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Staff Picks: Tom Magliozzi and Dr. T

November 7, 2014 | by

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A still from Dr. T and the Women, 2000.

“One of the striking features of the discourse of man to modern eyes, in a sense the most striking, is how unreadable it is, how tedious, how unhelpful. The puzzle is why it is unreadable.” Thus, Mark Greif in his exhilarating study The Age of the Crisis of Man: Thought and Fiction in America 1933–1973. By “the discourse of man” Greif means the vast midcentury literature on human dignity, from Being and Nothingness, to the “Family of Man” photo exhibition, to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—a discourse that Greif interrogates with verve, erudition, sympathy, and suspicion, and that he follows into the fiction of our time. I’ve been toting The Age of the Crisis of Man around for the last month, using a pencil for a bookmark, because there’s something to underline on every page—and I haven’t even got to the chapters on O’Connor and Pynchon. —Lorin Stein

Like many nineties kids, I received my first doses of NPR while buckled up in the backseat of my parents’ car; Saturday-morning drives, often to visit my grandparents, meant one thing: Car Talk. The show has been a constant in my life ever since. (In fact, if you’ve ever wondered what occupies The Paris Review’s staff on our five-hour quarterly drives to our press in Pennsylvania, look no further than the Car Talk podcast.) So many of the tributes to Tom Magliozzi, the elder “Tappet” brother who died this week of complications from Alzheimer’s disease, focused on his inimitable and infectious laughter—and rightfully so. But the somberness of the occasion reminded me of a letter Tom and Ray once fielded from a troubled freshman at Mount Holyoke College, a young listener named Lea. (You can listen to Tom read Lea’s letter here; she later called in to the show.) Give them a listen and you'll be reminded of just how much the show provided: laughter, yes, and advice about cars—but also the occasional window, especially for its young listeners, into the sort of life one might aspire toward, one where the adults of the world still engage in “water-pistol fights, with whipped cream.” —Stephen Andrew Hiltner

I can’t in good faith claim that Robert Altman’s Dr. T and the Women (2000) is a “good” movie, but it captivates, in its quietly provocative way. Imagine the eye rolls after this pitch meeting: “Well, it’s this sexy, envelope-pushing comedy where Richard Gere plays a hunky gynecologist in upper-crust Dallas, but he doesn’t boink his patients or anything lewd like that—he just treats everyone really respectfully, including his daughters and his wife, who goes insane, in fact, because of how deeply loved she is and how well her personal needs are met.” Dr. T is a farce, a riff on the “Book of Job” and the suffering of the virtuous; all of its women are kooky and dependent in some way on the ministrations of the good doctor, with his boundless patience and his way with the speculum. Altman wrings a lot of jouissance from his ensemble cast, especially Gere, who really does seem too sensitive for this milieu. But what is this milieu? Why are all these rich ladies so gabby, so troubled, so sad? That’s where Dr. T is ultimately thwarted: in spite of its lead’s genuine (and believable) reverence for the feminine, the film can’t help but lapse into misogyny. It’s called Dr. T and the Women, for god’s sake. But right up to its positively outlandish ending, it asks questions about chivalry, materialism, and gender that not many movies would dare to touch, then or now. It’s audacious filmmaking—and that alone makes it worth watching. —Dan Piepenbring

In 1892, long before the O. J. Simpson trial or the Lindbergh kidnapping, there was a court case that swept the nation’s interest. It wasn’t because the violence of the crime—one woman publicly slashing the throat of another—but the motivation: a same-sex love affair. Using love letters, archives, newspaper articles, and government records, Alexis Coe’s Alice + Freda Forever brings to life the story of Alice Mitchell and Freda Ward, who lived in a much too-familiar world intolerant of any relationship outside the norm. Coe’s narrative covers the perceptions of sexuality, women’s role in society, racial hierarchy, media manipulation, and even mental health, but she never strays too far from the heart of the story: the tragic romance between two women forty years before the word lesbian would be in circulation. —Justin Alvarez
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What Scares The Paris Review?

October 31, 2014 | by

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From a 1939 Dutch workplace safety poster by Gé Hurkmans.

