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Posts Tagged ‘Recommended Reading’

Staff Picks: Pink Shells, Invisible Animals, Unreliably Unreliable Narrators

July 15, 2016 | by

An illustration of Moll Flanders from an eighteenth-century chapbook.

I’m glad I never read Moll Flanders in college. Because it was published in 1722 and has the structure of a picaresque, I would have dismissed it as primitive. I’d have thought Daniel Defoe didn’t know how to write an actual novel. Now Moll Flanders strikes me as the kind of artwork big enough to invent a way of writing fiction—in the voice of a woman, with all the freedom, moral ambiguity, and sexual complexity of a man. Moll is what James Wood would call an “unreliably unreliable” narrator. Sometimes we get to smile at the gap between her Christian principles and her career as a thief, but just as often there will be a scene—as for example, when she’s a little girl telling her foster mother that she’s afraid of going into service—that have the ring of documentary truth. (Defoe often adapted interviews and eyewitness accounts in his fiction: that ambiguity is at the heart of his novels.) Moll Flanders may have impressed me especially because I’d just read Play It As It Lays, in many ways a descendent of Moll, but whose charm now lies mainly in its period details—the cigarettes, phone booths, and unair-conditioned nights. —Lorin Stein

I only started reading Music and Literature’s newest issue on the train this morning, but I’ve already fallen quite ardently for one of their featured writers, Ann Quin. This has happened once before with M&L, who brought me the Argentinian poet Alejandra Pizarnik in their last issue. At quick glance, the two women aren’t all that dissimilar: both are rather unknown, both were tormented by suicidal inclinations. (Quin took her life just a year after Pizarnik took hers, and at nearly the same age.) Of the two short pieces of fiction in M&L by Quin, my favorite is the second, “Eyes that Watch Behind the Wind”—an arresting story of lovers in Cuetzalan, Mexico, who sway back and forth in their adoration and disgust for each other. Nearly each one of Quin’s sentences oscillates with sex and with rage, no matter how innocent some of them appear: she writes of the pink shells that hang on the necklace that drapes over one of the woman’s breasts and of burying the man in sand; of the eight bulls hemorrhaging from the mouth after banderillos strike them and how the woman “felt almost an urge to … Be ravished. Even Raped.” Quin’s prose never falters; it’s stunning, almost especially when it’s brutal. —Caitlin Youngquist
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Staff Picks: Gold Teeth, Hawk Noses, Flying Cars

July 8, 2016 | by

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Andy Thomas’s animation of bird sounds.

In 1924, Samuel Beckett, eighteen, lurked at a Sunday salon in Dublin, standing obtuse and silent against the wall, his head down as conversation breathed around him. Five years later, in 1929, in Paris, he sat silently on the edge of a circle of James Joyce’s acolytes, while “Shem” (Beckett’s affectionate sobriquet for Dublin’s literary master) held court. On a balmy afternoon, in 1932, he slouched into a corner during tea at Walter Lowenfels’s (a cheerful American—and failed publisher—in Paris’s literary society), where he sat “tall, thin, looking like a forest ranger in a Western.” Beckett’s dark form—I imagine him in the shadows of these parties, hunched, hawk-nose angled down, and blue eyes focused on a point—is a recurring image in the early chapters of Samuel Beckett, the 1978 biography by Deirdre Bair that I started reading this weekend. But these aren’t my only impressions of him. Bair was given unprecedented access to Beckett: the book was written while he was still alive, and though he didn’t give her any interviews, he allowed Bair to write to his friends and family, informing them that they should give her whatever they like. And so Beckett emerges—layered, brilliant, brooding, genius. —Caitlin Love

From the first page of Antonio di Benedetto’s 1956 novel Zama—in which the eponymous hero spies a monkey’s floating corpse “caught among the posts of the decrepit wharf … ready to go and not going”—a humid nimbus cloud of despair settles over the story, never to dissolve. Set in the Paraguay of the late eighteenth century, Zama follows a bureaucrat in his tortured efforts to secure a better position in far-off Buenos Aires, where he hopes to settle with his even-farther-off wife and children. Listless, phlegmatic, and increasingly horny, Zama wanders the lush country doing something close to nothing, watching almost distantly as he loses his moral compass. As a study in exile, paranoia, and the lonely tedium of quashed ambitions, this is great shit. But read it above all for the triumph of its style: Zama holds forth in deep, stewing paragraphs as pompous as they are incisive. It’s Sartre by way of J. Peterman, and in Esther Allen’s translation it still feels unique and alive. —Dan Piepenbring Read More »

Staff Picks: Urine-colored Stains, Tortoiseshell Cats, Grimy Mirrors

July 1, 2016 | by

From John Aubrey: My Own Life.

