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This Week’s Reading

What We’re Loving: Algiers, Aliens, Adulthood

July 25, 2014 | by

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George Saunders talks to an alien. Detail from an illustration by Thomas Allen, in O, the Oprah Magazine.

I went on vacation planning to read Tristram Shandyat last. Instead I read Frank Kermode on “Modernisms,” most of The Rise of the Novel (including the chapter on Tristram Shandy), and half the Selected Poems of Howard Moss. Total reading time: not much. But it was choice. Then I got home and found The New Yorker in my mailbox. Greg Jackson’s “Wagner in the Desert” is the best fiction debut they’ve published in years. The story belongs to an ancient genre: young, rich people hole up in a country house to avoid the plague. In this case, the country house is a rental in Palm Springs, the plague is adulthood, and the hosts are a Hollywood couple about to start fertility treatments, hoping to get their ya-yas out in a mindful, caring way. Jackson knows his antecedents. He has metabolized Ben Lerner and David Foster Wallace. He can throw in a blank verse, like Melville, to heighten a scene. He even steals, without attribution, from Kenny Rogers. I read “Wagner in the Desert” my first night back, fell asleep, and dreamed I was in the story (and also back in elementary school, getting a lesson in the story) then woke up and read it again, with no diminution of enjoyment. —Lorin Stein

I’ve been reading Adam Shatz’s very smart account of how reporting on the Middle East cured him of political romanticism. I suspect he’s not alone in this experience: “When I finally began to spend time in the place about which I had pontificated for so long, I discovered that I was much more interested in what the people I met had to say than in my own views.” My favorite parts are Shatz’s trips to Algiers—“a city I knew mostly from Gillo Pontecorvo’s film”—and his interview with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. It’s a sobering essay, and a timely one for this low point (after a very high one) in the history of the region. —Robyn Creswell

In this month’s O, The Oprah Magazine, George Saunders explains to a space alien what it means to be human. His explanation takes the form of a series of short-story recommendations, of course. Drawing on diverse selections from Chekhov to Hemingway to Lahiri, he covers the basics of love, loneliness, greed, kindness, death, and empathy. The essay’s a gem, a genuine love letter to reading as a noble pursuit. Saunders says it best: “Short stories are the deep, encoded crystallizations of all human knowledge. They are rarefied, dense meaning machines, shedding light on the most pressing of life’s dilemmas. By reading a thoughtfully selected set of them, our alien could, in a few hours, learn everything he needs to know about the way we live. Except how it feels to lose one’s car in a parking garage and walk around for like three hours, trying to look as if you know where you’re going, so the people driving by—who have easily found their cars, having written the location on their wrists or something—don’t think badly of you. I don’t think there’s a short story about that yet.” —Chantal McStay

Another thing I did on vacation was see The Shining for the first time in a couple of decades. This, unfortunately, was the director’s cut, in which Jack Nicholson has several long, boring conversations with ghosts. But even the scary parts weren’t scary anymore. To hear J. D. Daniels tell it in the new issue of Flaunt, I’d rather have seen the documentary Room 237—at least, if I got to see it with J. D. Daniels: “Room 237 is about unhinged Stanley Kubrick fanatics … Each of them thinks The Shining is a coded message. One participant believes The Shining is Kubrick’s confession that he helped NASA fake the Apollo 11 moon landing. Have you seen The Shining? It’s about an axe murderer. It’s about 145 minutes long.” —L.S.
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What We’re Loving: Voyeurism, Privacy, the King of the Monkeys

July 18, 2014 | by

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An illustration from the Ramayana of Sugriva challenging Vali, ca. 1628–1649

God bless the anonymous German who published, in 1804, The Nightwatches of Bonaventura, a novel full of bizarre comic brio, pitched perfectly and awkwardly between Gothicism and Romanticism. Nightwatches is narrated by Kreuzgang, a poet manqué—and actor manqué, and even puppeteer manqué—who’s taken on a gig as a night watchman for a steady paycheck. He skulks about, muttering to the reader, warding off boredom by staring in people’s windows and riffing on the devil. All the while he seems to suffer from some kind of mood disorder; he’s acerbic where I expect him to be gentle, sententious where I expect him to be forgiving. As he observes, through curtains and windows, a succession of excommunications, thefts, murders, love affairs, and hauntings, Kreuzgang begins to charm with his lyrical cynicism. In his more aphoristic moments, he comments on our era as much as his own: “The character of the times is patched and pieced together like a fool’s coat,” he says, “and worst of all, the fool buttoned in it would like to appear serious…” There’s something perversely irresistible in Nightwatches’s voyeurism and its willful profanity. A new edition is coming in October; its publisher says it’s “one part Poe and one part Beckett,” which is apt, but I thought first of Tom Stoppard at his most playful. If he’d taken some bad LSD in the German countryside, he might’ve written this. —Dan Piepenbring

