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This Week’s Reading

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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Staff Picks: Actors, Bluesmen, Showgirls

February 27, 2015 | by

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A still from Showgirls.

What’s so great about the new New York Times Magazine? Nicole already singled out the cover art. Dan linked to Gary Shteyngart’s “embedded” report on Russian TV. I like the tack of the whole thing, starting with the editorial letter. I like its transparency, its sense of humor, its confidence. I like the new typeface it unveils, the paper stock, too. (Finally, a newsmagazine that looks as good as New York!) Even the small decision to ghostwrite the “Lives” column shows head-thwacking common sense. (Writers will have to unburden themselves elsewhere.) Underneath these little changes, you can sense real thought about the strengths and limitations of a print weekly today. It’s no accident that the magazine has devoted serious articles to photography and a classic rock LP or that it includes a weekly poem. The editors are making the most of their medium, are paying attention to analogue media as such. That this week’s news features were informative, stylish, and timely comes as no surprise: the magazine has always published terrific features on a semiregular basis. But this week, the well added up to more than the sum of its parts. I’m eager to see how Jake Silverstein and his team follow it up tomorrow. —Lorin Stein

In 1907, Robert Walser wrote a squib in the form of a letter that responds to an actor’s request for theatrical advice. Walser prescribes a tour de force of anguish in which the actor must let out a lion-like roar from the top of the scenery; pull out tufts of (fake) hair, laying it “doucement on the earth”; pick his nose “intently”; produce a “fiery-green snake” from “your pain-warped mouth”; stick a knife in his eye and out through his throat (then light a cigarette “as if you were secretly amused about something”); and, for the big finish, be buried under the toppled scenery, with only a twitching arm visible before the curtain falls. All for the pleasure of the “bankers and spice traders” in the audience—you know, theatergoers. In 2010, Walser’s deadpan satire was translated by Paul North for Ugly Duckling and accompanied by illustrations by Friese Undine that play up the stilted, absurd, self-serious nature of the text, including a helpful quartet of portraits demonstrating proper nose picking. Walser is sarcastic but darkly, delightfully so; he’s mocking, but also, I’d imagine, partly earnest. It’s almost as though he’d written it while watching the Oscars. —Nicole Rudick
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Staff Picks: Lumber Yards, Low-crawling, Luxury Cages

February 20, 2015 | by

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From Sara Cwynar’s cover to the newly designed New York Times Magazine.

Not long ago a friend gave me a very slim book by the French sinologist Jean François Billeter called Trois essais sur la traduction. Like the (similarly skinny) 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, by Eliot Weinberg and Octavio Paz, this is a book all about specifics—the specific problems of translating classical Chinese poetry. And like that book, this one contains an entire philosophy of translation. “The young musician learns to analyse the form of the work, and by interpreting the work he brings it to life: he makes it his own twice over. In literature, the student learns mainly how to talk about works. He does not make them his own the way the musician does … The result is a frustration that no one admits but that pretty much everyone feels. Students of literature can acquire at least some of [a writer’s] power through the practice of translation, since it consists in saying in one language what the author has said in another—saying it as well as he did, so that it produces the same effect.” I hope someone will bring that power to bear on these graceful, deeply sensible case studies. —Lorin Stein

Of the New York Times Magazine’s quartet of covers coming with its relaunch this weekend, my favorite is Sara Cwynar’s Death Star globe cloaked in a distorted TV test pattern that practically emits a high-frequency reference tone. It turns out that Gary Shteyngart’s essay for the issue—a chronicle of watching Russian TV for a week straight—pairs quite well with Cwynar’s evil-empire cover; he must still have the drone of Putin’s television clouding his brain. (Shteyngart’s exploit reminds me of Caity Weaver’s challenge last year of TGI Friday’s Endless Appetizers promotion, during which she ate mozzarella sticks for close to fourteen hours.) Shteyngart performed his feat Black Mirror style: in front of three large television screens installed in a “luxury cage” at the Four Seasons in New York. From the variety of programs—talk shows, news, classic films, comedy, and lots and lots of dancing—preposterously braided together by state propaganda, Shteyngart plucks hard truths (or, in Putin parlance, “manly truths”) about Russia’s increasing distance from any kind of geopolitical middle ground. “Now the cool nations are no longer inviting Russia for unsupervised sleepovers,” he writes, "and the only kids still leaving notes on Russia’s locker are Kim Jong-un and Raúl Castro.” —Nicole Rudick

Zadie Smith wrote a piece for Rookie this week detailing her antipathy toward keeping a diary: “The dishonesty of diary writing—this voice you put on for supposedly no one but yourself—I found that idea so depressing … I don’t want any record of my days.” That’s an intriguing sentiment to me—I’ve been caught up in The Collected Writings of Joe Brainard, a five-hundred-page kaleidoscope of the New York School artist’s writings and drawings, diary entries included. Smith, miffed by the staged grandeur that crept into the pages of her own diary, renounces the practice. But Brainard renounces the grandeur. In Collected Writings, there’s no asphyxiating sense of malaise or swooping trauma, no insurmountable woe, no quixotic dreams of romance—which is precisely what’s drawn me to the collection. Instead, one gets what one might expect from a diary: the quotidian. We learn what Brainard liked in bed (a “good plain blow-job; It’s rhythm that makes me come the best”), what he thought about on the train (“I like that lumber yard”), his impression of Jamaica (“It’s a hard place to believe in”). As Dan Chaisson puts it, “[Brainard’s] writing specializes in the exploration of the minor emotions often slighted by ‘serious’ writers: contentment rather than elation, glumness rather than despair, horniness instead of passion, and, everywhere, a non-existential, completely ordinary loneliness.” —Caitlin Youngquist

In his new memoir My Life as a Foreign Country, the poet Brian Turner traces his history as a young infantryman in Bosnia and Iraq, interlacing his story with those of his grandfather (who served in World War II), his father (Cold War), and his uncle (Vietnam), to find some element of truth behind the history of human suffering. Turner writes tenderly from his enemies’ perspective, imagining them asleep with their wives, being blown up while building IEDs meant for American soldiers, and even training their crosshairs on one Sgt Turner himself. Neither didactic nor bombastic, My Life as a Foreign Country focuses on the place of the individual in war. It doesn’t hurt that Turner is from my hometown of Fresno, California. “I was prepared to low-crawl,” he writes, “with my facedown in the nastiest, foulest, brackish sludge and sewer the world could offer, that I was from Fresno and people from Fresno can take it, can take it in spades and shovel fulls, people from Fresno can take decades of it, that people from Fresno can outcrawl any motherfucker on the planet … That’s why I joined.” —Jeffery Gleaves
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Staff Picks: Cat-and-mouse Games, a Miasma of Cuddles

February 13, 2015 | by

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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
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Staff Picks: Tornadoes, Turf Wars, Time Travel

February 6, 2015 | by

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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
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