Staff Picks: Moaning, Sobbing, Trolling


This Week’s Reading

Oksana Baiul, after her Olympic gold medal–winning performance in 1994.

Oksana Baiul, after her Olympic gold medal–winning performance in 1994.

unnamedJust yesterday, I snuck an advance-reader’s copy of Lorenzo Chiera’s Shards: Fragments of Verses, translated from the Italian by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, off a colleague’s bookshelf and devoured it on my subway ride home. The pocket-size book comprises delicious morsels of twelfth-century verse by an otherwise unknown fellow from Testaccio. Though the fragments—plucked from scratches on parchment paper or fiber sacks—are no more than a few lines each, they brim with raunch and grime and love. Chiera breathes sex into most verses, which are bound to make one blush with either delight or despair. Some read as playful winks, others as moans, and still others as desperate, carnal prayers. “Hearing Chiera for the first time,” Ferlinghetti writes in his introduction, “we soon realize we are in the presence of a savage erotic consciousness, as if the lust-driven senses were suddenly awakened out of a hoary sleep of a thousand years … He’s vulgar. He’s mad. He’s uncouth. Yet he is innocent.” Here’s a little taste of Chiera himself: “Sexy Nonny / in her silk nun’s habit / behind the arras / of the cult of the Virgin / stuck her tongue in my mouth / when I was fourteen / Made me cream.” —Caitlin Youngquist

I’ve never read any fan fiction, and I never made it all the way through Pretty Woman, so devotees of either may take this recommendation with a grain of salt, but I loved Michael Friedman’s novel Martian Dawn, all about a couple of movie stars (viz Richard and Julia) whose off-screen romance is strained by a visit to the Red Planet. No doubt half the jokes went over my head. It didn’t matter. Friedman’s urbane silliness and élan hark back to the glittering twilight of high camp—without seeming to hark back. Hats off to Little A for reissuing Martian Dawn and Other Novels. I didn’t know anyone could still make it look so easy to have so much fun on the page. —Lorin Stein 

Lorin once asked me which novels had made me cry. I could only name one at the time, but now I have two books on my list. The new addition is Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Small Backs of Children. I have never felt so wrung out by a novel and yet simultaneously invigorated. I mean all of this in recommendation: it’s a terrifically good novel and powerfully written, and it’s refreshing to be punched in the gut by a book now and then. The narrative follows a handful of women named only by their relation to art—the writer, the poet, the performance artist, the photographer (a trio of men—the filmmaker, the playwright, and the painter—exist mainly on the periphery)—as they by turns photograph, mourn, and track down a young girl in war-torn Eastern Europe. Yuknavitch is also the author of a memoir about grief and sexuality, and her novel draws to great effect on the fraught overlap between women’s bodies and minds. But all agency in this novel belongs to women, and art is ever their recourse. —Nicole Rudick

In 1994, at the Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, figure skater Oksana Baiul—then only sixteen—became the first athlete from independent Ukraine to win a gold medal. After her final routine, overwhelmed by the anticipation of her score, Baiul was handed a bouquet of flowers and a teddy bear and was then shown sobbing on camera for what feels like an eternity. It’s a memorable moment in Olympic history, one in which a young nation’s aspirations are expressed through an unlikely adolescent hero. It’s also the (unlikely) focus of a fascinating new short film (currently playing in New York at IFC) written and directed by Kitty Green. Green, an Australian filmmaker, summoned a handful of Ukrainian girls—variously impacted by Ukraine’s ongoing conflict with Russia—to audition for the role of Baiul. She dressed them up in lacy pink costumes, sat them in front of a camera, and, after a brief series of warm-up questions, asked them to enact the scene of Baiul’s breakdown. The film, The Face of Ukraine: Casting Oksana Baiul, is utterly transfixing, especially as the ridiculous pomposity of the makeup, costumes, and bouquets begins to bleed away in the face of the girls’ raw and genuine emotions. While many questions are left unanswered—Did Green initially set out to capture these moments? Were the girls aware that their auditions would provide the material for the film?—it becomes clear that the premise serves (cleverly, if circuitously) as a window into the psyche of children marred by the threat and the actualization of war. —Stephen Andrew Hiltner

