Staff Picks: Tornadoes, Turf Wars, Time Travel


This Week’s Reading


From Richard McGuire’s Here. 

In a New Yorker Talk of the Town from last year, the poet Ansel Elkins sits at an outdoor table at the Standard East Village and watches, she says, “the parade of fine-looking men in suits.” I thought of that line as I was reading her forthcoming debut collection, Blue Yodel. Elkins is from Anniston, Alabama (she now lives in Greensboro, North Carolina), and her poems convey the punishing weather, latent violence, and overgrown beauty of the Southern states. One of my favorites is “Tornado,” in which a woman loses her child to the storm: “I watched my daughter fly away / from the grapnel of my arms. Unmoored, / like a skiff she sailed alone out the window.” Among these measured evocations of sometimes wild places is a rather astute depiction of the city, in the poem “Tennessee Williams on Art and Sex,” which takes its title from a 1975 New York Times review of Williams’s memoirs. (Williams, of course, was another Southerner come north.) “Men in gray suits and hats leap graceful over a water-swollen grate / You stop at a corner bodega to light a cigarette, lean against a crate of oranges,” she writes. The poem also deals dexterously with missed connections: “Tell me again about desire and writing. But you don’t hear me.” —Nicole Rudick

The first page of Richard McGuire’s graphic novel, Here, depicts a corner of an empty living room. A date of the top left reads “2014.” The next page is the same vacant room decorated with floral wallpaper and different furniture, in 1957. Next page, same house, different wallpaper and furniture, 1942. As the book proceeds, McGuire inserts multiple “windows” atop the room: snapshots of that same space across time, sometimes stretching back millennia and jumping two hundred years into the future. We see Lenape Indians joking and flirting in the woods in 1609, the catastrophic rise of sea levels in 2126, carpenters building the house in 1907, the primordial swamps of 8,000 B.C.E. Driven less by narrative and more by the juxtaposition, Here is a collage that pits domesticity and the personal, and even civilization, against the flow of time. McGuire, with his command of the rhythm and texture of images, is onto something concerning the way we perceive the temporal; he said about his recent cover for The New Yorker, “As I walk around the city, I’m time-traveling, flashing forward, planning what it is I have to do … Then I have a sudden flashback to a remembered conversation, but I notice a plaque on a building commemorating a famous person who once lived there, and for a second I’m imagining them opening the door.” —Jeffery Gleaves

J. C. Chandor’s first two films, Margin Call and All Is Lost, were impressive pressure cookers, but neither prepared me for the jolt of his latest, A Most Violent Year, which somehow finds tension and high drama in New York City’s heating-oil business circa 1981. Oscar Isaac stars as Abel Morales, the proprietor of Standard Oil, a thriving but beleaguered company facing turf wars with its competitors, violence against its drivers and salesman, and a slew of indictments from the District Attorney’s office, among other problems. In attempting to solve these, Morales enters a mobbed-up, ethical gray zone, where any victory is pyrrhic and the threat of violence always looms. But A Most Violent Year is not a violent movie: it borrows from crime and gangster films without succumbing to their clichés. As Chandor’s camera takes in the blighted outer boroughs and graffitied subways, success, that most self-evident of goals, comes to feel like a slippery abstraction. “Have you ever thought about why you want it so badly?” Morales’s second-in-command asks him at one point. “I don’t know what you mean,” he replies, with scary sincerity. Isaac turns in a career-making performance: steely and suffering, he can say more with the set of his mouth than many actors do with their whole faces. —Dan Piepenbring

The Robert Miller Gallery has mixed-media work by Ted Victoria on display. Victoria uses projections, lenses, and mirrors, to play with the eye, bringing a sense of otherworldliness to otherwise ordinary subjects. In one piece, he magnifies and projects a jar of krill so you can watch their enlarged bodies swim up and down an adjacent wall. The scene is eerie and enthralling, giving the room a strange luminescence; you could easily spend, as I did, an entire lunch watching the tiny crustaceans.  —Lynette Lee

As a national juror for the Scholastic Writing Awards, I spent this past weekend in Hunter College’s computer labs, reading work by high school students, many of whom submitted hopeful, heartening essays about why they consider themselves writers and how writing has shaped them. These reminded me of C. Alphonso Smith’s 1913 book, What Can Literature Do for Me? With chapters like “It Can Keep Before You the Vision of the Ideal” and “It Can Show You the Glory of the Commonplace,” Smith’s tract is an earnest, romantic appeal to the unconverted, but he also draws from exciting and unexpected sources to make his case. “Sometimes the right book startles or warns you,” he writes, “sometimes it takes issue squarely with you … but in every case it reveals something common with you, and on this common basis you rise toward its level.” —Catherine Carberry