Some time ago, on their Tumblr, the Museum of Contemporary African Diaspora featured a conversation between James Baldwin and the incomparable Audre Lorde. Originally published in Essence in 1984, the conversation, in this iteration, opens with Baldwin’s comment “Du Bois believed in the American dream. So did Martin. So did Malcolm. So do I. So do you. That’s why we’re sitting here”—to which Lorde responds, “I don’t, honey. I’m sorry, I just can’t let that go past. Deep, deep, deep down I know that dream was never mine. And I wept and I cried and I fought and I stormed, but I just knew it.” It’s only the beginning of a vigorous exchange about Baldwin’s experience of being black in America, and Lorde’s of being black and a woman. During the women’s liberation movement in the seventies, black women fought on two fronts for equal rights, and Lorde is gloriously unrelenting on that fact. “Even worse than the nightmare is the blank,” she tells Baldwin. “And Black women are the blank.” —Nicole Rudick

For the first time in almost two hundred years, the Mewar Ramayana can be read and viewed as a complete work, thanks to the British Library’s digital reunification of the beautifully illustrated manuscript. The Mewar version of the great Hindu epic is distinguished by its richly saturated colors and its nonlinear depictions of the Prince Rama story; it was commissioned by Jagat Singh I of the Mewar dynasty in the seventeenth century. Today, the physical pages of the manuscript are divided between the British Library and several different collections in India, but the online project allows the work to be read in full, with a few lovely supplementary materials to boot. It’s that rare digital edition that succeeds by mostly staying out of the way: the focus is on the incredible hi-res images of the paintings and the original Sanskrit script, but there are also unobtrusive English descriptions (text and audio) and commentary from art historians to accompany each page. In one of my favorite illustrations, Rama helps Sugriva overthrow Bali to become king of the monkeys. Sugriva stands outside his brother’s pink confectionary palace, roaring “so that the very birds fall out of the sky in fright.” Rama puts an arrow through Bali, killing him. In the next panel, Rama sits jilted as the enthroned Sugriva, distracted by all the sex and wine that comes with being the monkey king, has forgotten about his greatest ally. So it goes. —Chantal McStay Read More »

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What We’re Loving: Boyhood, Blockbusters, Bay Area Ceramists

July 11, 2014 | by

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A publicity shot from Edge of Tomorrow.

Left Coast/Third Coast”: it’s the name of an exhibition up at George Adams Gallery through the middle of next month, and a brilliantly concise epithet for those other places where art gets made. They refer, of course, to the West Coast and to Chicago, and the show focuses on artists whose careers were begun in the Bay Area and in the Windy City in the fifties and sixties. It’s not every day you get to see so many of these artists in one place. Among them are Jim Nutt and Gladys Nilsson (part of the Hairy Who), Robert Arneson (a wonderfully profane Bay Area ceramist), and Jeremy Anderson (a West Coast sculptor who frequently worked with wood). H. C. Westermann’s work is also here, and it’s always a treat to see his sculptures and drawings in person. These are artists who not only returned to figuration when Abstract Expressionism was at its most monumental, but they did it in what were then considered remote corners of the country for art making. —Nicole Rudick

Go see Edge of Tomorrow, the new Tom Cruise sci-fi romp, and walk out about fifteen minutes before its rah-rah conclusion. What you’ll be left with—as three of us learned yesterday in an impromptu TPR Night at the Movies™—is a grim but heartening existential parable. If you’ve seen the ads, you know that Edge runs with a premise similar to Groundhog Day’s: Cruise plays an infantryman who comes back to life whenever he’s killed. Instead of awaking in sleepy Punxsutawney, he comes to in a militarized, bureaucratized hell, i.e., the future. He’s always hours away from facing a massive extraterrestrial invasion, and he’s always tasked (not unpleasantly) with seeking the counsel of Emily Blunt, who is always crouched in the same sweaty, imperious yoga pose. Cruise’s condition gives him a chance to defeat the aliens, but it also gives us a chance to watch him die, a lot, in an elaborate montage that’s as compelling as anything at the movies now. Step by painstaking step, he has to repeat an intricate performance on which the fate of humanity is staked. If you’re willing to dwell on the sequence, it can take you to some surprising places, some rarefied and some not: I thought of syllogisms, Sisyphus, The Trial, first-person shooters, cheat codes, mid-period Paul Verhoeven, D-Day, Dance Dance Revolution, Kierkegaard’s knight of infinite resignation, those team-building, problem-solving exercises I had to do in elementary school, and how neat it would be to save the planet with Emily Blunt. These ruminations may not bear fruit, but that’s okay—Edge is still a more enlightened mental vacation than it ought to be. —Dan Piepenbring

