Staff Picks: ‘Proud Beggars,’ A Brilliant Invalid


This Week’s Reading

The New York Review just reissued Alice James, Jean Strouse’s 1980 biography of a brilliant invalid—Henry and William’s sister—whose brave wit shone through depression, physical paralysis, and the constraints of being a female James. Alice is not the only one who comes to life in Strouse’s book; they all do, and the love and loneliness in that family can move you to tears. —Lorin Stein

Albert Cossery was an Egyptian novelist who lived for more than sixty years in the Hôtel La Louisiane in Saint-Germain-des-Prés. He never held a job (he refused to get out of bed before noon), and each of his seven novels is a hymn to laziness. Two new translations of Cossery will be published this month: Proud Beggars, a metaphysical whodunit set in a whorehouse, and The Colors of Infamy, about real estate, blackmail, and life in a Cairene cemetery. Both are treats. —Robyn Creswell

I was in France for a week after Thanksgiving and had the chance to go to some terrific exhibitions, one of the best of which, at the Grand Palais, was on Gertrude Stein and her family and managed to replicate their collection. (The fact that it was called “L’Adventure des Stein” didn’t hurt—and, yes, I took a picture in front of the sign!) Of everything there, my favorite piece was a small Matisse still life of some nasturtiums. And when I looked at the wall text, I saw it was on loan from the Brooklyn Museum. I’m sure there’s some cliché in there about traveling across the ocean to find the treasure in your own backyard. —Sadie Stein

In a superb piece for Vanity Fair last June, Christopher Hitchens relates how he used to open his writing classes with the cheering maxim that anyone who could talk could write (of course he would then ask his students how many of them could really talk). The anecdote is telling: the experience of encountering his latest essay collection, Arguably, is less one of reading and more one of sitting down to a long and intimate dinner with the man himself. Over the course of over a hundred pieces, Hitchens’s fierce intellect ranges from the authors of the Constitution to illicit blowjobs in public toilets to the case for humanitarian intervention in totalitarian states. The wit shimmers, and when the talk turns serious, though you may not always agree with the man, he, like the best interlocutors, will demand you know why and have the courage of your convictions. —Peter Conroy

When I bought my copy of Steve Erickson’s Zeroville, the bookshop clerk asked me if I liked David Lynch. I can see why. The book follows idiot savante Vikar through the Los Angeles of the late sixties. The backdrop is hippies, a mass murderer, and the film industry, and the foreground is the psychology, simultaneously innocent and aggressive, of the film-obsessed protagonist. Zeroville is haunting, amusing, and, if you stay up too late reading it as I just did, strange-dream inducing.—Artie Niederhoffer

Following a reference in a recent Slate article, I discovered an essay by Walter Benjamin I’ve never read: “The Storyteller,” holds nineteenth-century Russian writer Nikolai Leskov as the epitome of a then-dying (and now, presumably, dead) breed of storyteller who prizes the experience and wisdom provided by the tale over the transmission of easy information. Benjamin would likely be aghast today. But what struck me particularly is his single-sentence summation of the moment this shift took hold, with the advent of World War I: “A generation that had gone to school on a horse-drawn streetcar now stood under the open sky in a countryside in which nothing remained unchanged but the clouds, and beneath these clouds, in a field of force of destructive torrents and explosions, was the tiny, fragile human body.” —Nicole Rudick

The history may be suspect, but I can’t imagine a more entertaining biography than Nancy Mitford’s gossipy, frivolous, frankly partisan 1953 Madame de Pompadour, which I revisited on my trip. “Bernis was one of those men whom every pretty woman ought to have in her life; a perfect dear, smiling, dimpling, clever, cultivated, with nothing whatever to do all day but sit about and be nice. Presently he was just enough in love with his beautiful pupil to add flavor to their relationship.” —S. S.