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This Week’s Reading

What We’re Loving: Genealogy, Pathogenecity, Bloomsbury

June 6, 2014 | by

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Detail from Chuck Close’s Emma, which appears on the cover of this month’s Harper’s.

I relish hearing my mother’s crazy tales about her forebears, many of whom got kicked out various European countries, throughout history. And then there’s her maternal grandfather, about whom the stories are legion—they begin with him leaving home at fifteen to fight with Pancho Villa. I often wonder what he and I have in common, whether there is more than blood that connects us. It’s that impulse that partly explains the contemporary obsession with ancestry, as I’ve learned from Maud Newton’s absorbing essay in the June issue of Harper’s. Newton’s research into her family tree has led to revelations about her lineage, but by and large her search seems directed at the branches on which she is borne—her parents—and it describes the central tension in the modern hunt for ancestry: the desire to explain or to explain away certain aspects or ourselves, but also to make some kind of sense of where we come from, without losing sight of who we are as individuals. “We come from our parents, who came from their parents, who descended, as the Bible would put it, from their fathers and their fathers’ fathers,” Newton writes, “and then we enter the world and we become ourselves.” —Nicole Rudick

Angelica Garnett was Bloomsbury royalty: the daughter of Vanessa Bell and niece of Virginia Woolf, she grew up at Charleston, the colorful East Sussex farmhouse that became the movement's literal and spiritual home. Until the age of eighteen, Garnett believed herself to be the daughter of the art critic Clive Bell; in fact, she was the product of her mother’s affair with the artist Duncan Grant, who often made his home at Charleston. At twenty-four, she married fifty-year-old David Garnett—Duncan Grant’s former lover. It should come as no surprise that Garnett’s 1984 memoir Deceived with Kindness: A Bloomsbury Childhood is somewhat … ambivalent. She describes a world ostentatiously devoted to freedom yet still fundamentally hidebound by Victorian convention—in which she and other children were largely casualties of an adult experiment. Even years later, the author’s anger at her parents’ self-absorption is palpable, and she is not necessarily sympathetic herself. It can be uncomfortable reading. But to anyone interested in either the romance or reality of Bloomsbury, I'd recommend it highly. —Sadie Stein

My fiancée and I joke that bacteria and viruses are actually alien life-forms that have been here for billions of years, lying in wait for the chance to wipe humans out. (Look under a microscope and try to disagree.) But in Ed Yong’s fascinating look at bacteria’s pathogenicity, bacteria attack us more by accident, not to assassinate us—people are just “civilian casualties in a much older war” between microbes. Yong writes, “We’re not central actors in the dramas that affect our lives. We’re not even bit players. We are just passers-by, walking outside the theatre and getting hit by flying props.” —Justin Alvarez

Anne Carson’s poem “The Albertine Workout,” which appears in this week’s London Review of Books, is an ineffable marvel—it seems to have emerged from the same winking achronological wormhole that Barthelme’s “Eugenie Grandet” came out of more than forty years ago. —Dan Piepenbring
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What We’re Loving: Dallas, Dubai, Dublin

May 30, 2014 | by

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Three nights ago, the eminent record collector Chris King came by The Paris Review loft to launch his new LP, Alexis Zoumbas: A Lament for Epirus 1926–1928. King arrived with several armfuls of 78s, including Greco-Albanian dirges, a Ukrainian wedding dance, and rare sides by Richard “Rabbit” Brown, Elvie Thomas, Amédée Ardoin, and others who have achieved a measure of posthumous renown on King’s label, Angry Mom Records. As a house present, King gave the Review eighteen test pressings of the Carter Family (“from their most depressing period”), but the song I can’t get out of my head—thanks to our associate editor, Stephen Hiltner, who whistled the first few bars this morning—is “Chasin’ Rainbows,” by the Dallas String Band. Listen at your peril. —Lorin Stein

