved me to tears. First is the story of a floppy disk that Prince distributed to the press in 1993, when he’d changed his name to the unpronounceable Love Symbol: the disk contained a font allowing journalists to type the glyph in place of his name. (“It just seemed like a logical thing to do,” his graphic designer said.) Second is an interview with his personal chef, Ray Roberts, who reveals Prince’s favorite desserts; while Ray was cooking, he often overheard Prince in diligent rehearsal. (“The kitchen was adjacent to the sound studio, so the biggest treat of all for Ray was hearing the music, every day, loud and clear in the kitchen … He says Prince would regularly play three seconds of a song, dozens of times in a row, to get it right.”) And the third is D’Angelo’s performance of “Sometimes It Snows in April” from the Tonight Show this week, which reduced me to a puddle. Sometimes I feel so bad, so bad … —Dan Piepenbring Read More »

Staff Picks: Unspooling, Erupting, and Recoiling

April 22, 2016 | by

An image of Tambora taken by the Space Shuttle in 1992, with a view of the caldera produced by the 1815 eruption.

An image of Tambora taken by the Space Shuttle in 1992, with a view of the caldera produced by the 1815 eruption.

On a sad, sad morning, thanks to J. J. Sullivan for sending us this 1989 cover of “When You Were Mine,” by the Blue Rubies. —Lorin Stein

Since Mary Ruefle’s 2008 book Most of It, I’ve watched for a second collection of her short prose. So I was pleased when we published two such pieces from her upcoming book, My Private Property, in our Spring issue. (NB: they’re nestled under Poetry, but as Ruefle told me over the phone, she doesn’t think them poems, per se.) I’ve since gotten my hands on a galley of that book and have read it twice over: Ruefle is as good as ever. In forty-one ambrosial bits, she muses on everything from programs littering a concert-hall floor to menopause to what a bird might think as it watches a woman die. Many of these begin simply—with a golf pencil or a string of Christmas-tree lights—but they unspool into larger existential meditations, on language and death, on creation and sadness and boredom; some are even doused in whimsy. Ruefle’s is a soothing, enlightening voice—always playful, always gentle, and always unfettering some ineffable truth. There’s a closeness I feel toward her as I read this book, as if she’s telling me all the secrets of this world—or at least of hers—and that I’d be wise to listen. “And if you sleep through a truth,” she writes, “you will wake at the bitter end.” —Caitlin Youngquist

This summer marks the bicentennial anniversary of “Frankenstein”—not the book itself, but the spoken nub of the story, which Mary Shelley first narrated by firelight in Switzerland in the summer of 1816. The eighteen-year-old Shelley had traveled with her lover, Percy Bysshe Shelley, their infant son, and Mary’s stepsister to the shores of Lake Geneva. Their idea was to spend the season with Lord Byron, far from the dreary chill of London. This part of the story is well-known: incessant rain confined the group to the house, and to fight off cabin fever, they each wrote a ghost story. Shelley summoned the tale of Frankenstein, whose frequent confusion with his nameless creation became a great gift to two centuries of pedants, and, lately, to Twitter. What I learned this week, however, from a recent episode of In Our Time, Melvyn Bragg’s indispensable BBC radio show, is that the bad weather that night had its own traceable origin. A year before the Lake Geneva gathering, the largest volcanic eruption in recorded history occurred in Indonesia. The explosion, of a mountain called Tambora, threw thirty-eight cubic miles of rock, ash, and magma into the air. The airborne cloak of sunlight-reflecting ejecta circled the globe and was ultimately responsible for the “ungenial” weather of 1816, which became known as the Year Without a Summer. Tambora’s explosion likely killed some seventy thousand people, so it was hardly the innocuous butterfly of classic chaos theory. Still, we can guess that Shelley might have appreciated, at some level, the distant and violent origins of her tale. “Every thing must have a beginning,” she wrote in the 1831 introduction to Frankenstein, “and that beginning must be linked to something that went before … Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void, but out of chaos.” —Robert P. Baird
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Staff Picks: Snails Eating Snails, Sailboat Lust, DISSS-CO!

April 15, 2016 | by

The Tarot Garden in Tuscany.

I’ve been impressed by Robyn Schiff’s new collection, A Woman of Property, especially the faithfulness with which it renders the buzzy dread of parenthood: not the fear of begetting but the fear that begetting occasionally begets. To see the world through Schiff’s poems is to see it magnified by motherhood and aswarm with potential menace. The collection includes poems about anthrax and swine flu, “unbearable / supercolonies of ants,” even the slow-motion spectacle of a snail eating another snail. (“Wolf snail rewinding / common snail up its trembling spool, // the wheeling / of the whelk / inside the whelk.”) The poems’ forms are often as relentless as their subjects—it’s the rare stanza that ends on a full stop—but they have their purpose: “The lyric makes me sing,” she writes “what I did not even / want said, to get to stop having / to keep thinking // it.” —Bobby Baird

I was just extolling the artistic virtues of Niki de Saint Phalle to a friend on Monday, complaining about how she’s discussed so infrequently and exhibited so rarely in the U.S. So Ariel Levy’s essay in the latest issue of The New Yorker was a welcome surprise. Levy’s focus is Saint Phalle’s fourteen-acre Tarot Garden in Tuscany, which she worked on for decades. It’s a site I’m keen to visit, especially given Levy’s apt description: “It is as if a psychedelic bomb had exploded in the most picturesque part of Tuscany.” Saint Phalle’s interest in the Tarot, her expression of an overt, joyful eroticism, and her assertion of her own creative value and purpose—especially in relation to intense, passionate affairs with male artists—remind me of her contemporary, Dorothy Iannone, who is likewise under-recognized in this country. Yet Saint Phalle, like Iannone, was never in doubt of her power: “If I didn’t want to be a second-class citizen,” she said, “I would have to go out into the world and fight to impose myself as an artist.”—Nicole Rudick Read More »