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This Week’s Reading

Staff Picks: Self-regard, Strokes of Color, Stchoopidity

April 10, 2015 | by

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Friedel Dzubas, Procession, 1975, acrylic on canvas, 9' 6" x 24' 6".

“ ‘Don’t be stchoopid. It was just a one-night stand. We’re not in love or anything!’ ” Remember when people used to talk that way? Neither do I, which is one reason I’m grateful to Ben Lerner for making me read Helen Garner’s novella The Children’s Bach, about a marital crisis in early-eighties Melbourne—at that giddy moment when sexual liberation and women’s lib were still inextricably part of the same deal. —Lorin Stein

In 1975, Friedel Dzubas made a monumental painting for the Shawmut Bank in Boston. Crossing was fifty-seven feet long and thirteen feet tall and was executed on a single canvas. It hung in the bank’s lobby for some twenty years, until the bank closed and the painting disappeared. There is no record of its sale. A study for Crossing is on view at Loretta Howard Gallery, in New York, as part of their centennial exhibition of Dzubas’s work, and it’s a lovely thing in and of itself. On a long orange rectangle, Dzubas made dozens of variously sized, wide black marks that could be a kind of writing were it not for a pair of human figures penciled in at the side of the sketch, for a rough sense of scale (the figures are, in fact, too tall in relation to the enormous painting). The German-born Dzubas once studied with Paul Klee and was the summer roommate, in 1948, of Clement Greenberg; he falls into the Color Field camp with artists such as Helen Frankenthaler and Morris Louis. His paintings on view at the gallery are all from the seventies and are great examples of his big, loose strokes of color that seem, despite their girth, to race across the canvas with Futuristic velocity. Art, for Dzubas, was about moving outside of ourselves and experiencing something larger and being affected by that experience—a feeling, he thought, that was “almost as good as making love.” —Nicole Rudick

You’ve found me at AWP, the Association of Writers and Writing Programs: a fine place to discover new magazines, but also to witness every possible form of literose peacocking. (Panels, to give you some idea, include “Microaggressions in the Workshop,” “Melancholy and the Literary Uses of Sadness,” and “I Am We As You Are Me: Exploring Pronouns in Experimental Poetry.”) Amid the rampant self-promotion and nine-dollar gyros, I’ve dipped into Tim Parks’s Where I’m Reading From: The Changing World of Books, which offers a much-needed corrective. For the past few years, Parks has contributed regular columns on writing and reading to the New York Review of Books, carefully rebutting the notion that there’s anything ennobling about life as a writer. Taken as a collection, these pieces amount to a fortifying reassessment of literature’s place in the culture. “Perhaps in the end it’s just ridiculous,” he writes, “the high opinion we have of books, of literature. Perhaps it’s just a collective spell of self-regard, self-congratulation … we may be going to hell, but look how well we write about it.” —Dan Piepenbring Read More »

Staff Picks: H-I-S-T-O-R-Y, Apocalyptic Dry-humping

April 3, 2015 | by

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A still from Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y.

The hysteria and mystery surrounding the Germanwings crash have led me back to Johan Grimonprez’s Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y, a 1997 film collage that traces the history of plane hijackings—and, just as important, the media fixation on those hijackings. When Tom McCarthy presented Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y at Film Society of Lincoln Center last month, he praised its presentation of “media as a crypt from which history is leaking out” and “terrorism as a theological condition.” The film’s macabre footage captivates, in no small part because of Grimonprez’s shrewd, ironical editing. In one sequence, a grinning boy just rescued from a hijacked plane tells reporters, “I had a good time, I guess”; in another, a girl, still violently crying, is hustled off a recuperated aircraft only to be led into the klieg lights of a press junket. As McCarthy pointed out, the project hasn’t aged well—it came before 9/11, after all, and its focus on television can feel quaint in the age of the smartphone—but as a meditation on the codependency of media and terrorism, it remains invaluable. Sprinkled throughout the film are spoken excerpts from DeLillo’s Mao II, which feel, whenever they’re incanted, truer than ever: “In societies reduced to blur and glut, terror is the only meaningful act.” —Dan Piepenbring

Someone who has “a lasting liking for the cryptic and the ambiguous and the incantatory and the disconnected and the extravagant and the oracular and the apocalyptic” might turn out to be pedantic and self-absorbed, but chances are, they’re the sort of person you want to know deeply but are never able to. The person in question here is Joseph Mitchell, the rather enigmatic subject of a new biography that is itself the subject of a review by Janet Malcolm in the latest New York Review of Books. (See also our series “Big, Bent Ears,” which takes Mitchell as a subject.) Malcolm is an obvious choice for the assignment, but that doesn’t detract from how fun it is to read her on Mitchell. “Where the hell is this going?” she asks about a rambling conversation between Mitchell and one of his subjects. “As in all of Mitchell’s pieces everything is always going somewhere, though not necessarily so you’d notice.” Malcolm is admiring of Mitchell’s work, reverential even, but astute. When Thomas Kunkel, Mitchell’s biographer, discovers that his subject invented portions of his nonfiction stories and makes excuses for these fabrications, Malcolm puts him in his place: “Few of us have gone as far as Mitchell in bending actuality to our artistic will. This is not because we are more virtuous than Mitchell. It is because we are less gifted than Mitchell.” —Nicole Rudick
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Staff Picks: Rage, Reggae, Reading Rooms

March 27, 2015 | by

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A still from Wild Tales.