In trying to come up with recommendations for these posts, I sometimes think of Montaigne, who, despite serving as a legal counselor for most of his professional life, did not like giving advice: “I am very seldom consulted, and even more seldom heeded; and I know of no undertaking, public or private, that my advice has advanced and improved. Even those who, by chance, have come to depend on it, have in the end preferred to be guided by any other brain than mine.” He was a bit of a lone wolf, continuing, “By leaving me alone, they follow my declared wish, which is to be wholly self-reliant and self-contained. It pleases me not to be interested in the affairs of others, and to be free from responsibility for them.” This sentiment may have had something to do with the extreme social isolation in which Montaigne was raised; it was part of his father’s strict pedagogical curriculum, which would put today’s pre-Ivy prep Montessori schools to shame. (Montaigne’s first language—in sixteenth-century France—was Latin. Every morning the child was awakened by soft music. As a baby, he was sent to live with a peasant family for three years so he would not become accustomed to great wealth.) Montaigne later returned to this isolation, retreating to his tower-library in Dordogne when he retired. He considered the opinions of others “flies and specks that distract my will,” and so, at risk of being one of those specks, I recommend the vast, insight-laden Essays of this thoroughly, idiosyncratically educated man. They’re always worth another look. —Chantal McStay

Nearly a decade elapsed between each of Richard Linklater’s three Before Sunrise films, and like that trilogy, his latest, Boyhood, follows a pattern of real time, grounding us in fixed points throughout its character’s lives. Boyhood was filmed over twelve years, which allows its actors to age onscreen. It has an authenticity that’s too rare in cinema—its pinches of dialogue sound like natural exchanges, rooting the audience into a narrative that mirrors the adolescent experience with a painstaking awareness. Linklater recently voiced his intent in The New Yorker: “I always had that personality—I think it’s a writer’s sensibility—where you’re there but not there … I had to make a peace with myself. It’s like, well, you’re not in the moment. But just by contemplating it, by searching for the depth of the moment, that is itself an experience.” —Yasmin Roshanian

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What We’re Loving: Procrastination, Peacocks, Prince

July 4, 2014 | by

Phil, a leucistic white peafowl from the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York. Photo via Twitter.

It turns out that I was right last week (I love it when that happens) about the print version of Nautilus. It’s sharp, well-rounded, and just plain nice to look at. I could recommend any number of articles (such as Slava Gerovitch’s fascinating essay on Russian mathematician Andrei Kolmogorov), but one in particular made an impression: Alisa Opar’s short piece in the Spring 2014 issue on procrastination. I’m writing this, you see, up against the deadline that Dan Piepenbring sets for us each week. I did the same thing last week. Though I spend all week knowing I’ll write a few lines on what I’ve been reading, I wait, without fail, until the very last minute to sit down and write it. That’s because, according to Opar’s article, my future self is a stranger. That future version of me is the one who will have to deal with the consequences of my current procrastination (sucker!). Apparently, making a lengthy timeline that ends with me writing this should help me feel connected to my future self. It’s an interesting idea. I’ll get right on it tomorrow. —Nicole Rudick

Earlier this week, I took a coffee and a book to the Peace Garden at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, where I found myself joined by a white-feathered peacock; Phil, a leucistic peafowl, is apparently a regular there. Always followed by his flowing white train, he creates a procession wherever he goes; you couldn’t ask for a more august companion. And with Phil’s distinguished mien in mind, I point to D. H. Lawrence’s short story “Wintry Peacock,” from his 1922 collection England, My England and Other Stories. It tells of secret lovers, purloined correspondence, and a protective peacock named Joey. The narrator finds himself the unwilling mediator of a young English country couple’s marital troubles, a task he meets with equal parts fascination and disgust. As he translates a letter from the husband’s French mistress, he suppresses a gag: “I vaguely realized that I was reading a man’s private correspondence. And yet, how could one consider these trivial, facile French phrases private? Nothing more trite and vulgar in the world than such a love-letter—no newspaper more obvious.” —Chantal McStay

