Staff Picks: Ditch Baths and Bee Lives


This Week’s Reading


The Angulo brothers, in The Wolfpack.

9780307700322Twothirds of Jane Smiley’s Last Hundred Years trilogy has been published—the second volume just came out a month or so ago—and if you haven’t started it yet, it’s not too late to begin. And you should: they’re so good. Smiley’s process is additive—three books’ worth of Langdon family history, a long recitation of individual lives with history and politics playing out in the background. They remind me of another book of hers I love, The Greenlanders, a medieval saga that follows the travails of a small community over some nine hundred pages. Smiley’s writing in all three books is spare and lean; she resists adding authorial commentary and is content, instead, to stand back and watch her characters make their own way. I wondered whether the second volume would be as satisfying as the first. It is and it isn’t: the story is utterly addictive and only left me wanting more. I’m grateful there’s a third one on the way, but I don’t know how I’ll cope after that. —Nicole Rudick

In last year’s profile of William Vollmann for The New Republic, Tom Bissell remarked of Vollmann’s forthcoming 1,300-page tome, The Dying Grass, “It sound[s] a bit like William Gaddis, except more insane.” I’m happy to report that it is, in fact, insane. This demented opus is book five in his seven-volume (!) series concerning the settlement of North America; The Dying Grass focuses on the Nez Perce War of 1877. After years of broken treaties and strained relations, the Nez Perce refused to give up their ancestral lands and move to an Indian reservation in Idaho, deciding they’d rather to take up arms against the “Bostons,” led by the devoutly Christian, and possibly inept, one-armed Civil War veteran General O. O. Howard. Though outgunned, the Nez Perce manage to slip Howard’s grasp at every turn, dragging the war though Oregon, Idaho, and much of Montana, for five months. The book plods along as the campaign must have, but it’s filled with vivid characters and rich history. Its layout can mystify: the left side of the page features dialogue occurring in real time, and right side of the page contains what must be these characters’ thoughts as they talk to one another. But if you’re interested in entering Vollmann’s headspace, The Dying Grass is worth it, even if you sometimes suspect he wrote the book faster than you can read it. —Jeffery Gleaves

Maurice_de_MaeterlinckMy uncle recently started keeping honeybees in his backyard in the Bronx, a fact I’d forgotten last weekend when I wandered behind his house, only to be confronted by a few thousand of them streaming in and out of his three hives. So this week I’ve been making my way through Maurice Maeterlinck’s The Life of the Bee, written in 1901. Maeterlinck has largely disappeared from our shelves, for a number of possible reasons. His popularity in Europe and Russia began to grow as realism was tightening its grip around American theater; a symbolist, he wrote plays that are difficult and deeply weird, and he may have plagiarized one of his last books. But in The Life of the Bee, Maeterlinck harnesses his more alienating tendencies into the peculiarity of the project itself. Such a book-length meditation would seem a medieval, or even Aristotelian, undertaking. And it is, sort of, but Maeterlinck doesn’t look to the bee for lessons on living a human life. Instead, the prose—still lyrical and clear a century later in its only English translation—somehow never drifts too far from the hive. This whole week I’ve been trying to see myself in bees, but he will not let me. He makes no pretense: he’s after the truth of being a bee, the beauty of being a bee, for the simple reason that bees, along with people like Materlinck and my uncle, have their own strange truths and inscrutable wonders. —Jake Orbison

Running into the Angulo brothers on the street, as Crystal Moselle did five years ago, must have been a documentarian’s fantasy—the experience launched Moselle’s new film, The Wolfpack. The six Angulo boys, then between twelve and nineteen, had been all but imprisoned in their apartment on the Lower East Side. Their father, who adheres to an unspecified mélange of hippie radicalism, Hare Krishna, and codified social phobia, kept the boys hidden from the corrupting influence of the outside world … which, apparently, he didn’t think could filter in through the five thousand films comprised by their DVD collection. Moselle follows the boys on their first ventures into the “real” world, where they experience nature as a set of movie references: the beach at Coney Island looks “just like Lawrence of Arabia,” the trees in the park like The Lord of the Rings. The brothers’ mannerisms are derived from the screen; when they’re not reenacting films word-for-word, they walk like movie characters, dress like movie characters, curse like movie characters. They repeatedly tell the camera they don’t know how to interact with outsiders. Sitting in a theater with hundreds of those outsiders, I felt as though the boys were being exposed, their social inexperience exploited. Any yet there’s nothing they are more experienced with than movies. With Moselle’s help, they’ve become exactly what their models for real-world behavior are: characters on a screen. —Rebecca Panovka

This week, I’ve been making my way through an old collection of stories by Elizabeth Tallent, Time with Children, which serendipitously found its way to my desk. Longtime readers of the Review might remember Tallent’s name: her story “Migrants,” about a young Coloradan girl impressed by the nakedness of a man from Mexico bathing in an irrigation ditch, was first published in our Spring 1986 issue. The collection is, at times, overthought, but I admire the delicacy of Tallent’s prose, especially her descriptions of the countryside. Her stories pursue the “little murders of the soul”—to borrow from Vivian Gornick—that we’re always committing against one another. In the collection, a woman, hit by her husband, fucks her best friend from the first grade, who thinks it means something—it doesn’t; another heroine is more devoted to a sorrel horse than to her doting lover; an eighteen-year-old girl imagines how the pages of her diary will read in a year or two, while her much-older lover pushes her head beneath the dashboard of his pickup as his wife passes by. Tallent kneads at her themes of lonesomeness and infidelity, the erosion of love and trust, leaving us to wonder if we, like the magpies she writes about on the very first page, “simply like the mess.” —Caitlin Youngquist

drinkbotI’ve been making my way through “What Is Code?”, Paul Ford’s 31,387-word disquisition on programming and the almost absurd degree to which it impinges on everything we do, think, and feel. Programming has become an arid, tired subject: its importance is self-evident, but its details are impenetrable, and countless writers have tried to make it accessible to the layman. And yet Ford’s essay, which comprised the entire issue of last week’s Bloomberg BusinessWeek, is oddly riveting, even in its digressions; it’s everything a primer should be, in that it charges its subject with awe and disguises pedagogy with good storytelling. I now know about the history of software development, the back end of Web architecture, and the differences between about a dozen programming languages, and I feel as if I’ve earned the certificate of completion that concludes the piece. ­—Dan Piepenbring