Before he coined the term Dark Ages, before he became the father of humanism, and before he wrote the world’s first travel guide—to a place he’d never actually visited, at that—Petrarch climbed a mountain. In “Epistolae familiares,” a letter to Dionisio da Borgo San Sepolcro, Petrarch described the journey he took with his brother on April 26, 1336, now commonly known as “The Ascent of Mont Ventoux.” The letter is often quoted in mountaineering literature that altogether misses the point; Petrarch’s ascent is a vehicle for the ascent of the mind, and it’s compelling to watch him weigh out his thoughts as he climbs. “I am still preoccupied with a lot that is troublesome,” he writes. “What I used to love, I no longer love. But on second thought, that isn’t true. I think I still love those things, I just love them a little less. No, I lie again! Of course I still love those things, and love them just as much. It’s just now I love with guilt.” Scholars regard the letter as a kind of beginning to the Renaissance, when man turned his thoughts inward; they also question whether Petrarch truly ascended Mont Ventoux, but that doesn’t matter. As John D’Agata wrote of the letter in his anthology The Lost Origins of the Essay, “It’s a great mimetic demonstration of a mind ascending something as the body does the same. But what if it is only Petrarch’s mind that is doing the ascending? The real title of Petrarch’s essay contains an extra word that seldom finds its way into English translations: allegorico. How much less significant is a journey of just the mind?” —Jeffery Gleaves

k10439I’ve only just started Andrew Scull’s Madness in Civilization: A Cultural History of Insanity, but already it’s taught me a lot about unreason, in all its guises. I hadn’t known, for instance, that the Hebrew for “to behave like a prophet” can also mean “to rave”; or that Ancient Greek physicians construed hysteria as a uniquely feminine affliction because they believed the womb could wander about the abdomen; or that the earliest English madhouses were, almost too perfectly, renovated from “decaying mansions in once-fashionable areas,” because their proprietors thought building from scratch would cut into profits too much. The in in Scull’s title is a nice reproach to Foucault; we like to think of insanity as existing apart from, or before, the constructs of society—and certainly we try to put it there—but Scull’s history unpacks centuries of our cultural baggage about madness, arguing that it’s “indelibly part of civilization, not located outside it.” There’s even a lesson spelled out on his ingenious, and literally dizzying, cover: that nervous illnesses have been widely seen, since the eighteenth century, “as part of the price one paid for civilization, indeed as afflictions to which the most refined and civilized were particularly prone.” —Dan Piepenbring
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Staff Picks: Mendelsohn, Microgravity, Misconduct

March 20, 2015 | by

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A still from Otolith I.

Daniel Mendelsohn’s essay on Sappho has been haunting me since I read last week’s New Yorker. First there’s the history of her poems. We all know these survive today in a few fragments, but to think there were once as many as ten thousand lines—and that these were in wide circulation for a millennium—can make your chair tilt under you a little. Then there are the fragments themselves, a handful quoted by Mendelsohn in his own translation. Maybe it’s the weather, but I’ve found myself going back to his version of Sappho’s most famous surviving poem, the one that begins “He seems to me an equal of the gods— / whoever gets to sit across from you,” as if I’ve never seen a poem like that before. —Lorin Stein

The Otolith Group, founded in 2002, produces films and writings around sound, Afrofuturism, and the archive. I’ve been curious about the group for some time; since it’s based in London and exhibits mainly in Europe, I’ve had only glancing experiences with its work. But this week their first film, Otolith I, is available at Carroll / Fletcher Onscreen, an “online cinema” for experimental films. The Otolith Group’s name comes from a part of the inner ear sensitive to gravity and tilt, and Otolith I could be a kind of manifesto: narrated by a woman in 2103, it explains that prolonged time spent in the “microgravity” of space has deformed the otoliths of those born on the International Space Station. This new kind of human cannot survive on Earth and must rely on archival footage in order to understand life on the planet. Our narrator examines footage of the Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova and of the Iraq war protests in New York in 2003. The former sets up the cosmos as a “zone of peace”; the latter describes a society crippled by collective blindness. “My comprehension erodes under the attrition of American war-speak. Did you know that ‘regime change’ means ‘invasion,’ that ‘preemptive defense’ means ‘attacking a country that is not attacking you,’ that ‘shock and awe’ means ‘military onslaught’?” —Nicole Rudick
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Staff Picks: Padded Panels, Pushcart Peddlers, Pommes D’Air

March 13, 2015 | by

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The United States Department of Agriculture Color Standards for Frozen French Fried Potatoes.

