The Daily

This Week’s Reading

Our Contributors Pick Their Favorite Books of the Year

December 11, 2015 | by

From Voyage of the Sable Venus.

In place of our usual staff picks this week, we’ve asked five contributors from our new Winter issue to recommend their favorite books of the year. Read More »

Staff Picks: Cuppy, Cloverleaves, Captain Cunt

December 4, 2015 | by

Illustration by Ed Nofziger, from How to Attract the Wombat, by Will Cuppy.

Lovers of dictionaries and nature can rejoice in John Stilgoe’s new book, What Is Landscape? Stilgoe, who holds the enviable title of Orchard Professor in the History of Landscape at Harvard, wanders the etymology of the landscape lexicon, from the ancient Hebrew word kittor (meaning a stream of water, but also a pillar of smoke) to the difference between a cart path and a cow path. He manages here, as in other of his books, to abut the old and the new, the outmoded and the contemporary in such a way that the differences are plain but the connections between them are still vital—in the way, say, a plowed field abuts a brushy fence line and the beach abuts both the sea and the edge of human civilization. These are marginal spaces, constructed spaces, spaces “easily taken for granted, all too easily half seen.” His examination of highway cloverleafs is particularly good. Though not villages in any sense, they nonetheless provide the basic commercial services of one, and he links them fluidly to their counterparts in the past: “Especially in rural and wilderness areas, the ‘sparsely settled regions’ that slightly unnerve urban and suburban travelers, every cloverleaf might be the isolated tavern or inn of European and British folktale.” —Nicole Rudick

On Nicole’s recommendation, I’ve been reading The Strange Hours Travelers Keep, the Griffin Poetry Prize–winning collection by August Kleinzahler. It’s as good as she says. I’m drawn to poems that revel in their own grit—ones that knead sex and death and deadpan humor in with the erudite and the literary; in Strange Hours, such moments come in delectable little bursts. In a poem to the philosopher Aristippus there’s a “Captain Cunt of the Roaring Forties”; in another, a young woman is chewed out for her unflattering exposé of an ex-lover: “ … Mark, who kissed and indulged you, opened his heart, / only to have you pick up your pen to write / about his belligerent penis …” Kleinzahler takes us to the natatorium, the marketplace, the Oxford River; he introduces us to Calliope and Erato and Lewis Bernard Castel; and all the while he muses on the peculiar hours we keep to eat, to fuck, to pass the time. And yet, my favorite lines are far tenderer. They’re from “After Lady Murakami”: “Just as I found myself / in the dentist chair / only yesterday / hands clenched against my thighs / so I find myself here / in this seat / heart in my throat / as you walk into the room.” —Caitlin Youngquist Read More »

Staff Picks: Conspiracy, Camaraderie, Catsup

November 20, 2015 | by

From the cover of The Mark and the Void.

Two days ago I gathered up a big stack of submissions to read over lunch … but I also took our brand-new office copy of Mary Beard’s SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome. Just in case I ran out of stuff to read, was my ridiculous thinking. The next time I looked up, an hour later, I was late for a meeting and deep in the heart of the Catiline conspiracy, and hadn’t even asked for the check, or looked at a single short story. I’ve promised myself I won’t open the book again until Thanksgiving. —Lorin Stein

In 1917, a Yale professor of public speaking named Grenville Kleiser published Fifteen Thousand Useful Phrases: A Practical Handbook of Pertinent Expressions, Striking Similes, Literary, Commercial, Conversational, and Oratorical Terms, for the Embellishment of Speech and Literature, and the Improvement of the Vocabulary of Those Persons Who Read, Write, and Speak English. I’m about two thousand useful phrases in, and let me tell you, this thing moves. It reads like an epic poem written in concert at the stuffiest dinner party in New Haven history. Of especial utility is section seven, on “Literary Expressions,” full of well-wrought piffle fit for the impending holiday-party season. You’ll want to commit “A campaign of unbridled ferocity” to memory. And “The nameless and inexpressible fascination of midnight music.” And “She bandies adjectives with the best.” And “A shadow of melancholy touched her lithe fancies, as a cloud dims the waving of golden grain”—plenty of occasions to put that one to good use. And (last one, I promise, though I’m going to have to devote a whole post to these some day) “The multiplicity of odors competing for your attention.” With these and roughly 14,995 other phrases at your disposal, you’ll be able to aggravate and annoy even your closest friends. —Dan Piepenbring Read More »

Staff Picks: Stray Dogs, Stereographs, Pepsi Sex Floats

November 13, 2015 | by

Detail from one of Jim Shaw’s “Dream Objects,” on display now at the New Museum.

