Staff Picks: Diarists, Dowsing, Dolphin-safe Tuna


This Week’s Reading


Egon Schiele, Portrait of Gertrude Schiele, 1909.

In 1995, on a trip to Australia, the performance artist and writer Kathy Acker met McKenzie Wark, a new-media theorist. They had a weekend-long affair and then, on Acker’s return to San Francisco, engaged in a candid two-week e-mail correspondence—now published for the first time—in which gossip, cultural criticism, daily activities, queer theory, and personal problems are inextricably tangled. A searching discussion of Blanchot, Bataille, and totalitarianism is together with a back-and-forth about pissing and coming at the same time. Very quickly, the gendered sex talk—of butch, femme, and super-femme; straight girls and queer ones; gay guys, straight guys, and just “guys”—becomes confused: Who’s talking about whom? But it doesn’t matter. As Acker says, “Me, straight queer gay whatever and where do nut cakes like me fit in who like getting fistfucked whacked and told what to do?” Wark responds, “I like this idea of a refusal to be called other. As normal as the next human.” Acker died not two years later of breast cancer. This book is a wonderful reminder of her quick mind and remarkable intellect. How lucky Wark was to have gotten it all firsthand. “I forgot who I am,” he writes to Acker. “You reminded me of who I prefer to be.” —Nicole Rudick

“What I love about university libraries,” Susan Howe says in her interview with The Paris Review, “is that they always seem slightly off-limits, therefore forbidden. I feel I’ve been allowed in with my little identity card and now I’m going to be bad.” How bad? Dowsing for buried manuscripts is, she says, a kind of “civilly disobedient telepathy.” Howe’s new book, Spontaneous Particulars: The Telepathy of Archives, is an elegiac essay for the old archives of paper and ink, now being off-sited by digital technologies. The book pieces together Howe’s work on the papers of the eighteenth-century divine Jonathan Edwards with the third book of William Carlos Williams’s Paterson, about the burning of the library. I can’t think of another work that evokes the romance of research in the way this one does. It captures that moment when you find exactly the thing you didn’t know you were searching for. —Robyn Creswell

Keep an eye out for Elliot Ackerman’s first novel, Green on Blue, coming next month. Ackerman, who served five tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, caught my attention in recent weeks with essays in the New York Times Magazine (on skateboarding in Southbank) and The New Yorker (on a visit he paid to a military outpost on the front line of the war with ISIS), both of which betray the informed sensitivity of his observations. (If you dig deeper into ’net history, you’ll find his reflections on Fallujah.) Green on Blue, already on the Times’s Reading List of Modern War Stories, tells the story of a young boy coming of age in Afghanistan—the premise of which, alone, serves as an impressive act of empathy. —Stephen A. Hiltner

In the 1970s, when masses of dolphins were dying in tuna nets, a public shaming campaign led the industry to change its ways—thus began the era of “dolphin-safe tuna.” This is the anecdote that begins Jennifer Jacquet’s Is Shame Necessary?, out in February, a sharp examination of the role shaming plays in our society and its effectiveness as a tool for change. When we’re faced with the question of how to stop a business from doing something we find wrong, we often substitute an easier question: What can I buy instead? But this kind of consumer guilt, Jacquet says, only shifts responsibility for society’s ills away from the perpetrators. We need campaigns that shame corporations into reforming, otherwise we’ll get the equivalent of dolphin-safe tuna labels with no change behind them. —Andrew Jimenez

A friend recently took me to “Egon Schiele: Portraits,” an exhibition at the Neue Galerie through April 20. Schiele, who died when he was only twenty-eight, had his first exhibition in 1908; this show begins in a small room with some of that early work, charcoal portraits drawn with such precision that from a distance they’re almost indistinguishable from photography. Moving through the rooms, you see how quickly Schiele’s style evolved: Eros suddenly supersedes realism, and the work erupts with vibrancy. His lines, once soft and fragile, become hard with urgency; his sitters are now elongated and angular. A few favorites: the corpselike man with exaggerated sunken eyes and an overreaching brow ridge—the Portrait of Karl Zakovsek; the portrait of the artist’s sister, Gerti, with gold-bronze paint reminiscent of Gustav Klimt’s Adele Bloch-Bauer I (also at the Neue Galerie); a scene of two women pleasuring each other, one woman’s hands cupping her lover’s breasts as she kneels behind her. The work is whimsical, confrontational, and raw. —Caitlin Youngquist

John McPhee may be the only writer who can sustain a comprehensive and often exciting narrative about geology and the theory of tectonics for 660 pages; his Annals of the Former World covers science while retaining the layman’s interest. McPhee spent twenty years traveling the United States in the frequent company of a geologist, hoping to tell the entire 4.6-billion-year narrative of eruptions, earthquakes, spreading seafloors, and glaciers that created today’s landscape. The result was five books, released separately and then compiled in Annals, which won the Pulitzer in 1999. Weaving together biographical profiles, flashbacks, memoir, and dramatic histories of the Earth with hard science, McPhee captures our understanding of the world’s eonic rhythms. And he seems to know exactly how to calibrate the story: after several Latin-filled pages of science, for example, he draws the narrative back to a young Wyoming homesteader watching his mother patch up a wounded ranch hand on their kitchen table. —Jeffery Gleaves

Many diarists are motivated by a sense of duty and discipline, haunted by the Sisyphean task of serving as their own archivists. Sarah Manguso’s Ongoingness: The End of a Diary, out in March, is a bold, elegant, and honest confrontation of a diarist’s motivations and neuroses. In tight, economical prose, Manguso chronicles the pathology of her obsessive journaling and the constellation of influences—memory, motherhood, age, marriage—that fueled her writing and ultimately rendered her exhaustive recording no longer necessary. Ongoingness reads variously as an addict’s testimony, a confession, a celebration, an elegy. Manguso dismantles the assumptions of compulsive diarists, those who frantically record in order to remember: “Perhaps all anxiety might derive from a fixation on moments—an inability to accept life as ongoing.” —Catherine Carberry

Last weekend I began the first of Elena Ferrante’s popular Neapolitan novels, My Brilliant Friend. Set in the outskirts of Naples during the fifties and sixties, it tells of a beautiful, complicated friendship between two girls, Lila and Lenù. Theirs is a world filled with the anxieties of puberty, the pressures of school, family, friendship, and boys—experiences familiar to most women, made unusually intimate in Ferrante’s hands. But there’s always intensity and violence attached to transformation, and so it is here: rivalry, competition, jealousy, and rage dominate the narrative. But the greatest fear between these friends is their individual unpredictability—even the people you’re closest to are inscrutable, a paradox that Ferrante captures to brilliant effect. —Cassie Davies