Staff Picks: Birthdays, Bluegrass, Baked Alaska


This Week’s Reading


From the first-edition cover of Appointment in Samarra.

Cold, biting January made me reach for Simon Van Booy’s The Illusion of Separateness. This deceptively slim novel transcends time and geography to explore the lives of six unwittingly connected strangers, each rendered with stunning incisiveness and warmth. (If Raymond Chandler had swapped gin for chamomile tea he might have written some of Van Booy’s sentences.) However, the prose is so rich—so resonant—it’s easy to miss the real treat on offer: an exceptionally compassionate lens through which to view the world. Search no more. This is that book, the one you carry through the midwinter doldrums toward spring. —Emilia Murphy 

Over Christmas I read Is He Popenjoy?, Anthony Trollope’s tale of a rich girl who marries an impoverished Lord and finds herself in the middle of a battle over his inheritance. This is late, minor Trollope (he wrote forty-seven novels altogether), but Trollope is one of those writers in whom minorness and greatness are hard to tell apart. He makes everything look so easy. His experiments are hidden in plain view. So is his special brand of moral skepticism. For Trollope, every character is the hero of his own story, or the heroine; every character thinks he or she has to deal with villains (sociopaths, we’d say). From time to time every character is right. Or may be. But the most powerful force in Trollope’s fiction is not good or evil, but group dynamics, the ever-shifting relations between family members and friends. Among other things, Is He Popenjoy? is the best novel I have ever read about in-laws and how to get along with them. For the moment, I’m so deep under its spell I wouldn’t trade it for Anna Karenina. —Lorin Stein

Every year around the holidays, I try to fill in one of the gaps in my knowledge of the canon. When you’re revisiting classics, I’ve found, it’s always good to seek out the ones that people hated when they were first published—so I took up John O’Hara’s Appointment in Samarra, which Sinclair Lewis called “nothing but infantilism—the erotic visions of a hobbledehoy behind the barn.” And what visions they are! Sex and class are O’Hara’s great subjects, and in Appointment—wherein a rich, high-society guy ruins himself for no good reason, really, except that the straitjacket of Depression-era life demands it—he treats them with a candor that most novelists still can’t muster eighty years later. He’s known, rightly, for his dialogue, but there’s a kind of O’Hara sentence, precise but faintly ostentatious, that sounds utterly American to me. “The festive board now groaned under the Baked Alaska,” for instance. Or: “Frank Gorman, Georgetown, and Dwight Ross, Yale, had fought, cried, and kissed after an argument about what the team Gorman had not made would have done to the team Ross was substitute halfback on.” —Dan Piepenbring

I was given Birthday Stories, an anthology of short stories with a birthday in each, on my birthday last year—the perfect gift, even if I never actually read them on my birthday. It includes selections from Denis Johnson, David Foster Wallace, and Raymond Carver. The birthdays in this collection are not joyous occasions. The book is filled with disappointment, family resentment, pubescent embarrassment, the loneliness of old age, murder. “However many birthdays I may have counted off,” Haruki Murakami, who edited the collection, reassures us in his introduction, “however many important events I may have witnessed or experienced first hand, I feel I have always remained the same me, I could never have been anything else.” Murakami returns to these words in the final pages of “Birthday Girl,” the story that closes the anthology, in which he grants us one tradition free from disappointment: the birthday wish. —Cassie Davies

I discovered the music of Mari Nakamura during a late-night YouTube spiral that began with Lucinda Williams, transitioned to Gram Parsons, and took a surprising turn when I found Nakamura’s cover of Parson’s “Return of the Grievous Angel,” sung with Shinsuke Sasakura. Though Nakamura performs almost exclusively in Japan, her commitment to American roots music and country blues is as evident in her song choices—from faithful covers of Mississippi John Hurt to blues-infused versions of country standards—as in her vocal flexibility. Nakamura’s “Freight Train” is a studied homage to Elizabeth Cotton’s gravely wail, but other interpretations reveal Nakamura’s vocal flexibility; she’s as much indebted to Mimi Fariña’s melodic harmonies as she is to Reverend Gary Davis’s gruff, stripped-down vocals. Nakamura’s been on the Japanese bluegrass scene for years, having released both solo albums and collaborations with Japan-based bluegrass group Lonesome Strings. For those uninitiated to American traditional music, Nakamura’s song choices—many of which can be found in Harry Smith’s iconic folk anthology—provide a surprising and comprehensive education. —Catherine Carberry