Detail from Chuck Close’s Emma, which appears on the cover of this month’s Harper’s.
I relish hearing my mother’s crazy tales about her forebears, many of whom got kicked out various European countries, throughout history. And then there’s her maternal grandfather, about whom the stories are legion—they begin with him leaving home at fifteen to fight with Pancho Villa. I often wonder what he and I have in common, whether there is more than blood that connects us. It’s that impulse that partly explains the contemporary obsession with ancestry, as I’ve learned from Maud Newton’s absorbing essay in the June issue of Harper’s. Newton’s research into her family tree has led to revelations about her lineage, but by and large her search seems directed at the branches on which she is borne—her parents—and it describes the central tension in the modern hunt for ancestry: the desire to explain or to explain away certain aspects or ourselves, but also to make some kind of sense of where we come from, without losing sight of who we are as individuals. “We come from our parents, who came from their parents, who descended, as the Bible would put it, from their fathers and their fathers’ fathers,” Newton writes, “and then we enter the world and we become ourselves.” —Nicole Rudick
Angelica Garnett was Bloomsbury royalty: the daughter of Vanessa Bell and niece of Virginia Woolf, she grew up at Charleston, the colorful East Sussex farmhouse that became the movement’s literal and spiritual home. Until the age of eighteen, Garnett believed herself to be the daughter of the art critic Clive Bell; in fact, she was the product of her mother’s affair with the artist Duncan Grant, who often made his home at Charleston. At twenty-four, she married fifty-year-old David Garnett—Duncan Grant’s former lover. It should come as no surprise that Garnett’s 1984 memoir Deceived with Kindness: A Bloomsbury Childhood is somewhat … ambivalent. She describes a world ostentatiously devoted to freedom yet still fundamentally hidebound by Victorian convention—in which she and other children were largely casualties of an adult experiment. Even years later, the author’s anger at her parents’ self-absorption is palpable, and she is not necessarily sympathetic herself. It can be uncomfortable reading. But to anyone interested in either the romance or reality of Bloomsbury, I’d recommend it highly. —Sadie Stein
My fiancée and I joke that bacteria and viruses are actually alien life-forms that have been here for billions of years, lying in wait for the chance to wipe humans out. (Look under a microscope and try to disagree.) But in Ed Yong’s fascinating look at bacteria’s pathogenicity, bacteria attack us more by accident, not to assassinate us—people are just “civilian casualties in a much older war” between microbes. Yong writes, “We’re not central actors in the dramas that affect our lives. We’re not even bit players. We are just passers-by, walking outside the theatre and getting hit by flying props.” —Justin Alvarez
Anne Carson’s poem “The Albertine Workout,” which appears in this week’s London Review of Books, is an ineffable marvel—it seems to have emerged from the same winking achronological wormhole that Barthelme’s “Eugenie Grandet” came out of more than forty years ago. —Dan Piepenbring
I was eight when the Monica Lewinsky story broke, and all I remember is the jokes. The story is full of all sorts of absurdities: the ten-month-old stain on the dress, the length and cost of the Starr report. Renata Adler’s 1998 exegesis of the affair, published in Vanity Fair, is the best thing to read on the subject. She uses her typical stone-cold nerve to unravel all the ridicule and hypocrisy in the story. It moves from the ridiculous to the sublime, and sentences like “[Linda] Tripp does not know if [Vincent] Foster likes or dislikes onions” become more essential than you could have imagined. —Anna Heyward
In anticipation of next week’s World Cup, I recommend a striking and powerful Brazilian film, Petra Costa’s Elena. The most-watched documentary in Brazil last year, the film had its American release last week. It depicts Costa revisiting the charged locations and documents of the life of her older sister, Elena, who committed suicide after moving from Brazil to New York to become an actress. Costa culls material from her past, including a vast archive of her sister’s homemade videos, and interweaves it with new footage of herself and her family exploring the lost world of Elena to craft a profoundly personal and artful cinematic memoir. The editing brilliantly tangles the images of the two sisters, illuminating their shared aesthetics as well as their ultimately divergent paths. One scene that really struck me, in the way it pushes the boundary between documentary and constructed fiction, features dozens of Ophelia-esque female figures floating in the water in Brazil, capturing how, in Costa’s words, “pain and grievance turn to water … dissolved into memory.” —Chantal McStay
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