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This Week’s Reading

Staff Picks: Stage Fright, Substitute Teachers, Skin

September 9, 2016 | by

Photo: Charlotte Strick

Alex Prager’s brilliant ten-minute film La Grande Sortie in its U.S. debut, is looping in the upstairs screening room of Lehmann Maupin Gallery through October 23. Prager has imagined for us the marvelously grotesque descent of a prima ballerina into a state of hysteria provoked by our worst fears of stage fright. Witnessed through the shifting perspectives of the dancer (the remarkably theatric Émilie Cozette) and her ever more repulsive and hostile audience, the ballerina’s derangement reminds one of a desperate Mia Farrow surrounded by equal parts evil and camp in Rosemary’s Baby. Even on the fourth viewing, my heart rate surged in time with the stabbing string instruments in the film’s score, sampled from Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” and composed by Radiohead’s producer, Nigel Godrich. Layered under these orchestral notes is the amplified tap-tap-tap of scraping toe shoes across the wooden stage, the flapping of the dancer’s tulle skirt, and the noisy fidgeting of her restless audience. I marveled at Prager’s ability to create such a polished and darkly humorous examination of the extremes of human anxiety and artificiality. And the artist delivers up a panic-filled surprise ending worthy of a Hollywood horror flick. —Charlotte Strick

Type our education system into Google and Autofill will finish your thought: “is broken.” “Is outdated.” “Is flawed.” Any Joe on the street can tell you that. But Nicholson Baker strode bravely into the classroom to see just how defective our schools are: for six months in 2014, he subbed for K–12 teachers in Maine. His new book, Substitute, is a close record of the hairline cracks and scotch-tape fixes that are comprised by a public education. Rather than fulminate or theorize, Baker offers a lively day-by-day account of everything he saw and heard in the classroom. It’s storytelling as commentary, and it means that Substitute’s seven hundred pages fly by, filled as they are with the mulch of student life: the iPad games, the idle chatter, the dioramas and worksheets and silent-reading blocks. Fans of Baker’s know he can elevate any subject—this is a man who’s written compellingly about vacuum cleaners—and the tedium of teaching finds him pressing his gift for metaphor to ever more creative ends: “We all walked to the cafeteria, where there was a massive molten fondue of noise.” Or: “We were swimming in a warm, lifeless salt pond of geopolitical abstraction.” —Dan Piepenbring Read More »

Staff Picks: Forehead Blotches, Lasagna Hogs, and Crust Punks

September 2, 2016 | by

From William Eggleston’s The Democractic Forest.

From William Eggleston’s The Democratic Forest.

In the new issue of Aperture, our Southern editor, John Jeremiah Sullivan, pays a visit to William Eggleston in Memphis. As you might expect, it is a memorable visit. Eggleston plays piano for John and his wife, Mariana. They talk about Bach and Big Star and Mississippi Fred McDowell; and about Eggleston’s fifty-year marriage. They look at his photos, too. “He asked me to pull down the new boxed set of his Democratic Forest (2015). Ten volumes. I stopped at certain pictures. He leaned forward and, with his finger, traced lines of composition. Boxes and Xs. Forcing me to pay attention to the original paying of attention. ‘Either everything works, or nothing works,’ he said about one picture, a shot of an aquamarine bus pulling into a silvery station. ‘In this picture, everything works.’ ” —Lorin Stein

After reading Amie Barrodale’s debut collection You Are Having a Good Time, I was reminded of something Geoff Dyer wrote in his introduction to Prabuddha Dasgupta’s photography portfolio in our two hundredth issue: “Longing can exist entirely for its own sake, with no object in mind, as a kind of intensified nostalgia or eroticized elegy.” It’s this aimless form of desire that drives Barrodale’s stories and gets her characters into trouble, as in “William Wei” (for which Barrodale won our 2011 Plimpton Prize), about a morbidly depressed New Yorker’s attempt to crystallize a relationship with a woman he’s spoken to only on the telephone, mostly when she’s stoned. In “Catholic,” a young woman has a one-night stand with a married man, obsesses over him, and compulsively e-mails him without response: “I told him a tree of plum blossoms fell on me and I saw some young men wearing outfits … I always wish there was a point to all those e-mails. Maybe there was. I don’t know. I do know. There was.” Like so many of the troubled people in these fictions, she struggles to articulate the profundity in her bad decisions. Still, she desperately convinces herself that the beauty is there, somewhere. In You Are Having a Good Time, we know meaning exists, but we’re all too fucked up to understand its various expressions. It’s one of the quintessential sentiments of this collection: the stories are as eloquent as a plum blossom tree collapsing on a lonely woman—if only we could figure out just what that eloquence means. —Daniel Johnson

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Staff Picks: Jaguars, Jim Beam, Japanese Divorce

August 26, 2016 | by

From the cover of Gringos.