At a conference on Web design earlier this month, Maciej Ceglowski gave a talk called “The Internet with a Human Face,” a cogent look at the bizarre double lives the Internet forces us to live, the havoc it’s wrought on our concepts of privacy and identity. “A lot of what’s wrong with the Internet has to do with memory,” he says. “The Internet somehow contrives to remember too much and too little at the same time, and it maps poorly on our concepts of how memory should work.” Ceglowski runs pinboard.in, a bookmarking site. Unlike too many in the Silicon Valley set, he’s entirely free of techno-utopianism, but he’s not an alarmist or a fatalist, either. Rather, he’s refreshingly clear-eyed about the state of technology and how we can improve it. “I’m tired of being scared of what the Web is going to look like tomorrow,” he says. “I realized how long it had been since I looked at a new technology with wonder, instead of an automatic feeling of dread.” —Dan Piepenbring

Dubliners turns a hundred in June. “The Dead” is a masterpiece, of course, but I think the best of the stories is “Araby,” whose child protagonist experiences a kind of antirevelation—one of the moments of adolescent wretchedness we all pass through to get to adulthood. The whole experience is conveyed in the twenty-four perfect words of the final sentence: “Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.” —Anna Heyward

When I think of the United Arab Emirates, I think of excess: artificial land shaped like a palm tree in Dubai, a certain Greenwich Village university cloned in downtown Abu Dhabi, and billion-dollar hotels. Reviewing Rowan Moore’s Why We Build in the New York Review of Books, Martin Filler writes, “In Dubai, the much-ballyhooed botanical symbol of a sheltering oasis gives way to a more mundane reality.” Filler describes his working relationship with the commanding architect Zaha Hadid, who has recently come under scrutiny for her lack of concern for the working conditions of the stadium she designed for the 2022 Qatar World Cup. Are such conditions an architect’s responsibility? More important, have we allowed architecture to reach a point where it’s beyond moral consequence? —Justin Alvarez Read More »

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What We’re Loving: Real Struggle, Real Soul, Real Tennis

May 23, 2014 | by

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D’Angelo, right, with Nelson George at the Brooklyn Museum Wednesday night. Photo: Drew Gurian/Red Bull Content Pool

Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle—judging by the half that’s been translated into English—is a tough book for a critic to grapple with: a six-volume autobiographical novel that can spend fifty pages describing a teenage beer run or a second-grader’s first day at school. The book was a sensation when it appeared in Norway, five years ago; since then it has fascinated (and puzzled) many readers in America, from James Wood and Zadie Smith to Jonathan Lethem. Volume Three is my favorite so far, though no doubt the effect is cumulative: I’ve never read such a vivid depiction of ordinary child abuse—the legal, non-sexual kind—from a child’s point of view; I have never seen a writer evoke the world of child’s play so vividly, or the view from the back seat of a car on a long drive. Not everyone feels the love. In The Nation, the irascible William Deresiewicz dismisses My Struggle as a “giant selfie,” wishes Knausgaard wrote more like John Updike or Saul Bellow, and chalks up the enthusiasm of his fans to narcissism: “The spectacle of a fellow author’s self-revelation . . . has obvious professional significance.” It’s rarely a good sign when a reviewer vents his spleen on other readers. For a corrective, see Ben Lerner in the London Review of Books. Lerner notices all the same things as Deresiewicz—Knausgaard’s use of cliche, his digressions, his seeming lack of form or invention—then tries, brilliantly and persuasively, to explain why they work. Lerner places My Struggle in a long tradition of novels at war with novelistic convention, a tradition that he associates with the avant garde and that others might call realism itself. Agree with it or not, this is actual criticism. As Lerner writes: “It’s easy to marshal examples of what makes My Struggle mediocre. The problem is: it’s amazing.” —Lorin Stein

On Wednesday night, I had the great pleasure of seeing an interview with D’Angelo, perhaps the most gifted, elusive artist working in R&B—he’s ascended into the pantheon with Sly Stone and Prince, visionary but inscrutable. With 2000’s Voodoo, D’Angelo made what remains the definitive soul record of the past fifteen years, a languid, earthy tour de force that borrows in equal measure from the church and the street. Since then, he hasn’t released a thing; he’s scarcely even performed in public. So his appearance on Wednesday had a sense of anticipation: would he announce a new album? He didn’t, but he was such a gracious, remarkable, casual speaker that it didn’t matter. NPR has posted a transcript of the conversation, which was held before a sold-out crowd at Brooklyn Museum. It touches on his adolescence in Richmond, Virginia; his painstaking, deeply hermetic recording process; and his gospel-inflected approach to songwriting. Nelson George, the interviewer, put it best when he told D’Angelo, “You’re one of the few people who has mystique, you know that. I mean in the age of TMZ and all that stuff … there’s an aura still about your career. It’s very unusual today for anybody to have any mystery left.” —Dan Piepenbring

