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Posts Tagged ‘Adam Shatz’

What We’re Loving: Algiers, Aliens, Adulthood

July 25, 2014 | by

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George Saunders talks to an alien. Detail from an illustration by Thomas Allen, in O, the Oprah Magazine.

I went on vacation planning to read Tristram Shandyat last. Instead I read Frank Kermode on “Modernisms,” most of The Rise of the Novel (including the chapter on Tristram Shandy), and half the Selected Poems of Howard Moss. Total reading time: not much. But it was choice. Then I got home and found The New Yorker in my mailbox. Greg Jackson’s “Wagner in the Desert” is the best fiction debut they’ve published in years. The story belongs to an ancient genre: young, rich people hole up in a country house to avoid the plague. In this case, the country house is a rental in Palm Springs, the plague is adulthood, and the hosts are a Hollywood couple about to start fertility treatments, hoping to get their ya-yas out in a mindful, caring way. Jackson knows his antecedents. He has metabolized Ben Lerner and David Foster Wallace. He can throw in a blank verse, like Melville, to heighten a scene. He even steals, without attribution, from Kenny Rogers. I read “Wagner in the Desert” my first night back, fell asleep, and dreamed I was in the story (and also back in elementary school, getting a lesson in the story) then woke up and read it again, with no diminution of enjoyment. —Lorin Stein

I’ve been reading Adam Shatz’s very smart account of how reporting on the Middle East cured him of political romanticism. I suspect he’s not alone in this experience: “When I finally began to spend time in the place about which I had pontificated for so long, I discovered that I was much more interested in what the people I met had to say than in my own views.” My favorite parts are Shatz’s trips to Algiers—“a city I knew mostly from Gillo Pontecorvo’s film”—and his interview with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. It’s a sobering essay, and a timely one for this low point (after a very high one) in the history of the region. —Robyn Creswell

In this month’s O, The Oprah Magazine, George Saunders explains to a space alien what it means to be human. His explanation takes the form of a series of short-story recommendations, of course. Drawing on diverse selections from Chekhov to Hemingway to Lahiri, he covers the basics of love, loneliness, greed, kindness, death, and empathy. The essay’s a gem, a genuine love letter to reading as a noble pursuit. Saunders says it best: “Short stories are the deep, encoded crystallizations of all human knowledge. They are rarefied, dense meaning machines, shedding light on the most pressing of life’s dilemmas. By reading a thoughtfully selected set of them, our alien could, in a few hours, learn everything he needs to know about the way we live. Except how it feels to lose one’s car in a parking garage and walk around for like three hours, trying to look as if you know where you’re going, so the people driving by—who have easily found their cars, having written the location on their wrists or something—don’t think badly of you. I don’t think there’s a short story about that yet.” —Chantal McStay

Another thing I did on vacation was see The Shining for the first time in a couple of decades. This, unfortunately, was the director’s cut, in which Jack Nicholson has several long, boring conversations with ghosts. But even the scary parts weren’t scary anymore. To hear J. D. Daniels tell it in the new issue of Flaunt, I’d rather have seen the documentary Room 237—at least, if I got to see it with J. D. Daniels: “Room 237 is about unhinged Stanley Kubrick fanatics … Each of them thinks The Shining is a coded message. One participant believes The Shining is Kubrick’s confession that he helped NASA fake the Apollo 11 moon landing. Have you seen The Shining? It’s about an axe murderer. It’s about 145 minutes long.” —L.S.
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What We’re Loving: Spiders, Spaces, Stinkin’-Hot Nights

May 2, 2014 | by

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An exhibition image from Marc Yankus’s “The Space Between,” at ClampArt.

