The Daily

This Week’s Reading

Staff Picks: Local News, Livid Librarians, Loving It All

July 31, 2015 | by

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A still from James Baldwin: The Price of the Ticket

When Ingrid Sischy died last week, most obituaries remembered her primarily as the editor of Interview, which she was, for eighteen years. But I’ve always thought of her as an ex-editor of Artforum, which she ran for most of the eighties. That decade saw a profound change in what was considered art, how it would be exhibited, and how it would be discussed in, among other places, the most important art magazine of the day—and Sischy, the first woman editor of Artforum, was the right man for the job. I’m grateful to our publisher, Susannah Hunnewell, for sending me Janet Malcolm’s magnificent “A Girl of the Zeitgeist,” a two-part article on Sischy and Artforum and the art world that appeared in The New Yorker in 1986. In the process of profiling Sischy, Malcolm provides generous sketches of the magazine’s earlier years as well as the concerns of Sischy’s day, including the “trial” of Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc and the “Primitivism” show at MoMA. Sischy’s fair-mindedness and originality as an art editor come to the fore, but so does the silliness of art-world kerfuffles and the startling differences between generations and modes of thought. Malcolm, for instance, reproduces a very pissy response by the critic Barbara Rose in which she decries Sischy’s Artforum as a “media magazine” and pits her cohorts, who were “all very impressed by Wittgenstein and by Anglo-American philosophy,” against Sontagian cultural permissiveness, in which “you could just love everything that was going on, you could be positive and optimistic and just love it all.” —Nicole Rudick

k10442One of the many perceptive essays in The Meaning of the Library (it doesn’t beg to be taken to the beach, I know) is Laura Marcus’s “The Library in Film: Order and Mystery,” which finds compelling motifs in movie scenes set in libraries. On film, it seems, our libraries are presented with curious regularity as mazes (Hitchcock’s Blackmail), haunted repositories of secrets (Ghostbusters, James Bridges’s The Paper Chase), dusty Egyptological tombs (Alain Resnais’s Toute la mémoire du monde), or utopias of knowledge (Wim Wenders’s Wings of Desire). “It is striking,” Marcus writes, “how so many films have taken up these questions of order and of mystery or confusion, as well as ideas of haunting in relationship to the book and the library.” She finds intriguing outliers, too, such as 1932’s Forbidden, in which Barbara Stanwyck’s bitter small-town librarian, having endured insults from local children, says, “I wish I owned this library … I’d get an axe and smash it to a million pieces, then I’d set fire to the whole town and play a ukulele while it burned.” —Dan Piepenbring
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Staff Picks: Buses, Basements, Boots, Bed-and-Breakfasts

July 24, 2015 | by

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Space suits.

I finally got my hands on a copy of Spacesuits, an illustrated history of the protective clothing worn by space explorers, from the earliest designs in the 1930s to the universally recognizable suits worn during the Apollo missions. The book, with its clinically detailed photographs and methodical descriptions of suits, helmets, gloves, and boots, is surprisingly enthralling; one doesn’t expect vacant clothing to so easily assert its own cultural significance. What’s also surprising are the immense efforts required to preserve these suits—which, it turns out, are among the most fragile items in the Smithsonian’s collection. For some rather timely evidence, look no further than the Kickstarter campaign launched this week by the Smithsonian—with a $500,000 goal—to better document, display, and preserve the space suit worn by Neil Armstrong on Apollo 11. —Stephen Andrew Hiltner

