The Daily

This Week’s Reading

Staff Picks: Coates, Cartels, Caesar, Cigarettes

July 17, 2015 | by

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Covers of Slash.

There are writers you know about and writers you read. Before I heard him speak, Ta-Nehisi Coates was only the former to me—he came to my school and spoke to a packed auditorium about American self-conception, idealism, and his role in dislodging us from it. This week I’ve been sprinting through his amazing new book, Between the World and Me. A mixture of personal and cultural, critical and historical, the book is written entirely to Coates’s son, a teenager today. It seems that nearly every comment on Coates is excerpting him, lauding him, or calling him James Baldwin, and these staff picks are short, so I hope to get away with simply nodding my head. Yes, rewarding and complex; yes, generous and intimate; yes, “race is the child of racism, not the father.” Yes, an easy book to know about, but a better one to read. One of my clearest memories of his speech was the final question and answer. Someone—an older woman, a professor, I figured—stood up to thank him and asked something like “How do we get these young people to listen to you?” “I’m a writer,” he said. “That’s not my job.” —Jake Orbison

gamelifeAnyone who came of age in the eighties or nineties will grok Gamelife, Michael Clune’s memoir about the computer games of his childhood. But I hope others—those who dismiss gaming as merely narcotic or those who regard old games as curios—will read it, too. Clune captures not just the palm-sweating, self-flagellating thrill of early PC games but their talismanic role in the life of the mind. With their primitive, repetitious designs, these games provided a grammar for children, a way of apprehending the world—I remember feeling it myself, that scary, precarious sense of empowerment, the way reality seemed to bend to accommodate the airtight logic of Pirates! or Wolfenstein 3D. Games, Clune writes, teach us the rules for being alive “in a way nothing else can. They teach us about death, about character, about fate, about action and identity. They turn insights into habit. The habits bore through our defenses. Computer games reach us.” His memoir is also a sharp portrait of post-Reagan America, when communism was vanquished, history was over, and the shopping center was enshrined in the national imagination. —Dan Piepenbring 

If the sophistication of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán’s escape last week from a maximum-security prison isn’t enough to convince you of the influence (and the reach) of Mexico’s drug cartels, then Matthew Heineman’s documentary Cartel Land will. The film focuses on the leaders of two vigilante groups dedicated to fighting off the cartels—one in the United States (Arizona Border Recon, led by Tim Foley) and one in the Mexican state of Michoacán (Autodefensa, led by José Manuel Mireles). Cartel Land makes no attempts to tell a sanitized or digestible version of the truth; it’s rife with ambiguity, complicity, racism, and brutality. But from all the confusion emerges a compelling—and impressively crafted—narrative arc, one in which resistance, in all its forms, takes center stage amid unimaginable, and seemingly unconquerable, corruption. —Stephen Andrew Hiltner

We all love war narratives, those Homeric masterpieces that deliver timeless truths—but Sam Sacks’s piece in the latest issue of Harper’s,First-Person Shooters: What’s missing in contemporary war fiction,” takes no prisoners. Sacks admits that “war is hell, but its themes make critics purr”; he bemoans the genre’s “self-involvement,” its nearly identical perspectives “of individual soldiers who can’t comprehend what they’ve experienced,” and its facile emphasis on “personal redemption.” Nearly all contemporary war fiction, he reminds us, has been “cultivated in the hothouse of creative-writing programs. No wonder so much of it looks alike.” His argument is less about war stories and more about competent fiction, the kind that’s lauded for its subject matter and honesty but amounts to simple confession. Takedowns are usually banal, and it’s easy to hit the biggest targets, but this is an important piece: “one of the jobs of literature,” Sacks writes, “is to wake us from stupor. But in matters of war, our sleep is deep, and the best attempts of today’s veterans have done little to disturb it.” —Jeffery Gleaves
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Staff Picks: Moaning, Sobbing, Trolling

July 10, 2015 | by

Oksana Baiul, after her Olympic gold medal–winning performance in 1994.

Oksana Baiul, after her Olympic gold medal–winning performance in 1994.

unnamedJust yesterday, I snuck an advance-reader’s copy of Lorenzo Chiera’s Shards: Fragments of Verses, translated from the Italian by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, off a colleague’s bookshelf and devoured it on my subway ride home. The pocket-size book comprises delicious morsels of twelfth-century verse by an otherwise unknown fellow from Testaccio. Though the fragments—plucked from scratches on parchment paper or fiber sacks—are no more than a few lines each, they brim with raunch and grime and love. Chiera breathes sex into most verses, which are bound to make one blush with either delight or despair. Some read as playful winks, others as moans, and still others as desperate, carnal prayers. “Hearing Chiera for the first time,” Ferlinghetti writes in his introduction, “we soon realize we are in the presence of a savage erotic consciousness, as if the lust-driven senses were suddenly awakened out of a hoary sleep of a thousand years … He’s vulgar. He’s mad. He’s uncouth. Yet he is innocent.” Here’s a little taste of Chiera himself: “Sexy Nonny / in her silk nun’s habit / behind the arras / of the cult of the Virgin / stuck her tongue in my mouth / when I was fourteen / Made me cream.” —Caitlin Youngquist

