The Daily

This Week’s Reading

Staff Picks: Fever Dreams, Tragic Spells, and In-betweens

July 22, 2016 | by

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Detail from the cover of Jesse Ball’s How to Set a Fire and Why.

Carole Firstman’s ambitiously titled debut, Origins of the Universe and What It All Means, is an essayistic memoir about her relationship with her estranged, eccentric (read: undiagnosed Asperger’s) scientist father, but it’s really a thumbed nose at binary argument and an objective romp through subjectivity’s headspace. Throughout the book, Firstman sets up oppositional arguments in order to force them apart and marinate in the liminal in-between. Is her chauvinistic, mostly absent father good or bad? Firstman thinks it’s hard to say, but it doesn’t stop her from examining the relationship through myriad philosophic and scientific lenses. (I doubt there has ever been a book about family in which one learns more about science and the history of thought.) Though the father does and says things that would make even the least feminist, or simply decent, among us cringe, Firstman’s characterization of family dynamics is pitch-perfect: her own impatience and frustrations with her father balance his foibles and thoughtlessness—and her humor softens the lot. This is a very endearing book, a summer read for the curious mind. —Jeffery Gleaves

The Guggenheim’s recent exhibition “Photo-Poetics: An Anthology” made a huge impression on me; the show featured works by ten photographers—nine women, including Erica Baum—who all work closely, sometimes exclusively, with the printed page. So I was delighted to discover Dog Ear, a book of twenty-five exquisite photographs by Erica Baum, whose preferred source material is printed matter. For the series, Baum dog-eared pages in mass-market paperbacks, then photographed the intersection of words at each fold to create a text of her own. In each tiny piece, bits of sentences read horizontally (“skirts, bee-stung lips,” “It’s a funny thing”) and vertically (“made up her face,” “itchiest dresses”). Part photo, part poem, the results vary in tone, from longing to manic, minimal to marvelous. In “Bear,” which feels like a Tomi Ungerer picture book, where animals scheme and smoke cigars, a polar bear is drunk on schnapps and “pawing” “the birds.” A new, limited edition of Dog Ear comes courtesy of Ugly Duckling Presse. Fittingly, the book jacket doubles as a poster. —Jessica Calderon

It may be based on a British procedural, but the new HBO series The Night Of is unmistakably shot in New York and, just as unmistakably, written by Richard Price. The premise: a studious Pakistani American kid sneaks out of the house with the keys to his father’s cab, then ill-advisedly picks up a passenger, a distraught beauty headed to the Upper West Side. It’s classic noir, with John Turturro as a schlubby but effective public defender, and because it’s a Richard Price script, even a desk sergeant (the excellent Ben Shenkman) can steal a scene. Two episodes in, it’s the best TV I’ve seen this summer. —Lorin Stein  Read More »

Staff Picks: Pink Shells, Invisible Animals, Unreliably Unreliable Narrators

July 15, 2016 | by

An illustration of Moll Flanders from an eighteenth-century chapbook.

I’m glad I never read Moll Flanders in college. Because it was published in 1722 and has the structure of a picaresque, I would have dismissed it as primitive. I’d have thought Daniel Defoe didn’t know how to write an actual novel. Now Moll Flanders strikes me as the kind of artwork big enough to invent a way of writing fiction—in the voice of a woman, with all the freedom, moral ambiguity, and sexual complexity of a man. Moll is what James Wood would call an “unreliably unreliable” narrator. Sometimes we get to smile at the gap between her Christian principles and her career as a thief, but just as often there will be a scene—as for example, when she’s a little girl telling her foster mother that she’s afraid of going into service—that have the ring of documentary truth. (Defoe often adapted interviews and eyewitness accounts in his fiction: that ambiguity is at the heart of his novels.) Moll Flanders may have impressed me especially because I’d just read Play It As It Lays, in many ways a descendent of Moll, but whose charm now lies mainly in its period details—the cigarettes, phone booths, and unair-conditioned nights. —Lorin Stein

