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This Week’s Reading

Staff Picks: Birthdays, Bluegrass, Baked Alaska

January 9, 2015 | by

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From the first-edition cover of Appointment in Samarra.

Cold, biting January made me reach for Simon Van Booy’s The Illusion of Separateness. This deceptively slim novel transcends time and geography to explore the lives of six unwittingly connected strangers, each rendered with stunning incisiveness and warmth. (If Raymond Chandler had swapped gin for chamomile tea he might have written some of Van Booy’s sentences.) However, the prose is so rich—so resonant—it’s easy to miss the real treat on offer: an exceptionally compassionate lens through which to view the world. Search no more. This is that book, the one you carry through the midwinter doldrums toward spring. —Emilia Murphy 

Over Christmas I read Is He Popenjoy?, Anthony Trollope’s tale of a rich girl who marries an impoverished Lord and finds herself in the middle of a battle over his inheritance. This is late, minor Trollope (he wrote forty-seven novels altogether), but Trollope is one of those writers in whom minorness and greatness are hard to tell apart. He makes everything look so easy. His experiments are hidden in plain view. So is his special brand of moral skepticism. For Trollope, every character is the hero of his own story, or the heroine; every character thinks he or she has to deal with villains (sociopaths, we’d say). From time to time every character is right. Or may be. But the most powerful force in Trollope’s fiction is not good or evil, but group dynamics, the ever-shifting relations between family members and friends. Among other things, Is He Popenjoy? is the best novel I have ever read about in-laws and how to get along with them. For the moment, I'm so deep under its spell I wouldn’t trade it for Anna Karenina. —Lorin Stein

Every year around the holidays, I try to fill in one of the gaps in my knowledge of the canon. When you’re revisiting classics, I’ve found, it’s always good to seek out the ones that people hated when they were first published—so I took up John O’Hara’s Appointment in Samarra, which Sinclair Lewis called “nothing but infantilism—the erotic visions of a hobbledehoy behind the barn.” And what visions they are! Sex and class are O’Hara’s great subjects, and in Appointment—wherein a rich, high-society guy ruins himself for no good reason, really, except that the straitjacket of Depression-era life demands it—he treats them with a candor that most novelists still can’t muster eighty years later. He’s known, rightly, for his dialogue, but there’s a kind of O’Hara sentence, precise but faintly ostentatious, that sounds utterly American to me. “The festive board now groaned under the Baked Alaska,” for instance. Or: “Frank Gorman, Georgetown, and Dwight Ross, Yale, had fought, cried, and kissed after an argument about what the team Gorman had not made would have done to the team Ross was substitute halfback on.” —Dan Piepenbring
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Staff Picks: Crayoned Cartoons and Computer Corruption

December 19, 2014 | by

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James Hoff, Stuxnet No. 1, 2014, chromaluxe transfer on aluminum, 30" × 24". Image via BOMB

I caught Susan Te Kahurangi King’s exhibition at Andrew Edlin Gallery before it closes this weekend, and I’m glad I did. I'd never heard of her, but her cartoony, figurative drawings have affinities with work by some of my favorite artists: Gary Panter, Gladys Nilsson, Jim Nutt, Barry McGee, and Peter Saul. King hails from New Zealand (her middle name is Maori), and has drawn prolifically since childhood. The show contains work she made when she was only about a decade old; these drawings aren’t notable for their technical prowess but because their imagery and composition carry over into the drawings she made when she was older. That is to say, these are forms and arrangements that have preoccupied King for much of her life. Tightly packed configurations of Bugs Bunnies and Donald Ducks and other figures—sometimes colored with bright crayons, other times left as outlines—are frequently cloistered on one side of the paper, resembling fragments of ancient tablets. Most works in the show are from the sixties and seventies; King mysteriously stopped drawing in the eighties and has only now taken it up again. Here's hoping this is only the first of many exhibitions to come. —Nicole Rudick

