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This Week’s Reading

What We’re Loving: Boyhood, Blockbusters, Bay Area Ceramists

July 11, 2014 | by

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A publicity shot from Edge of Tomorrow.

Left Coast/Third Coast”: it’s the name of an exhibition up at George Adams Gallery through the middle of next month, and a brilliantly concise epithet for those other places where art gets made. They refer, of course, to the West Coast and to Chicago, and the show focuses on artists whose careers were begun in the Bay Area and in the Windy City in the fifties and sixties. It’s not every day you get to see so many of these artists in one place. Among them are Jim Nutt and Gladys Nilsson (part of the Hairy Who), Robert Arneson (a wonderfully profane Bay Area ceramist), and Jeremy Anderson (a West Coast sculptor who frequently worked with wood). H. C. Westermann’s work is also here, and it’s always a treat to see his sculptures and drawings in person. These are artists who not only returned to figuration when Abstract Expressionism was at its most monumental, but they did it in what were then considered remote corners of the country for art making. —Nicole Rudick

Go see Edge of Tomorrow, the new Tom Cruise sci-fi romp, and walk out about fifteen minutes before its rah-rah conclusion. What you’ll be left with—as three of us learned yesterday in an impromptu TPR Night at the Movies™—is a grim but heartening existential parable. If you’ve seen the ads, you know that Edge runs with a premise similar to Groundhog Day’s: Cruise plays an infantryman who comes back to life whenever he’s killed. Instead of awaking in sleepy Punxsutawney, he comes to in a militarized, bureaucratized hell, i.e., the future. He’s always hours away from facing a massive extraterrestrial invasion, and he’s always tasked (not unpleasantly) with seeking the counsel of Emily Blunt, who is always crouched in the same sweaty, imperious yoga pose. Cruise’s condition gives him a chance to defeat the aliens, but it also gives us a chance to watch him die, a lot, in an elaborate montage that’s as compelling as anything at the movies now. Step by painstaking step, he has to repeat an intricate performance on which the fate of humanity is staked. If you’re willing to dwell on the sequence, it can take you to some surprising places, some rarefied and some not: I thought of syllogisms, Sisyphus, The Trial, first-person shooters, cheat codes, mid-period Paul Verhoeven, D-Day, Dance Dance Revolution, Kierkegaard’s knight of infinite resignation, those team-building, problem-solving exercises I had to do in elementary school, and how neat it would be to save the planet with Emily Blunt. These ruminations may not bear fruit, but that’s okay—Edge is still a more enlightened mental vacation than it ought to be. —Dan Piepenbring

In trying to come up with recommendations for these posts, I sometimes think of Montaigne, who, despite serving as a legal counselor for most of his professional life, did not like giving advice: “I am very seldom consulted, and even more seldom heeded; and I know of no undertaking, public or private, that my advice has advanced and improved. Even those who, by chance, have come to depend on it, have in the end preferred to be guided by any other brain than mine.” He was a bit of a lone wolf, continuing, “By leaving me alone, they follow my declared wish, which is to be wholly self-reliant and self-contained. It pleases me not to be interested in the affairs of others, and to be free from responsibility for them.” This sentiment may have had something to do with the extreme social isolation in which Montaigne was raised; it was part of his father’s strict pedagogical curriculum, which would put today’s pre-Ivy prep Montessori schools to shame. (Montaigne’s first language—in sixteenth-century France—was Latin. Every morning the child was awakened by soft music. As a baby, he was sent to live with a peasant family for three years so he would not become accustomed to great wealth.) Montaigne later returned to this isolation, retreating to his tower-library in Dordogne when he retired. He considered the opinions of others “flies and specks that distract my will,” and so, at risk of being one of those specks, I recommend the vast, insight-laden Essays of this thoroughly, idiosyncratically educated man. They’re always worth another look. —Chantal McStay

Nearly a decade elapsed between each of Richard Linklater’s three Before Sunrise films, and like that trilogy, his latest, Boyhood, follows a pattern of real time, grounding us in fixed points throughout its character’s lives. Boyhood was filmed over twelve years, which allows its actors to age onscreen. It has an authenticity that’s too rare in cinema—its pinches of dialogue sound like natural exchanges, rooting the audience into a narrative that mirrors the adolescent experience with a painstaking awareness. Linklater recently voiced his intent in The New Yorker: “I always had that personality—I think it’s a writer’s sensibility—where you’re there but not there … I had to make a peace with myself. It’s like, well, you’re not in the moment. But just by contemplating it, by searching for the depth of the moment, that is itself an experience.” —Yasmin Roshanian

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What We’re Loving: Procrastination, Peacocks, Prince

July 4, 2014 | by

Phil, a leucistic white peafowl from the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York. Photo via Twitter.

