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Posts Tagged ‘Recommended Reading’

Staff Picks: Jaguars, Jim Beam, Japanese Divorce

August 26, 2016 | by

From the cover of Gringos.

Fifty-three years ago, James Baldwin published The Fire Next Time, on the experience of being black in America. The title comes from a slave song: “God gave Noah the rainbow sign / No more water but fire next time.” This month, Jesmyn Ward published a compilation of essays called The Fire This Time. She wanted a book, as she writes in a brilliant introduction, “that would reckon with the fire of rage and despair and fierce, protective love currently sweeping through the streets and campuses of America … A book that a girl in rural Missouri could pick up at her local library and, while reading, encounter a voice that hushed her fears.” Ward has packed a multitude into a modest volume and fulfills, I think, her desire to provide a full and rich accounting of black life, one that is infrequently given voice. The lead piece is a sharply evocative prose poem by Kima Jones about a trip home to North Carolina for a funeral and time in the woods with her cousins, “with red cups, Black and Milds, Jim Beam, a blue lighter plucked from the card table.” Another favorite is Garnette Cadogan’s essay on walking, as a boy in Kingston and as a young man in the United States. The dissonance between the two is startling but not surprising: in the former, “I’d get lost in Mittyesque moments, my young mind imagining alternate futures,” and in the other, walking is “a pantomine undertaken to avoid the choreography of criminality.” —Nicole Rudick

I often go back to Gringos, the 1991 novel by Charles Portis, when I find myself between books. Portis is a fount of comedy; his books brim with deliciously absurd characters. Gringos features a clique of eccentric expats idling in the Yucatán: there’s Rudy and Louise Kurle, a blond duo, in Mexico recording evidence of aliens; Doc Flandin, an aged historian and anthropologist whose life work comprises a comprehensive account of Mayan culture; Refugio Osorio, a native of Mérida who deals scraps from his land in the jungle (I’m fond of his pup, “Ramos, son of the late Chino, bravest dog in all Mexico”). Their comedy comes from the wry observations of Gringos’s hero and narrator Jimmy Burns, a fortysomething deliveryman and former hustler of pre-Columbian artifacts. Jimmy lives at the marvelously shabby Posada Fausto hotel in Mérida, taking hauling jobs to pay his rent. His life there “rocks along from day to day”—he drinks in bars and heads to the zoo “to look over the fine new jaguar”—until he finds himself caught up in violent hippie rituals at ancient ruins and adventure in the Yucatán. —Caitlin Love Read More »

Staff Picks: Marlys, Menopause, Mallet Percussion

August 19, 2016 | by

“The one thing no one will tell you is that these feelings and this behavior will last ten years. That is, a decade of your life. Ask your doctor if this is true and she will deny it.” In Mary Ruefle’s hands an essay about menopause becomes an essay on the human condition; ditto an essay about shrunken heads, and one about milk shakes, and one about dealing with crumbs. We published “Milk Shake” in our Spring issue as a prose poem—and it is that—but reading her collection My Private Property, I’m struck by the conversational quality of this new work, by its anthropological spirit, and by its stubborn emphasis on the facts as Ruefle has found them—whatever your doctor, or hers, or anyone else, may say to the contrary. —Lorin Stein

“One day I was drawing my weekly comic strip, and as I drew the frame, I had a half-memory of being with my cousins after seeing the torch light parade … 9 kids crammed into one car—no seatbelts, 3 adults smoking … And suddenly we were all just throwing up parade food at the same time. On top of this image was a half-memory of staying overnight at a neighbor’s house. Nine kids. The mom said things like ‘Holy Balls!’ When I make a comic strip, I let these sorts of images lead and combine as I move my pen. I try to let one line lead to the next without plan. The only thing I have to do is stay in motion. That’s what I was doing when I first saw Marlys.” Lynda Barry has been drawing the freckled, bespectacled, opinionated eight-year-old since 1986; to my mind, Marlys ranks with Charlie Brown as one of the most genuine and poignant adolescent protagonists in serial comics. The newly updated and expanded collection, The Greatest of Marlys, has been my beach reading this week. If you haven’t read Barry, let this book be your gateway: she is one of a kind, and with Marlys, she is irresistible. —Nicole Rudick Read More »

Staff Picks: Surveillance, Silence, Pseudocide

August 12, 2016 | by

From Will You Dance with Me?

