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This Week’s Reading

Staff Picks: Kids Tossing Guns, Phenomenal Hard-ons

October 10, 2014 | by

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Josh Dorman, A Life Led, 2014, ink, acrylic and antique paper on panel, 60" x 56."

Despite the fact that the workmen next door have been playing the catchiest pop songs from the past thirty years for a few days now, I managed to tune them out long enough to read Jon McNaught’s Dockwood, a book that, though spare in dialogue, is oddly focused on sound, or, more accurately, on a symphony of silence. The book comprises two comics stories set in the titular British town, a leafy, suburban sort of place that is settling into the early days of autumn and into what seems like a permanent state of dreamy twilight. The first story follows a man named Mark through his day as a kitchen porter at a nursing home. The opening pages of the book are soundless, save the munch of a mouse eating a chip and tink of colliding hanging straps on a bus. But the quiet of early morning is surprisingly vivid. It creates a rhythm of reading—the pages are divided into tiny panels mixed in with larger ones—and plunges you instantly into the narrative. The second story, about a boy delivering newspapers, works according to the same principles. It’s a stunning effect. And McNaught, who is also a printmaker, makes each panel contemplate the smallest of life’s details. —Nicole Rudick

This Saturday is your last chance to see “Whorled,” Josh Dorman’s vast and imaginative solo show at Ryan Lee Gallery. Dorman paints vibrant, dreamlike landscapes and festoons them with found images: illustrations, fragments, and diagrams from old textbooks and catalogs, all of them from the seemingly prelapsarian period before photography, and all carefully (though still jarringly) collaged into the paintings. Parades of flora and fauna coexist with kids tossing guns; lakes are made of hammers, mountains grow from maps. You’d expect all this to devolve into chaos, a kind of jackdaw’s nest, but Dorman’s compositions are precise, even orderly, which makes them all the more uncanny—as beautiful as they are, the paintings evoke a state of basic contradiction that has a way of getting under your skin. —Dan Piepenbring

Even if it’s only an hour and forty minutes, Lisandro Alonso’s Jauja was one of the most difficult films I’ve sat through, and I’ve survived everything from Sátántangó to Snakes on a Plane. Moving at a glacial pace, with a plot as complicated as Waiting for Godot’s, the film follows the Danish surveyor Dinesen in nineteenth-century Patagonia as he tries to find his missing daughter in the otherworldly landscape. In long, carefully composed takes, Alonso declares his commitment to a minimalist cinema, one that blends narrative with documentary; the film is more about Dinesen’s relationship with the landscape itself than any miraculous reunion with his daughter. I walked out of the screening completely perplexed by the experience, but since then I haven’t been able to shake the film. It’s like a dream you hope to revisit until some sort of answer reveals itself. —Justin Alvarez
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Staff Picks: Thirteen Days, One Hundred Brothers, Five Cars

October 3, 2014 | by

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“We build excitement”: a still from an oddly captivating old Pontiac ad.

The latest issue of Guernica includes Richard Price’s tragic history of New York public housing; he begins in a state of noble objectivity and then goes brilliantly, subjectively off the rails, telling of his own childhood in the north Bronx’s Parkside Houses: “The women played gin rummy, mahjong, coming to each other’s apartments in quilted housecoats and curlers, clutching vinyl-covered packs of Newports and Winstons. Many a kid, myself included, fell asleep to the clack of ivory tiles or the riffle of cards, nodded off to a non-stop soundtrack of laughter, blue language, and hacking coughs coming from the game in the dinette, our bedrooms comfortingly wreathed in cigarette smoke.” From here, he tells what should be a familiar story uniquely well—how the projects, one of the early triumphs of city governance, went from having a waiting list of 160,000 families to serving as a symbol of “the truly hopeless and disenfranchised.” —Dan Piepenbring

Editors are often asked to describe, in a word or two, what kind of fiction they like. I’ve never known what to say—but “low concept” would be a start. The less describable a novel is, the less it depends on a premise, the more apt I am to like it. This makes it hard for me to recommend Donald Antrim’s 1997 novel The Hundred Brothers. It really is about one hundred brothers (Phil, Angus, Walter, Virgil, Barry, Seamus, Arthur, and ninety-three more) who gather in the vast library of a crumbling estate to work out their sibling rivalries and put their father’s memory to rest. The strange thing about the book, or really, one of the many strange things about it, is how cinematic it is. It’s incredible that dozens of middle-aged white guys making small talk and waiting for cocktails could leap so vividly to life, in just two hundred pages, or descend so concretely into mayhem.  —Lorin Stein