It turns out that I was right last week (I love it when that happens) about the print version of Nautilus. It’s sharp, well-rounded, and just plain nice to look at. I could recommend any number of articles (such as Slava Gerovitch’s fascinating essay on Russian mathematician Andrei Kolmogorov), but one in particular made an impression: Alisa Opar’s short piece in the Spring 2014 issue on procrastination. I’m writing this, you see, up against the deadline that Dan Piepenbring sets for us each week. I did the same thing last week. Though I spend all week knowing I’ll write a few lines on what I’ve been reading, I wait, without fail, until the very last minute to sit down and write it. That’s because, according to Opar’s article, my future self is a stranger. That future version of me is the one who will have to deal with the consequences of my current procrastination (sucker!). Apparently, making a lengthy timeline that ends with me writing this should help me feel connected to my future self. It’s an interesting idea. I’ll get right on it tomorrow. —Nicole Rudick

Earlier this week, I took a coffee and a book to the Peace Garden at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, where I found myself joined by a white-feathered peacock; Phil, a leucistic peafowl, is apparently a regular there. Always followed by his flowing white train, he creates a procession wherever he goes; you couldn’t ask for a more august companion. And with Phil’s distinguished mien in mind, I point to D. H. Lawrence’s short story “Wintry Peacock,” from his 1922 collection England, My England and Other Stories. It tells of secret lovers, purloined correspondence, and a protective peacock named Joey. The narrator finds himself the unwilling mediator of a young English country couple’s marital troubles, a task he meets with equal parts fascination and disgust. As he translates a letter from the husband’s French mistress, he suppresses a gag: “I vaguely realized that I was reading a man’s private correspondence. And yet, how could one consider these trivial, facile French phrases private? Nothing more trite and vulgar in the world than such a love-letter—no newspaper more obvious.” —Chantal McStay

A few weeks ago, I discovered Richard Prince’s Instagram account. Prince, for the uninitiated, is the guy who took images of the Marlboro Man from cigarette ads, blew them up, and called them his own work. Then they sold for a bajillion dollars at auction, and he was celebrated as a deity of conceptual appropriationism. His style of appropriation—photographing and re-photographing—is perfectly suited to Instagram. He takes screenshots of posts by celebrities, prints them out on a large scale, takes photos of them with his iPhone, and then reposts them. “It was like revisiting an older system that I was already familiar with,” he explained in a post on his website, except “the photo paper was an electronic page, the source material was Google, and the re-photography was a screen-save.” In the past year, he’s posted everything from copies of The Catcher in the Rye that credit him as the author to a completely nude ten-year-old Brooke Shields re-photographed from his 1983 work Spiritual America. (That got him temporarily banned from the site.) Prince has made room for his experiments in a medium known for food porn and social one-upsmanship—quite a feat. —Teddy Lasry

The Pitchfork Review, a new quarterly print counterpart to the music criticism site, may not win many converts—it’s very much “on brand,” though Pitchfork’s trademark decimal-point ratings are mercifully absent. Still, even if you’re inclined to write off the site as a hollow tastemaker, give the magazine a look; lavishly designed and thoughtfully composed, it will be of interest to anyone who yearns for the heyday of Spin, Rolling Stone, Downbeat, or The Village Voice. Its latest issue boasts a number of excellent diversions—I was particularly impressed with Gary Giddins’s piece on Stanley Kubrick’s scores, and with Lindsay Zoladz’s “Ghost Riding: The Story of the Performing Hologram,” which examines the burgeoning use of holography and its curious intersection with hip-hop culture. —Dan Piepenbring Read More »

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What We’re Loving: Carson, Comyns, “Carriers”

June 27, 2014 | by

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Detail from an illustration by Ellen Weinstein for the summer issue of Nautilus, a science quarterly.

I don’t care if I never read another charming little book about Marcel Proust—not now that I’ve read Anne Carson’s chapbook The Albertine Workout. In fifty-nine numbered paragraphs (or perhaps, exercises), Carson reviews what little we know about Marcel’s mistress, the most-mentioned and yet most elusive character in Proust’s work. Carson’s findings take us deep into the questions of what love and sex mean to Proust, and in our own lives. As the title implies, you can read The Albertine Workout in one sitting, but you will keep feeling it for days. —Lorin Stein

