Staff Picks: Padded Panels, Pushcart Peddlers, Pommes D’Air


This Week’s Reading

USDA Fry Color Chart

The United States Department of Agriculture Color Standards for Frozen French Fried Potatoes.

According to Don DeLillo, he was surprised when a publisher accepted the “shaggy and overdone” first draft of his first novel, Americana. Almost fifty years—and several revisions—later, the story of Dave Bell, a disillusioned network executive who hits the road to discover America, retains a certain amount of shag. But already DeLillo’s dialogue has its own look and sound. This is speech in the age of mechanical reproduction, the reel to reel, the dictaphone, the transcript. His characters are spirits captured in stuff: “Clevenger’s paleolithic lavender Cadillac was equipped with air conditioning, deep-pile carpeting, padded instrument panel, stereo tape system and a burglar alarm. Behind the wheel he seemed a veteran jockey not at all awed by the magnificence of his own colors. He was about fifty, a small man with a neck of Playa clay traversed by wide deep ridges. Clevenger was a Texan.” The stuff itself has aged, but this only adds to the sense of magical evocation. Americana has aged into a time capsule, deep-pile carpeting and all. —Lorin Stein

I’ve been reading Jean Merrill’s The Pushcart War (NYRB’s fiftieth anniversary edition) to my son every night, a few chapters at a time. It’s often the only way I can coax him out of his Harry Potter books to get ready for bed. In truth, I’m as excited as he is to read it. The tale of New York’s pushcart peddlers waging war against the monstrous, bullying trucks is droll—as are Ronni Solbert’s illustrations—but its message remains urgent; Merrill writes expansively, giving air to the intrigue, to the peddler’s personalities, and to what’s at stake for people who don’t have money or influence. When the peace-loving peddler who sleeps under his cart every night is finally driven to anger and despair—and is forced to sleep indoors for the first time in seventy years—the frustration is nearly unendurable. My son has asked me more than once if the story is real. It’s not, of course, and what a shame, but it’s an entertaining lesson on nonviolent civil disobedience, standing up for the rights and the dignity of the little guy, and how to make a sturdy peashooter. —Nicole Rudick

Longtime readers of the Daily might remember our 2013 foray into the seedy underworld ever more profitable world of Reddit, where we fielded an array of questions from a pleasantly shrewd—if sometimes peculiar—audience. Fast-forward to the present, where the last few weeks on /r/iAMA have been unmatched in their appeal: Edward Snowden, Laura Poitras, and Glenn Greenwald have made appearances, as have David CrossJames Randi, and (here we go) the Redditor who sold a script to Warner Bros—a script, of course, that he originally drafted in a Reddit thread. There’s something about the form of Reddit’s AMAs—their utilitarian formatting, the democratization of how questions are valued and, ultimately, addressed—that satiates a broad spectrum of my curiosities, from the profound to the lighthearted. But what hooks me more than anything else is certain Redditors’ real-time grappling with the significance of the exchanges, particularly given the ever-apparent bizarreness of the medium. Take, for example, the replies to this response from Edward Snowden, one in which he addresses how we might bring the NSA’s spying schemes to the forefront in the 2016 election. When one commenter likens Snowden’s response to Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” others chime in to imagine how it might be cited in the history books of the future. (“Snowden’s ‘Impromptu Response on a Pre-Brainosphere Primitive Network,’ ” suggests /u/CopaceticOpus.) It’s the sort of banter one might expect from a Web site that, represented for so long as a rabbit hole for cute GIFs and clever memes, has come to attract—if uncomfortably so—some of contemporary society’s most influential thinkers. —Stephen Andrew Hiltner

The latest issue of Cabinet is full of incisive writing, but I have to single out George Pendle’s chronicle of our “chromatic palate”—our synesthetic tendency to taste food with our eyes—for special mention, not least because it’s introduced me to a marvelous document: the United States Department of Agriculture Color Standards for Frozen French Fried Potatoes, an ideal marriage of form and function. Pendle provides a wise, witty tour of the standards, which exemplify what he calls “the rich emotional terroir” of our food and eating habits: “There is the blanched and insubstantial ‘000,’ more pomme d’air than pomme de terre … ‘1,’ the platonic french fry, as perfectly tanned as a matinee idol; it demands, almost pleads, to be reverse piked into a glistening pool of ketchup. And then there is the grubby bronze of ‘4,’ the creation of a short-order deity who lingered too long over his creation, a Caliban among the spudocracy.” —Dan Piepenbring

Holly Golightly’s famous line “I’ve always been top banana in the shock department” sprang to mind as I read On the Way to Work, a set of ten conversations between Gordon Burn and Damien Hirst. These interviews span 1992 to 2001, charting Hirst’s rise as the art world’s enfant terrible. Their talk is sprinkled with the usual fuck-the-establishment (until you become it) egotism—“I arrived at Goldsmiths’ and thought, this is shit and these little fucking collages of mine are brilliant”—but also remarkable candor on topics ranging from sex to Saatchi to substance abuse. Hirst opens up about his working-class North England upbringing, his experiences with love and fatherhood. His is a sort of roughhouse erudition; he’s playful with the influence he’s garnered but earnest about his artistic output. Above all, he’s fiercely articulate—he comes across as somebody who’s in on the joke, and he doesn’t care who else (if anyone else) is laughing. —Kit Connolly

Sentimentality sometimes seems like a given in coming-of-age stories; fortunately, Karim Dimechkie’s debut, Lifted by the Great Nothing, avoids it at every turn. The novel centers on Max, a teen who lives with his father, Rasheed, in a New Jersey suburb; the pair emigrated from Beirut under mysterious circumstances when Max was a baby. As Rasheed tells it, the rest of the family was murdered; he doesn’t elaborate further, and his son doesn’t ask. “When we are in America,” Rasheed says, “we are Americans.” A rendering of a family torn apart not only by a civil war, but by a stubborn unwillingness to concede to the differences within itself, Lifted by the Great Nothing is awkward, challenging, and funny. It’s sharp and frank—and, like any good family, it stays with you. —Andrew Jimenez

All twelve stories in Nicole Haroutunian’s slender debut, Speed Dreaming, pull their weight. My favorite, “A Cane, An Anchor,” centers on a couple who must live with the husband’s parents after a fire burns down their house; the caustic language and careful setting reminded me of A. M Homes. Haroutunian is smart about contemporary relationships, and her collection will certainly resonant with the Modern Love crowd. Her protagonists, all women, admit to melodrama, but they go one step further than the characters in Girls in that they question what’s behind their woe-is-me antics. Through their honesty, we get characters we actually like, who illuminate what it means to be a woman outside of Lena Dunham’s “Brooklyn.” —Matthew Caprioli