For a few months now I’ve been irritating my friends, colleagues, and loved ones by using one of the artist James Hoff’s contaminated ringtones. Call me up and anyone nearby will hear a version of Apple’s standard iPhone Marimba ringtone infected with the ILOVEYOU virus, a computer worm from 2000. This sounds like exactly what it is: broken. A familiar motif corrupted with static, screeches, and squelches, and so rendered at once annoying and unsettling. (“Your phone is fucked,” a guy once told me on the street, his voice suggesting that a close relative of mine had just died.) The infected ringtones are part of Hoff’s vast, viral canon: he’s reduced a stunning variety of images and songs to code and then reconstituted them with corrupt code inside. “My newer work definitely draws from everyday phenomena inside the background noise of pop culture,” Hoff told BOMB earlier this year: “computer viruses, ear-worms, and syndromes. All of these are illnesses, broadly speaking. Viruses, like art, need a host, preferably a popular one … Like traditional illnesses, computer viruses travel through networks of communication or trade … A few years back I felt the need to try and to reconcile my creative process with the language of code, which is touching everything these days. It’s to the point where I don’t even know if you could say that this table right here (knocking on table) doesn’t have code underneath it.” It’s hard to think of an artist today engaging more profoundly with the seamy underbelly of our technocracy—and as hacking scandals continue to make headlines, his work only becomes more relevant. —Dan Piepenbring

Blanche McCrary Boyd was my creative-writing advisor at Connecticut College. For more than twenty-five years, she’s collected scores of young writers—many of us inattentive, hungover, and horny—vying for a seat in her twelve-person fiction seminar. To call her a deft storyteller would be an understatement; Blanche would routinely fill our three-hour sessions with tales of addiction, recovery, and everything in between. I picked up her second novel, The Revolution of Little Girls (1991), in an attempt to recapture the awesome terror of her voice—and it did not disappoint. Blanche’s familiar tone is unavoidable, especially so in her protagonist, Ellen Burns. A delightfully wry and impulsively adventurous southern belle, Ellen stumbles headlong into an affair with another woman. But not before spending her early years stealing fish, getting drunk on spirits of ammonia, and hypnotizing a dean or two at Duke. Ellen is charming when graceless and wonderfully nasty when need be. A definite mainstay in lesbian literature, Blanche’s novel is a wild trip of insight, uncomfortable giggles, and old-fashioned wisecracks. —Alex Celia

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Staff Picks: Ghost-Forsaken Plains, Apocalyptic Libertarians

December 12, 2014 | by

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An illustration by Darrel Rees

I know it’s jumping the gun, since the book doesn’t come out till April, but I’ve been enjoying Devin Johnston’s new poetry collection Far-Fetched. His imagery is often unexpected—“Her kiss? Sweet, / and hard enough / to crack your teeth”—or else so familiar and right that its perfection is surprising, as when he observes the fixed interval between a father’s age and his son’s, comparing that even space to “two ruts [that] incise this ghost-forsaken plain / and keep their track width, never to part or meet.” His playfulness is refreshing and smart—“One finds escape through Stephen King, / as through a window left ajar”—and I’m more than occasionally in awe of his linguistic pairings, especially the lines “Clouds purl / in a conch whorl.” —Nicole Rudick

The new issue of Harper’s has a terrifying dispatch from Sam Frank, who has dared to insinuate himself into a community of “apocalyptic libertarians” in Silicon Valley. These are people who conduct polyphasic-sleep experiments, who dream of a program that can simulate “eons of moral progress” to extrapolate “a complete human goal structure.” They’re all fixated on the idea that an artificial superintelligence will, in the next century, attempt to eradicate humanity. And they revere a kind of functionalism that treats our brains as mere processors. One of them, the pluperfectly named Blake Masters, lives by the motto, “Your mind is software. Program it. Your body is a shell. Change it. Death is a disease. Cure it. Extinction is approaching. Fight it.” They are, in short, so cold and clinical that Ayn Rand looks like Oprah in comparison, and Frank captures them in moments of paranoia, hubris, and misogyny. Their rationalism isn’t contagious, but the underlying dread certainly is. By the time I finished reading, I felt that humankind was totally fucked. —Dan Piepenbring

