Staff Picks: Mahmoud Darwish, Neutral Milk Hotel


This Week’s Reading

Photograph by Amarjit Chandan.

Journal of an Ordinary Grief, by the late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, is a mixture of memoir, history, dream dialogue, and political polemic. Originally published in Arabic in 1973, it has now been translated for the first time into English by Ibrahim Muhawi (who also translated Darwish’s genre-bending memoir of the Beirut war, Memory for Forgetfulness). Darwish’s prose is a miraculous, quicksilvery substance, slipping from lyricism to analysis to Beckettian humor in the space of a paragraph. His subject is Palestinian life under occupation, and this is one of those rare works able to register the complexities of that experience while also being politically and artistically uncompromising. —Robyn Creswell

This week I read my favorite essay ever on (what else?) Michel Houellebecq. It’s by Ben Jeffrey, and it can be found in The Point, a Chicago magazine devoted to literary and cultural criticism. I just took out a two-year subscription. —Lorin Stein

I picked up Montauk, the slim novel by Max Frisch, at the recommendation of a young writer. I’m now obsessed. Frisch’s writing has a way of sticking in my head, and, I’ve discovered, slipping into my dreams. —Thessaly La Force

Noting that Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is one of the great albums of the nineties is generally about as controversial as noting the importance of oxygen in human respiration. What’s amazing, though, is how the album has lost none of its immediacy or raw beauty twelve years after its release. By way of contrast, some of the other monuments of nineties indie rock—Pavement’s Slanted and Enchanted, Rodan’s Rusty, Superchunk’s On the Mouth (insert your own here)—are still exceptional records, but they bear the mark of their time. In some respects, this is how it should be. But In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is a different case altogether. Anne Frank’s ghost haunts the record, but the real story is how Jeff Mangum’s utterly strange poetry (“king of carrot flowers,” anyone?) is the perfect language for the fleshy, sticky, ashy, and ultimately wonderous side of intimate experience. Because, still today, how better to describe that moment where you’ve woken smiling next to your wife/husband/girlfriend/boyfriend? Listen to Mangum sing “What a beautiful face / I have found in this place / That is circling all round the sun.” Then listen to the entire album, start to finish. What you’re feeling isn’t nostalgia. It’s awe. —Peter Conroy

If it dismays you that Pitchfork has evolved into the eight-hundred-pound gorilla of independent-music reviewing, try Dusted. The music selected for review is more eclectic; numerical ratings—those juvenile and specious things—are avoided; and the temptation to posture and preen, ever-present for tastemakers like Pitchfork, goes happily unfelt, as Dusted largely flies under the radar. Start with this recent review (and sample track) of a solo lute record. —Mark de Silva

Read Suzanne Mozes’s sinister piece in New York Magazine about Full Fathom Five, a new publishing venture created by James Frey. Frey believes that after our appetite for Harry Potter and Twilight subsides, we’ll need someone to fill the gap. And that someone should be him and a stable of poorly compensated and anonymous M.F.A. students. Frey’s operation reminds me of Alloy Publishing, which was memorably documented by Rebecca Mead in The New Yorker last year. Except Full Fathom Five has less flair (Alloy: “Could you do Chappaquiddick for kids?”) and more depravity (Frey on Oprah: “I should have never fucking apologized.”) —T. L.