The Daily

This Week’s Reading

Staff Picks: Philosophical Falconry, Monologuing Masseuses

May 15, 2015 | by

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A still from the video for Holly Herndon’s “Interference.”

NH477_GAndrés Barba’s August, October starts off full of charm: a teenage boy from Madrid ditches his family and the beach club to hang out with the local kids in a seaside town. Slowly the atmosphere darkens as he tries to adopt their code of violence. Although Barba has translated Melville, Conrad, and Defoe into Spanish, the writer whose ghost haunts August, October unmistakably is Harold Brodkey, with his deep interest in adolescent sexuality and his ability to conjure the last frontiers of childhood. Like Brodkey, Barba inhabits his young hero with a clarity that is both sympathetic and unflinching. —Lorin Stein

On Game of Thrones last Sunday, Stannis Baratheon won the hearts of grammar dorks everywhere when he corrected a soldier of the Night’s Watch who had made a fewer/less mistake. (Stannis is a stickler: he made the same correction in season two.) Though he is sometimes boring and occasionally creepy, Stannis pays attention to detail in a way that is not niggling but noteworthy, indicative of someone comfortable with power. Honestly, at that moment in the episode, I thought for a moment of Mary Norris, a “page OK’er” at The New Yorker and a self-proclaimed “comma queen,” who tells a story in her memoir, Between You and Me, about the surprising power she wields: “when [a young editorial assistant] heard I was a copy editor she jumped back, as if I might poke her with a red-hot hyphen or force-feed her a pound of commas.” But Norris isn’t Stannis—she’s far too entertaining and modest and candid; she devotes whole chapters (paeans, really) to pencils, commas, and hyphens. (Maybe she’s Sam? He did kill a White Walker, but he’s far more interested in scouring the library to figure out how he managed to do it.) —Nicole Rudick Read More »

Staff Picks: Crosscurrents, Kandy Kat, Casino Cohesion

May 8, 2015 | by

Charles Burchfield, Tile Roof, 1930–43, watercolor, gouache, and charcoal on paper, mounted on board, 24 3/8" x 35 7/8". Photo via D.C. Moore

In my mind, I’ve created a dream exhibition of portraiture by Alice Neel, Mickalene Thomas, and Hope Gangloff: crosscurrents of eroticism, identity, bodies, and embellishment. For now, I’ll settle for a show of new portraits by Gangloff, whose paintings are gratifyingly overstuffed with garish details rendered in contrasting patterns and in nips of fluorescent orange and extravagant swathes of hot pink. There’s a funny play between color and patterning in her work—the elements are at once discordant and of a piece, excessive and sensible. There’s something of that, too, in Charles Burchfield’s watercolors, on view a couple blocks south. Burchfield saw a second plane of reality, a spiritual palimpsest shimmering over the world you and I see. The scenes he painted are heightened versions of the real thing, electrified and otherworldly but always recognizable. In a study of what looks like a denuded landscape, his ghostly outlines of trees become visible, lightly filling in and giving life to the empty hills. Color also seems to exist in the spiritual realm. A note on an ink sketch reads, “Leaves a hot red (tinged with umber?), as glowing embers of a dying fire.” —Nicole Rudick
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Staff Picks: Grim Reaper Hex, Ouija Board Sex

May 1, 2015 | by

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Iris Apfel, in Iris.

The_Hidden_World_Jim_Shaw_0002_Layer_2_1024x1024The artist Jim Shaw began collecting printed media when he was still a teenager, and his extensive archive, which serves as a primary source of inspiration for his paintings, was recently published as The Hidden World. The small book is made to resemble a bible: the edges of the pages are stained red, and the black cover bears only the gold-embossed title. The roughly five hundred images are presented without captions or commentary and were originally produced for pedagogical religious purposes: Freemason, fundamentalist Christian, Mormon, Rosicrucianism, Jehovah’s Witness, Opus Dei, Branch Davidian, and much more. “The Hidden World” was shown as an exhibition a few years ago, but in book form, the same images don’t have the feel of artworks. If it’s a book, you can read it—whether the pages are filled with words or pictures. The unbridged sequences between various brands of faith create a strange narrative: from, say, Left Behind pop culture to beatific Christendom, homemade cultism to UFO-related arcana. A Bill Mauldin cartoon featuring the grim reaper at work sits across the page from a book cover that reads “Good News to Make You Happy.” It’s a creepy book, especially if you aren’t a member of any of these clubs, but it also testifies to how deeply people want to believe. —Nicole Rudick