I have copies of most of Dubravka Ugresic’s books, and all of them are heavily dog-eared; flip to any page, and it’s more likely than not that several sentences are underlined. I suspect my various notations are due to the fact that Ugresic pulls no punches, and so reading her work—especially her nonfiction—is like having it all laid out for you. And by “it,” I mean, to borrow from Douglas Adams, “life, the universe and everything.” The editors of Music & Literature have given over a third of their latest issue to Ugresic, and my copy of the magazine is already thoroughly dog-eared and underlined. Ugresic’s writing is radical, accessible, aggressive, pungent, and funny, and she is one of the most unique writers in exile at work today—and one of the best writers, period. In an interview in the issue with Daniel Medin, she explains that “as an outsider I was free to shape my own literary taste, to pick my own literary traditions, to build my own system of literary values.” She is quick to add, however, that “going against the mainstream is not an aesthetic category. Risk is moral category, which shapes our attitude toward our vocation as well as our ideological, political, aesthetical, and ethical choices.” —Nicole Rudick

nextnextlevelHaving just returned from a two-week tour in which my band played for many a small crowd in many a dank basement—see photo below—I approached Leon Neyfakh’s The Next Next Level with some trepidation. It, too, concerns musicians, small crowds, and dank basements: that is, it concerns “the problem of making art in the twenty-first century.” Neyfakh tells the story of his friend Juiceboxxx, a white rapper who’s pursued his craft on the fringes of DIY culture for more than a decade. Juiceboxxx, whose name belies his creative energy, tours constantly, publishes ceaselessly, and self-promotes relentlessly. But what’s the point, really? As he tells an interviewer, “When you fucking kind of have this identity based on this totally absurd premise—like, where do you go if you want to stop doing it, man? Like, where do you go?” As someone who’s poured time and energy into a band called Vulture Shit, I ask myself these questions a lot. Neyfakh’s perceptive, thoughtful book may not make them easier to answer, but it’s a much-needed balm: a funny, broad-minded, enchanting reflection on the intersection of art and commerce. You’ll find no better account of what it’s like to make music outside the mainstream in 2015. —Dan Piepenbring
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Staff Picks: Coates, Cartels, Caesar, Cigarettes

July 17, 2015 | by

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Covers of Slash.

There are writers you know about and writers you read. Before I heard him speak, Ta-Nehisi Coates was only the former to me—he came to my school and spoke to a packed auditorium about American self-conception, idealism, and his role in dislodging us from it. This week I’ve been sprinting through his amazing new book, Between the World and Me. A mixture of personal and cultural, critical and historical, the book is written entirely to Coates’s son, a teenager today. It seems that nearly every comment on Coates is excerpting him, lauding him, or calling him James Baldwin, and these staff picks are short, so I hope to get away with simply nodding my head. Yes, rewarding and complex; yes, generous and intimate; yes, “race is the child of racism, not the father.” Yes, an easy book to know about, but a better one to read. One of my clearest memories of his speech was the final question and answer. Someone—an older woman, a professor, I figured—stood up to thank him and asked something like “How do we get these young people to listen to you?” “I’m a writer,” he said. “That’s not my job.” —Jake Orbison

gamelifeAnyone who came of age in the eighties or nineties will grok Gamelife, Michael Clune’s memoir about the computer games of his childhood. But I hope others—those who dismiss gaming as merely narcotic or those who regard old games as curios—will read it, too. Clune captures not just the palm-sweating, self-flagellating thrill of early PC games but their talismanic role in the life of the mind. With their primitive, repetitious designs, these games provided a grammar for children, a way of apprehending the world—I remember feeling it myself, that scary, precarious sense of empowerment, the way reality seemed to bend to accommodate the airtight logic of Pirates! or Wolfenstein 3D. Games, Clune writes, teach us the rules for being alive “in a way nothing else can. They teach us about death, about character, about fate, about action and identity. They turn insights into habit. The habits bore through our defenses. Computer games reach us.” His memoir is also a sharp portrait of post-Reagan America, when communism was vanquished, history was over, and the shopping center was enshrined in the national imagination. —Dan Piepenbring 