A few weeks ago, I discovered Richard Prince’s Instagram account. Prince, for the uninitiated, is the guy who took images of the Marlboro Man from cigarette ads, blew them up, and called them his own work. Then they sold for a bajillion dollars at auction, and he was celebrated as a deity of conceptual appropriationism. His style of appropriation—photographing and re-photographing—is perfectly suited to Instagram. He takes screenshots of posts by celebrities, prints them out on a large scale, takes photos of them with his iPhone, and then reposts them. “It was like revisiting an older system that I was already familiar with,” he explained in a post on his website, except “the photo paper was an electronic page, the source material was Google, and the re-photography was a screen-save.” In the past year, he’s posted everything from copies of The Catcher in the Rye that credit him as the author to a completely nude ten-year-old Brooke Shields re-photographed from his 1983 work Spiritual America. (That got him temporarily banned from the site.) Prince has made room for his experiments in a medium known for food porn and social one-upsmanship—quite a feat. —Teddy Lasry

The Pitchfork Review, a new quarterly print counterpart to the music criticism site, may not win many converts—it’s very much “on brand,” though Pitchfork’s trademark decimal-point ratings are mercifully absent. Still, even if you’re inclined to write off the site as a hollow tastemaker, give the magazine a look; lavishly designed and thoughtfully composed, it will be of interest to anyone who yearns for the heyday of Spin, Rolling Stone, Downbeat, or The Village Voice. Its latest issue boasts a number of excellent diversions—I was particularly impressed with Gary Giddins’s piece on Stanley Kubrick’s scores, and with Lindsay Zoladz’s “Ghost Riding: The Story of the Performing Hologram,” which examines the burgeoning use of holography and its curious intersection with hip-hop culture. —Dan Piepenbring Read More »

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What We’re Loving: Carson, Comyns, “Carriers”

June 27, 2014 | by

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Detail from an illustration by Ellen Weinstein for the summer issue of Nautilus, a science quarterly.

I don’t care if I never read another charming little book about Marcel Proust—not now that I’ve read Anne Carson’s chapbook The Albertine Workout. In fifty-nine numbered paragraphs (or perhaps, exercises), Carson reviews what little we know about Marcel’s mistress, the most-mentioned and yet most elusive character in Proust’s work. Carson’s findings take us deep into the questions of what love and sex mean to Proust, and in our own lives. As the title implies, you can read The Albertine Workout in one sitting, but you will keep feeling it for days. —Lorin Stein

This week, I discovered the Web site for Nautilus, a science quarterly. I have yet to see the print version, but if it’s anything like the online iteration—elegantly and smartly designed, with illustrations that often have the look of early- to mid-twentieth-century artwork—then it’s worth picking up. The content isn’t what you’d necessary expect from a science magazine (I grew up around hardcore publications like Nature and Science): there’s fiction, photography, and art, in addition to pieces on, say, evolution, lepidoptery, architecture, and ecology. I came to the site looking for Lauren Weinstein’s comic strip “Carriers,” which she posted daily this past week. Weinstein is one of the best cartoonists at work, and this five-part story is proof of that. She and her husband are both carriers for cystic fibrosis, and the comic details her struggle in waiting to find out if her unborn child tests positive for the defect. Weinstein’s characteristic humor keeps pathos at bay, and she reflects entertainingly, by way of her terrific serpentine scroll-downs, on the how and why of genetic mutations such as this one. —Nicole Rudick