Sleep doesn’t always come easy for me, so I was drawn to Linda Pastan’s new collection of poems just from its title: Insomnia. Pastan muses on the daydreams the sleepless have at night, the small histories that emerge as each day wanes. Her narrators sit up wishing their gnarled skin was as beautiful as an apple tree’s, or remembering the “fascinated nightmares” the woodcut novels of Lynd Ward inspired. They think about Lucas Cranach the Elder’s Adam and Eve and the poet Roland Flint and the way asteroids resemble giant brains plucked from their skulls. Though the title suggests otherwise, Pastan writes oneirically, knitting gentle verse together with playful, if often somber, scenes. In “Counting Sheep,” Pastan writes of how restless the sheep are, waiting to be added up: “I notice a ram / pushing up against a soft and curly female … It’s difficult / to keep so many sheep / in line for counting ... ” In “Insomnia: 3 AM,” “Sleep has stepped out / for a smoke / and may not be back”—I just love that. —Caitlin Youngquist

Jim Shaw’s “The End Is Here” is up through January 10 at the New Museum: three floors chockablock with thrift-store paintings, extreme Christian ephemera, and Shaw’s own distinctly outré drawings, paintings, and collages. J. Hoberman has written that “although [Shaw’s] obsessive faux naïve work dares you to find it creepy, it is more often strangely cheerful, as well as enigmatic.” This holds true no matter how outrageous his images are: two aliens fucking on a UFO flight deck, Santa getting his dick bitten off. Shaw’s is a world where even an exsanguinated penis is nothing more than a lark; Freudians need not apply. Then there’s the artist’s collected stuff—from junk piles and yard sales, Shaw has compiled some significant American detritus, and his arrangements make it all more cohesive than you’d expect. Stick around long enough and even the titles for his dream drawings start to make sense: “I was drawing a Pepsi sex float … ” “In Reno there was a Titanic mockup where a girl … ” “I think I was half awake when I thought of this upright piano modeled after the cave monster from It Conquered the World … ” —Dan Piepenbring Read More »

Staff Picks: Wood on the Fire, Wood on the Flume

November 6, 2015 | by

Slava Korotki in his handmade boat on the Barents Sea. Photo: Evgenia Arbugaeva, via The Guardian

The banker and poet Samuel Rogers (1763–1855) spent his life at the center of political and literary London. He knew everyone (both Wordsworth and Tennyson borrowed his court suit for royal occasions), and like the Brothers Goncourt—or a Regency Renata Adler—he had a nightly habit of writing up his dinner conversations. As Christopher Ricks observes in a preface to Rogers’s Table-Talk & Recollections, Rogers loved to repeat other people’s gossip. But he loved to record their quirks and sayings, too. Of the Whig leader Charles James Fox, for example: “Very candid—Retracts instantly—continually putting wood on the fire.” “He loves children.” “Josephine a very pleasing woman.” Most interesting for me are the private literary opinions of Rogers’s powerful friends, who talk about Milton, Pope, and the classics very much in the tone of late-night Dylanologists two centuries later, and at the same passionate level of detail. —Lorin Stein

While this may be remembered as the week virtual reality went mainstream, I found myself absorbed in a more time-tested medium—a portfolio of photographs, “Weather Man,” by Evgenia Arbugaeva. Arbugaeva, who grew up in the Russian Arctic, spent several weeks visiting a remote meteorological station in Khodovarikha, one in which data on wind speed, precipitation, visibility, water levels, and the like are still measured and recorded by hand—by Vyacheslav “Slava” Korotki, the station’s resident meteorologist. Slava lives and works in isolation, in a station built in, and by all measures still reminiscent of, 1933. Says Arbugaeva (and so her photos attest): “He doesn’t have a sense of self the way most people do. It’s as if he were the wind, or the weather itself.” —Stephen Andrew Hiltner Read More »

Spooky Staff Picks: Bat Bombs, Phoney Phootey

October 30, 2015 | by

Dorothea Tanning, Guardian Angels, 1946, oil on canvas, 48 1/8" x 35".

Last Halloween we recommended some things that scared us. But there are many such things—we’re easily frightened—so this year we’re doing it again. Stay spooky.

In college, I took a seminar about female Surrealist artists—Remedios Varo, Unica Zürn, Claude Cahun, and Dorothea Tanning, et al. Many of these women’s life stories were harrowing, and their artwork, which often mines frightening psychological territory, is dark, humorous, visionary, and uncanny. It still creeps me out. Dorothea Tanning’s paintings, for instance, are full of tattered clothing and deserted hallways. They’re haunted by somnambulant young girls and oddly sentient sunflowers. Her painting Guardian Angels scares me whenever I look at it: strange, ragged, winged creatures that look like vicious, plucked chickens swirl and tear at each other, rippling with some obscene energy. Later in life, Tanning made forays into sculpture, fashioning soft, upholstered structures that ooze across the boundary between furniture and human figure. My favorite work of Tanning’s is The Birthday, a self-portrait in which she has painted herself stepping through an open door into a corridor that’s full of other doorways. A monster—sort of like one of the flying monkeys from The Wizard of Oz—huddles, couchant, at her feet, and her expression is otherworldly. Is she letting this beast in or sending him across another threshold? —Hannah LeClair Read More »