The Daily

This Week’s Reading

Staff Picks: Cat-and-mouse Games, a Miasma of Cuddles

February 13, 2015 | by

FIFTY SHADES OF GREY

A still from Fifty Shades of Grey.

Among the more consistent sets of questions to appear in Paris Review interviews are those regarding one’s influences. It’s a funny line to track throughout the Writers at Work series—and one, I’d venture, that often says a lot about a given writer’s ego. (Watch, for example, as Robert Frost bristles at the suggestion of an affinity between his work and that of Faulkner or Wallace Stevens, or as Nabokov denies having learned anything from James Joyce.) But aside from allowing for the pleasure of watching certain writers shift in their seats, these kinds of questions can also introduce me to writers I haven't heard of, or writers I should have paid more attention to. In her soon-to-be-published Art of Fiction interview, Lydia Davis cites her discovery of Russell Edson’s stories—“He would call them poems,” she says, “but I wouldn’t”—as a major turning point in the development of her style. I couldn’t help but dart off to find a few myself, much to my enjoyment. —Stephen Andrew Hiltner

When Fifty Shades of Grey was first published, it was a cheap thrill to watch the critical bons mots pile up—we had the book reviewers’ equivalent of a home-run derby, with zingers for dingers. I remember Andrew O’Hagan, writing in the LRB, taking aim at the novel’s arrantly vanilla kinkiness: “I suspect the book has taken the world’s mums by storm because there’s no mess on the carpet and there are hot showers afterwards. Everybody is comfortable and everybody is clean: they travel first-class, the rich give presents, the man uses condoms, and everything dark is resolved in a miasma of cuddles.” Now the film is out, and another team of critics is at bat. It’s too early to declare a winner, but surely bonus points should be awarded to those who manage to trash the book and the movie in one fell swoop, as Anthony Lane has. “We should not begrudge E. L. James her triumph,” he writes, “for she has, in her lumbering fashion, tapped into a truth that often eludes more elegant writers—that eternal disappointment, deep in the human heart, at the failure of our loved ones to acquire their own helipad.” —Dan Piepenbring

William Vollmann’s piece in this month’s Harper’s,Invisible and Insidious,” focuses on the fallout, both nuclear and financial, of the Fukushima radiation leak. The media wants big, explosive stories, but that’s not the way nuclear fallout works, as evident by the climbing numbers, “one or two digits per day,” on the dosimeter Vollmann keeps in his house in Sacramento, California. On several trips to Japan, Vollmann ventures near the “Forbidden Zone,” the twenty-kilometer radius around Plant No. 1, whose level of radioactive contamination makes the area “unlivable.” Most striking, as always, is Vollmann’s attention to the poor people in the area surrounding Fukushima—those whose businesses are failing, those on the hook for mortgages, and those among the 150,000 nuclear refugees. When NPR asked him about his extreme form of immersion journalism and whether he was worried about the radiation he’d exposed himself to, Vollman said, “I’m an older person … I’m going to die in any event, so I have less to fear. And I would really like to try to do some good in the world before I die and, you know, if I get cancer as a result, it’s no real loss. The more I see of, you know, the disasters that nuclear power can cause, the more I think I would really like to describe this and help people share my alarm.” —Jeffery Gleaves
Read More »

1 COMMENT

Staff Picks: Tornadoes, Turf Wars, Time Travel

February 6, 2015 | by

girl-boy-man2

From Richard McGuire’s Here. 

In a New Yorker Talk of the Town from last year, the poet Ansel Elkins sits at an outdoor table at the Standard East Village and watches, she says, “the parade of fine-looking men in suits.” I thought of that line as I was reading her forthcoming debut collection, Blue Yodel. Elkins is from Anniston, Alabama (she now lives in Greensboro, North Carolina), and her poems convey the punishing weather, latent violence, and overgrown beauty of the Southern states. One of my favorites is “Tornado,” in which a woman loses her child to the storm: “I watched my daughter fly away / from the grapnel of my arms. Unmoored, / like a skiff she sailed alone out the window.” Among these measured evocations of sometimes wild places is a rather astute depiction of the city, in the poem “Tennessee Williams on Art and Sex,” which takes its title from a 1975 New York Times review of Williams’s memoirs. (Williams, of course, was another Southerner come north.) “Men in gray suits and hats leap graceful over a water-swollen grate / You stop at a corner bodega to light a cigarette, lean against a crate of oranges,” she writes. The poem also deals dexterously with missed connections: “Tell me again about desire and writing. But you don’t hear me.” —Nicole Rudick