The book I find myself most often recommending—Grace Krilanovich’s The Orange Eats Creeps—is perfect reading for tonight, or for any chilly evening, when the fallen leaves outside have begun to mold and decay in wet piles. I may originally have read it in the summer, but so thoroughgoing is its tone of paranoia, cold, rot, and subsumed violence that you can’t easily separate yourself from the refracted narrative of the book’s protagonist, an ESP-endowed teenage girl running with a group of “vampire hobo junkies” in the Pacific Northwest. She’s searching for her foster sister, Kim, along the “highway That Eats People,” and the novel reads like an Orphic descent into a bad dream within a bad dream, with the physical landscape—loamy, waterlogged, and dank—doubling as the psychic landscape: “The land was not to be trusted. Its climate had the potential to make those teetering on the edges of decency spill over into murderville … Psychos tried to plug up cracks with bodies, cloth, whatever’s at hand.” —Nicole Rudick

Scary things I remember: a hand coming out of a box on The Electric Company, the dying boar on the cover of my parents’ Four Seasons LP (made them skip the Autumn movement), “Ode to Billy Joe,” reading The Dead Zone by flashlight under the blanket at camp, The Shining (movie), The Exorcist (book), the prophecies of Nostradamus (had to hide the book), Let’s Scare Jessica to Death on TV on a Sunday afternoon (Sunday afternoon movie), the Twilight Zone movie (had to leave theater), Eraserhead late at night alone in my parents’ bedroom (“You are sick!”), the diner scene in Mulholland Drive (the compressed audio), the distortion of Laura Dern’s face in Inland Empire, “Don't Crash” by Front 242, in the listening room at the school library (do these still exist?), Don’t Look Now, Francis Bacon, Fleetwood Mac, The White Ribbon, the dream sequence in Amour, and the scary-doll movie Sadie made me see last month. The other things I’ve managed to forget. —Lorin Stein

Taylor Swift’s “Track 3” recently made it to number one on Canadian iTunes. The track was a glitch, eight seconds of white noise. I’m open-minded, so I gave it a try, and by lunchtime I realized, rather suddenly, that “Track 3” was stuck in my head; Swift seemed to follow me into the void, filling it with something familiar yet indefinable. In “Track 3” she’s mastered the Freudian uncanny, something that’s frighteningly unknown but brings us back to something familiar. Freud once quoted Ernst Jentsch: “One of the most successful devices for easily creating uncanny effects is to leave the [listener] in uncertainty whether or not a particular figure … is a human being or an automaton.” I maintain that Swift released “Track 3” in all its uncanniness to confess that she is, in fact, an automaton. If you think your costume is good, stew on that: Swift’s has been better, every day, since 1989. —Alex Celia

Alex jests, but I do not: I really adore Taylor Swift. And that’s scary. She’s just released the best pop record of 2014: the most exhilarating, the most addictive, and also the most inscrutable, the most frustrating. Carl Wilson, the best pop critic writing today, understands—his review of 1989 uses Swift’s famously undisclosed bellybutton as a metaphor through which to apprehend the entire Swiftian zeitgeist. He gazes into her navel “as umbilical nub,” “as median point and sore spot,” “as Jell-O shot dispenser,” “as contemplative locus,” “as camera aperture,” “as teen-pop erogenous zone,” “as pretty hate machine,” “as the whitest thing on Earth,” and “as the omphalos of capital,” among others. No one has better identified the qualities that make her such a vital force in pop, so lucid and so obscure. “You could tug forever at the ends of Swift’s elusive, invisible abdominal bundle of avarice and sentiment, art, ego, envy, love and hate, drought and flood, truth and fiction, savior and monster,” Wilson writes, “and it would never come undone.” If that’s not horrifying … —Dan Piepenbring

There once was a time when the scariest thing imaginable was what one never saw: creaks in the floorboard, the rustling of branches against the window, whispers floating in the wind. It used to be that the monsters in horror films were never seen, which got under your skin: think of the spiral staircase of the original The Haunting, the eerie sobs of an unseen woman in The Uninvited, the psychological violence in later films like The Entity. Then slasher flicks and the “video nasties” of the early 1980s came, and we evolved into the terror porn of the Hostel series to laughable films like The Human Centipede. These films are indeed horrific, but are they scary? It’s pretty unlikely that I’ll stumble upon some sadistic German surgeon, but I turn the lights off every night. So it totally makes sense that The Blair Witch Project made millions of dollars—that last image in the basement is still ingrained in my head because—besides being absolutely terrifying—you never know who was behind the terror. (I still can’t go camping without thinking of the film.) One recent film that stands out, and one that gets better with repeated viewings, is The Orphanage (2007). There’s nothing innovative in the storytelling—haunted house, missing child—but it expertly builds the atmosphere of the remote orphanage and the characters who inhabit it. There aren’t as many thrills as something like The Descent—a great example of what is still possible within creature features–but when the scares come they are genuine. The rest is waiting, anticipating, dreading; there’s nothing scarier than what haunts one’s imagination. —Justin Alvarez Read More »