Once this unseasonably warm weather comes to an end, I look forward to using my oven again. Treacle tart in particular holds a special place in my heart, as it was the first dessert I ever baked—which is fitting, because “Treacle,” by the Liverpudlian Paul Farley, is the first poem in recent memory to stick solidly in my mind. Farley has gained a steady following in the UK, but remains virtually unknown in America, where only one volume of his work has been published. This will come as a surprise when you hear him read this haunting poem. His appropriately chewy diction leaves me awed and disturbed; he describes that chilling moment when you “lever the lid” of a tin of treacle and “it opens with a sigh / and you’re face-to-face with history.” —Charles Shafaieh
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Staff Picks: Beckett, Boxtrolls, Bard

September 26, 2014 | by

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A still from Boxtrolls.

Reading a collection of letters from the beginning straight through to the end is one step up from reading the phone book. I know there are valuable bits throughout literary letters, but they’re so often scattered among details like how much so-and-so paid for a ham sandwich and how hard it is to find a good Danish translator. So I have not read all of the third volume of Samuel Beckett’s letters, but I have nevertheless spent a good deal of time with it. The years 1957 through 1965 find Beckett at the height of his fame. He writes very soberly but with affection and appreciation, no matter the subject. In response to Robert Pinget’s highly unfavorable reaction to Comment c’est, Beckett writes, “I am grateful to you for being so frank. That is friendship.” My favorite parts in the letters are the seemingly rare moments in which Beckett seems to loosen up, as when he writes to the radio producer and translator Barbara Bray, with whom he was close, “Bought six pairs of socks today in the Wednesday market. Very colourful. Not the socks. 5 francs a pair.” Or, in another letter to Bray, “Still drunk this morning after sudden hopeless useless midnight bucket of brandy and sitting in special ever since 37 pub and have yours to hand and in head grinding old poem in vain by Hölderlin influences entitles Dieppe circa 37 also … ” —Nicole Rudick

I was appalled to learn from The New Yorker today of a London pop-up restaurant called Death Row Dinners, which will, for fifty quid, “incarcerate” you at “one of London’s toughest high-security restaurants, where our prison chefs serve up a five-course feast of their culinary twists on some of death row’s most interesting and popular last dinners.” It’s not that I find the concept tasteless—it’s that I thought of it first, two years ago, in a satirical essay about food and death. I was all set to litigate, but then I kept reading that New Yorker piece: turns out Death Row Dinners was deemed so offensive that the organizers shut it down, apparently after they were subjected to “seriously threatening behavior.” Still, I don’t want to miss out on any future business opportunities, so I’ll just go ahead and toot my own horn here: I had two other great restaurant ideas in my essay. One was Admiral O’Heimlich’s, a surf and turf pub where community actors feign asphyxia and the waitstaff teaches you how to save choking victims. The other was Turks and Cake-os, a turkey and cake shoppe kept at tropical temperatures and lit exclusively by sunlamps. I’m willing to speak to investors about either, or both. —Dan Piepenbring

Do the imaginative side of yourself a favor and go see Laika’s latest handmade creationThe Boxtrolls, which opens tonight nationwide. The film, based on Alan Snow’s Here Be Monsters!, is at times dark, at times heartwarming, and visually stunning all throughout—especially when you consider that a vast majority of the film, like its predecessors Coraline and ParaNorman, is painstakingly animated. (Full disclosure: my sister, Emelia, is one of the artists who designs and builds the puppets.) —Stephen A. Hiltner

As a Bard alumna, it would be unforgivably rude of me not to mention Alice Gregory’s magnificent profile on Leon Botstein, the president of the college, in this week’s New Yorker. In “Pictures from an Institution,” Gregory, a former Bardian herself, asks a question not unfamiliar to those who regard Leon as a beau ideal of intellectualism and progressive action: What is Bard without Botstein? He has, after all, “built [it] in his own polymath image,” and since he’s sixty-seven—having started as president in 1975, at age twenty-seven—the question of institutional identity is more pressing than ever. But Gregory doesn’t, can’t possibly, answer this. Instead, she shows us Botstein’s idiosyncratic mind. He is an educator; a father; an admirer of horology; a conductor; a raconteur; a man who used to be a boy who stuttered and was called Durachyok, or little fool; and the face not only of Bard but Bard’s Prison Initiative, a program that admits and awards college degrees to inmates. Gregory’s profile renders Botstein so well that we worry about Bard all the more acutely after reading it. —Caitlin Youngquist