The first page of Richard McGuire’s graphic novel, Here, depicts a corner of an empty living room. A date of the top left reads “2014.” The next page is the same vacant room decorated with floral wallpaper and different furniture, in 1957. Next page, same house, different wallpaper and furniture, 1942. As the book proceeds, McGuire inserts multiple “windows” atop the room: snapshots of that same space across time, sometimes stretching back millennia and jumping two hundred years into the future. We see Lenape Indians joking and flirting in the woods in 1609, the catastrophic rise of sea levels in 2126, carpenters building the house in 1907, the primordial swamps of 8,000 B.C.E. Driven less by narrative and more by the juxtaposition, Here is a collage that pits domesticity and the personal, and even civilization, against the flow of time. McGuire, with his command of the rhythm and texture of images, is onto something concerning the way we perceive the temporal; he said about his recent cover for The New Yorker, “As I walk around the city, I’m time-traveling, flashing forward, planning what it is I have to do … Then I have a sudden flashback to a remembered conversation, but I notice a plaque on a building commemorating a famous person who once lived there, and for a second I’m imagining them opening the door.” —Jeffery Gleaves

J. C. Chandor’s first two films, Margin Call and All Is Lost, were impressive pressure cookers, but neither prepared me for the jolt of his latest, A Most Violent Year, which somehow finds tension and high drama in New York City’s heating-oil business circa 1981. Oscar Isaac stars as Abel Morales, the proprietor of Standard Oil, a thriving but beleaguered company facing turf wars with its competitors, violence against its drivers and salesman, and a slew of indictments from the District Attorney’s office, among other problems. In attempting to solve these, Morales enters a mobbed-up, ethical gray zone, where any victory is pyrrhic and the threat of violence always looms. But A Most Violent Year is not a violent movie: it borrows from crime and gangster films without succumbing to their clichés. As Chandor’s camera takes in the blighted outer boroughs and graffitied subways, success, that most self-evident of goals, comes to feel like a slippery abstraction. “Have you ever thought about why you want it so badly?” Morales’s second-in-command asks him at one point. “I don’t know what you mean,” he replies, with scary sincerity. Isaac turns in a career-making performance: steely and suffering, he can say more with the set of his mouth than many actors do with their whole faces. —Dan Piepenbring
Read More »

7 COMMENTS

Staff Picks: Getting On, Getting Away, Getting Organized!

January 30, 2015 | by

Labor,_Management

“Together We Can Do It!”

The latest issue of n+1 opens with an edifying symposium on labor and magazines, two subjects more historically entwined than you might think. Nikil Saval has an excellent primer on the first strike in publishing, and Gemma Sieff tells the still-contentious story of Harper’s unionization—but what really got me was Daniel Menaker’s recollection of tensions at The New Yorker in the seventies, when employees twice tried to stand up for better pay. William Shawn may have been an extraordinary editor, but a manager he was not. “We should have had a policy that after ten years,” he said in a speech to the staff, “if [employees] didn’t rise to something, then they should leave. They’re eccentric, unusual people, and we keep them on.” It’s a lot of inside baseball—I’m not sure, frankly, if anyone who doesn’t work at a magazine will care—but it will nurse the flame of the populist in your soul. And it provides a bracing counternarrative for the publishing industry, which is too often depicted as a kind of rarefied good-old-boys’ cabal. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must agitate for collective bargaining among the staff of a certain literary quarterly. Editors of the world, unite. —Dan Piepenbring

Maybe I’ve been watching too much Girls or Transparent or Togetherness, or reading too much Trollope (see below), but for my money, no comedy on TV can compete with season two of Getting On, a show with old, sick people in it, and with smart, passionate, deluded, lonely protagonists—none of whom is trying to get famous. Such people do exist, and their problems are funny, too. —Lorin Stein

While I was in England a few years ago, someone recommended I arrange to see an Evensong concert. The majesty of the experience doesn’t translate to anything I’ve encountered in the U.S.—the tightly enclosed chapels and their unspeakably beautiful designs, the intensity and reverberation of the voices, the ritual of it all. I was reminded of the experience—one that I repeated as many times as I could—when I came across the Choir of New College Oxford’s version of “Shenandoah.” (Leave it to an Oxonian choir to offer the most hauntingly beautiful version of an American folk song.) —Stephen Andrew Hiltner

The New York Times wrote that Kathleen Ossip’s first collection of poems, The Cold War, “conjures delightful and unexpected muses in this socio-poetical exploration of post-World War II America.” Her second collection, The Do-Over, is an equal delight. It uses the same socio-poetically shrewd eye to consider America’s pop-culture milieu, distilling its own understanding of mortality and death. Unassuming and masterly, Ossip’s poetry is sneaky, very often disguising itself as easy, and surprising you the moment you let your guard down; “her poems are fun and deadly serious at once,” as NPR put it. The Do-Over is a kind of elegy to contemporary culture: it critiques modern life while basking in its ever-younger, glitzier rabble. —Jeffery Gleaves
Read More »

5 COMMENTS

Staff Picks: Country Life, City Life, Future Life

January 23, 2015 | by

91w8S8JboDL

From the cover of The Edge Becomes the Center.