I only started reading Music and Literature’s newest issue on the train this morning, but I’ve already fallen quite ardently for one of their featured writers, Ann Quin. This has happened once before with M&L, who brought me the Argentinian poet Alejandra Pizarnik in their last issue. At quick glance, the two women aren’t all that dissimilar: both are rather unknown, both were tormented by suicidal inclinations. (Quin took her life just a year after Pizarnik took hers, and at nearly the same age.) Of the two short pieces of fiction in M&L by Quin, my favorite is the second, “Eyes that Watch Behind the Wind”—an arresting story of lovers in Cuetzalan, Mexico, who sway back and forth in their adoration and disgust for each other. Nearly each one of Quin’s sentences oscillates with sex and with rage, no matter how innocent some of them appear: she writes of the pink shells that hang on the necklace that drapes over one of the woman’s breasts and of burying the man in sand; of the eight bulls hemorrhaging from the mouth after banderillos strike them and how the woman “felt almost an urge to … Be ravished. Even Raped.” Quin’s prose never falters; it’s stunning, almost especially when it’s brutal. —Caitlin Youngquist
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Staff Picks: Gold Teeth, Hawk Noses, Flying Cars

July 8, 2016 | by

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Andy Thomas’s animation of bird sounds.

In 1924, Samuel Beckett, eighteen, lurked at a Sunday salon in Dublin, standing obtuse and silent against the wall, his head down as conversation breathed around him. Five years later, in 1929, in Paris, he sat silently on the edge of a circle of James Joyce’s acolytes, while “Shem” (Beckett’s affectionate sobriquet for Dublin’s literary master) held court. On a balmy afternoon, in 1932, he slouched into a corner during tea at Walter Lowenfels’s (a cheerful American—and failed publisher—in Paris’s literary society), where he sat “tall, thin, looking like a forest ranger in a Western.” Beckett’s dark form—I imagine him in the shadows of these parties, hunched, hawk-nose angled down, and blue eyes focused on a point—is a recurring image in the early chapters of Samuel Beckett, the 1978 biography by Deirdre Bair that I started reading this weekend. But these aren’t my only impressions of him. Bair was given unprecedented access to Beckett: the book was written while he was still alive, and though he didn’t give her any interviews, he allowed Bair to write to his friends and family, informing them that they should give her whatever they like. And so Beckett emerges—layered, brilliant, brooding, genius. —Caitlin Love

From the first page of Antonio di Benedetto’s 1956 novel Zama—in which the eponymous hero spies a monkey’s floating corpse “caught among the posts of the decrepit wharf … ready to go and not going”—a humid nimbus cloud of despair settles over the story, never to dissolve. Set in the Paraguay of the late eighteenth century, Zama follows a bureaucrat in his tortured efforts to secure a better position in far-off Buenos Aires, where he hopes to settle with his even-farther-off wife and children. Listless, phlegmatic, and increasingly horny, Zama wanders the lush country doing something close to nothing, watching almost distantly as he loses his moral compass. As a study in exile, paranoia, and the lonely tedium of quashed ambitions, this is great shit. But read it above all for the triumph of its style: Zama holds forth in deep, stewing paragraphs as pompous as they are incisive. It’s Sartre by way of J. Peterman, and in Esther Allen’s translation it still feels unique and alive. —Dan Piepenbring Read More »

Staff Picks: Urine-colored Stains, Tortoiseshell Cats, Grimy Mirrors

July 1, 2016 | by

From John Aubrey: My Own Life.

When John Aubrey died in 1697, he left us with his Brief Lives, a collection of short biographies whose candor and color exploded the genre. As keen as his eye was, Aubrey seldom turned it on himself. Ruth Scurr’s John Aubrey: My Own Life, out last year in the UK and soon to cross the Atlantic, is an imaginative corrective: an autobiography assembled with care from remnants of Aubrey’s letters, manuscripts, and books. Against the turmoil of Restoration-era England, his sensitivities and proclivities make him an empathetic, surprisingly modern figure; unique for his time, he was fascinated with preservation, often pausing on horseback to sketch ruins or glasswork. Not infrequently, his writings find him distraught at how few of his countrymen appreciate the mundanities of their world. Scurr’s diary is a generous document of his life, and better still it demonstrates the easy beauty of his prose. “I am so bored, so alone,” he writes early on, yearning to leave rural life for Oxford or London. “My imagination is like a mirror of pure crystal water, which the least wind does disorder and unsmooth.” —Dan Piepenbring

I’ve been meaning to read Jennifer Grotz’s new collection of poems, Window Left Open, for months; when I pulled it from the shelf last weekend I near expected to devour it whole. Instead, I read the first couple poems, then closed the book until the next morning, when I did the same. I’ve been like this all week, dipping in and out of Grotz’s poetry. But my pace is proof of how fond I am of it: Window Left Open is a trove of morose and arresting moments that begs its reader to linger over it, to steep in its quiet gloom—the lonesomeness and despondence of the everyday. Grotz is an impeccable observer, too. (“I myself was / the hungry lens,” she writes.) One narrator watches the “longsuffering” cows in the forest, steam coming from their nostrils; another notices a student’s stomped-out cigarette on the library’s steps, “excreting urine-colored stains into the snow”; another prays for the apples that cling to their branches before the wind takes them to the ground. Grotz laces even the most benign occasions with beautiful devastation. —Caitlin Youngquist Read More »

Staff Picks: Bad Calls, Bad Books, Breakups

June 24, 2016 | by

From Cemetery of Splendor.