This week, I discovered the Web site for Nautilus, a science quarterly. I have yet to see the print version, but if it’s anything like the online iteration—elegantly and smartly designed, with illustrations that often have the look of early- to mid-twentieth-century artwork—then it’s worth picking up. The content isn’t what you’d necessary expect from a science magazine (I grew up around hardcore publications like Nature and Science): there’s fiction, photography, and art, in addition to pieces on, say, evolution, lepidoptery, architecture, and ecology. I came to the site looking for Lauren Weinstein’s comic strip “Carriers,” which she posted daily this past week. Weinstein is one of the best cartoonists at work, and this five-part story is proof of that. She and her husband are both carriers for cystic fibrosis, and the comic details her struggle in waiting to find out if her unborn child tests positive for the defect. Weinstein’s characteristic humor keeps pathos at bay, and she reflects entertainingly, by way of her terrific serpentine scroll-downs, on the how and why of genetic mutations such as this one. —Nicole Rudick

What do you think when you hear the name Luis Suárez? If you’ve followed the news this week, the phrases “biting lunatic,” “delinquent toddler,” and the “Hannibal Lecter of soccer” might come to mind; “family guy,” “superhuman,” and Uruguay’s “favorite son” haven’t crossed the minds—or lips—of many sports pundits. If you’re curious about understanding Suárez beyond the memes and gifs, Wright Thompson’s profile from late last month explores the Uruguayan player’s childhood and the mystery surrounding an incident when he head-butted a referee and received a red card in a youth match—which may or may not be true. What really stuck with me after finishing the essay wasn’t the story of the referee or the media scrutiny, but the history of Suárez and his wife, Sofia Balbi. After the pair fell in love at fifteen, Sofia moved to Spain with her family. Suárez, at the time working as a street sweeper, knew that he could never afford a plane ticket on his own. Instead, he dedicated himself to soccer until he became good enough to be picked up by a European team. The thing is, his “completely irrational” plan worked—he played first for Groningen, then moved to Ajax and finally to Liverpool, where he now plays. He married Balbi in 2009, and as Thompson writes, “He loves his family, and soccer gave it to him, and guarantees no Suárez will ever again pick up coins while cleaning the streets.” While this romantic tale doesn’t justify his actions last week, it helps explain the desperation you catch sometimes in his eyes when you watch him play, “someone who fights to win, no matter what … He bites because he is clinging to a new life, terrified of being sucked back into the one he left behind.” —Justin Alvarez

Regular readers of the Daily already know how NicoleSadie, and I feel about the neglected English writer Barbara Comyns. Last week it was my turn to read her gothic novel The Vet’s Daughter. It reminded me powerfully of something Donald Antrim told The Paris Review in issue 203: “In building another world through the fantastic I was making a set of rules that had to be observed, a logic that had to be carried through—that I was in some ways obeying the premise of the very opening line.”  —L.S. Read More »

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What We’re Loving: Reckless Love, Love via Telegraph

June 20, 2014 | by

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From an early twentieth-century postcard. “Kisses from both are now flying about / Where all of a sudden the current runs out.”

After reading David Constantine’s story “In Another Country,” which the Canadian publisher Biblioasis passed along to me, I can’t figure out why a U.S. press hasn’t caught on to his work. He’s won a number of big prizes, including the Frank O’Connor International Short Story award twice—last year, he beat out Joyce Carol Oates, Deborah Levy, and Peter Stamm—and no wonder: this story has me wanting more. (Thankfully, Biblioasis will publish a selection of his stories next year.) The sentences are restrained, the tone muted. The remoteness between the husband and wife of the story is never described but is made palpable through the stillness in their interactions and the spareness of the prose, but the tension created by the slow unraveling of the past within the present is innervating: “What worried Mrs. Mercer suddenly took shape. Into the little room came a rush of ghosts. She sat down opposite him and both felt cold. That Katya, she said. Yes, he said. They’ve found her in the ice. I see, said Mrs. Mercer.” If you get excited, as I do, by stories in which very little happens, then this one is for you. —Nicole Rudick

In 1949, Niki de Saint Phalle and Harry Mathews eloped together, both a bit shy of their twentieth birthdays. The ten-year marriage that followed saw joy, sorrow, electroshock therapy, disapproving parents, reprimanding neighbors, two children, suicidal episodes, numerous infidelities, artistic awakenings, homes in more than four countries, and, ultimately, insurmountable growing pains. In Harry and Me: 1950–1960, The Family Years, de Saint Phalle chronicles their famous, tumultous relationship in verse and image. A remarkably generous portrait of their time together—it includes sidebars of text written by Mathews in response to de Saint Phalle’s account, in which he corrects and addends but never criticizes—this book is a must-read for anyone interested in the work of either artist. Their developmental years were spent in stride, and the naïveté that brought them together (and eventually drove them apart) was instrumental in shaping their artistic desires, particularly the whimsy and color that marks de Saint Phalle’s sculpture. Though the relationship ends, the children suffer, and the hurt never truly goes away, neither party, many years later, seems to regret the marriage. Instead, they go to bat for the young, reckless love that directed the course of their lives. —Clare Fentress