When John Aubrey died in 1697, he left us with his Brief Lives, a collection of short biographies whose candor and color exploded the genre. As keen as his eye was, Aubrey seldom turned it on himself. Ruth Scurr’s John Aubrey: My Own Life, out last year in the UK and soon to cross the Atlantic, is an imaginative corrective: an autobiography assembled with care from remnants of Aubrey’s letters, manuscripts, and books. Against the turmoil of Restoration-era England, his sensitivities and proclivities make him an empathetic, surprisingly modern figure; unique for his time, he was fascinated with preservation, often pausing on horseback to sketch ruins or glasswork. Not infrequently, his writings find him distraught at how few of his countrymen appreciate the mundanities of their world. Scurr’s diary is a generous document of his life, and better still it demonstrates the easy beauty of his prose. “I am so bored, so alone,” he writes early on, yearning to leave rural life for Oxford or London. “My imagination is like a mirror of pure crystal water, which the least wind does disorder and unsmooth.” —Dan Piepenbring

I’ve been meaning to read Jennifer Grotz’s new collection of poems, Window Left Open, for months; when I pulled it from the shelf last weekend I near expected to devour it whole. Instead, I read the first couple poems, then closed the book until the next morning, when I did the same. I’ve been like this all week, dipping in and out of Grotz’s poetry. But my pace is proof of how fond I am of it: Window Left Open is a trove of morose and arresting moments that begs its reader to linger over it, to steep in its quiet gloom—the lonesomeness and despondence of the everyday. Grotz is an impeccable observer, too. (“I myself was / the hungry lens,” she writes.) One narrator watches the “longsuffering” cows in the forest, steam coming from their nostrils; another notices a student’s stomped-out cigarette on the library’s steps, “excreting urine-colored stains into the snow”; another prays for the apples that cling to their branches before the wind takes them to the ground. Grotz laces even the most benign occasions with beautiful devastation. —Caitlin Youngquist Read More »

Staff Picks: Dads, Doublemint, Dumplingette

June 17, 2016 | by

A still from Cosmos.

Nineteen cheers to New Directions for reissuing Eliot Weinberger’s Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, first published in 1987 and hard to find since then. In this tiny volume, Weinberg examines nineteen different translations of a classic four-line poem by the eighth-century poet Wang Wei. The result is the best primer on translation I’ve ever read, also the funniest and most impatient. (E.g.: “to me this sounds like Gerard Manley Hopkins on LSD.”) The new edition, out in October, includes ten new attempts, most of them clearly influenced by the original Nineteen Ways. —Lorin Stein

The Polish director Andrzej Żuławski died in February, leaving us with Cosmos, his final film, adapted from Witold Gombrowicz’s 1965 novel of the same name. The plot, if that’s what this tangle of surreal set pieces should be called, follows a vampirically handsome law student on holiday at a French bed-and-breakfast, where he finds a worrisome succession of dead animals hanging in the woods. Nominally, we’re watching Cosmos to discover who’s responsible for these cruelties; really, though, we’re watching because its ensemble excels at depicting various lunacies, and it’s always fun to watch lunatics. A bloviating patriarch uses a toothpick to pick up spilled peas one by one; a mute priest unzips his fly to reveal a phalanx of bees; someone is dressed inexplicably like Tintin. The movie is an intoxicating pageant of life’s confusions—some violent, some sexual, and some just metaphysical. If you like Resnais, Buñuel, or people who do really good Donald Duck impressions, you will be moved. If not, you’ll at least leave with a new favorite term of endearment: “my dumplingette.” —Dan Piepenbring Read More »

What Our Contributors Are Reading This Summer

June 10, 2016 | by

In place of our usual staff picks this week, we’ve asked five contributors from our new Summer issue to write about what they’re reading. 