A still from Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s film Cemetery of Splendor.

Tate Modern, in London, recently showed Cemetery of Splendor, the new and wonderful movie by Apichatpong Weerasethakul. It was part of a weekend homage to the sly, metaphysical Thai filmmaker, including an all-night sequence of his complete works. Now, I am no longer young enough to watch movies all night, so I contented myself with my own home retrospective, including the wonderful bipartite movies Tropical Malady and Syndromes and a Century. In the new Tanks space at Tate Modern, which just opened this weekend, you can also see his installation Primitive, a nine-video extravaganza. There are few people thinking more rigorously, or more joyfully. —Adam Thirlwell

I was so relieved to read Tim Parks’s review of The Vegetarian, the Man Booker–winning novel by Korean Han Kang. The novel came recommended by a friend, so I persisted till the bitter end, despite grousing about every awkward sentence, every cliché, every narrative contradiction. I spent much of the first section wondering whether it was the fault of the writer or the translator. Parks was bothered by the same question and spends the space of his review examining the way content and style in the English translation work in relation to one another. He concludes that “the prose is far from an epitome of elegance, the drama itself neither understated nor beguiling, the translation frequently in trouble with register and idiom.” But for Parks, The Vegetarian isn’t merely a bad book badly translated; it’s representative of a “shared vision of what critics would like a work of ‘global fiction’ to be.” The desire to always see oneself in a story necessarily limits one’s view of the world, and seems to me to be the exact opposite reason for reading a book in translation—or any book, for that matter—in the first place. —Nicole Rudick

Just yesterday I was given two gorgeous chapbooks, both part of a series called Señal of contemporary Latin American poetry in translation. I began the first in the series—Sor Juana y otros monstruos, a dissertation (of sorts) in verse by Luis Felipe Fabre, translated by John Pluecker—this morning, and I haven’t been able to put it down. Fabre muses on the scholarship buzzing around the seventeenth-century poet Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, tackling one assertion in particular. “Yes: Sor Juana was a monster,” he writes. It’s a claim most academics accept as true, but “where they differ / is / / on what kind of monster she was.” Was she a phoenix? A sphinx? Will she, as Fabre imagines, return at night to devour her scholars because her body has never been found? And yet, the most striking question Fabre goes on to ask is this: “What kind / of monster is it whose power / resides in language?” Whatever it is, Fabre would be one, too; Sor Juana y otros mostruos is like nothing I’ve read in a long while. —Caitlin Youngquist
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Staff Picks: Dads, Doublemint, Dumplingette

June 17, 2016 | by

A still from Cosmos.

Nineteen cheers to New Directions for reissuing Eliot Weinberger’s Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, first published in 1987 and hard to find since then. In this tiny volume, Weinberg examines nineteen different translations of a classic four-line poem by the eighth-century poet Wang Wei. The result is the best primer on translation I’ve ever read, also the funniest and most impatient. (E.g.: “to me this sounds like Gerard Manley Hopkins on LSD.”) The new edition, out in October, includes ten new attempts, most of them clearly influenced by the original Nineteen Ways. —Lorin Stein

The Polish director Andrzej Żuławski died in February, leaving us with Cosmos, his final film, adapted from Witold Gombrowicz’s 1965 novel of the same name. The plot, if that’s what this tangle of surreal set pieces should be called, follows a vampirically handsome law student on holiday at a French bed-and-breakfast, where he finds a worrisome succession of dead animals hanging in the woods. Nominally, we’re watching Cosmos to discover who’s responsible for these cruelties; really, though, we’re watching because its ensemble excels at depicting various lunacies, and it’s always fun to watch lunatics. A bloviating patriarch uses a toothpick to pick up spilled peas one by one; a mute priest unzips his fly to reveal a phalanx of bees; someone is dressed inexplicably like Tintin. The movie is an intoxicating pageant of life’s confusions—some violent, some sexual, and some just metaphysical. If you like Resnais, Buñuel, or people who do really good Donald Duck impressions, you will be moved. If not, you’ll at least leave with a new favorite term of endearment: “my dumplingette.” —Dan Piepenbring Read More »