I recently unearthed a 1999 LRB review by Edward Said of a tennis anthology edited by the novelist Caryl Phillips. When I think of tennis, I don’t think of Said (nor do I imagine Phillips, for that matter)—all the more reason to give it my attention. I also have a vested interest in tennis. My father grew up in Forest Hills, Queens, and played near the West Side Tennis Club (the club wouldn’t let Jews join, but he did see early professionals such as Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall, and a sixteen-year-old Chris Evert play there); his father played competitive tennis into his early nineties (the pool of players in his age group was quite small, as you might imagine); and I grew up watching tennis matches on television with my parents and trying to learn the sport myself. Though I only sometimes watch Wimbledon or the US Open now, I can tell the stakes have changed. As Said bemoans, tennis has largely lost its amateur class, and its league of professional players are “technical specialists” ruined by commercial interests. Federer is lovely to watch, but his recent dominance of the game was boring. The women’s game, Said points out, retains its “human pace” and “inventiveness.” That no single woman dominates the sport makes the matches more fun to watch, more exciting, more … sporting. —Nicole Rudick

In 1934, Oscar Reutersvärd pioneered the modeling of “impossible objects,” two-dimensional figures that project a three-dimensional object when viewed from a particular direction. The puzzle game “Monument Valley,” available on both iOS and Android, is built on this optical illusion—a sort of architectural Sudoku. It allows the player to interact with the isometric environment of dead-end paths and trick doors, moving the game’s protagonist, Ida, through gaps that seem to defy logic. The game is one of the most beautiful I’ve ever played. It’s like, as many have noted, an M. C. Escher drawing brought to life. The game designer Ken Wong told Wired, “We hope players will stay engaged for the same reasons they might enjoy a walk through a museum or an art gallery.” —Justin Alvarez Read More »

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What We’re Loving: Antrim, Glynn, a Massive Sugar-Woman

May 16, 2014 | by

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Kara Walker, A Subtlety

In the last few years one of my favorite novelists, Donald Antrim, has devoted himself to short stories—not as finger exercises, but with a combined intensity, delicacy, and feeling for tradition that set him apart from any writer of his generation. This morning I finished the galleys of his long-awaited collection, The Emerald Light in the Air, and immediately started reading them again. What is it about Antrim? He writes as if prose were his native language: his sentences have the matter-of-fact pathos and absurdity of dreams. Also, they are often very funny: “An Actor Prepares” remains, after fifteen years, one of the funniest short stories I have ever read. Nowadays the comedy is quieter and darker, with protagonists who struggle to remain within the ranks of the worried well. It’s all up-to-the-minute (you could write a paper about the evolution of cell phones in Antrim’s work), but his themes are the Chekhovian classics—ambivalence toward the life at hand; yearning for the life that might have been—and he evokes unhappy love with a sensuousness and a subtle, plausible magic that recall Cheever at his best. —Lorin Stein

Go see Kara Walker’s massive installation, “A Subtlety,” at the doomed Domino Sugar Factory. The space was once a warehouse for unrefined sugar that arrived from the Caribbean. Now, the air is sticky with molasses; it drips from the ceiling, staining the floor and the factory’s newest resident, a thirty-five-foot sugar-woman in sphinx form, naked but for a headscarf and some earrings. She presides over thirteen boys of molasses and resin who labor on the concrete. And she watches, and whatever she’s watching seems not in this room, seems elsewhere, ahead and behind and beside us. —Zack Newick