I was lucky enough to attend the New York premiere of Albert Maysles’s last documentary, Iris. As one might expect, the film offers no shortage of celebration for the buoyant and idiosyncratic style of Iris Apfel; well into her nineties, she’s still very much a commanding force in the world of fashion. But what interested me more than Iris’s style were the glimpses into the relationship between the “Rare Bird of Fashion” and Maysles himself, whose presence, more often than not, manifests only as a voice from behind his camera. To me, the film was an endearing look at two aging artists brought together by the longevity of their art—and, more largely, a tribute to their indefatigable grace. —Stephen Andrew Hiltner

hammerbookcoverFrom a distance, I’d always cast a cool eye on James Merrill’s epic poem The Changing Light at Sandover—his famous experiments with Ouija boards struck me as superstitious gimmickry, a rich boy’s attempt to swath himself in the aura of Yeatsian occultism. Well, file that under “moronic snap judgment.” Langdon Hammer’s new biography, James Merrill: Life and Art, has shown me the light. Merrill, who led a truly singular life, came to the Ouija board not for some self-serious dalliance with the afterworld but to buttress his playful, skeptical, fecund approach to poetics; as Hammer writes, he “renewed poetry’s ancient task of soliciting speech from the gods. He activated a source of inspiration existing in language itself.” And I hadn’t known that the poet and his partner, David Jackson, used the board in 1955 to commune with Wallace Stevens, who had just died and who expanded their sexual vocabulary from a higher plane: “‘Do you not know the lovely prologue kissing of nostrils, tongue in nostril and on rims?’ He described scenes of sex at court with Ethiopian slaves, dogs, oils, multiple positions and partners, and a tiger licking sweets from the genitals of the orgiasts.” —Dan Piepenbring

Stefan Zweig is one of those writers who mastered the art of memory—reading his short stories on prewar Vienna feels like walking into a sepia photograph. “Mendel the Bibliophile” definitely has that effect. The misfit book peddler Jakob Mendel, endowed with an encyclopedic memory, is typical of the vanished Vienna Zweig is always mourning in his work: a breeding ground for intellectuals where old books are cherished like secular relics, a comfortable, stimulating cocoon, doomed to splinter during the war. The tenderness of its nostalgia makes “Mendel” a gem. —Charlotte Groult

Staff Picks: Man-boys, Musicals, Multimillionaires

April 24, 2015 | by

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From the cover of Sphinx.

thirlwell“In one corner of the room there was a television, and I find it difficult to avoid a television—not because I am so intent on the game shows and confessions, but just because a moving image is very difficult to ignore. If I’m trying to read on one of those ancient planes where they silently display the film on a screen at the front, I keep looking up at it and losing my concentration, just as in the airport lounge already I will have been distracted by the silent news, and the mini frenzy of its montage.” Usually when we say that something sounds like a translation, it’s a bad thing, but Adam Thirlwell’s new novel Lurid & Cute sounds like brainy colloquial English translated into some slightly brainier (more formal? more poetic? more European?) idiom. We don’t go around talking about “ancient planes” or “the game shows and confessions,” but Zeno might. That interplay between banality and beauty—between the merely cute, or merely lurid, and deep ironic observation—kept me hurrying back to the book. It is, as James Wood might say, “unreliably unreliable”—either a parody or else the end point of a certain kind of wide-eyed man-boy narrator, like Jonathan Safran Foer on crystal, with a gun. —Lorin Stein

“The incident was really quite typical, but still curious … And that’s all.” Most of Daniil Kharms’s writing could be summed up this way—this is, in fact, the way he began and ended a certain forty-five-word story. Several of his stories end with “And that’s it, more or less” and plenty more do so in spirit. They’re so casually, almost indifferently, related that they read like fables—inexhaustible, with an underlying wisdom or moral that, in the case of Kharms’s work, is difficult to pinpoint. That’s because, as Ian Frazier points out in his wonderful recent essay in The New York Review of Books, Kharms’s work falls into a “subgenre of cheerfully moronic writing” that rejects any form of rationality. It’s a kind of humor that can easily get lost in translation (or not—I wonder how many Russians get it). Frazier’s piece sent me running back to my own copy of Today I Wrote Nothing, a selection of Kharms’s writing. I find that reading his prose and poetry requires a kind of release, a letting go of expectations and a faith that the nonsense will pay off. And it does. A man pummels another man with his dentures. A man meets another man who’s bought bread. A succession of women fall out the window until the narrator gets tired of watching. And that’s it, more or less. —Nicole Rudick Read More »

Staff Picks: Connoisseurs, Contact, Cats

April 17, 2015 | by

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From the cover of the Spring 2015 issue of The Normal School.