If the sophistication of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán’s escape last week from a maximum-security prison isn’t enough to convince you of the influence (and the reach) of Mexico’s drug cartels, then Matthew Heineman’s documentary Cartel Land will. The film focuses on the leaders of two vigilante groups dedicated to fighting off the cartels—one in the United States (Arizona Border Recon, led by Tim Foley) and one in the Mexican state of Michoacán (Autodefensa, led by José Manuel Mireles). Cartel Land makes no attempts to tell a sanitized or digestible version of the truth; it’s rife with ambiguity, complicity, racism, and brutality. But from all the confusion emerges a compelling—and impressively crafted—narrative arc, one in which resistance, in all its forms, takes center stage amid unimaginable, and seemingly unconquerable, corruption. —Stephen Andrew Hiltner

We all love war narratives, those Homeric masterpieces that deliver timeless truths—but Sam Sacks’s piece in the latest issue of Harper’s,First-Person Shooters: What’s missing in contemporary war fiction,” takes no prisoners. Sacks admits that “war is hell, but its themes make critics purr”; he bemoans the genre’s “self-involvement,” its nearly identical perspectives “of individual soldiers who can’t comprehend what they’ve experienced,” and its facile emphasis on “personal redemption.” Nearly all contemporary war fiction, he reminds us, has been “cultivated in the hothouse of creative-writing programs. No wonder so much of it looks alike.” His argument is less about war stories and more about competent fiction, the kind that’s lauded for its subject matter and honesty but amounts to simple confession. Takedowns are usually banal, and it’s easy to hit the biggest targets, but this is an important piece: “one of the jobs of literature,” Sacks writes, “is to wake us from stupor. But in matters of war, our sleep is deep, and the best attempts of today’s veterans have done little to disturb it.” —Jeffery Gleaves
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Staff Picks: Moaning, Sobbing, Trolling

July 10, 2015 | by

Oksana Baiul, after her Olympic gold medal–winning performance in 1994.

Oksana Baiul, after her Olympic gold medal–winning performance in 1994.

unnamedJust yesterday, I snuck an advance-reader’s copy of Lorenzo Chiera’s Shards: Fragments of Verses, translated from the Italian by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, off a colleague’s bookshelf and devoured it on my subway ride home. The pocket-size book comprises delicious morsels of twelfth-century verse by an otherwise unknown fellow from Testaccio. Though the fragments—plucked from scratches on parchment paper or fiber sacks—are no more than a few lines each, they brim with raunch and grime and love. Chiera breathes sex into most verses, which are bound to make one blush with either delight or despair. Some read as playful winks, others as moans, and still others as desperate, carnal prayers. “Hearing Chiera for the first time,” Ferlinghetti writes in his introduction, “we soon realize we are in the presence of a savage erotic consciousness, as if the lust-driven senses were suddenly awakened out of a hoary sleep of a thousand years … He’s vulgar. He’s mad. He’s uncouth. Yet he is innocent.” Here’s a little taste of Chiera himself: “Sexy Nonny / in her silk nun’s habit / behind the arras / of the cult of the Virgin / stuck her tongue in my mouth / when I was fourteen / Made me cream.” —Caitlin Youngquist

I’ve never read any fan fiction, and I never made it all the way through Pretty Woman, so devotees of either may take this recommendation with a grain of salt, but I loved Michael Friedman’s novel Martian Dawn, all about a couple of movie stars (viz Richard and Julia) whose off-screen romance is strained by a visit to the Red Planet. No doubt half the jokes went over my head. It didn't matter. Friedman’s urbane silliness and élan hark back to the glittering twilight of high camp—without seeming to hark back. Hats off to Little A for reissuing Martian Dawn and Other Novels. I didn’t know anyone could still make it look so easy to have so much fun on the page. —Lorin Stein 

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Staff Picks: A Mongoose Civique and a Maestro of the Rant

June 26, 2015 | by

Love Wins: Stephen Andrew Hiltner, our senior editor, designed this collage in honor of today’s Supreme Court decision.

