A still from A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night.
I’m hard-pressed to pick a favorite moment in Ana Lily Amirpour’s Iranian New Wave vampire western, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, which was released late last year. It could be the opening scene, when the high-cheekboned Arash, dressed like a rebel without a cause, steals a big tabby cat. It could be the gorgeous silent scene of the transgender rockabilly character dancing with a balloon. But it’s probably the scene in which our heroine, the chador-clad vampiress known only as the Girl, is pressed against a wall, floating a few inches off the ground. Or appearing to float—turns out she’s actually standing on a skateboard. The shot is brief, but it epitomizes what’s so remarkable about the Girl: she’s never quite who you expect her to be, a monster, an angel, a victim, a hero. She’s all those and more—she’s a girl. —Nicole Rudick
If you pull Elfriede Jelinek’s Wonderful, Wonderful Times off the shelf for its seemingly sunny title, you should know up front that it’s ironic—but that’s no reason to put the novel back. Set in 1950s Vienna, it follows a gang of four teens, all of whom nourish an obsessive anger against their parents and society. From their outbreaks of brutality and cruelty, which fall somewhere between juvenile delinquency and amateur terrorism, Jelinek draws the features of a society in agony, one that refuses to come to terms with its fascist past. Rainer, the gang leader, deforms existentialist philosophy to legitimate his desire for revenge. As Jelinek puts it, once intellectual concepts have been perverted, ideas become devious and deadly weapons. And this is where she’s most convincing: in demonstrating a kind of private fascism inherent in language itself, between friends, husbands and wives, parents and children. —Charlotte Groult
Nell Zink’s new novel, Mislaid, begins and ends with misguided stories of campus sex; its characters seldom behave plausibly; its deadpan is so pervasive that even the dialogue feels free of inflection. In short, everything Dwight Garner wrote about the book is right. And yet if you pick it up and read from about page fifty to 130, you’ll encounter some of the smartest, sharpest, saltiest stories of Tidewater Virginia you’ll ever read. Zink, who says in a recent New Yorker profile that she’s “pitched [her] tent outside the folds of humanity,” is gimlet-eyed when it comes to the bizarreries and grotesqueries of the South—when Mislaid is briefly at full strength, it’s a bracing and mordant critique of America, more alive than almost any novel I’ve read this year. —Dan Piepenbring
During the late 1930s, in Woodstock, New York, Clarence Schmidt built his one-room cabin into a labyrinthine seven-story fortress with nooks, crannies, roof gardens, and grottos decorated with pieces of aluminum foil, mirror shards, and recycled refuse. The folk artist Isaiah Zagar drew his inspiration from Schmidt in creating his Magic Gardens, in Philadelphia—a three thousand square foot mosaic art gallery reflecting Zagar’s belief that art is at the center of the world. The exhibition, which was deemed “complete” in 2008 and has been open since 2002, features an amalgam of encoded scripts in the walls, broken paintings, and reflective material littered with cultural mementos. Zagar has succeeded in making this—his life’s work, fourteen years in the making—a literally scintillating folk-art mecca. —Alexandra Rezvina
In Her Own Words, a collaboration between Joni Mitchell and Malka Marom, is an enchantingly raw book of interviews. The pair’s conversations—from 1973, 1979, and 2012—take on everything from music to mysticism to the carcinogenic me-ness of their generation and the “Frankenstein” of modernity. Mitchell explains the role physical pain has always played in her creative process, from her childhood bout with polio (she recalls muttering “I am not a cripple” to a Christmas tree, the only gift her mother brought her during a year-long confinement) to her more recent battle with the controversial Morgellons disease. She explores the intimate relationship between art, trauma, and power. The conversations are clear eyed and uninhibited—refreshing, given the lengths most celebrities go to in hiding their vulnerability. The book brings to mind those lyrics from “A Case Of You”: “I met a woman / She had a mouth like yours. She knew your life / She knew your devils and your deeds and she said / Go to him / Stay with him if you can / But be prepared to bleed.’ ” —Kit Connolly
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