When we ran Sylvain Bourmeau’s interview with Michel Houellebecq earlier this month, a number of readers tweeted their distaste for Houellebecq’s new novel, as described by Bourmeau and by Houellebecq himself. They may want to think again. To American eyes (at least, to mine), Soumission is not a xenophobic screed, nor is it a dire prediction that Muslims will take over France. In the book, Muslims certainly do take over France and impose a form of Sharia. They also impose economic policies based on the theories of G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, and appoint a minister of education with links to the Belgian far right. This is, in other words, a fairy tale premise, played deadpan; Houellebecq uses it to make fun of, and to vent his scorn upon, the firmly secular France of today. Whether it is tactful (or prudent) to invent a Muslim Brotherhood party led by Chestertonians is a fair question, but Houellebecq has never been celebrated for his tact or, thank heavens, for his good sense. —Lorin Stein

Before I picked up DW Gibson’s The Edge Becomes the Center, I would’ve told you it was impossible to write a significant book about gentrification, as fraught and ubiquitous as it is. But Gibson’s oral history, out in May, is a generous, vigorous, and enlightening look at class and space in New York; it ought to be required reading for the next generation of transplants. In the stories of tenants, buyers, landlords, architects, real estate agents, contractors, and politicians, Gibson has found vibrant humanity in a subject that is, paradoxically, lacking in it. If it seems obvious that gentrification is about people, then why has a book like this been so long in coming? The Edge Becomes the Center raises critical questions about what we expect from our cities and how groups become communities. Mainly, though, it’s a joy to read, its chorus of voices a reminder of oral history’s power. Anyone who cares about the shape and gestalt of life in New York—and anyone who believes in cities as centers of culture—will come away moved. —Dan Piepenbring

There are a number of reasons to love Pitchfork’s new interview with Björk: the unabashed feeling with which she discusses her new album; the way she describes trying to unite (sometimes unsuccessfully) motherhood, family, and work; and the glimpse into her extraordinary mind. It’s most important, though, for the candor with which she admits to finding it difficult to be a working woman, that despite her fame and success and obvious talent, she has felt the need to have her ideas annexed by men in order to have them heard. After at least a decade of seeing her own creative efforts passed off in the press as belonging to men, she exhorted herself to speak out: “You’re a coward if you don’t stand up. Not for you, but for women. Say something.” Her experiences—for instance, that “everything a guy says once, you have to say five times”—are now a refrain among women. (How did we cope before we’d coined mansplaining?) But the elephant turd on the carpet, as Rebecca Solnit once called it, should be pointed out at every opportunity. —Nicole Rudick

I first heard about Ben Metcalf’s Against the Country from The Paris Review’s Southern editor, John Jeremiah Sullivan. Set in poor, rural Virginia, Against the Country is narrated by an unnamed farm boy who was “worked like a jackass for the worst part of my childhood, and offered up to climate and predator and vice, and introduced to solitude, braced against hope, and dangled before the Lord our God, and schooled in the subtle truths and blatant lies of a half life in the American countryside.” The narrator’s father wants to flee town for a simpler life, so the family moves from suburban Indiana to Goochland, Virginia, where the narrator spends his later days ruminating over the evil they found in the country soil. Against the Country doesn’t preach against rural America’s perceived moral superiority—it holds it up, allowing readers to examine its farcical nature. Hilarious and dark, like most of Metcalf’s writing, the novel and its thick, rambling sentences had control of me from beginning to end. —Jeffery Gleaves
Read More »

2 COMMENTS

Staff Picks: Diarists, Dowsing, Dolphin-safe Tuna

January 16, 2015 | by

Egon_Schiele_057

Egon Schiele, Portrait of Gertrude Schiele, 1909.