Ah, Wimbledon, the close-cropped grass, the all-white rule, the thwack of racket against ball, and the wonderland-like madness. Louisa Thomas’s recent essay in Grantland, “Adventures in Wonderlawn: Living the Surreal Life at Wimbledon,” playfully thumbs its nose while gaping in awe at the Victorian facade of the legendary courts. Ever since David Foster Wallace published his now-famous tennis essays, it’s been fun to watch, and enjoyable to read, sportswriters one-up each other in metaphor and essayistic lens when writing about tennis. It’s impressive to read Thomas mimic Lewis Carroll and paint Wimbledon as genteel and fey: “Wimbledon Hill Road climbs a hill to Wimbledon. To get to the church, take Church Road. The Common is the field open to all. The green grass is English grass, and the leaves on the trees wave like little flags.” It’s enough to make me wish I were there, even though Thomas has convinced me that none of it is real. —Jeffery Gleaves

cover-issue-19Last weekend, I came across Ian Morris and Joanne Diaz’s anthology The Little Magazine in Contemporary America, a collection of essays written by members of the “litmag” community today—a community that includes the likes of Dave Eggers, Keith Gessen, BombBitch, and Poetry. At large, they discuss the contemporary significance of the little magazine by describing their own experiences creating, publishing, and perpetuating journals. I tend to agree with Stephen Burt’s takeaway in The New Yorker (featured this week on the Daily): new magazines must be exactly that—new—and, better yet, necessary. The essayists’ prose isn’t perfect, and the collection isn’t comprehensive, but Morris and Diaz’s anthology is nevertheless a thoughtful and much-needed champion of the vitality and creativity of literary journals today. —Jane Robbins Mize

I read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s story “The Shivering” in Africa39—an excellent anthology of short stories by young sub-Saharan African writers—and followed it back to her collection The Thing Around Your Neck. Adichie has been (softly) criticized for straining to make political points, but her stories are driven by characters, not global events, and she manages to integrate broad social commentary with fine-grained analysis of interpersonal relationships in a way that brings out the equivalence between the two in lived experience. In one story, she questions the image of multicultural tolerance projected by an African American painter who cites “the motherland” as a chief inspiration. In another, she lampoons a British editor who convenes a workshop for African writers, only to dismiss most of their work for failing to engage with the large-scale strife that, in his view, characterizes the continent; his notion of an “urgent” story, Adichie writes, “reads like a piece from The Economist with cartoon characters painted in.” Adichie doesn’t write those kinds of stories. And she challenges the expectations of the readers who, like the British editor, might turn to the fiction of a Nigerian-born writer for the human drama behind world-news headlines. —Rebecca Panovka

Last weekend, watching fireworks bloom over the small town where I grew up, I felt a sheepish kind of patriotism that occurs to me only once a year—so I picked up Joe Brainard’s I Remembera book that advances like a long Fourth of July parade. The book’s form—all short passages that begin with the phrase “I remember”—is incredibly obvious, but also not, and it would drive any sensible writer insane with jealousy. Dan Chiasson, in his own sheepishly patriotic poem, “Bicentennial,” which first appeared in the magazine, wrote of a “wish to get caught up in something / Precisely unlike a poem, unlike writing / For its straightforwardness, its power / That is not the power of half secrecy / … something enormous  / And potentially dangerous.” I Remember might just be that something. (Chiasson seems to agree.) The book reads to me like both a distillation and a dismissal of the whole writing enterprise; it’s like everything I’ve ever read and, in that likeness, unlike anything. Though physically slim, the book gestures always toward the infinite morass of memory—Brainard could go on forever. We all could. I can imagine that, at some point in the future, all writing will look like Brainard’s: a steady listing of the facts, governed and driven only by the easy movement of the mind. —Oliver Preston

KanyeWestBretEastonEllisThough he’s on a sabbatical from fiction, Bret Easton Ellis isn’t avoiding controversy. The Internet has been aglow over his opinions about “Generation Wuss” and its sensitive “snowflakes,” and the literary community often scratches its head over his trollish comments about his “aesthetic” preference for Sharknado over Fruitvale Station. These opinions have now been formalized in Ellis’s recent venture, the Bret Easton Ellis Podcast. Ellis opens with a scripted rant in the vein of his anti-“snowflake” Op-Eds, then jumps abruptly into questioning the guests. Yet Ellis’s pulse of notoriety and danger elicits both commerisating and gossipy divulgences from his guests. Matthew Weiner used to wear eyeliner and affect the use of a cane at private school. Jonathan Ames used to frequent Ellis’s celeb-studded New York parties, “sober” and “scared,” and once asked Diane von Furstenberg, “What do you do?” after which he was pointedly ignored for the rest of the night. Ellis’s participation in the perpetually-in-outcry status of modern culture is worth the price of admission alone, though having guests like Marilyn Manson discuss crying during The Notebook and Ariel Pink talk the “evil” of Frank Sinatra doesn’t really hurt. —Casey Henry