Staff Picks: Thirteen Days, One Hundred Brothers, Five Cars


This Week’s Reading

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“We build excitement”: a still from an oddly captivating old Pontiac ad.

The latest issue of Guernica includes Richard Price’s tragic history of New York public housing; he begins in a state of noble objectivity and then goes brilliantly, subjectively off the rails, telling of his own childhood in the north Bronx’s Parkside Houses: “The women played gin rummy, mahjong, coming to each other’s apartments in quilted housecoats and curlers, clutching vinyl-covered packs of Newports and Winstons. Many a kid, myself included, fell asleep to the clack of ivory tiles or the riffle of cards, nodded off to a non-stop soundtrack of laughter, blue language, and hacking coughs coming from the game in the dinette, our bedrooms comfortingly wreathed in cigarette smoke.” From here, he tells what should be a familiar story uniquely well—how the projects, one of the early triumphs of city governance, went from having a waiting list of 160,000 families to serving as a symbol of “the truly hopeless and disenfranchised.” —Dan Piepenbring

Editors are often asked to describe, in a word or two, what kind of fiction they like. I’ve never known what to say—but “low concept” would be a start. The less describable a novel is, the less it depends on a premise, the more apt I am to like it. This makes it hard for me to recommend Donald Antrim’s 1997 novel The Hundred Brothers. It really is about one hundred brothers (Phil, Angus, Walter, Virgil, Barry, Seamus, Arthur, and ninety-three more) who gather in the vast library of a crumbling estate to work out their sibling rivalries and put their father’s memory to rest. The strange thing about the book, or really, one of the many strange things about it, is how cinematic it is. It’s incredible that dozens of middle-aged white guys making small talk and waiting for cocktails could leap so vividly to life, in just two hundred pages, or descend so concretely into mayhem.  —Lorin Stein

Once this unseasonably warm weather comes to an end, I look forward to using my oven again. Treacle tart in particular holds a special place in my heart, as it was the first dessert I ever baked—which is fitting, because “Treacle,” by the Liverpudlian Paul Farley, is the first poem in recent memory to stick solidly in my mind. Farley has gained a steady following in the UK, but remains virtually unknown in America, where only one volume of his work has been published. This will come as a surprise when you hear him read this haunting poem. His appropriately chewy diction leaves me awed and disturbed; he describes that chilling moment when you “lever the lid” of a tin of treacle and “it opens with a sigh / and you’re face-to-face with history.” —Charles Shafaieh

I’m often suspicious of political nonfiction, which seems to me the literary equivalent of a CPA: nerdy, unglamorous, and gray. But Lawrence Wright’s new book, Thirteen Days in September, is neither dull nor dour; it’s just good. It re-creates a 1978 summit at Camp David led by Jimmy Carter. Over the course of, yes, thirteen days, three disparate politicians—Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, and Carter himself—attempt diplomacy and an understanding. It’s a complicated story to tell, but Wright’s prose, always lucid, transforms a tangled history into a compelling narrative. —Kate Gill

After a long, hard week at the office, here’s how I like to relax: by watching car commercials from the eighties. The jingles! The jingoism! The digital speedometers! Thirty years down the line, it should be easy to cast a cold eye on such graceless pap, with its hokey slogans and its relentless sincerity. “We build excitement,” says the Pontiac LeMans; the Plymouth Voyager tells us that “the pride is back”; the Chrysler Laser knows that “the competition is good. We had to be better.” What is it about these ads, then, that I find so peculiarly effective? Why, for all my condescending laughter, do I come away sort of wanting a Chrysler Laser? There’s a lesson here about irony, nostalgia, and seduction in advertising, but I can’t put my finger on it. I only know that “the new Dodge Shadow is going to cast a giant shadow across America.” —D.P.