It’s coming. The Mister Softee Jingle will clang down on you like a recurring nightmare, then distort itself around the bend like a lost memory of something crucial you’ll die trying to reclaim. This is summer—and I can think of no better way to get yourself in the mood than by reading Ritual and Bit, Robert Ostrom’s latest collection of poems, which is steeped in nostalgia and foreboding. The cinematic, otherworldly play of images—“bit[s] of dream you almost had hold of”— will leave you achey, haunted, indiscriminately homesick. It’s like sleepaway camp all over again. Or, if we’re doing similes, then Ostrom’s poetry is like an exfoliating scrub for souls. Your tender self is stripped of its winterized, anesthetized hull, and everything is suddenly more dicey and exquisite. Or (final simile), in Ostrom’s words, “it will be like watching a church service through a keyhole”—stolen, mystifying glimpses of a choreographed sequence that feels timeless and charged. Here is the religion you (I) wanted, all stained glass and incense smoke, spooky-sublime chanting and devil-may-care suspension of disbelief; no Sunday sermons or starched shirts: “Cattywompus, pray for us.” —Danielle Blau (“I Am the Perennial Head of This One-person Subcutaneous Wrecking Crew”)

I’m reading Elif Batuman’s The Possessed and Liana Finck’s A Bintel Brief. Though both books do many other things, each lovingly renders a past love. For Batuman it is her ex-fiancé, Eric, “with his gentle blinking Chinese eyes, as philosophical and good-humored as Snoopy,” highly alert and strategic but always sounding a bit dreamy, like a navy reserve intelligence officer with a delusive fever, which he sometimes is. For Finck it is Abraham Cahan, editor and advice columnist for the Jewish Daily Forward. Cahan’s disembodied head, in Finck’s drawings, is either a peach or a heart. He is never quite real enough to be mistaken for a father or a boyfriend, always a bit incorporeal or out of human scale or dressed a century out of style. Eric trails Batuman to Samarkand, and Cahan trails Finck around her aimless roomy freelance days. I like feeling the lasting affection for such ghosts. —Rafil Kroll-Zaidi (“Lifeguards”)Read More »

Staff Picks: White Sands, Whit, Weiner

June 3, 2016 | by

From Weiner.

Weiner, man. You’re going to hear a lot of people telling you to see this, so let me offer a meta service and say that you should listen to each and every one of them. The documentary follows Anthony Weiner’s 2013 run for New York City mayor, which ended miserably thanks to an aftershock of the not-quite-sex scandal that had forced him from Congress two years earlier. The film makes a few diligent nods at the suggestion that the sexting scandal obscured more pressing concerns in the mayoral primary. But the real appeal here is characterological. Josh Kriegman, the former Weiner aide who shot the footage, was allowed such intimate access that he ends up, late in the film, incredulously asking Weiner why he granted it. Together with Elyse Steinberg, his codirector, Kriegman presents Weiner as a roiling tumble of contradictions: savvy and reckless, strident and insecure, charming and dickish, and never more serene, it seems, than when he’s watching himself whirl into a rage during a disastrous TV interview. Huma Abedin, Weiner’s wife and one of Hillary Clinton’s closest aides, is in every way her husband’s opposite, and there are moments in the film when her anguish is so obvious that you’re almost rooting for her to show Kriegman, not to mention Weiner, the door. But the camera stays, and so does she. It’s no small accomplishment of this film that you can almost imagine why. —Robert P. Baird

There are certain directors whose new movies you skip out of a kind of scared devotion, because the badness of their later work seems to reveal something that was essentially bad about their movies all along. Then there’s the opposite case of Whit Stillman, whose Love & Friendship surpasses his early movies but makes you (or at least me) like them even better. He has never seemed more at home than in the slightly threadbare gentility of these country houses—somehow the sets look less “period” than antique, in a comfortable way—and his characters have never seemed so at home in their skin. Tom Bennett’s first scene, playing the amiable idiot Sir James Martin, has brightened my whole week. —Lorin Stein Read More »