What We’re Loving: Dead Poets, Dead Magazines, the Dead Zoo Gang


This Week’s Reading

Truffaud screen test

A still from Jean-Pierre Léaud’s 1958 audition for The 400 Blows.

In December of 1891, Walt Whitman contracted pneumonia. He was by then a celebrity poet and his deteriorating health had for a long time been media manna. The New York Times sent a reporter to Camden in 1888, and updates on Whitman’s health were published continually over the next few years—see 1890’s “Walt Whitman Has a Bad Cold.” By 1891, the end was within sight, and the paper published daily dispatches with headlines like “Walt Whitman Slowly Dying,” “Walt Whitman Still Lingering,” and “Walt Whitman About the Same.” Readers were made privy to such personal details as Whitman’s caloric intake (two oysters one day; a mutton chop another), his mindset (“he is perfectly rational”), and his doctor’s solemn belief that Whitman would last but a handful of hours more. He died on March 26, 1892. —Zack Newick

The best part of The 400 Blows is when Jean-Pierre Léaud ad libs an intake interview at reform school. Over the weekend a friend sent me the film test that got him the part. You can just feel Truffaut’s excitement at having found the child actor who would become his alter ego. The kid is pure heartbreaking charm. —Lorin Stein

Every couple of years, I revisit this documentary on the late broadcaster Victor Packer—hands down, one of the best things I have ever heard on the radio. Packer was, to put it mildly, a man of tremendous energy and varied interests. The portrait that emerges, by the Yiddish Radio Project, is that of an eccentric—but also of another era. It’s twelve minutes very well spent. (Packer, incidentally, is voiced by Christopher Lloyd.) —Sadie Stein

In “The Dead Zoo Gang,” a novella-length article published on The Atavist, Charles Homans tells the story of a group of international thieves known for robbing unlikely targets: taxidermists, antiques dealers, and natural history museums. They steal rhino horns to sell to buyers in Asia, and it’s been the work of law enforcement agents across the world to catch them—a difficult task, mainly because the thieves all seem to hail from an impenetrable subset of an already insular and poorly documented community, the Irish Travellers. Homans’s slow-building depiction of this community fascinates me. The Travellers are Roma-like nomads that exist on the outskirts of Irish society; they move from town to town in their trailers, congregating just once a year for, among other things, wedding celebrations so raucous they spawned a reality series, My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding. They speak a patois of Irish Gaelic and English and are organized in wildly complicated extended-family groups. And, most important, some of them—patriarchs whose net worth is estimated to be between 275 and 690 million dollars—appear to run scams and criminal activities (to say nothing of the odd legitimate business) on every continent except Antarctica. This a deep rabbit hole, but you won’t regret following it to its conclusion. —Tucker Morgan 

Aspen, “the first three-dimensional magazine,” was published irregularly by Phyllis Johnson between 1965 and 1971. Lucky for us, UbuWeb has digitized the entire archive, with work by Marcel Duchamp, John Cage, the Velvet Underground—even films by Robert Rauschenberg and László Moholy-Nagy. Browse the full collection here. —Justin Alvarez

Our Spring Revel is next week, so I had to get my suit tailored—a new experience for me. (Another new experience: owning a suit.) As I handed it over to the kind Korean lady who will, God willing, make me look presentable, some lines from Mark Leyner’s Et Tu, Babe sprang to mind, and I had to hold back laughter. “In 1987,” Leyner writes, “I enrolled in a twelve-step program for people who pistol-whip their tailors. First I had to admit that pistol-whipping my tailor was, in fact, a problem. Today I take life one day at a time. Each day that passes without my having pistol-whipped my tailor is a victory … a solid step toward recovery.” I very suddenly couldn’t not imagine pistol-whipping this lovely Korean woman. I felt like a monster. My strain must’ve been visible; she asked if I was okay. I wasn’t. I’m still not. —Dan Piepenbring

One can only hope that the Police Blotter journalists over at the Brooklyn Paper moonlight as noir novelists. Their writing about the “Stiletto stabber,” a “high-heeled femme fatale and her gang of male goons” who stomped all over a man’s face on March 21, is as hardboiled as anything in Elmore Leonard or Dashiell Hammett. The jocularity of “the dental damage the deadly dame did” undoes any po-faced pretensions. Elsewhere, “rapscallions,” “bandits,” “crafty crooks,” “galoots,” “louts,” and “lowlifes” “skedaddle,” “brandish,” and “scram.” While the language belies the dreadfulness of the deeds—this is real life, after all—article titles like “Sands of Crime” and “Loosey Vuitton” suggest that a dash of gallows humor is the best antidote to such a dire beat. —Rachel Abramowitz

I’ve never liked the descriptor experimental in front of novel or writing, but in the case of Sergio Chejfec’s novel My Two Worlds, recommended and lent to me by Justin, it feels correct—Chejfec writes as if he’s testing the weight-bearing limits of normal prose. His narrator, a man a few days shy of his fiftieth birthday, walks through an unfamiliar city in Brazil, looking for a park and having trouble finding it. As he wanders the city in expansive and trailing sentences, his digressions and asides become the story, and the whole notion of storytelling, of using sentences to tell a story, comes under subtle scrutiny. —Anna Heyward

Every time I see that film still of Jennifer Connelly shielding her face in Russell Crowe-as-Noah’s chest, as he glares powerfully out at the apocalypse, I want to scream. It feels so indicative of Hollywood fare these days: there are movies about men that are supposed to appeal to men and women; there are movies about women that are designed only to appeal to women. So it is with fiction, too—the notion that there’s “fiction” and “women’s fiction.” Whose fault is it? Marketers! Here, a primer on “pinkification.” —Nicole Rudick