If I had to teach a class on the Framing Device, the first thing I’d make them read is Jeremias Gotthelf’s 1842 novella The Black Spider, recently published in a new and (to this non-German-reader) magical translation by Susan Bernofsky. The opening scene is a christening in the Swiss countryside: idyllic, sentimental, lovingly detailed. Then one of the guests notices a strange blackened post in the house where the festivities are held, an old man begins to tell the story of how it got there … and in no time things have gotten very weird indeed, and they continue weird even when the story ends, the idyll stained by the past. A fairytale for grownups, an early horror story, an allegory of the Black Death or of sin—however you read it, it has the deep logic of a dream. —Lorin Stein

Sometimes I’ll Google some nouns with a writer’s name, hoping to discover that said writer has miraculously published a piece about said nouns. This usually doesn’t work out for me—zero results for “Norman Rush + Botswana + heavy-metal leather subculture,” and zero more for “Jonathan Lethem + Larry Levan + Paradise Garage + disco”—but lightning can strike, as it did with “Richard Ben Cramer + baseball + Baltimore.” That led me to Cramer’s “A Native Son’s Thoughts (Many of Them Heretical) About Baltimore (Which Isn’t What It Used to Be), Baseball (Which Isn’t What It Used to Be) and the Steadfast Perfection of Cal Ripken Jr. (Which Is Ever Unchanging, Fairly Complicated and Truly Something to Behold),” published in Sports Illustrated circa 1995. Hot dog! As its forty-four-word title indicates, this piece has it all. There’s baseball, which, for reasons that remain unclear, I’ve begun to enjoy watching; there’s Baltimore, where I grew up; and there’s the vigorous prose from Cramer, whose masterpiece on the 1988 election, What It Takes, I’ve just finished, thus creating a void that can only be filled with more Cramer. When I read the first clause (“It’s a stinkin’-hot night at the ballpark”) I knew I was safe for a little while longer. —Dan Piepenbring

The Space Between,” Marc Yankus’s show at Clamp Art, is on now through May 17; it reveals a new side of the artist. His earlier images explored his love of color washes and blurred shapes—photography that sometimes looked as though it had been printed on a wet surface. With this new body of work, Yankus has written a love letter to the stonemasons, bricklayers, and architects of an ever-evolving New York City landscape. The detail captured in these photographs is unreal and meditative; he’s shot these monumental buildings sometimes at great heights and always from their best angles. A master of minute detail, Yankus invites us to study the individual bricks right down to the fine cement layers that seal them together. Though people are ever-present in these works, there’s not a soul to be found. It lends a ghostly beauty to these prints, making it exceedingly difficult to pick a favorite. —Charlotte Strick

I’ve been reading Adam Shatz’s vivid remembrance of the journalist and historian Patrick Seale, who died last month. Seale wrote the two best books on modern Syrian politics, in English or any other language. The Ba’athists in Damascus trusted him and the Western spymasters learned from him. And what a time it was for foreign correspondents, especially if you lived in Beirut. As Shatz writes, “It was the Mad Men era of Middle East reporting, a time of high living and high-stakes intrigue … The correspondent’s calendar was marked by revolutionary conspiracies; many were first reported as rumors, sometimes overheard at the bar of the St. George Hotel, where spies, arms dealers, diplomats and other adventurers gathered at the end of the day.” —Robyn Creswell Read More »

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What We’re Loving: The New York Review, Baghdad, Fire

October 18, 2013 | by

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The funny thing about the New York Review’s fiftieth anniversary issue is that it’s basically just a slightly fatter version of the normal product. Here’s Zadie Smith on girl-watching with her father. Here’s Frederick Seidel with a poem I badly wish we’d published ourselves. Here’s Chabon on Pynchon, Mendelsohn on Game of Thrones, and Timothy Garton-Ash writing (unenviably and with aplomb) on the ethos of the Review itself. Here’s Justice Stephen Breyer discussing Proust with a French journalist (Breyer turns out to be the only person about whom one is actually glad to know how Proust changed his life), plus Richard Holmes on Keats, Diane Johnson on MFA programs, Adam Shatz on Charlie Parker, Coetzee on Patrick White—and this is just the beginning. (As usual, I’m saving the politics for last.) There is one discovery I have to single out. In 1949 the German novelist Hans Keilson published one of the stranger World War II novels ever written, a novel later translated into English under the enigmatic title The Death of the Adversary. Thanks to Claire Messud’s beautiful essay on Camus, I think I may know where Keilson’s translator got the phrase. Camus, 1945: “I am not made for politics, because I am incapable of wanting or accepting the death of the adversary.” Thank you, Ms. Messud. Thank you, New York Review. —Lorin Stein