Fifty-three years ago, James Baldwin published The Fire Next Time, on the experience of being black in America. The title comes from a slave song: “God gave Noah the rainbow sign / No more water but fire next time.” This month, Jesmyn Ward published a compilation of essays called The Fire This Time. She wanted a book, as she writes in a brilliant introduction, “that would reckon with the fire of rage and despair and fierce, protective love currently sweeping through the streets and campuses of America … A book that a girl in rural Missouri could pick up at her local library and, while reading, encounter a voice that hushed her fears.” Ward has packed a multitude into a modest volume and fulfills, I think, her desire to provide a full and rich accounting of black life, one that is infrequently given voice. The lead piece is a sharply evocative prose poem by Kima Jones about a trip home to North Carolina for a funeral and time in the woods with her cousins, “with red cups, Black and Milds, Jim Beam, a blue lighter plucked from the card table.” Another favorite is Garnette Cadogan’s essay on walking, as a boy in Kingston and as a young man in the United States. The dissonance between the two is startling but not surprising: in the former, “I’d get lost in Mittyesque moments, my young mind imagining alternate futures,” and in the other, walking is “a pantomine undertaken to avoid the choreography of criminality.” —Nicole Rudick

I often go back to Gringos, the 1991 novel by Charles Portis, when I find myself between books. Portis is a fount of comedy; his books brim with deliciously absurd characters. Gringos features a clique of eccentric expats idling in the Yucatán: there’s Rudy and Louise Kurle, a blond duo, in Mexico recording evidence of aliens; Doc Flandin, an aged historian and anthropologist whose life work comprises a comprehensive account of Mayan culture; Refugio Osorio, a native of Mérida who deals scraps from his land in the jungle (I’m fond of his pup, “Ramos, son of the late Chino, bravest dog in all Mexico”). Their comedy comes from the wry observations of Gringos’s hero and narrator Jimmy Burns, a fortysomething deliveryman and former hustler of pre-Columbian artifacts. Jimmy lives at the marvelously shabby Posada Fausto hotel in Mérida, taking hauling jobs to pay his rent. His life there “rocks along from day to day”—he drinks in bars and heads to the zoo “to look over the fine new jaguar”—until he finds himself caught up in violent hippie rituals at ancient ruins and adventure in the Yucatán. —Caitlin Love Read More »

Staff Picks: Marlys, Menopause, Mallet Percussion

August 19, 2016 | by

“The one thing no one will tell you is that these feelings and this behavior will last ten years. That is, a decade of your life. Ask your doctor if this is true and she will deny it.” In Mary Ruefle’s hands an essay about menopause becomes an essay on the human condition; ditto an essay about shrunken heads, and one about milk shakes, and one about dealing with crumbs. We published “Milk Shake” in our Spring issue as a prose poem—and it is that—but reading her collection My Private Property, I’m struck by the conversational quality of this new work, by its anthropological spirit, and by its stubborn emphasis on the facts as Ruefle has found them—whatever your doctor, or hers, or anyone else, may say to the contrary. —Lorin Stein

“One day I was drawing my weekly comic strip, and as I drew the frame, I had a half-memory of being with my cousins after seeing the torch light parade … 9 kids crammed into one car—no seatbelts, 3 adults smoking … And suddenly we were all just throwing up parade food at the same time. On top of this image was a half-memory of staying overnight at a neighbor’s house. Nine kids. The mom said things like ‘Holy Balls!’ When I make a comic strip, I let these sorts of images lead and combine as I move my pen. I try to let one line lead to the next without plan. The only thing I have to do is stay in motion. That’s what I was doing when I first saw Marlys.” Lynda Barry has been drawing the freckled, bespectacled, opinionated eight-year-old since 1986; to my mind, Marlys ranks with Charlie Brown as one of the most genuine and poignant adolescent protagonists in serial comics. The newly updated and expanded collection, The Greatest of Marlys, has been my beach reading this week. If you haven’t read Barry, let this book be your gateway: she is one of a kind, and with Marlys, she is irresistible. —Nicole Rudick Read More »

Staff Picks: Surveillance, Silence, Pseudocide

August 12, 2016 | by

From Will You Dance with Me?