I’ve never read any fan fiction, and I never made it all the way through Pretty Woman, so devotees of either may take this recommendation with a grain of salt, but I loved Michael Friedman’s novel Martian Dawn, all about a couple of movie stars (viz Richard and Julia) whose off-screen romance is strained by a visit to the Red Planet. No doubt half the jokes went over my head. It didn't matter. Friedman’s urbane silliness and élan hark back to the glittering twilight of high camp—without seeming to hark back. Hats off to Little A for reissuing Martian Dawn and Other Novels. I didn’t know anyone could still make it look so easy to have so much fun on the page. —Lorin Stein 

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Staff Picks: A Mongoose Civique and a Maestro of the Rant

June 26, 2015 | by

Love Wins: Stephen Andrew Hiltner, our senior editor, designed this collage in honor of today’s Supreme Court decision.

heaven“Writing religious poetry in the twentieth century is very difficult.” So says Czeslaw Milosz in his 1994 interview with The Paris Review. This, he noted, could be one of the greatest challenges facing the poets of our time: “the incapacity of contemporary man to think in religious terms.” Twenty years later, Rowan Ricardo Phillips published a poem in our summer 2014 issue that begins “Not knowing the difference between Heaven / And Paradise, he called them both Heaven.” That poem appears again in Phillips’ new collection, Heaven. In contemporary poetry, there are few book-length meditations on heaven. It’s strange. What’s more, it’s strange how strange it is: Phillips constantly reminds us that the territory is well charted. His poems pinpoint and stitch together small, disparate nodes of heavenly wisdom scattered through our largely earthbound canon. (Ovid, Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, to name a few of the patron saints.) The flow of astronomical allusions, like the subject itself, feels mundane at a glance and somewhat trite to mention. But as Phillips brings them close with the tight scope of his scholarship and lyric observation, they become unfamiliar, and heaven becomes something new, “this star-seized evening that’s / Unreeling and unreals.” —Jake Orbison

I managed to get my hands on a copy of Elena Ferrante’s fourth Neapolitan Novel, The Story of a Lost Child (out in September), and have been able to focus on little else all week. In this final installment of the story of Elena and Lila, Ferrante delivers some seismic-level surprises that somehow don’t feel contrived, that instead unearth a new internal symmetry beneath the dynamics established in the earlier books. As Ferrante shapes and reshapes her narrative, she watches generations of Italian intellectuals do the same for that of their country, continuously redefining the acceptable terms for political and social engagement. When they’re not fixating on Ferrante’s anonymity, reviewers like to talk about “the inner lives of women” and “female friendship” in these novels, as if Ferrante is venturing into entirely uncharted territory—as if women’s interiority hasn’t dominated a good part of the past several hundred years’ fictional output. Maybe Ferrante’s femaleness gets emphasized because we don’t have the vocabulary to describe what is indisputably different about her books, to explain why they read like a revelation to so many readers—this one included. —Rebecca Panovka
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Staff Picks: Ditch Baths and Bee Lives

June 19, 2015 | by

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The Angulo brothers, in The Wolfpack.

9780307700322Two-thirds of Jane Smiley’s Last Hundred Years trilogy has been published—the second volume just came out a month or so ago—and if you haven’t started it yet, it’s not too late to begin. And you should: they’re so good. Smiley’s process is additive—three books’ worth of Langdon family history, a long recitation of individual lives with history and politics playing out in the background. They remind me of another book of hers I love, The Greenlanders, a medieval saga that follows the travails of a small community over some nine hundred pages. Smiley’s writing in all three books is spare and lean; she resists adding authorial commentary and is content, instead, to stand back and watch her characters make their own way. I wondered whether the second volume would be as satisfying as the first. It is and it isn’t: the story is utterly addictive and only left me wanting more. I’m grateful there’s a third one on the way, but I don’t know how I’ll cope after that. —Nicole Rudick

