Staff Picks: Country Life, City Life, Future Life


This Week’s Reading


From the cover of The Edge Becomes the Center.

When we ran Sylvain Bourmeau’s interview with Michel Houellebecq earlier this month, a number of readers tweeted their distaste for Houellebecq’s new novel, as described by Bourmeau and by Houellebecq himself. They may want to think again. To American eyes (at least, to mine), Soumission is not a xenophobic screed, nor is it a dire prediction that Muslims will take over France. In the book, Muslims certainly do take over France and impose a form of Sharia. They also impose economic policies based on the theories of G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, and appoint a minister of education with links to the Belgian far right. This is, in other words, a fairy tale premise, played deadpan; Houellebecq uses it to make fun of, and to vent his scorn upon, the firmly secular France of today. Whether it is tactful (or prudent) to invent a Muslim Brotherhood party led by Chestertonians is a fair question, but Houellebecq has never been celebrated for his tact or, thank heavens, for his good sense. —Lorin Stein

Before I picked up DW Gibson’s The Edge Becomes the Center, I would’ve told you it was impossible to write a significant book about gentrification, as fraught and ubiquitous as it is. But Gibson’s oral history, out in May, is a generous, vigorous, and enlightening look at class and space in New York; it ought to be required reading for the next generation of transplants. In the stories of tenants, buyers, landlords, architects, real estate agents, contractors, and politicians, Gibson has found vibrant humanity in a subject that is, paradoxically, lacking in it. If it seems obvious that gentrification is about people, then why has a book like this been so long in coming? The Edge Becomes the Center raises critical questions about what we expect from our cities and how groups become communities. Mainly, though, it’s a joy to read, its chorus of voices a reminder of oral history’s power. Anyone who cares about the shape and gestalt of life in New York—and anyone who believes in cities as centers of culture—will come away moved. —Dan Piepenbring

There are a number of reasons to love Pitchfork’s new interview with Björk: the unabashed feeling with which she discusses her new album; the way she describes trying to unite (sometimes unsuccessfully) motherhood, family, and work; and the glimpse into her extraordinary mind. It’s most important, though, for the candor with which she admits to finding it difficult to be a working woman, that despite her fame and success and obvious talent, she has felt the need to have her ideas annexed by men in order to have them heard. After at least a decade of seeing her own creative efforts passed off in the press as belonging to men, she exhorted herself to speak out: “You’re a coward if you don’t stand up. Not for you, but for women. Say something.” Her experiences—for instance, that “everything a guy says once, you have to say five times”—are now a refrain among women. (How did we cope before we’d coined mansplaining?) But the elephant turd on the carpet, as Rebecca Solnit once called it, should be pointed out at every opportunity. —Nicole Rudick

I first heard about Ben Metcalf’s Against the Country from The Paris Review’s Southern editor, John Jeremiah Sullivan. Set in poor, rural Virginia, Against the Country is narrated by an unnamed farm boy who was “worked like a jackass for the worst part of my childhood, and offered up to climate and predator and vice, and introduced to solitude, braced against hope, and dangled before the Lord our God, and schooled in the subtle truths and blatant lies of a half life in the American countryside.” The narrator’s father wants to flee town for a simpler life, so the family moves from suburban Indiana to Goochland, Virginia, where the narrator spends his later days ruminating over the evil they found in the country soil. Against the Country doesn’t preach against rural America’s perceived moral superiority—it holds it up, allowing readers to examine its farcical nature. Hilarious and dark, like most of Metcalf’s writing, the novel and its thick, rambling sentences had control of me from beginning to end. —Jeffery Gleaves

“Words … aren’t the same as the things themselves,” Herta Müller says in her interview with The Paris Review. “There’s never a perfect match.” I’d never read any of Müller’s books, but her concept of language led me to The Appointment, her 1997 novel, which takes place in Romania during Ceauşescu’s regime. Riding the tram to her interrogation, the narrator, a young factory worker, reflects on the terrors that she, her friends, and her family have been subjected to by the state. Müller draws from personal experience—she was persecuted by the Secutariat of Romania in the seventies—and her prose, like the movement of the tram, is steady and unswaying. Müller has a way with figurative language: eyes that “flashed like greased bullets,” cheeks “like frozen crusts of bread,” fingernails that “looked like ten roasted pumpkin seeds.” Her metaphors are unusual, but there is an underlying force to them. “Every object is steeped with meaning,” she explains in her interview, “but the meanings change with the experience of the viewer.” —Cassie Davies          

Early reviewers of Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, out in May, describe the slim volume as a hybrid of Nelson’s two previous books—the lyrical and heartbreaking Bluets and the Sontag-esque The Art of Cruelty. In The Argonauts, Nelson turns her wit and haunting prose to her most intimate subject to date: her family. In chronicling her relationship with the gender-fluid artist Harry Dodge, Nelson explores the language of sexuality, gender, and erotics, blending memoir with a study of semantics, gender politics, and queer parenting, pulling in sources from Wittgenstein to Winnicott. The Argonauts finds Nelson at her most vulnerable, arguing for a radical rethinking of the terms in which we express love. —Catherine Carberry

How did this happen? Creston Lea’s debut collection, Wild Punch, flew entirely under the radar, and now a small band of readers keeps a terrible, beautiful secret. Well, be clean, conscience! I’m sharing. If you wish there were more Breece Pancakes or Pinckney Benedicts in the world, then Lea is your man. If you have no idea what the hell I’m talking about, let Wild Punch be your entry into a brand of rural fiction that illuminates certain facets of American experience in a kind yet unflinching light. Understated and perceptive, the stories in this indispensable volume will stay with you like your own memories. —Emilia Murphy