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Staff Picks: Catharsis, Consumed, Containers

September 19, 2014 | by

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Photoville, in Brooklyn Bridge Park. Image via Photoville’s Instagram

“‘The first thirty days after that performance ... it hurt. I just wasn’t right. Whatever that was … catharsis … People don’t understand.’” In the new issue of Harper’s, Wyatt Mason has a moving, in-depth profile of Bryan Doerries, a director and translator who stages classical tragedies for veterans suffering from PTSD. —Lorin Stein

There’s no better way to savor the last of these summer evenings than to head to Photoville, a pop-up photography exhibition in Brooklyn Bridge Park. The exhibition comprises sixty-some shipping containers—surprisingly well suited for the purpose—and, over the course of its eleven-day run, will showcase the work of more than four hundred artists. Highlights include Josh Haner’s Pulitzer Prize–winning series on Jeff Bauman and a curated selection of James Nachtwey’s work from his thirty-year (and counting) tenure at Time. The Photoville runs through September 28. —Stephen A. Hiltner

As I read David Cronenberg’s debut novel, Consumed, I feared I was elevating its somewhat typical techno-thriller plot simply because of the filmmaker’s name. It’s too difficult to sum up here, but the story involves yellow journalism, Marxism, black-market organ trafficking, North Korea, 3-D printing, and sex—the latter “in an incredible number of varieties,” as the jacket states. But I needn’t have worried. Hints of what makes Cronenberg’s filmmaking so unsettling and enthralling began to seep in: the detailed horror of violence and its repercussions, unexpected humor (the Marxist philosophers are named Celestine and Aristide Arosteguy), and the plot’s transition from the tech world to the inner turmoil of our finite existences. As Cronenberg once said, “Consciousness is the original sin: consciousness of the inevitability of our death.” —Justin Alvarez

In this weekend’s Times Magazine, along with John Jeremiah Sullivan’s excellent profile of Donald Antrim, is Matt Bai’s piece about Gary Hart, a name that will fire cobwebbed synapses if you followed presidential politics in ’87. (I didn’t. I was a one-year-old.) Hart was the Democratic front-runner that year until a reporter from the Miami Herald got a tip that he’d been sleeping around. As Bai writes, the Herald’s sanctimonious coverage of these events—or nonevents—has had ramifications not just in the media but in the very essence of our political character. For fear of being crucified as Hart was, politicians no longer do, say, or believe in anything interesting; they’ve purged themselves of personality, conviction, and contradiction. Buried in Bai’s critique is a canny, surprisingly ardent defense of humanism: “As an industry, [the media] aspired chiefly to show politicians for the impossibly flawed human beings they are: a single-minded pursuit that reduced complex careers to isolated transgressions. As the former senator Bob Kerrey, who has acknowledged participating in an atrocity as a soldier in Vietnam, told me once, ‘We’re not the worst thing we’ve ever done in our lives, and there’s a tendency to think that we are.’ That quote, I thought, should have been posted on the wall of every newsroom in the country, just to remind us that it was true.” —Dan Piepenbring

With all the sunshine we’ve been enjoying in New York this September, it seems hard to believe that the autumnal equinox is almost here. As I’m returning to England tomorrow, where it will probably be winter and almost definitely raining, the realization that summer is over is now sinking in. And my mental countdown was only intensified by revisiting Elizabeth Bowen’s The Last September, a novel that centers on Ireland’s Anglo-Irish community during the early twenties, when the War of Independence finally broke through their isolated bubble of tennis and tea parties. Okay, so our situations are not quite analogous. But the magnetism of Bowen’s writing pulls you into a smoldering autumnal landscape that only heats up as the novel progresses, and the Irish rebels close in on “the big house” and its inhabitants. Growing up as an Anglo-Irish child herself, Bowen once remarked that she grew “accustomed to … being enclosed in a ring of almost complete silence.” It’s the breaking of this silence that The Last September captures so well, with those seasonal reds and oranges transforming into warning signs for an inevitable fall. —Helena Sutcliffe

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Staff Picks: A Field in England, A Desert in the Mind

September 12, 2014 | by

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A still from Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England.