“True, it all happened a long time ago, but it has haunted me ever since.” So begins S. Yizhar’s Khirbet Khizeh, published in Hebrew in 1949, in the aftermath of the 1948 War and the Palestinian nakba. It is the story of a company of Jewish soldiers tasked with clearing a Palestinian village, called Khirbet Khizeh, in the closing months of the conflict. It is a war novel that refuses all the pieties of that genre and develops into an anguished—and unresolved—meditation on Jewish history and the meaning of exile. Almost every episode screams out its relevance for today. —Robyn Creswell

That same Harper’s piece introduced me to Darrel Rees, whose willfully tacky, nineties-style graphics collages add a whole dimension of smart anxiety to the essay. You can see more of his illustration work here—his is an aesthetic that feels fantastically out of sync with the crisp, clean, pure designs you see in so many magazines today. —DP

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Staff Picks: Reading Aloud, Rayon Dresses, Red Phones

December 5, 2014 | by

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Straight to Moscow.

Our Summer issue this year included Garth Greenwell’s story “Gospodar.” Though I didn’t then know that Greenwell is also a poet, it now seems obvious: his language in the story is economical and precise and yet so fluid. Two and a half years ago, Greenwell’s friend, Max Freeman, a filmmaker and photographer, filmed him reading three of his poems. Greenwell is a superb reader, and I was transfixed by the movement of his face on camera—“enthralled like a bird before a snake,” as he says in the first poem. (Actually, I had to watch the video a couple times because I forgot to pay attention to the words the first time.) The oddly touching “Faculty Meeting with Fly” is the second poem, in which a fly provides interest and pleasure during an otherwise dull moment: “No one before has traced precisely that path / along the thinner vein of my wrist, yet you take / such delight there / … while / beneath you subterraneously my blood must roar / and thrum you like a lyre.” But it’s the last poem, “An Evening Out”—wistful, gorgeous, and sad—that makes the video, and Greenwell’s face, so compelling. —Nicole Rudick

I haven’t read many novels as spooky and sublime and psychologically acute as Forrest Gander’s The Trace. It’s the portrait of a couple in crisis and their misguided road trip through the Chihuahua desert, on the tracks of the writer Ambrose Bierce. Gander’s landscapes are lyrical and precise (“raw gashed mountains, gnarly buttes of andesite”), and his study of a marriage on the rocks is as empathetic as it is unsparing. —Robyn Creswell

Sarah Lazarovic sat down with her brushes and did not stop painting until she’d revealed her entire messy, colorful, and witty journey from a teenaged “fashion-maybe” to a bona fide adult shopping ambassador. In her charmingly illustrated new book, A Bunch of Pretty Things I Did Not Buy, Lazarovic explains how a mall-lovin’ middle-schooler’s early obsession with scrunchy socks later ballooned into a full-blown consumer obsession with clothes of every possible description. Lazarovic’s story will especially resonate for the late Gen Xer who may have similarly cycled through the Gap Girl to Thrift Girl to Goth Girl to I-just-can’t-have-enough-little-rayon-dresses-for-under-twenty-bucks Girl, who along the way also made good use of the venerable scrunchie and the ubiquitous safety pin when the outfit or occasion called for it. Lazarovic meditates on the “ill-defined distinction between fashion and shopping,” stating that “in childhood we create fashion with very little shopping (except you, Suri Cruise).” Her adult self craves a minimal wardrobe and a spare closet. She writes, “What I love best is how time often reveals a solution to what I need that doesn’t involve buying.” She closes her diary with expert tips on how to fill your own closet with quality over mass quantity. —Charlotte Strick
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Staff Picks: Absolution, Antipodes, Air Raid

November 28, 2014 | by

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From the cover of the new translation of Alexander Kluge’s Air Raid.