9780300149425Like many gifted people, connoisseurs are often bad at explaining what they do. At the turn of the last century, Bernard Berenson was the most influential and successful connoisseur of Italian Renaissance art. With a superhuman visual memory, an old-fashioned belief in beauty for its own sake, and rapacious personal charm, this son of working-class Jewish immigrants climbed to the top of robber-baron society. Yet Berenson considered himself a failure as an art theorist, and he went out of his way to sully his hands with shady business deals, blurring the line between worldly success and self-abasement. This is the story Rachel Cohen tells in her engrossing capsule biography Bernard Berenson: A Life in the Picture Trade, a sympathetic portrait of a self-seeking but passionate lover of art. —Lorin Stein

I’ve been exploring Periscope, a new app in which users live stream video and interact with their audience in real time. Its uses are variously creepy (“If I get 300 viewers, my wife takes her tits out”), frivolous (“Driving thru the car wash, check it!!”), and fascinating (“Watch me feed my ten-foot python”)—but at its best it seems to bring a new intimacy to social media. “The Future of Loneliness,” Olivia Laing’s new essay in the Guardian, speaks to the fragility of that intimacy, and asks what networked life is doing to our ability to connect. I know: it’s familiar territory. But Laing avoids both the alarmism and Pollyannaism that so often mark essays about technology. She identifies the unique double-bind of life online, which affords us unprecedented control over our image while making us ever more vulnerable. “We aren’t as solid as we once thought,” she writes. “We are embodied but we are also networks, living on inside machines and in other people’s heads; memories and data streams. We are being watched and we do not have control. We long for contact and it makes us afraid. But as long as we are still capable of feeling and expressing vulnerability, intimacy stands a chance.” —Dan Piepenbring

It would be hard for any book-lover to imagine a more idyllic scene: thirty-two thousand books housed among a slew of renovated buildings on an 1,800-acre ranch in the foothills of Mount Silverheels. Lucky for us, it’s a scene that’s soon to become a reality. Ann Martin and Jeff Lee are the two Denver-based booksellers behind the Rocky Mountain Land Library, an immensely ambitious project some twenty years in the making. The duo was profiled this week in the New York Times after having found a home, in 2013, for their ever-growing Western-themed collection. As far as this reader is concerned, the only thing that might sweeten the deal would be a Paris Review residency ... —Stephen Andrew Hiltner

Having finally recovered from AWP, I’m reading all the great lit mags I picked up there, one of which, The Normal School, is my second favorite of all time. (You can guess which comes first.) The latest issue’s first essay, “Pig, Sea,” by Timothy Denevi, begins on the shore of Galilee, where we promptly witness more than two thousand pigs—“enormous and low, the light shinning in a pink translucence through their ears”—dive from a cliff into the freshwater lake after being possessed by demons only recently exorcised from a local madman. Waterlogged swine corpses aside, the new issue also contains “Marriage in the Movies,” an essay by Phillip Lopate, who explains why he wasn’t convinced by the marriage in Gone Girl by comparing it with more than twenty other marriages in film; and two poems by the late poet laureate Philip Levine, a longtime friend of the magazine. —Jeffery Gleaves

Website_large_catsA cat might be “just a cat,” as “Life of Cats” curator Miwako Tezuka quips—but her new exhibition of cat-related ukiyo-e (Japanese wood-block paintings) at the Japan Society in Midtown will have you thinking otherwise. Long before Hello Kitty and cute cat clips went viral on YouTube, cats were already substantial players in the Japanese daily routine. They infiltrated every area of life, assuming diverse roles and purposes, appearing everywhere from the patterns of warriors’ kimonos to theatrical masks. There are anthropomorphized cat monsters and, yes, the lucky beckoning cat, Maneki-neko, found in Japanese restaurants around the world. With its colorful paintings, “Life of Cats” provides an accessible entry point, encouraging visitors to investigate the oddities of Japanese culture through the eyes of their most enduring, discreet witnesses.  —Charlotte Groult

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 »