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Staff Picks: Dimensions, Defacements, Darkness

October 24, 2014 | by

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Mike Kelley, Reconstructed History, 1989, ink and collage on paper, framed, in fifty parts, 11" x 8.5" each. © The Estate of Mike Kelley/Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts

It is strangely relaxing to visit Frankfurt during the book fair, if you’re not in the book business. While actual publishers were staying out late and getting up early and speed-reading manuscripts on their phones, I got to visit Lucy Raven’s 3-D film installation, “Curtains,” at Portikus gallery, confirming my own suspicion that I do not, in fact, see in 3-D. (Everything was flat and red—or flat and blue if I squinted.) I also got to read the first three books of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time. It was my third attempt on Powell’s twelve-volume comedy of manners, and I could see what defeated me before—the fake-Proustian “philosophizing,” the unparsable sentences and cavalier grammar, the complete lack of believable erotic feeling, the endless talk about characters who never rise above caricature. The whole thing is amateurish in a way that only English novels like to be. And yet Powell has a genius for physical space. He can seat an entire dinner party so you remember who’s sitting where or show four friends walking down the street in such a way that you can tell, at all times, who’s walking next to whom. It’s magic. His characters may be strictly 2-D, but you always know where they are. —Lorin Stein

Last week I went to a show at Skarstedt Gallery to see a show of work by the late Mike Kelley. Kelley was a genius of an artist; to my mind, he is a genius of an artist, even though, of course, we will get no more new work from him. That present tense may be partly due to the fact that since his death, I’ve seen art by him that I hadn’t previously seen—like the installation at Skarstedt, which comprised fifty small, framed illustrations torn from American history textbooks and defaced by Kelley. The doodles are lewd and juvenile—he has Alexander Hamilton making a pass at George Washington and a signatory barfing on the Declaration of Independence—graffiti appropriate to the bored teenagers who likely suffered through the books. It’s a smart, astute work and very funny (a combination no artist does better than Kelley), but what really got me was the wall text, which was taken from Kelley’s introduction to a book of these images, published in 1990. This too-sober text turns an idealized view of American history and patriotism on its head: “Such childish resentment is the cause of the defacements presented here. The inability to accept their lower position in the order of things provokes these ‘artists’ to drag back to the surface garbage long buried–to sully, vandalize, and render inoperable our pictures of health,” he writes, adding, “Not that such a tactic is always bad.” —Nicole Rudick

“ ‘I get really affected by bestiality with children,’ she says … ‘I have to stop for a moment and loosen up, maybe go to Starbucks and have a coffee.’ She laughs at the absurd juxtaposition of a horrific sex crime and an overpriced latte.” That’s Adrien Chen in the latest issue of Wired, looking at the vast labor force (“well over 100,000”) devoted to “content moderation,” the purgation of offensive material from our social networks. If you’ve ever wondered why your YouTube experience never shades into sadism or pornography, you have content moderators to thank. Our demand for a whitewashed Internet—an uncontaminated “content stream”—comes at a steep human cost. Imagine if it were your full-time job to watch pornography, beheadings, torture, hate: the whole gamut of id and primeval desire, eight hours a day, forty hours a week. As Chen describes them, these laborers—that seems to me the only word for them, even if they’re handsomely remunerated—are at once desensitized and permanently scarred; he’s not overstating things when he writes that they’ve been “staring into the heart of human darkness.” One wants to cry foul here: Is it really necessary to expose so many people to such constant atrocity? Chen’s reporting presents a Gordian knot of ethics and exploitation. —Dan Piepenbring
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Staff Picks: Pirates, Policemen, Purple Skies

October 17, 2014 | by

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Jane Wilson, Hurricane Watch, 1990, oil on canvas, 35" x 40". Image via DC Moore Gallery.