Like Nicole, I thrilled to Jed Perl’s essay on Jeff Koons in the current New York Review of Books. I also loved Dan Chiasson’s review of Boyhood in the same issue. In its quiet way this essay amounts to a defense of fiction in the age of social media: “If Boyhood were a documentary, it would involve much more acting, with the subjects self-consciously shaping their on-screen personae (this happens, to an extent, in the Up series). Here, there is nothing to be done: time itself is the real actor.” Both Linklater’s movie and Chiasson’s review reminded me of another experiment with the longue duréeThis Is Autism, the 2011 concept album by Anders Danielsen Lie. American filmgoers know Lie as the brooding lead in Reprise and Oslo, August 31, but he is also an accomplished musician and composer. This Is Autism is a song series built on compositions that Lie made as a kid (starting at the age of ten), then revisited as a grown-up; the music seems to have soaked up a childhood’s worth of listening, mainly to parental vinyl in what Lie likes to call the “autistic” tradition, from Steely Dan and Keith Jarrett to Kiss. —Lorin Stein

For me, the description of Ben Wheatley’s most recent film, A Field in England, was instantly appealing: a handful of deserters from the English civil war traipse across a field; ensnared by an alchemist, they are forced to help him hunt for treasure supposedly buried in the field. Oh, and they’re tripping on mushrooms. The film is moody and spare—it’s shot in black-and-white—and the mind-altering effect of the mushrooms adds another textural layer on the progressing horror, making it strange and abysmal. I kept turning to my husband to ask whether he understood what was going on, thinking that I was missing something. He’d recite the plot, as he’d comprehended it, and I realized that I’d managed to grasp exactly what was going on. It’s just that everything seemed, well, kinda trippy. The setting helps to circumscribe the film’s disturbing events, a theater both expansive and enclosed. (It makes sense that Wheatley’s next film is an adaptation of J. G. Ballard’s High-Rise.) When one character tells another that he cannot escape the field, he replies, “Then I shall become it!” —Nicole Rudick

Last week I noted the excellent epigraph to Roberto Bolaño’s A Little Lumpen Novelita, but I neglected to say that the novella itself is excellent, too: brisk, nervous, and curiously compassionate, with a conceit I can only describe as Bolaño-esque. A young woman loses her parents and, to make money, visits a blind, withered bodybuilder who likes to slather her in oil before sleeping with her. As usual, Bolaño’s characters endure their miseries with unnerving equanimity; there’s no amount of suffering, we’re led to believe, that can’t be shrugged at. And since this is Bolaño, the book has a surreal, tragicomic dream sequence. (As Jonathan Lethem pointed out in his review of 2666, M.F.A. praxis maintains that dreams make for dull fiction—digressive, freighted with easy symbolism—but Bolaño writes them often and well, with skewed logic and foreboding mental detritus.) The narrator, Bianca, dreams of plodding through the desert with a heavy, white, possibly flightless parrot on her shoulder: “He weighed too much (ten pounds at least, he was a big parrot) to be carried for so long, but the parrot wouldn’t budge, and I could hardly walk, I was shaking, my knees hurt, my legs, my thighs, my stomach, my neck, it was like having cancer, but also like coming—coming endlessly and exhaustingly—or like swallowing my eyes, my own eyes … ” —Dan Piepenbring

Given that Chaucer provides us with the earliest example of the verb “to twitter,” it seems appropriate that his Twitter persona, “Chaucer Doth Tweet,” has now attracted an impressive 29,800 followers. And he’s not the only medieval writer to venture into social media, with the Christian mystic Julian of Norwich, the poet John Lydgate, and the author Sir Thomas Malory all joining him in popularizing #MiddleEnglish. Perhaps the most surprising member of this group, though, is the late fourteenth-century mystic Margery Kempe, who has not one, but four rival Twitter accounts. Best known for dictating The Book of Margery Kempe, Margery spent most of her life repenting for her sins “wyth gret wepyng and many teerys,” being abused by her local community and abstaining from the “abhomynabyl” act of sex with her husband. While it may initially strike us as astonishing that a mystic visionary should have more official Twitter pages than Jay-Z, the online world has more in common with medieval Norfolk than you might think—maybe Margery can no longer be imprisoned by angry priests, but slander and public shaming are still ever present on the web. As @tweetyng_teres puts it: “dey seyn this creatur cryin / dey haytin #wepyn.” Plus ça change, it seems. —Helena Sutcliffe
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Staff Picks: Beard-Burdened and Beer-Branded