Since the death of Thomas Glynn earlier this month, I’ve gone down a rabbit hole of sorts: I’ve tried to locate many of the author’s obscure works, including an 1,800-page unpublished manuscript on the first 150 years of the Dannemora prison, a much shorter history of New York State, an array of short stories, and the occasional essay (don’t miss this great 1975 profile of Frank Zappa from Modern Hi-Fi & Music). Glynn self-published A Child’s Christmas in Chicago in 2002, and while the title may come across as more sentimental than most of Glynn’s oeuvre, think twice after reading the novel’s opening line: “Hey, it’s Christmas for Christ’s sake.” With a touch of the raconteur Jean Shepherd and the voice of a young Gulley Jimson, the story is a mix of oddball characters, whimsy, and the kind of heartbreak that only the Christmas season can bring. —Justin Alvarez

It can be a real relief to read something that isn’t stylized, or even something badly written, after reading Proust, which I have been doing on and off this week. In his excellent essay on volume three of Knausgaard’s My Struggle series, Ben Lerner celebrates Knausgaard’s unquotability and his sloppiness. Moreover, Lerner provides the best answer I’ve yet read on what Knausgaard’s writing does to us, and why we’re so obsessed with it, why “we can read it compulsively while being uncertain if it’s good.” —Anna Heyward Read More »

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What We’re Loving: Lovers, Lizards, Lowry

May 9, 2014 | by

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The Jesus Lizard, in a photograph from The Jesus Lizard Book.

I don’t usually go in for collections of letters; it’s hard to imagine sitting down and reading one cover to cover. But I couldn’t resist picking up a volume of love letters between Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy, in large part because it’s titled The Animals. It sounded sweetly romantic, and it is. Isherwood, some thirty years older than Bachardy, is Dobbin, an old workhorse; Bachardy is Kitty. Though they discuss all manner of subjects in the body of the letters—dinners, friends, business, and art—they are topped and tailed (no pun intended) with joyful, intimate love: “I feel a need to tell Kitty today how dearly Dobbin loves him and how faithfully he waits and guards the stable until Kitty’s return. Dub has been quite off his feed since Kitty hasn’t been there to tempt him with morsels held by those pure paws.” Bachardy sometimes even includes cutouts of fluffy white kittens in his missives. Apart from the adorableness, there is, of course, other great stuff here: not least, Isherwood’s coining of the word psychofiesta. —Nicole Rudick

“You’re eighty-two years old. You’ve shrunk six centimeters, you only weigh forty-five kilos yet you’re still beautiful, graceful and desirable. We’ve lived together now for fifty-eight years and I love you more than ever. I once more feel a gnawing emptiness in the hollow of my chest that is only filled when your body is pressed next to mine.” That’s the beginning of philosopher André Gorz’s Letter to D, written to his dying wife. A year later, the couple took their own lives, together. The book itself is slim—as the friend who sent it to me wrote, you can read it on the crosstown bus—but it contains a fully realized true love story. —Sadie Stein

Nothing grates like a self-mythologizing coffee-table book, but in the case of the Jesus Lizard’s new tome—called, simply, The Jesus Lizard Book—you can forgive any aura of congratulation. These guys deserve to pat themselves on the back. One of the finest, most primal rock bands of the nineties, they drew a cult following in that they seemed to be, in fact, a cult, with David Yow the deranged high priest and David Wm. Sims his brooding voodoo-deacon. If the spectacular photography in The Jesus Lizard Book is to be believed, their shows resembled nothing more than that scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom where some poor dude has his still-beating heart removed in an elaborate ritual. (In the world of the Jesus Lizard, everyone is in the Black Sleep of Kali Ma.) Granted, Yow could be an oblique shock-jock—“I had a tendency to pull my balls out and hold them glistening up to the microphone,” he says—but at his best, he was as compelling a frontman and lyricist as anyone in music. In, say, “Karpis” (“Alvin’s feelin’ restless, cellblock H / A carton of smokes for ten minutes of pleasure”) his lyrics have a gritty economy, telling an unmistakably terrifying story without having to spell anything out. —Dan Piepenbring

While reading through an interview—blind item!—that’s running in our upcoming issue, I was led by a series of Google searches to a would-be epitaph written by Malcolm Lowry:

Malcolm Lowry
Late of the Bowery
His prose was flowery
And often glowery
He lived, nightly, and drank, daily,
And died playing the ukulele