Has any city been so cursed by history and so blessed in its poets as Baghdad? Reuven Snir, a scholar with family roots in Baghdad’s Jewish community, has edited and translated Baghdad: The City in Verse, an anthology of poems from the eighth century to the present, which has been my bedside reading for the last week. There are poems of debauchery (“Baghdad is not an abode for hermits,” an early poet warns his readers), nostalgia, and lament. The mournful note is especially strong in the later poems. But it is already there in Ishaq al-Khuraymi’s “Elegy for Baghdad,” a lament written in the aftermath of a civil war, which remembers a city “surrounded by vineyards, palm trees, and basil,” but now sees a wasteland of widows and dry wells, with “the city split into groups, / the connections between them cut off.” The Mongol invasion of 1258, when tradition says the Tigris ran black with the ink of books and red with the blood of scholars, was still four hundred years away. —Robyn Creswell Read More »

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What We’re Loving: Smells, Films, and Flames

April 5, 2013 | by

9781439142004It is wrong to kvell, but according to both Adam Shatz and Yasmine El Rashidi, our poetry editor, Robyn Creswell, has knocked it out of the park with his translation of Sonallah Ibrahim’s modern Egyptian classic That Smell and Notes from Prison. Unlike writers better known in the West, says El Rashidi, Ibrahim “has continuously reinvented the form and language he uses in his work, while probing deeply into the underlying tensions running through Egyptian society. Creswell’s new translation of the novel finally allows English language readers to appreciate these qualities … Despite the differences of syntax between Arabic and English, the translation retains the tone, the vocabulary, and the pared down and staccato rhythm of the original.” We take her word for it. —Lorin Stein

On paper, Sarah Polley’s documentary Stories We Tell and Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color could not be more different, but they made for a nice double feature this past weekend at New Directors/New Films. Both films raise questions about identity and the ownership of memory. Both throw conventional narratives out the window. And when I walked out of each, not all my questions were answered, but maybe that’s the point: life’s complex, and some things unanswerable are still worth exploring. —Justin Alvarez

In Lars Iyer’s Exodus, the friendship between two minor academics, Lars and W., is founded not on shared interest but on a shared sense of failure, self-laceration, and gin. Together Lars and W. bemoan the state of the academy and the seeming impossibility of philosophy, but I laugh loudest when W. bemoans the state of Lars: “‘The true and only virtue is to hate ourselves,’ W. says, reading from his notebook. To hate ourselves: what a task! He’ll begin with me, W. says. With hating me. Then he’ll move on to hating what I’ve made him become. What I’ve been responsible for. Then—the last step—he will have to hate himself without reference to me at all.” For even more Lars and W., also read Spurious, the first book in Iyer’s trilogy. —Brenna Scheving Read More »

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What We’re Loving: High Fashion, Arabian Nights, and Field Mice

July 20, 2012 | by

Image via Synchrodogs

The genre of the 1,002nd night is one few storytellers can resist. Poe wrote one, so did R. L. Stevenson, Jospeh Roth, and Naghuib Mahfouz. Some of these sequels are orientalist camp; the better ones concentrate on The Nights’ true drama: that of a woman talking to save her life. I’ve been reading an advanced copy of Tales of a Severed Head, a collection of poems by the Moroccan poet Rachida Madani. Her Scheherazade, a voice that Madina breaks into many different voices, angrily laments the history of modern Morocco and particularly the fate of its leftist intellectuals. It is as much a critique of the legend as a continuation of it. Madina’s poet is even willing, at times, to stop talking:

She is silent so she can breathe
in the empty cannons
lift and weigh the sacks of gunpowder
and take aim.

Marilyn Hacker’s translation from French is scrupulous and lively. —Robyn Creswell

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