September 5, 2014 | by

History of Bluebeard

The Jeff Koons show has a little more than a month to go in its run at the Whitney Museum, and it’s been perplexing to see critics fall in with an artist whose work is the archetype of the money-driven art production about which many of them complain. To me, Koons’s work is all surface—literally and figuratively—and he seems to avail himself of Duchamp’s and Warhol’s legacies in order to promote, in art, wily marketing strategies gleaned during his years as a Wall Street commodities trader. It was a pleasure, then, to read Jed Perl’s assessment in The New York Review of Books. Perl rebuffs the idea that Koons’s work critiques middle-class values, concluding instead that it is the “apotheosis of Walmart” and “a habit-forming drug for the superrich” and that Koons is a too-confident exhibitionist. I find something immensely powerful in Perl’s tracing of the tradition of doubt in art—from Pliny to Michelangelo to Chardin—and in his conclusion that “where there is no doubt there is no art.” —Nicole Rudick

The story of Bluebeard, the wife-murdering aristocrat made famous in Charles Perrault’s seventeenth-century folktale, has captured the imagination of writers from the Brothers Grimm to Angela Carter. But William Thackeray’s lesser-known sequel to the hero’s bride-butchering, Bluebeard’s Ghost, tells the story through new eyes—specifically those of the final Mrs. Bluebeard, who escapes her husband’s clutches and goes on to inherit his estate. Pursued by numerous suitors, she opts for the equally hirsute “Captain Blackbeard, whose whiskers vied in magnitude with those of the deceased Bluebeard himself.” In true Thackeray style, he manages to transform a famously macabre narrative into a comic and playful study of human foibles, with the subjects inflated into caricatures of their former selves. Fittingly, September 5 marks the day that Tsar Peter the Great issued his “beard tax” of 1705, presenting those men determined enough to protect their hair with a hundred-rouble fee and a token bearing the words “the beard is a superfluous burden.” Thackeray’s tale is surely the other side of this coin: although his take on one of the most famous beards in literature is undeniably far-fetched, it is by no means a superfluous addition to the original. As he puts it himself, “Psha! Isn’t it written in a book? And is it a whit less probable than the first part of the tale?” —Helena Sutcliffe

If you’re looking to become productively, righteously, vindictively angry, read this piece in the Times about Crested Butte, Colorado, a town that will become, this weekend, an advertisement for Bud Light. Yes, entirely: “The town’s main thoroughfare, Elk Avenue, has been adorned with outdoor hot tubs, a sand pit, concert lights and a stage. Restaurants and hotels have been stripped of many local markings and given beer-branded umbrellas and signs instead. When the filming starts, drinks will be unlimited, access to the main street will be restricted to people with company-issued bracelets, and beautiful, mountain-ringed Crested Butte will be rebranded as ‘Whatever, USA.’ ” The mayor made the deal in secret, for $500,000; his name is Huckstep. The whole thing seems like an episode from a lesser George Saunders story. One can react only with scorn, and then one must trot out that shopworn but ever more vital statement of Philip Roth’s, from 1961: “The American writer … has his hands full in trying to understand, describe and then make credible much of American reality … It stupefies, it sickens, it infuriates and finally it is even a kind of embarrassment to one’s own meager imagination. The actuality is continually outdoing our talents.” —Dan Piepenbring

I could write about how much I’ve been watching the U.S. Open: how captivating the sport’s collision of intelligence and athleticism is, with its displays of raw emotion every time a player lunges to return a serve. But after reading Ben Rothenberg’s excellent essay on what it takes to be a line umpire, I’ve found my eyes veering toward the edges of the television set. While the task seems simple—“to sit or stand around the perimeter of the counter and monitor one specific line”—the preparation is intense. Understanding the patterns of each specific player helps to ensure no sight goes obscured. What’s even more fascinating is just as players advance through the tournament, so do line umpires. As Rothenberg writes, “By the final, the cream of the crop remains.” —Justin Alvarez

I was excited to see that the NYRB unlocked an essay, from 1985, by Umberto Eco on Krazy Kat and Peanuts. He’s good on the former, but on the latter, I found him to be inadvertently hilarious in his too-Freudian approach. He refers to Charlie Brown and the gang as “monster children,” distillations of modern industrial society’s neuroses. Poor Chuck is perhaps the most victimized: “This is why he is always on the brink of suicide or at least of nervous breakdown: because he seeks salvation through the routine formulas suggested to him by the society in which he lives (the art of making friends, culture in four easy lessons, the pursuit of happiness, how to make out with girls—he has been ruined, obviously, by Dr. Kinsey, Dale Carnegie, Erich Fromm, and Lin Yutang).” —N.R.

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