The “Death by Misadventure” tag in his coroner’s report calls the ukulele bit into question (or does it?)—and Lowry’s actual tombstone, it turns out, isn’t quite so literarily engraved—but the verse did remind me of another of my favorite would-be epitaphs, that of W. C. Fields. When asked by Vanity Fair, in 1925, to contribute to a piece called, fittingly, “A Group of Artists Write Their Own Epitaphs,” he came up with this, a riff on his running (and playful) disdain for the City of Brotherly Love: “Here lies W. C. Fields. I would rather be living in Philadelphia.” —Stephen Andrew Hiltner
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What We’re Loving: Spiders, Spaces, Stinkin’-Hot Nights

May 2, 2014 | by

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An exhibition image from Marc Yankus’s “The Space Between,” at ClampArt.

If I had to teach a class on the Framing Device, the first thing I’d make them read is Jeremias Gotthelf’s 1842 novella The Black Spider, recently published in a new and (to this non-German-reader) magical translation by Susan Bernofsky. The opening scene is a christening in the Swiss countryside: idyllic, sentimental, lovingly detailed. Then one of the guests notices a strange blackened post in the house where the festivities are held, an old man begins to tell the story of how it got there … and in no time things have gotten very weird indeed, and they continue weird even when the story ends, the idyll stained by the past. A fairytale for grownups, an early horror story, an allegory of the Black Death or of sin—however you read it, it has the deep logic of a dream. —Lorin Stein

Sometimes I’ll Google some nouns with a writer’s name, hoping to discover that said writer has miraculously published a piece about said nouns. This usually doesn’t work out for me—zero results for “Norman Rush + Botswana + heavy-metal leather subculture,” and zero more for “Jonathan Lethem + Larry Levan + Paradise Garage + disco”—but lightning can strike, as it did with “Richard Ben Cramer + baseball + Baltimore.” That led me to Cramer’s “A Native Son’s Thoughts (Many of Them Heretical) About Baltimore (Which Isn’t What It Used to Be), Baseball (Which Isn’t What It Used to Be) and the Steadfast Perfection of Cal Ripken Jr. (Which Is Ever Unchanging, Fairly Complicated and Truly Something to Behold),” published in Sports Illustrated circa 1995. Hot dog! As its forty-four-word title indicates, this piece has it all. There’s baseball, which, for reasons that remain unclear, I’ve begun to enjoy watching; there’s Baltimore, where I grew up; and there’s the vigorous prose from Cramer, whose masterpiece on the 1988 election, What It Takes, I’ve just finished, thus creating a void that can only be filled with more Cramer. When I read the first clause (“It’s a stinkin’-hot night at the ballpark”) I knew I was safe for a little while longer. —Dan Piepenbring

The Space Between,” Marc Yankus’s show at Clamp Art, is on now through May 17; it reveals a new side of the artist. His earlier images explored his love of color washes and blurred shapes—photography that sometimes looked as though it had been printed on a wet surface. With this new body of work, Yankus has written a love letter to the stonemasons, bricklayers, and architects of an ever-evolving New York City landscape. The detail captured in these photographs is unreal and meditative; he’s shot these monumental buildings sometimes at great heights and always from their best angles. A master of minute detail, Yankus invites us to study the individual bricks right down to the fine cement layers that seal them together. Though people are ever-present in these works, there’s not a soul to be found. It lends a ghostly beauty to these prints, making it exceedingly difficult to pick a favorite. —Charlotte Strick

I’ve been reading Adam Shatz’s vivid remembrance of the journalist and historian Patrick Seale, who died last month. Seale wrote the two best books on modern Syrian politics, in English or any other language. The Ba’athists in Damascus trusted him and the Western spymasters learned from him. And what a time it was for foreign correspondents, especially if you lived in Beirut. As Shatz writes, “It was the Mad Men era of Middle East reporting, a time of high living and high-stakes intrigue … The correspondent’s calendar was marked by revolutionary conspiracies; many were first reported as rumors, sometimes overheard at the bar of the St. George Hotel, where spies, arms dealers, diplomats and other adventurers gathered at the end of the day.” —Robyn Creswell Read More »

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