In last year’s profile of William Vollmann for The New Republic, Tom Bissell remarked of Vollmann’s forthcoming 1,300-page tome, The Dying Grass, “It sound[s] a bit like William Gaddis, except more insane.” I’m happy to report that it is, in fact, insane. This demented opus is book five in his seven-volume (!) series concerning the settlement of North America; The Dying Grass focuses on the Nez Perce War of 1877. After years of broken treaties and strained relations, the Nez Perce refused to give up their ancestral lands and move to an Indian reservation in Idaho, deciding they’d rather to take up arms against the “Bostons,” led by the devoutly Christian, and possibly inept, one-armed Civil War veteran General O. O. Howard. Though outgunned, the Nez Perce manage to slip Howard’s grasp at every turn, dragging the war though Oregon, Idaho, and much of Montana, for five months. The book plods along as the campaign must have, but it’s filled with vivid characters and rich history. Its layout can mystify: the left side of the page features dialogue occurring in real time, and right side of the page contains what must be these characters’ thoughts as they talk to one another. But if you’re interested in entering Vollmann’s headspace, The Dying Grass is worth it, even if you sometimes suspect he wrote the book faster than you can read it. —Jeffery Gleaves
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Staff Picks: Misspelled Marven, Messengered Mineral Water

June 12, 2015 | by

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A still from A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence.

Say what you will about Tom McCarthy’s novels: they bring out the best in their critics. Few other writers goad us into asking such broad, terrifying questions as, What should fiction do? Who is it for? And how can it undermine authority? In 2008, Remainder inspired Zadie Smith’s seminal essay “Two Paths for the Novel”; now McCarthy’s Satin Island has landed a series of reviews offering unusually acute observations on the state of the novel. Read Gideon-Lewis Kraus in Bookforum, James Lasdun in the Guardian, Christopher Tayler in the London Review of Books, and William Deresiewicz in The Nation: each unabashedly cerebral, and each proving that seemingly empty-isms—realism, postmodernism, postcolonialism, formalism, antihumanism—have life in them yet. —Dan Piepenbring

marvin-gardens-g-spotThe property names in Monopoly are taken from the boomtown ideal that was turn-of-the-century Atlantic City, with one glaring exception: Marvin Gardens, which does not, as such, exist. If you consider the game a metaphor for the dreams of the middle class, that absence bodes ill: it’s a coveted place you can never hope to get to. John McPhee’s 1972 essay “The Search for Marvin Gardens,” collected in his Pieces of the Frame, uses Monopoly to examine the significance of Atlantic City in the seventies, when it had fallen on hard times. As McPhee and a partner roll the dice, advancing their pieces and buying properties, a ghostly second narrator walks through the real St. Charles Place, Baltic Avenue, and New York Avenue, reporting that they’re all slums; the two players circle the board and the neighborhoods get worse. When McPhee realizes that his “only hope is Marvin Gardens,” his reportorial counterpart learns that it’s not even in the city at all; it’s one town over in Margate, New Jersey, and it’s spelled Marven. Rarely is McPhee’s writing as disjointed as it is in this piece; the essay’s aphoristic, time-traveling, jump-cut style asks so much of its readers that it’s astonishing The New Yorker published it. I haven’t seen anything as boldly form-defying in its pages for a while. —Jeffery Gleaves
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Staff Picks: Beach Brain, Polychromatic Plumage

June 5, 2015 | by

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From the cover of the Talk reissue.

In 1965, Linda Rosenkrantz summered in East Hampton—as one does, I guess—and had the good sense to bring a tape recorder with her. On the beach, she logged hours of her banal, brilliant conversations with two friends; in 1968 she published the transcripts as a novel, Talk, to be reissued next month. In many ways the book is as exasperating as you’d expect: Linda and her friends, all approaching thirty, seldom entertain thoughts beyond themselves or their coterie. They gossip about fucking and psychoanalysis; pubic dandruff is among their more elevated concerns. And there are moments when you can hear them ham it up for their imaginary audience, affecting even more weariness, intellect, and neurosis than they’ve already claimed. But who cares? Even at its most vapid, Talk captivates: it’s funny, honest, and not infrequently heartbreaking, and it still feels weirdly provocative almost fifty years later. The dialogue captures the sun-brained rhythm of beach talk better than anything I’ve read. —Dan Piepenbring

o-AMELIA-GRAY-900Amelia Gray’s last novel, Threats, was a weird and wonderful book set on the outskirts of reality. Her new story collection, Gutshot, is an episodic version of the same strange locale, one populated by a convulsive puker, a Brobdingnagian snake, and a couple who trap a woman in the air ducts of their house. It’s a place where “the sun beats the shit out of a dirty road called Raton Pass [and] the closet thing to a pair of matching earrings is a guy named Carl who punches you in the head with his fist.” The characters are all misfits of one kind or another, and they are dedicated to their stories even when they don’t seem to want to be a part of them. The title story (my favorite) reads like a shaggy-dog story, except that the ending is unexpectedly moving and meaningful. The membrane between Gray’s stories and our reality is often thin; it's sometimes breached by a pinhole, as in “Viscera,” in which the skin flakes and spittle of a paper-factory employee drift into the pulp, “baking the genetic evidence of his future heart disease into this very page, which you are touching with your hands.” —Nicole Rudick
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