According to Don DeLillo, he was surprised when a publisher accepted the “shaggy and overdone” first draft of his first novel, Americana. Almost fifty years—and several revisions—later, the story of Dave Bell, a disillusioned network executive who hits the road to discover America, retains a certain amount of shag. But already DeLillo’s dialogue has its own look and sound. This is speech in the age of mechanical reproduction, the reel to reel, the dictaphone, the transcript. His characters are spirits captured in stuff: “Clevenger’s paleolithic lavender Cadillac was equipped with air conditioning, deep-pile carpeting, padded instrument panel, stereo tape system and a burglar alarm. Behind the wheel he seemed a veteran jockey not at all awed by the magnificence of his own colors. He was about fifty, a small man with a neck of Playa clay traversed by wide deep ridges. Clevenger was a Texan.” The stuff itself has aged, but this only adds to the sense of magical evocation. Americana has aged into a time capsule, deep-pile carpeting and all. —Lorin Stein

I’ve been reading Jean Merrill’s The Pushcart War (NYRB’s fiftieth anniversary edition) to my son every night, a few chapters at a time. It’s often the only way I can coax him out of his Harry Potter books to get ready for bed. In truth, I’m as excited as he is to read it. The tale of New York’s pushcart peddlers waging war against the monstrous, bullying trucks is droll—as are Ronni Solbert’s illustrations—but its message remains urgent; Merrill writes expansively, giving air to the intrigue, to the peddler’s personalities, and to what’s at stake for people who don’t have money or influence. When the peace-loving peddler who sleeps under his cart every night is finally driven to anger and despair—and is forced to sleep indoors for the first time in seventy years—the frustration is nearly unendurable. My son has asked me more than once if the story is real. It’s not, of course, and what a shame, but it’s an entertaining lesson on nonviolent civil disobedience, standing up for the rights and the dignity of the little guy, and how to make a sturdy peashooter. —Nicole Rudick
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Staff Picks: No Conscience, No Hope, No October

March 6, 2015 | by

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Ilf and Petrov.

In the latest London Review of Books, Adam Phillips conducts a restless interrogation of conscience, that most eminent and most frustrating of moral constructs. We take it as a given, Phillips points out, that self-criticism has some purgative or ameliorative influence, that it moves us to better ourselves. But it’s more often an exercise in a kind of self-slavery: “We seem to relish the way it makes us suffer.” Why do we put such stock in our superego, who is, after all, mainly a reproachful asshole? “Were we to meet this figure socially, this accusatory character, this internal critic, this unrelenting fault-finder, we would think there was something wrong with him. He would just be boring and cruel. We might think that something terrible had happened to him, that he was living in the aftermath, in the fallout, of some catastrophe. And we would be right.” There follows a fascinating Freudian reading of Hamlet, a meditation on cowardice, and a careful deconstruction of the superego, from whose ridiculousness Phillips draws an inspired conclusion. “Just as the overprotected child believes that the world must be very dangerous,” he writes, “so we have been terrorized by all this censorship and judgment into believing that we are radically dangerous to ourselves and others.” —Dan Piepenbring

When I saw the first installment of Knausgaard’s travelogue for the New York Times Magazine, I thought of Ilf and Petrov’s American Roadtrip, their account of driving around the U.S. for ten weeks in 1935. But in truth, the two chronicles have little in common. Where Knausgaard is expansive and self-seeking, Ilf and Petrov are witty and concisely observant. “And on a chilly November morning we left New York for America,” they write, later finding the archetype of the American landscape at “an intersection of two roads and a gasoline station against a ground of wires and advertising signs.” Both Ilf and Petrov had experience in journalism—they met while working for the proletariat magazine Gudok—but I hadn’t read this early work until this week, when I saw Steven Volynets’s translation in Asymptote of a 1923 feuilleton by Ilf called “A Country That Didn’t Have October.” It’s an atmospheric recitation of the waves of occupation and retreat in Odessa during the civil war and World War I. Volynets calls it an “atomization” of the city’s fervor, and I was frequently reminded of Mayakovsky’s brash, agitated poems. Of 1917, Mayakovsky writes, “The drum of war thunders and thunders. / It calls: thrust iron into the living,” to which Ilf adds a description of the “worker provinces … where the factory smokestacks and horns ominously billowed and tooted. The [revolutionaries’] gaze fell upon the black depot, on the flurried seaport, on the rumbling, ringing, groaning railroad shops.” —Nicole Rudick

If you liked Leslie Jamison’s Empathy Exams or Charles D’Ambrosio’s Loitering, try Steven Church’s latest collection, Ultrasonica group of essays brought together by the theme of sound. Church at times seems to say, I make noise, therefore I am. He dissects the nature of sound waves in a racquetball court, counts the seconds between lightning and thunder, and listens for signs of life from trapped Chilean miners—and his digressions invariably come back around to sucker punch you. Church uses sound to explore notions of masculinity and fatherhood, love and death. He elaborates on his methods and inspirations in an interview with Jacket Copy: “I did a Google search for ‘blue noise’ … I read a sentence that said, ‘Blue noise makes a good dither,’ and, though I had no idea what it meant, I loved how it sounded. The sentence became a puzzle that I wanted to solve and, before I knew it, something like a book project began to take shape as individual essays, each focused on sound in some way.” —Jeffery Gleaves
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