Last night, I finished Gerald Murnane’s The Plains, and this morning I started reading it again. It’s the story of a filmmaker who travels from the coast of Australia into the plains of the interior, where instead of flyblown pit stops he encounters a society of vast estates—latifundia meets British manor house—whose culture is based on avant-garde poetics and the art of heraldry. The plainsmen are melancholy philosophers whose koans would have made T. S. Eliot proud: “I’ve spent my life trying to see my own place as the end of a journey I never made,” one says into his beer. Murnane is a careful stylist and a slyly comic writer with large ideas. I know it’s the antipodes, but it’s hard to fathom why he isn’t a little better known here. —Robyn Creswell

I’ve been caught up in Alexander Kluge’s masterpiece Air Raid (1977), finally available in English—an unsettlingly oblique remembrance of the events of April 8, 1945, when Americans carpet bombed Halberstadt, a German town of no particular significance to the war effort. Eighty percent of the place was destroyed and thousands died; Kluge, who lived there, was thirteen at the time. Air Raid is composed of fragments: diagrams, photographs, interviews, vignettes of survivors. In Kluge’s affectless prose, the manager of a bombed movie theater watches as her patrons’ corpses are boiled by the hot water gushing from an exposed pipe; a confused cemetery groundskeeper goes to sleep in an open grave. The book is part fiction and part reportage, but Kluge makes no effort to say which is which; in fact, many of its more explicitly documentary sections, such as a long interview with an American brigadier, are entirely fabricated. It’s an affecting puzzle about the destabilized narratives of war. The reader has to construct some semblance of a story from the rubble. —Dan Piepenbring

While everyone is talking about Serial, you should be listening to another This American Life alum’s podcast, StartUp, in which Alex Blumberg attempts to launch his podcast start-up. (He’s aware of how meta this is.) Blumberg makes a failure of a pitch to venture investor Chris Sacca; he compares the search for a business partner to the awkwardness of the dating world. The podcast is a fascinating and insightful look at the nature of business. As Blumberg reflects, “You think it’s about numbers and bottom lines—but really it’s just about raw feelings?” —Justin Alvarez

Scott McClanahan has a new essay on The Fader’s Web site about how his love for Little Jimmy Dickens, and his wife’s dislike for the diminutive country star, broke up their marriage—or at least he should have taken her antipathy for Dickens as a sign. The essay traces his understanding of an aspect of his life through the filter of music, but it’s not the kind of autobiographical piece that retrospectively bestows wisdom and clarity on one’s life—the artificiality that ruins so many memoirs. McClanahan’s writing, both fiction and nonfiction, has the feel of real storytelling and often of catharsis; he writes a kind of ballad (or, in this case, maybe an antiballad) that country music does so well. Of Dickens’s most famous song, “May the Bird of Paradise Fly Up Your Nose,” McClanahan writes, “It was a song not interested in telling you about the mind of the insane, but one that wanted to produce that state of mind in the listener. It was a spell, a fever, a curse.” That’s a good description of the way McClanahan crafts a tale, too. —Nicole Rudick

As a kid, I would watch Forrest Gump every day. I don’t remember why, but I do remember the day the VHS tape started to deteriorate: as Forrest ran out of the football stadium, the crowd yelling for him to stop, the sound morphed out of sync with the image. I enjoyed this: it was a kind of personal imprint, like a folded page in a well-read book. I thought of this moment as I made my way through Nicholas Rombes’s excellent and nightmarish The Absolution of Roberto Acestes Laing, about a writer’s search for a lost filmmaker. Through various conversations between the writer and filmmaker—who has destroyed many of his own films—Rombes explores the thin line between fiction and reality, “something there, in between the frames, something that wasn’t quite an image and wasn’t quite a sound ... an impossibility that, because it expressed or represented a new way of being, had to be destroyed.” As my copy of Forrest Gump further deteriorated, I would have to describe the missing scenes whenever my friends and family watched the tape. Over time, my descriptions transformed into something much different than the scenes themselves had been, as a DVD copy later proved. Rombes’s novel is a love letter to this art of misremembering: these “destroyed films” become as real as any film playing in a theater near you. —J.A.

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Staff Picks: Staircases, Sister Mountains, Self-Help

November 21, 2014 | by

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A still from The Staircase.