Our colleague Bobby sent me back to Edith Wharton’s novel of 1870s New York, The Age of Innocence. What struck Bobby (I’m paraphrasing) was the air of heavy surveillance: the action begins in an opera box, under the scrutiny of hundreds of eyes, and basically stays there. It feels oddly contemporary. At the same time The Age of Innocence is, very self-consciously, an historical novel. That’s what struck me: it appeared in 1920, almost fifty years after the events it describes, and belongs to that fun subgenre of novels—e.g., A Journal of the Plague Year, Middlemarch, Swann’s Way—that imagine what the grown-ups were actually up to when the author was a kid. —Lorin Stein 

When City Lights was preparing to publish the first edition of Julio Cortázar’s poetry in English in 1997 (it’s number fifty-three in the Pocket Poets series), Ferlinghetti wanted to produce a lean volume. In doing so, he cut the essay “For Listening Through Headphones,” which Cortázar begins by mourning the “pre-echo” on some records that mars “the brief night of the ears as they get ready for the fresh irruption of sound.” It’s funny that an essay that more than once uses the play of light and darkness to illuminate sound would be omitted from a book titled Save Twilight. But this month, City Lights is reissuing the volume, now heftier, thanks in part to the restoration of “For Listening” (and other poems that were left out from the original). In addition to being mesmerizing and utterly gorgeous (“now the needle / runs through the former silence and focuses it / in a black plush … a phosphene silence”), the essay links the experience of hearing music through headphones to poetry’s innate intimacy: “How not to think, then, that somehow poetry is a word heard through invisible headphones as soon as the poem begins to work its spell.” —Nicole Rudick Read More »

Staff Picks: Constellations, Cartography, Costanza

August 5, 2016 | by

Exhibition of the Laughing Gas, a wood engraving, ca. 1840.

We’ve been closing the Fall issue of the magazine this week, so I haven’t had much of an opportunity for outside reading (there are a couple long poems in the issue I’m particularly keen on). No matter what, though, I’ve spent an hour each night watching the new Netflix show Stranger Things. Set in eighties Indiana, the smart and thrilling eight-part series is indebted to much of what was great in eighties horror and youthful sci-fi and fantasy—PoltergeistE.T., Stephen King novels, D&D—and shows its influences appreciatively, without seeming imitative or derivative. The tautly drawn plot centers on three adventuresome boys, dorks of the Goonies variety, who lose a friend to a monster-populated parallel world and who befriend a telekinetic girl, named Eleven, to help bring him back. It manages to combine everything I want from my science-fiction entertainment: it’s funny and frightening, doesn’t take the science for granted, and is as much about how people relate to one another as it is about supernatural doings. And of course, John Carpenter–style synths. —Nicole Rudick

A few years ago, Benjamin Breen wrote for the Daily about the literature of laughing gas, focusing on the psychedelic poetic yield of William James’s encounters with the drug. (“Agreement—disagreement!!,” James wrote. “Emotion—motion!!!”) Now the Public Domain Review has put out Oh Excellent Air Bag, an eye-opening compilation of writing about, on, or under the influence of nitrous oxide: an enthralling look at the range of responses laughing gas brought about before the culture began to dictate our reaction to it. Beginning in 1799, when Humphry Davy embarked on a systemic effort to chronicle the effects of the gas, the book goes all the way up an unsigned piece from 1920, in which the writer’s routine tooth extraction sends him on a voyage to the edges of consciousness: “I drifted out among star-ways, and a galaxy of saffron constellations whirled about my head. In some outer void of space I took my station on a base of infinite nothingness … Eventually there was to come, in the wake of all, a world white and lucent, gleaming like the plumage of an angel’s wing.” Something to keep in mind before your next root canal. —Dan Piepenbring Read More »

Staff Picks: Road-tripping, Heart-eating, Earth-fucking

July 29, 2016 | by

Danny DeVito in a still from Wiener-Dog.

I could tell you the ending of every story in Scott McClanahan’s collection Hill William, and it wouldn’t spoil a thing. His stories are all about the telling, like oral tradition captured on the page. To be honest, I don’t know the extent to which this is a book of fiction—it’s based on McClanahan’s childhood in Appalachian West Virginia, in the town of Rainelle, where he grew up, and the narrator is named Scott—but it doesn’t matter; a story is a story, whether true or invented whole cloth. McClanahan’s youthful tales swing between an outlandish realism (a guy named Bobbie B. describes how his cousin was once so lonely “he went out and fucked the earth”) and a vague religious fervor that makes sense coming from a kid who’s trying to figure out the world. In the same way, amid the characters’ grotesque behavior are transcendent moments—not least Scott’s mother, who appears indistinctly in the book, as though always off-screen, but who is a wondrous light in his life; he also finds unlikely reprieve in a church chorus: “And there was something about those voices, so ugly by themselves, but beautiful together, that seemed like the meaning of the world to me.” —Nicole Rudick

At least it’s been a good summer for road movies. First there was the dachshund picaresque Wiener-Dog, which has everything I could want from a Todd Solondz film—including a deep, dark performance from Danny DeVito as an adjunct professor at the end of his rope. Then there was the continuous, two-hour surprise of Captain Fantastic, directed by Matt Ross, with Viggo Mortensen as a Washington State survivalist who takes his kids on a bus trip to suburban Santa Fe. Don’t let the premise fool you: with each turn of the plot, this amiable family drama gains in complexity, ambiguity, and pathos. It’s hard to imagine two big indie releases that have less in common, but I loved them both. —Lorin Stein Read More »

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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