Staff Picks: Lumber Yards, Low-crawling, Luxury Cages


This Week’s Reading


From Sara Cwynar’s cover to the newly designed New York Times Magazine.

Not long ago a friend gave me a very slim book by the French sinologist Jean François Billeter called Trois essais sur la traduction. Like the (similarly skinny) 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, by Eliot Weinberg and Octavio Paz, this is a book all about specifics—the specific problems of translating classical Chinese poetry. And like that book, this one contains an entire philosophy of translation. “The young musician learns to analyse the form of the work, and by interpreting the work he brings it to life: he makes it his own twice over. In literature, the student learns mainly how to talk about works. He does not make them his own the way the musician does … The result is a frustration that no one admits but that pretty much everyone feels. Students of literature can acquire at least some of [a writer’s] power through the practice of translation, since it consists in saying in one language what the author has said in another—saying it as well as he did, so that it produces the same effect.” I hope someone will bring that power to bear on these graceful, deeply sensible case studies. —Lorin Stein

Of the New York Times Magazine’s quartet of covers coming with its relaunch this weekend, my favorite is Sara Cwynar’s Death Star globe cloaked in a distorted TV test pattern that practically emits a high-frequency reference tone. It turns out that Gary Shteyngart’s essay for the issue—a chronicle of watching Russian TV for a week straight—pairs quite well with Cwynar’s evil-empire cover; he must still have the drone of Putin’s television clouding his brain. (Shteyngart’s exploit reminds me of Caity Weaver’s challenge last year of TGI Friday’s Endless Appetizers promotion, during which she ate mozzarella sticks for close to fourteen hours.) Shteyngart performed his feat Black Mirror style: in front of three large television screens installed in a “luxury cage” at the Four Seasons in New York. From the variety of programs—talk shows, news, classic films, comedy, and lots and lots of dancing—preposterously braided together by state propaganda, Shteyngart plucks hard truths (or, in Putin parlance, “manly truths”) about Russia’s increasing distance from any kind of geopolitical middle ground. “Now the cool nations are no longer inviting Russia for unsupervised sleepovers,” he writes, “and the only kids still leaving notes on Russia’s locker are Kim Jong-un and Raúl Castro.” —Nicole Rudick

Zadie Smith wrote a piece for Rookie this week detailing her antipathy toward keeping a diary: “The dishonesty of diary writing—this voice you put on for supposedly no one but yourself—I found that idea so depressing … I don’t want any record of my days.” That’s an intriguing sentiment to me—I’ve been caught up in The Collected Writings of Joe Brainard, a five-hundred-page kaleidoscope of the New York School artist’s writings and drawings, diary entries included. Smith, miffed by the staged grandeur that crept into the pages of her own diary, renounces the practice. But Brainard renounces the grandeur. In Collected Writings, there’s no asphyxiating sense of malaise or swooping trauma, no insurmountable woe, no quixotic dreams of romance—which is precisely what’s drawn me to the collection. Instead, one gets what one might expect from a diary: the quotidian. We learn what Brainard liked in bed (a “good plain blow-job; It’s rhythm that makes me come the best”), what he thought about on the train (“I like that lumber yard”), his impression of Jamaica (“It’s a hard place to believe in”). As Dan Chaisson puts it, “[Brainard’s] writing specializes in the exploration of the minor emotions often slighted by ‘serious’ writers: contentment rather than elation, glumness rather than despair, horniness instead of passion, and, everywhere, a non-existential, completely ordinary loneliness.” —Caitlin Youngquist

In his new memoir My Life as a Foreign Country, the poet Brian Turner traces his history as a young infantryman in Bosnia and Iraq, interlacing his story with those of his grandfather (who served in World War II), his father (Cold War), and his uncle (Vietnam), to find some element of truth behind the history of human suffering. Turner writes tenderly from his enemies’ perspective, imagining them asleep with their wives, being blown up while building IEDs meant for American soldiers, and even training their crosshairs on one Sgt Turner himself. Neither didactic nor bombastic, My Life as a Foreign Country focuses on the place of the individual in war. It doesn’t hurt that Turner is from my hometown of Fresno, California. “I was prepared to low-crawl,” he writes, “with my facedown in the nastiest, foulest, brackish sludge and sewer the world could offer, that I was from Fresno and people from Fresno can take it, can take it in spades and shovel fulls, people from Fresno can take decades of it, that people from Fresno can outcrawl any motherfucker on the planet … That’s why I joined.” —Jeffery Gleaves

Reading Silvina Ocampo’s stories—newly collected in Thus Were Their Faces—feels like looting the keep of a decrepit, moldering castle and plucking jewels from the fingers of skeleton royals. Ocampo, a well-born Argentine who died in 1993, melded the gothic and the fabulist in her fiction, writing tales of such unflinching comic cruelty that Borges had no choice but to proclaim her a clairvoyant. She does seem to see everything, and seeing everything is terrifying. In her great novella “The Impostor,” a boy narrates his journey to a remote ranch, where he’s supposed to rescue a family friend from a life of madness; by the end the narrator’s very existence is called into question, and questions of insanity are moot. In its images—damp flagstones, roaring bonfires, a portrait of a jaguar, a dead dog covered in flies—she builds a sense of dread that rises to a disturbing anticlimax. When Ocampo departs from realism, she does so casually, almost misleadingly—not to exercise her imagination but to reckon with all that we’ll never know or understand. —Dan Piepenbring

When I saw Kelly Link in conversation with Emma Straub last week, Link was dubious about ghosts: “Maybe, probably they exist,” she said. Her newest story collection, Get in Trouble, hinges on this maybe/probably dichotomy, as her characters take the fantastic for granted but also question their own perceptions. Maybe, probably, your best friend’s animatronic Ghost Boyfriend is really possessed. Maybe, probably, your spaceship won’t disappear into a black hole. Get in Trouble is one of the strongest collections I’ve read recently; each story is finely calibrated, with Link’s surreal but utterly believable logic, suspense, and heart. —Catherine Carberry

I picked up The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí, his autobiography, because I’d heard it was even more outrageous than his art. It did not disappoint, even from its opening line: “At the age of was six I wanted to be a cook. At seven, I wanted to be Napoleon. And my ambition has been growing steadily ever since.” Dalí’s narcissism is unusually engaging. The book spans his childhood (littered with absurd scenes such as one in which he nearly bites a bat in half) through to age thirty-seven; it encompasses meditations on surrealism, philosophy, religion, and ultimately, falling in love. As of late, I’ve found myself more consumed by his life than by my own. If nothing else, the book provides a fascinating insight into an incurable ego. —Kit Connolly

This winter, as I’ve trudged through snow puddles and gales of whipping wind, I’ve found a small kinship with Werner Herzog. During the fall of 1974, Herzog began a journey from Munich to Paris upon hearing that his friend, the film critic Lotte Eisner, was gravely ill. As documented in his book, Of Walking in Ice, he explains his decision quite simply: “I set off … in full faith, believing that she would stay alive if I came on foot.” Along the way, Herzog encountered blizzards and torrential rain, limped for miles on a swollen Achilles tendon, and, at night, searched for abandoned houses to break into and sleep. He also experienced complete isolation, stretches where he saw nothing but goats and sheep, and when people did emerge, they were shadowy figures, present for only a line or two before he passed them by. At one point, near the end of his account, Herzog contemplates, “If I make it, no one will know what this journey means.” But the mystery of his faith in the seemingly purposeless act of walking is reason enough to read the book, in the cold months. —Lynette Lee