In 1965, Jane Wilson made a print for The Paris Review. Hers was included in the first group offered by the magazine through its new print series; Wilson was joined in that inaugural endeavor by, among others, Helen Frankenthaler and Jane Freilicher, all of whom were cohorts in midfifties New York. Other than the print, I’ve only ever seen one of Wilson’s works, at a friend’s house—it’s a sizable painting of a landscape—but that’s been enough to make me covet her artwork. DC Moore Gallery has nearly a dozen of these landscapes on view right now, and they’re stunning. At almost six feet square, the paintings are large, and their size is amplified by terrific expanses of sky that take up most of the picture space. And what skies: a full range of purples, golds, blues, and greens—they appear as visions, as though you can see through time while only looking at the clouds.  —Nicole Rudick

If you call Pirate Joe’s in Vancouver during off hours, you’ll be greeted by the store’s owner, Michael Hallatt, on the recording. “We do not sell Trader Joe’s products,” he says. “You might have heard we do; we don’t. That would be unfair to Trader Joe’s, to go down there and buy groceries from them. Say you bought like maybe a million dollars worth of groceries from them over three years, that would be grossly unfair.” But that’s exactly what Hallatt has done. Trader Joe’s doesn’t have a Canadian presence, so loopholes in a gray market allow Hallatt to resell Joe’s groceries. Priceonomics has the full story, from Hallatt’s early stock runs to Bellingham, Washington, and his subsequent ban from Trader Joe’s locations to his ongoing lawsuit with the grocery chain. At the end of the day, this is a love story between a man and a store. “Hallatt’s ultimate goal with Pirate Joe’s is to ‘bring’ Trader Joe’s to Canada—before he had the store he would call them and just petition them, and he has always promised to close up shop if they ever expand north. In many ways, Hallatt would count this as the ultimate victory.” —Justin Alvarez

The Melville House blog introduced me to The Policeman’s Beard Is Half Constructed, a—novella? discourse? medium-length prose work?—composed in the early eighties by an artificial intelligence called Racter (short for raconteur). Racter likely had some editorial assistance from good old-fashioned human beings, but even so, its work is affecting. There are moments when it has an eerily sophisticated grasp of these things we call “emotions,” all the complex longings that come with personhood: love, envy, hunger. And then there are moments when it sounds utterly robotic, almost autistic. A representative sample: “A sturdy dove flies over a starving beaver. The dove watches the beaver and fantasizes that the beaver will chew some steak and lamb and lettuce. The beaver spies the dove and dreams of enrapturing and enthralling pleasures, of hedge-adorned avenues studded with immense pink cottages, of streets decorated with bushes and shrubs. The beaver is insane.” —Dan Piepenbring

I was reluctant to read Don DeLillo’s Falling Man because I don’t remember how I felt on 9/11; I was barely ten. My mom, an EMT, pulled me out of school and dropped me home with my dad before rushing to the train station where first-responders were meeting. I was in McDonald’s eating a Big Mac when the South Tower fell. Eventually my brother and I got tired of watching my dad watch CNN; we went upstairs and watched Dumb & Dumber on a nine-inch television instead. DeLillo shows incredible tact and poise in his navigation of such a delicate subject. The novel is bookended by short scenes that take place during the attacks. The imagery is vivid, horrifying, and pea-soupy with detail. But DeLillo’s voice is strongest in his enigmatic mastery of the domestic. He doesn’t attempt to evaluate fallout and fear on a national level. Instead, he shadows a single survivor who returns to his estranged wife and child. The brilliance of Falling Man isn’t in shoving the reader back through the ashes of American flags but in exploring how the tragedy affected our understanding of memory, faith, and fear. —Alex Celia

In The Guardian’s “The Long Read” this week, Pankaj Mishra critiques The Fourth Revolution, a new book by John Micklethwait and Adrian Woolridge (both editors at the Economist). It’s beyond me how Mishra isn’t completely exhausted from his tireless defense against that most damaging and useless binary, “East/West.” “The twentieth century was blighted by the same pathologies that today make the western model seem unworkable, and render its fervent advocates a bit lost,” Mishra observes. Among the “advocates” he takes to task are “such Panglosses of globalization as Thomas Friedman” and Francis Fukuyama, whose pernicious “inverted Hegelianiam” must stop being consumed by the masses. Deftly showing how ISIS is “the latest incarnation” of “the blood-splatted French revolutionary tradition” and arguing that we must look to “historical specificity and detail” rather than support totalizing ideologies, Mishra provides a much-needed, sober reading of the state of the world today. —Charles Shafaieh

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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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