Staff Picks: Mendelsohn, Microgravity, Misconduct


This Week’s Reading


A still from Otolith I.

Daniel Mendelsohn’s essay on Sappho has been haunting me since I read last week’s New Yorker. First there’s the history of her poems. We all know these survive today in a few fragments, but to think there were once as many as ten thousand lines—and that these were in wide circulation for a millennium—can make your chair tilt under you a little. Then there are the fragments themselves, a handful quoted by Mendelsohn in his own translation. Maybe it’s the weather, but I’ve found myself going back to his version of Sappho’s most famous surviving poem, the one that begins “He seems to me an equal of the gods— / whoever gets to sit across from you,” as if I’ve never seen a poem like that before. —Lorin Stein

The Otolith Group, founded in 2002, produces films and writings around sound, Afrofuturism, and the archive. I’ve been curious about the group for some time; since it’s based in London and exhibits mainly in Europe, I’ve had only glancing experiences with its work. But this week their first film, Otolith I, is available at Carroll / Fletcher Onscreen, an “online cinema” for experimental films. The Otolith Group’s name comes from a part of the inner ear sensitive to gravity and tilt, and Otolith I could be a kind of manifesto: narrated by a woman in 2103, it explains that prolonged time spent in the “microgravity” of space has deformed the otoliths of those born on the International Space Station. This new kind of human cannot survive on Earth and must rely on archival footage in order to understand life on the planet. Our narrator examines footage of the Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova and of the Iraq war protests in New York in 2003. The former sets up the cosmos as a “zone of peace”; the latter describes a society crippled by collective blindness. “My comprehension erodes under the attrition of American war-speak. Did you know that ‘regime change’ means ‘invasion,’ that ‘preemptive defense’ means ‘attacking a country that is not attacking you,’ that ‘shock and awe’ means ‘military onslaught’?” —Nicole Rudick

After the Tall Timber, a new collection of Renata Adler’s nonfiction, finally gave me the chance to read her scorched-earth review of Pauline Kael’s When the Lights Go Down, from 1980—a work of such fecund, well-placed contempt that it’s still fodder for gossipy water-cooler chats at publishing houses. Adler dismantles Kael’s prose style line by vainglorious line, suggesting her voice has been bankrupted by The New Yorker’s institutional imprimatur and the strain of regular publication. “The substance of her work,” Adler writes, “has become little more than an attempt, with an odd variant of flak advertising copy, to coerce, actually to force numb acquiescence, in the laying down of a remarkably trivial and authoritarian party line.” I was nodding and smirking along until I got to the part about rhetorical questions—which Kael grievously overuses, and for which I share a certain fondness. The thought crept in: Am I, too, a Kael-order fraud? Is it possible to write often and write well? After all, if these faults are true of Kael—who wrote weekly, six months a year—they could be at least doubly true for those of us who write daily, year-round. By the last page, where Adler dollies back for the big picture (“What really is at stake is not movies at all, but prose and the relation between writers and readers”) I felt I’d been called out as a hack six years before I was even born. —Dan Piepenbring

For all its successes, Serial’s most enduring legacy may be its promotion of the invaluable work done by the Innocence Project, an organization dedicated to exonerating the wrongly convicted. The group filed a grievance this week alleging prosecutorial misconduct in the Cameron Todd Willingham case, which prompted me to reread David Grann’s methodical New Yorker report, from 2009, on Willingham’s trial and execution. Revisiting the piece evokes a renewed sense of injustice at the manifold failures of the judicial system: its reliance on the pseudoscience of the fire investigators, the reluctance of the prosecutors to consider contradictory evidence, the inaction of the Board of Pardons and Paroles. This latest round of court procedures, if anything, is a testament to the value of an organization that, more than ten years after Willingham’s execution, is still laboring to clear his name. —Stephen Andrew Hiltner

I know when I’ve found a good book when it slows me down, as Lucas Mann’s Lord Fear did. It’s also a good sign, I find, when the book is hard to describe, as Lord Fear is. On the surface, it’s a memoir about Mann’s enigmatic older brother, who died of a heroin overdose when Mann was thirteen. But it’s more about memory, myth-making, and desire than its plot suggests. Written mainly from the perspectives of those who knew his brother at different points in his life, the book’s scenes, reconstructed from interviews, are delicately rendered and hyper–self aware; with this unflinching, fractured examination of his brother, Mann suggests that writing about and investigating any life produces infinite contradictory representations that orbit around an indefinable center. Mann is driving at how we know that unknowable thing—taking us right up to language’s edge, where we watch him peer over. —Jeffery Gleaves

“Half-liberated, half-drunk,” Ann-Marie, the narrator of Zoe Pilger’s debut novel Eat My Heart Out, is a Molotov cocktail about to be thrown. Lethally bored, she careens from Cambridge to K-hole on a dizzy pilgrimage that ultimately lands her on the doorstep of the legendary feminist intellectual Stephanie Haight, who becomes convinced Ann-Marie is a symbol of the disaffected “post-post feminist” generation—someone in need of salvation. It’s a dauntless portrayal of a modern twenty-three-year-old woman, vulnerable beneath the veneer of sass and vitriol, frantically trying to navigate the pressures and double standards of twenty-first century womanhood. It’s also the funniest book I’ve read all year, one that succeeds in being both refreshing and resonant. When the mood-killing question of a condom arises during a one-night stand, Ann-Marie asks, “Would you rather we didn’t use them?” “Yeah,” the guy responds, “Thanks. It’s just I don’t like the sensation of condoms.” “Well, I don’t really like the sensation of abortions,” she says. —Kit Connolly

Stephen McCauley’s introduction to The American Isherwood, a new collection of critical essays about the renowned author of the Goodbye Berlin, cites Richard Avedon’s definition of charm as “the ability to be truly interested in other people.” Isherwood definitely had it, and so does this thoughtful collection. One highlight among its nineteen essays is Carola M. Kaplan’s “Working through Grief in the Drafts of A Single Man,” in which Kaplan traces the four majors drafts of the novella. We learn that A Single Man used to be called The English Woman, until conversations with Don Bachardy, Isherwood’s lover of three decades, shaped the story into its current form. In other essays, we learn that Aldous Huxley and Isherwood were friends of the Pineapple Express variety, and that Virginia Woolf thought Isherwood was an obnoxious punk. (She changed her mind after meeting him in person, writing in her journal that he was “one of the most vital & observant of the young.”) —Matt Caprioli

My friend dragged me to a seventy-minute autobiographical solo musical, and afterward had to drag me, dazed and sniffling, out of the theater. Benjamin Scheuer’s The Lion, playing downtown at the Lynn Redgrave for another five weeks, is a disarming look at its star’s struggles, regrets, and thirst for approval. Scheuer, a seasoned singer-songwriter, achieves an easy intimacy with the audience, strolling around a quaint set adorned with three wooden chairs, his guitars casting immense shadows on the warm ochre walls. Every song he sings is a scene from his life; he fills in the gaps with narration while moving from chair to chair, episode to episode. It may sound contrived, with its sweet folk ballads and its focus on family—but behind his blue-eyed persona, Scheuer is a creature of surprising tenderness and thorniness. The Lion exposes him as a frightened melancholic and dares us to love him anyway. —Alexandra Rezvina