heaven“Writing religious poetry in the twentieth century is very difficult.” So says Czeslaw Milosz in his 1994 interview with The Paris Review. This, he noted, could be one of the greatest challenges facing the poets of our time: “the incapacity of contemporary man to think in religious terms.” Twenty years later, Rowan Ricardo Phillips published a poem in our summer 2014 issue that begins “Not knowing the difference between Heaven / And Paradise, he called them both Heaven.” That poem appears again in Phillips’ new collection, Heaven. In contemporary poetry, there are few book-length meditations on heaven. It’s strange. What’s more, it’s strange how strange it is: Phillips constantly reminds us that the territory is well charted. His poems pinpoint and stitch together small, disparate nodes of heavenly wisdom scattered through our largely earthbound canon. (Ovid, Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, to name a few of the patron saints.) The flow of astronomical allusions, like the subject itself, feels mundane at a glance and somewhat trite to mention. But as Phillips brings them close with the tight scope of his scholarship and lyric observation, they become unfamiliar, and heaven becomes something new, “this star-seized evening that’s / Unreeling and unreals.” —Jake Orbison

I managed to get my hands on a copy of Elena Ferrante’s fourth Neapolitan Novel, The Story of a Lost Child (out in September), and have been able to focus on little else all week. In this final installment of the story of Elena and Lila, Ferrante delivers some seismic-level surprises that somehow don’t feel contrived, that instead unearth a new internal symmetry beneath the dynamics established in the earlier books. As Ferrante shapes and reshapes her narrative, she watches generations of Italian intellectuals do the same for that of their country, continuously redefining the acceptable terms for political and social engagement. When they’re not fixating on Ferrante’s anonymity, reviewers like to talk about “the inner lives of women” and “female friendship” in these novels, as if Ferrante is venturing into entirely uncharted territory—as if women’s interiority hasn’t dominated a good part of the past several hundred years’ fictional output. Maybe Ferrante’s femaleness gets emphasized because we don’t have the vocabulary to describe what is indisputably different about her books, to explain why they read like a revelation to so many readers—this one included. —Rebecca Panovka
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Staff Picks: Ditch Baths and Bee Lives

June 19, 2015 | by

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The Angulo brothers, in The Wolfpack.

9780307700322Two-thirds of Jane Smiley’s Last Hundred Years trilogy has been published—the second volume just came out a month or so ago—and if you haven’t started it yet, it’s not too late to begin. And you should: they’re so good. Smiley’s process is additive—three books’ worth of Langdon family history, a long recitation of individual lives with history and politics playing out in the background. They remind me of another book of hers I love, The Greenlanders, a medieval saga that follows the travails of a small community over some nine hundred pages. Smiley’s writing in all three books is spare and lean; she resists adding authorial commentary and is content, instead, to stand back and watch her characters make their own way. I wondered whether the second volume would be as satisfying as the first. It is and it isn’t: the story is utterly addictive and only left me wanting more. I’m grateful there’s a third one on the way, but I don’t know how I’ll cope after that. —Nicole Rudick

In last year’s profile of William Vollmann for The New Republic, Tom Bissell remarked of Vollmann’s forthcoming 1,300-page tome, The Dying Grass, “It sound[s] a bit like William Gaddis, except more insane.” I’m happy to report that it is, in fact, insane. This demented opus is book five in his seven-volume (!) series concerning the settlement of North America; The Dying Grass focuses on the Nez Perce War of 1877. After years of broken treaties and strained relations, the Nez Perce refused to give up their ancestral lands and move to an Indian reservation in Idaho, deciding they’d rather to take up arms against the “Bostons,” led by the devoutly Christian, and possibly inept, one-armed Civil War veteran General O. O. Howard. Though outgunned, the Nez Perce manage to slip Howard’s grasp at every turn, dragging the war though Oregon, Idaho, and much of Montana, for five months. The book plods along as the campaign must have, but it’s filled with vivid characters and rich history. Its layout can mystify: the left side of the page features dialogue occurring in real time, and right side of the page contains what must be these characters’ thoughts as they talk to one another. But if you’re interested in entering Vollmann’s headspace, The Dying Grass is worth it, even if you sometimes suspect he wrote the book faster than you can read it. —Jeffery Gleaves
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