What do you think when you hear the name Luis Suárez? If you’ve followed the news this week, the phrases “biting lunatic,” “delinquent toddler,” and the “Hannibal Lecter of soccer” might come to mind; “family guy,” “superhuman,” and Uruguay’s “favorite son” haven’t crossed the minds—or lips—of many sports pundits. If you’re curious about understanding Suárez beyond the memes and gifs, Wright Thompson’s profile from late last month explores the Uruguayan player’s childhood and the mystery surrounding an incident when he head-butted a referee and received a red card in a youth match—which may or may not be true. What really stuck with me after finishing the essay wasn’t the story of the referee or the media scrutiny, but the history of Suárez and his wife, Sofia Balbi. After the pair fell in love at fifteen, Sofia moved to Spain with her family. Suárez, at the time working as a street sweeper, knew that he could never afford a plane ticket on his own. Instead, he dedicated himself to soccer until he became good enough to be picked up by a European team. The thing is, his “completely irrational” plan worked—he played first for Groningen, then moved to Ajax and finally to Liverpool, where he now plays. He married Balbi in 2009, and as Thompson writes, “He loves his family, and soccer gave it to him, and guarantees no Suárez will ever again pick up coins while cleaning the streets.” While this romantic tale doesn’t justify his actions last week, it helps explain the desperation you catch sometimes in his eyes when you watch him play, “someone who fights to win, no matter what … He bites because he is clinging to a new life, terrified of being sucked back into the one he left behind.” —Justin Alvarez

Regular readers of the Daily already know how NicoleSadie, and I feel about the neglected English writer Barbara Comyns. Last week it was my turn to read her gothic novel The Vet’s Daughter. It reminded me powerfully of something Donald Antrim told The Paris Review in issue 203: “In building another world through the fantastic I was making a set of rules that had to be observed, a logic that had to be carried through—that I was in some ways obeying the premise of the very opening line.”  —L.S. Read More »

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What We’re Loving: Reckless Love, Love via Telegraph

June 20, 2014 | by

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From an early twentieth-century postcard. “Kisses from both are now flying about / Where all of a sudden the current runs out.”

After reading David Constantine’s story “In Another Country,” which the Canadian publisher Biblioasis passed along to me, I can’t figure out why a U.S. press hasn’t caught on to his work. He’s won a number of big prizes, including the Frank O’Connor International Short Story award twice—last year, he beat out Joyce Carol Oates, Deborah Levy, and Peter Stamm—and no wonder: this story has me wanting more. (Thankfully, Biblioasis will publish a selection of his stories next year.) The sentences are restrained, the tone muted. The remoteness between the husband and wife of the story is never described but is made palpable through the stillness in their interactions and the spareness of the prose, but the tension created by the slow unraveling of the past within the present is innervating: “What worried Mrs. Mercer suddenly took shape. Into the little room came a rush of ghosts. She sat down opposite him and both felt cold. That Katya, she said. Yes, he said. They’ve found her in the ice. I see, said Mrs. Mercer.” If you get excited, as I do, by stories in which very little happens, then this one is for you. —Nicole Rudick

In 1949, Niki de Saint Phalle and Harry Mathews eloped together, both a bit shy of their twentieth birthdays. The ten-year marriage that followed saw joy, sorrow, electroshock therapy, disapproving parents, reprimanding neighbors, two children, suicidal episodes, numerous infidelities, artistic awakenings, homes in more than four countries, and, ultimately, insurmountable growing pains. In Harry and Me: 1950–1960, The Family Years, de Saint Phalle chronicles their famous, tumultous relationship in verse and image. A remarkably generous portrait of their time together—it includes sidebars of text written by Mathews in response to de Saint Phalle’s account, in which he corrects and addends but never criticizes—this book is a must-read for anyone interested in the work of either artist. Their developmental years were spent in stride, and the naïveté that brought them together (and eventually drove them apart) was instrumental in shaping their artistic desires, particularly the whimsy and color that marks de Saint Phalle’s sculpture. Though the relationship ends, the children suffer, and the hurt never truly goes away, neither party, many years later, seems to regret the marriage. Instead, they go to bat for the young, reckless love that directed the course of their lives. —Clare Fentress

Lots of people are nostalgic for rotary phones and handwritten letters. Not so many have the same wistfulness for the telegraph. But William Saroyan’s “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8,” from his 1934 short story collection The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze, has left me rethinking the old teletype machine and its nuanced relation to our digital age. The story tells of two telegraph operators, who meet—virtually—by striking up a conversation over the wires. Saroyan’s depiction of the giddy thrill of instantaneous, faceless communication, in which half the fun is in the imagined possibilities, seems oddly anachronistic to the modern reader, but it also predicts the appeal of instant messaging and texting. From the first hello hello hello, the narrator realizes the untapped opportunity of his teletype machine as a personal device of contact, of love: “I had never thought of the machine as being related in any way to me … I began to try to visualize the girl. I began to wonder if she would go out with me to this house I wanted and help me fill it with our lives together.” —Chantal McStay Read More »

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