In The Program Era, Mark McGurl illuminated postwar American fiction’s inextricable ties to universities and creative-writing programs; his new paper, “The Institution of Nothing,” undertakes a reading of David Foster Wallace in the framework of “the program,” and it’s one of the most thoughtful exegeses I’ve found of Wallace, whose work has enjoyed no shortage of critical insight. (Remember Wyatt Mason on Oblivion?) McGurl finds that the bulk of Wallace’s writing is fixated on institutions—it invokes them as a kind of safe harbor, a respite from the nihilism of the world at large. (This is borne out not just in his books but in his life, which he spent almost entirely in the thrall of institutions of higher learning.) In this light, a certain unnerving conservatism emerges in his work: what should be questions of sweeping political import are recast as matters of individual ethics. McGurl writes, “Clinging to the institutional order, clinging for dear life, Wallace’s commitment is … to a conception of therapeutic community in which what might have become political questions—and, by implication, motives for political contestation—are obediently dissolved.” —Dan Piepenbring

Natalie Lyalin’s poetry collection Blood Makes Me Faint But I Go For It has an intriguing title, but I’ve felt mildly daunted by the illustration on the cover—of a woman who stares straight into my eyes whenever I look at her. It turns out, though, that such feelings of discomfort aren’t inappropriate. Lyalin’s poems are weird, wide-eyed, and bold, and I feel uneasy reading them—in a good way. Like this, from “On the Beaches of Majorca”: “Aboard ships they snapped goodbye to their cities / They sparked like knives / And the oceans took them in with oceanic slurps / In a parallel moment we were on the beaches / Mute pastel puffs / Smoking around a cult-like fire.” Her poems remind me of Karen Russell’s fiction: at once familiar and otherworldly, tame and frightening. Lyalin’s “A Lemon Sweat Over Everything” is almost a poetic version of the title story from Russell’s Vampire in the Lemon Grove:

You can find my bones in the sister mountains
Identify me by the gold fangs
The fangs I showed you in the lemon orchard
almost two hundred years ago
You said they were sexy
The sun blinding you from my mouth
We were both smirking
and then I snarled 
It was very foreign
chasing you around the trees

Nicole Rudick

I could write about the addictive nature of Serial, the true-crime podcast from the This American Life team, but millions of others beat me to the punch. Instead, thanks to a recommendation from my friend Josh Lieberman, I advise you to fill these next two weeks until the next Serial episode with Sundance Channel’s eight-part documentary series, The Staircase. The crime saga follows the case of the novelist Michael Peterson, whose wife, Kathleen, was found unconscious at the bottom of a staircase in the couple’s Durham mansion. Was the death an accident, the result of falling down the stairs after consuming alcohol and Valium—or was she murdered by Peterson? While the twists and turns are captivating and the series is filled with a cast of characters so interesting and bizarre it’s difficult to appraise anyone involved, it’s the fly-on-the wall–style of Jean-Xavier de Lestrande’s filmmaking that kept me going from one episode to the next. —Justin Alvarez

You might have heard that Sam Lipsyte used to be in a punk band called Dungbeetle. This Saturday night at Le Poisson Rouge, they’re reuniting—with LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy on drums, no less—as part of the launch party for Radio Silence, a lit-and-music mag that’s just released its third issue. I suspect magic will be in the air. Bring earplugs and a taste for the bizarre. —DP

I had never heard of Lorrie Moore when I tried to sit in on her M.F.A. workshop at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. It was 2009, and I was barely eighteen. She kicked me out pretty quickly. Now, having spent the better part of five years recovering from the embarrassment, I have finally read Self-Help, Moore’s first collection of stories. About two-thirds are written in the second person, and this is both refreshing and compelling. It serves an almost didactic purpose in “How,” as Moore guides us, step-by-step, through the motions of dumping a (maybe) dying boyfriend. In “How To Be an Other Woman,” the second person puts a delightful twist on a recycled story: her protagonist struggles to find herself in (and as a result of) a messy extramarital affair. Witty and deft, Moore demands that her readers believe the story could be about them … not that it is about them, but that it could be. She blends comedy and tragedy so seamlessly that I found myself merrily caught between sadness and mirth, cynicism and optimism. —Alex Celia

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