In 1995, on a trip to Australia, the performance artist and writer Kathy Acker met McKenzie Wark, a new-media theorist. They had a weekend-long affair and then, on Acker’s return to San Francisco, engaged in a candid two-week e-mail correspondence—now published for the first time—in which gossip, cultural criticism, daily activities, queer theory, and personal problems are inextricably tangled. A searching discussion of Blanchot, Bataille, and totalitarianism is together with a back-and-forth about pissing and coming at the same time. Very quickly, the gendered sex talk—of butch, femme, and super-femme; straight girls and queer ones; gay guys, straight guys, and just “guys”—becomes confused: Who’s talking about whom? But it doesn’t matter. As Acker says, “Me, straight queer gay whatever and where do nut cakes like me fit in who like getting fistfucked whacked and told what to do?” Wark responds, “I like this idea of a refusal to be called other. As normal as the next human.” Acker died not two years later of breast cancer. This book is a wonderful reminder of her quick mind and remarkable intellect. How lucky Wark was to have gotten it all firsthand. “I forgot who I am,” he writes to Acker. “You reminded me of who I prefer to be.” —Nicole Rudick

“What I love about university libraries,” Susan Howe says in her interview with The Paris Review, “is that they always seem slightly off-limits, therefore forbidden. I feel I’ve been allowed in with my little identity card and now I’m going to be bad.” How bad? Dowsing for buried manuscripts is, she says, a kind of “civilly disobedient telepathy.” Howe’s new book, Spontaneous Particulars: The Telepathy of Archives, is an elegiac essay for the old archives of paper and ink, now being off-sited by digital technologies. The book pieces together Howe’s work on the papers of the eighteenth-century divine Jonathan Edwards with the third book of William Carlos Williams’s Paterson, about the burning of the library. I can’t think of another work that evokes the romance of research in the way this one does. It captures that moment when you find exactly the thing you didn’t know you were searching for. —Robyn Creswell

Keep an eye out for Elliot Ackerman’s first novel, Green on Blue, coming next month. Ackerman, who served five tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, caught my attention in recent weeks with essays in the New York Times Magazine (on skateboarding in Southbank) and The New Yorker (on a visit he paid to a military outpost on the front line of the war with ISIS), both of which betray the informed sensitivity of his observations. (If you dig deeper into ’net history, you’ll find his reflections on Fallujah.) Green on Blue, already on the Times’s Reading List of Modern War Stories, tells the story of a young boy coming of age in Afghanistan—the premise of which, alone, serves as an impressive act of empathy. —Stephen A. Hiltner Read More »

2 COMMENTS

Staff Picks: Birthdays, Bluegrass, Baked Alaska

January 9, 2015 | by

samarra

From the first-edition cover of Appointment in Samarra.

Cold, biting January made me reach for Simon Van Booy’s The Illusion of Separateness. This deceptively slim novel transcends time and geography to explore the lives of six unwittingly connected strangers, each rendered with stunning incisiveness and warmth. (If Raymond Chandler had swapped gin for chamomile tea he might have written some of Van Booy’s sentences.) However, the prose is so rich—so resonant—it’s easy to miss the real treat on offer: an exceptionally compassionate lens through which to view the world. Search no more. This is that book, the one you carry through the midwinter doldrums toward spring. —Emilia Murphy 

Over Christmas I read Is He Popenjoy?, Anthony Trollope’s tale of a rich girl who marries an impoverished Lord and finds herself in the middle of a battle over his inheritance. This is late, minor Trollope (he wrote forty-seven novels altogether), but Trollope is one of those writers in whom minorness and greatness are hard to tell apart. He makes everything look so easy. His experiments are hidden in plain view. So is his special brand of moral skepticism. For Trollope, every character is the hero of his own story, or the heroine; every character thinks he or she has to deal with villains (sociopaths, we’d say). From time to time every character is right. Or may be. But the most powerful force in Trollope’s fiction is not good or evil, but group dynamics, the ever-shifting relations between family members and friends. Among other things, Is He Popenjoy? is the best novel I have ever read about in-laws and how to get along with them. For the moment, I'm so deep under its spell I wouldn’t trade it for Anna Karenina. —Lorin Stein

Every year around the holidays, I try to fill in one of the gaps in my knowledge of the canon. When you’re revisiting classics, I’ve found, it’s always good to seek out the ones that people hated when they were first published—so I took up John O’Hara’s Appointment in Samarra, which Sinclair Lewis called “nothing but infantilism—the erotic visions of a hobbledehoy behind the barn.” And what visions they are! Sex and class are O’Hara’s great subjects, and in Appointment—wherein a rich, high-society guy ruins himself for no good reason, really, except that the straitjacket of Depression-era life demands it—he treats them with a candor that most novelists still can’t muster eighty years later. He’s known, rightly, for his dialogue, but there’s a kind of O’Hara sentence, precise but faintly ostentatious, that sounds utterly American to me. “The festive board now groaned under the Baked Alaska,” for instance. Or: “Frank Gorman, Georgetown, and Dwight Ross, Yale, had fought, cried, and kissed after an argument about what the team Gorman had not made would have done to the team Ross was substitute halfback on.” —Dan Piepenbring
Read More »

3 COMMENTS