Lots of people are nostalgic for rotary phones and handwritten letters. Not so many have the same wistfulness for the telegraph. But William Saroyan’s “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8,” from his 1934 short story collection The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze, has left me rethinking the old teletype machine and its nuanced relation to our digital age. The story tells of two telegraph operators, who meet—virtually—by striking up a conversation over the wires. Saroyan’s depiction of the giddy thrill of instantaneous, faceless communication, in which half the fun is in the imagined possibilities, seems oddly anachronistic to the modern reader, but it also predicts the appeal of instant messaging and texting. From the first hello hello hello, the narrator realizes the untapped opportunity of his teletype machine as a personal device of contact, of love: “I had never thought of the machine as being related in any way to me … I began to try to visualize the girl. I began to wonder if she would go out with me to this house I wanted and help me fill it with our lives together.” —Chantal McStay Read More »

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What We’re Loving: Pop Stars, Rock Stars, The Fault in Our Stars

June 13, 2014 | by

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The Fault in Our Stars—now a major motion picture.

Last week I read a dazzling novel about a starcrossed young couple and a reclusive, grouchy, alcoholic novelist who changes their lives. That was Mao II, by Don DeLillo. But in the middle of reading Mao II—on the very same plane ride—I dipped into a friend’s copy of The Fault in Our Stars. Somehow I had missed all the hype, and didn’t know what to expect. (Said my traveling companion: “You’re already crying? You’re what, two pages in?") I finished the book one sitting later. More accurately, I was lying down, in a hammock, to obviate the need for a hanky. Among its many tear-jerking qualities, the book powerfully evokes the work of David Foster Wallace, the only real-life novelist who could fill the shoes of the fictional Van Houten. As Laura Miller writes in Salon, The Fault in Our Stars is full of Wallace allusions; scenes like the one where a teenager sobs over his girlfriend, while playing a first-person shooter game, read like Wallace come back to life—if he came back and wrote for kids. In a week that saw the passing of the great children’s-book publisher Frances Foster, The Fault in Our Stars filled me with hope for young readers, even as it made me mourn, all over again, for friends we’ve lost. —Lorin Stein

Britney Spears must be some kind of a journalistic muse. In 2008, David Samuels wrote about her in “Shooting Britney,” a perceptive look at the paparazzi and the surrogate intimacy of celebrity culture. Now, in “Miss American Dream,” Taffy Brodesser-Akner—what a name!—pulls back the curtain on Britney’s new residency in Las Vegas. The piece gets inside the lurid pageantry that’s become a prerequisite of “Britneyplex, which is the enormous machine built around Britney Spears.” It’s also an acutely observed study of the longueurs of fame; moments of synapse-frying overstimulation are followed by episodes of surreal blandness. E.g.:She was sitting in a room in the semi-dark, slightly hunched over, a little bored, at the tail end of a daylong junket in which TV journalists asked her questions like ‘What do people not know about you?’ (‘Really that I’m pretty boring.’) and ‘What was the craziest rumor you ever heard about yourself?’ (‘That I died.’)” —Dan Piepenbring

One of these days, U2 is going to release a new album—in the meantime, there’s U Talkin’ U2 to Me?, a bizarrely wonderful podcast I’ve laughed out loud to on the subway. Described by its hosts (Scott Aukerman of Comedy Bang! Bang! and Between Two Ferns, and Adam Scott from Parks & Recreation) as “the comprehensive and encyclopedic compendium of all things U2,” the show talks about U2 pretty sporadically, but it’s worth checking out for the improvisations from the two Scotts, including a hysterical Harold-like game in which they make up fake podcasts within the world of the show, each with its own fictional history and quirks. This week’s episode takes the form of an audio commentary on the podcast itself. It’s even weirder than that sounds. —Chantal McStay

A recent article in the Huffington Post suggests reading Rumi for a more meaningful life—advice I found both unsurprising and unnerving. I come from a Persian household where Rumi’s poetry was always at the literary forefront, but in more recent years, the poet’s words have been reduced to captioning photos of perfectly timed sunsets and vast ocean views. I prefer the darker Rumi, even if a line like “Either give me more wine or leave me alone” isn’t likely to inspire enthusiasm. Rumi’s work is much too varied to be reduced. “Two there are who are never satisfied—the lover of the world and the lover of knowledge,” he wrote. That a poet from the thirteenth century is still so widely read testifies to his intuition and candor. —Yasmin Roshanian

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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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