Our colleague Bobby sent me back to Edith Wharton’s novel of 1870s New York, The Age of Innocence. What struck Bobby (I’m paraphrasing) was the air of heavy surveillance: the action begins in an opera box, under the scrutiny of hundreds of eyes, and basically stays there. It feels oddly contemporary. At the same time The Age of Innocence is, very self-consciously, an historical novel. That’s what struck me: it appeared in 1920, almost fifty years after the events it describes, and belongs to that fun subgenre of novels—e.g., A Journal of the Plague Year, Middlemarch, Swann’s Way—that imagine what the grown-ups were actually up to when the author was a kid. —Lorin Stein 

When City Lights was preparing to publish the first edition of Julio Cortázar’s poetry in English in 1997 (it’s number fifty-three in the Pocket Poets series), Ferlinghetti wanted to produce a lean volume. In doing so, he cut the essay “For Listening Through Headphones,” which Cortázar begins by mourning the “pre-echo” on some records that mars “the brief night of the ears as they get ready for the fresh irruption of sound.” It’s funny that an essay that more than once uses the play of light and darkness to illuminate sound would be omitted from a book titled Save Twilight. But this month, City Lights is reissuing the volume, now heftier, thanks in part to the restoration of “For Listening” (and other poems that were left out from the original). In addition to being mesmerizing and utterly gorgeous (“now the needle / runs through the former silence and focuses it / in a black plush … a phosphene silence”), the essay links the experience of hearing music through headphones to poetry’s innate intimacy: “How not to think, then, that somehow poetry is a word heard through invisible headphones as soon as the poem begins to work its spell.” —Nicole Rudick Read More »

Staff Picks: Constellations, Cartography, Costanza

August 5, 2016 | by

Exhibition of the Laughing Gas, a wood engraving, ca. 1840.

We’ve been closing the Fall issue of the magazine this week, so I haven’t had much of an opportunity for outside reading (there are a couple long poems in the issue I’m particularly keen on). No matter what, though, I’ve spent an hour each night watching the new Netflix show Stranger Things. Set in eighties Indiana, the smart and thrilling eight-part series is indebted to much of what was great in eighties horror and youthful sci-fi and fantasy—PoltergeistE.T., Stephen King novels, D&D—and shows its influences appreciatively, without seeming imitative or derivative. The tautly drawn plot centers on three adventuresome boys, dorks of the Goonies variety, who lose a friend to a monster-populated parallel world and who befriend a telekinetic girl, named Eleven, to help bring him back. It manages to combine everything I want from my science-fiction entertainment: it’s funny and frightening, doesn’t take the science for granted, and is as much about how people relate to one another as it is about supernatural doings. And of course, John Carpenter–style synths. —Nicole Rudick

A few years ago, Benjamin Breen wrote for the Daily about the literature of laughing gas, focusing on the psychedelic poetic yield of William James’s encounters with the drug. (“Agreement—disagreement!!,” James wrote. “Emotion—motion!!!”) Now the Public Domain Review has put out Oh Excellent Air Bag, an eye-opening compilation of writing about, on, or under the influence of nitrous oxide: an enthralling look at the range of responses laughing gas brought about before the culture began to dictate our reaction to it. Beginning in 1799, when Humphry Davy embarked on a systemic effort to chronicle the effects of the gas, the book goes all the way up an unsigned piece from 1920, in which the writer’s routine tooth extraction sends him on a voyage to the edges of consciousness: “I drifted out among star-ways, and a galaxy of saffron constellations whirled about my head. In some outer void of space I took my station on a base of infinite nothingness … Eventually there was to come, in the wake of all, a world white and lucent, gleaming like the plumage of an angel’s wing.” Something to keep in mind before your next root canal. —Dan Piepenbring Read More »