Staff Picks: Coates, Cartels, Caesar, Cigarettes


This Week’s Reading


Covers of Slash.

There are writers you know about and writers you read. Before I heard him speak, Ta-Nehisi Coates was only the former to me—he came to my school and spoke to a packed auditorium about American self-conception, idealism, and his role in dislodging us from it. This week I’ve been sprinting through his amazing new book, Between the World and Me. A mixture of personal and cultural, critical and historical, the book is written entirely to Coates’s son, a teenager today. It seems that nearly every comment on Coates is excerpting him, lauding him, or calling him James Baldwin, and these staff picks are short, so I hope to get away with simply nodding my head. Yes, rewarding and complex; yes, generous and intimate; yes, “race is the child of racism, not the father.” Yes, an easy book to know about, but a better one to read. One of my clearest memories of his speech was the final question and answer. Someone—an older woman, a professor, I figured—stood up to thank him and asked something like “How do we get these young people to listen to you?” “I’m a writer,” he said. “That’s not my job.” —Jake Orbison

gamelifeAnyone who came of age in the eighties or nineties will grok Gamelife, Michael Clune’s memoir about the computer games of his childhood. But I hope others—those who dismiss gaming as merely narcotic or those who regard old games as curios—will read it, too. Clune captures not just the palm-sweating, self-flagellating thrill of early PC games but their talismanic role in the life of the mind. With their primitive, repetitious designs, these games provided a grammar for children, a way of apprehending the world—I remember feeling it myself, that scary, precarious sense of empowerment, the way reality seemed to bend to accommodate the airtight logic of Pirates! or Wolfenstein 3D. Games, Clune writes, teach us the rules for being alive “in a way nothing else can. They teach us about death, about character, about fate, about action and identity. They turn insights into habit. The habits bore through our defenses. Computer games reach us.” His memoir is also a sharp portrait of post-Reagan America, when communism was vanquished, history was over, and the shopping center was enshrined in the national imagination. —Dan Piepenbring 

If the sophistication of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán’s escape last week from a maximum-security prison isn’t enough to convince you of the influence (and the reach) of Mexico’s drug cartels, then Matthew Heineman’s documentary Cartel Land will. The film focuses on the leaders of two vigilante groups dedicated to fighting off the cartels—one in the United States (Arizona Border Recon, led by Tim Foley) and one in the Mexican state of Michoacán (Autodefensa, led by José Manuel Mireles). Cartel Land makes no attempts to tell a sanitized or digestible version of the truth; it’s rife with ambiguity, complicity, racism, and brutality. But from all the confusion emerges a compelling—and impressively crafted—narrative arc, one in which resistance, in all its forms, takes center stage amid unimaginable, and seemingly unconquerable, corruption. —Stephen Hiltner

We all love war narratives, those Homeric masterpieces that deliver timeless truths—but Sam Sacks’s piece in the latest issue of Harper’s,First-Person Shooters: What’s missing in contemporary war fiction,” takes no prisoners. Sacks admits that “war is hell, but its themes make critics purr”; he bemoans the genre’s “self-involvement,” its nearly identical perspectives “of individual soldiers who can’t comprehend what they’ve experienced,” and its facile emphasis on “personal redemption.” Nearly all contemporary war fiction, he reminds us, has been “cultivated in the hothouse of creative-writing programs. No wonder so much of it looks alike.” His argument is less about war stories and more about competent fiction, the kind that’s lauded for its subject matter and honesty but amounts to simple confession. Takedowns are usually banal, and it’s easy to hit the biggest targets, but this is an important piece: “one of the jobs of literature,” Sacks writes, “is to wake us from stupor. But in matters of war, our sleep is deep, and the best attempts of today’s veterans have done little to disturb it.” —Jeffery Gleaves


A still from Cartel Land.

“This guy, whose early music with his band has instigated most of the present punk mentality, this guy who in concert behaves like a possessed puppet has just released the most formal, esoteric, subterranean album you’re bound to hear for some time.” This is from a review of Iggy Pop’s album The Idiot, but it strikes me as an apt description, too, of the publication in which the review appeared: Slash. I’m familiar with the covers of Slash—even if you’ve never seen them, you’ll know them when you do—but I’ve never glimpsed inside an issue until now. Archivist Ryan Richardson recently put the entire twenty-nine-issue run of the LA punk zine (published from 1977 to 1980) online, and I’m frankly surprised by how professional it looks, how nicely designed and well written, while still maintaining a zine aesthetic. Even the ads are handsome. For me, though, the best parts of Slash are Gary Panter’s incomparable Jimbo comics, which made their debut in the magazine. Jimbo even made the cover, in August 1979, where he chided, “The world don’t deserve this good of a magazine!!” —Nicole Rudick

The smell of lit tobacco occasionally drifts through the Paris Review office, reminding me of Luc Sante’s essay “Our Friend the Cigarette,” collected in Kill All Your Darlings. I’m not a smoker, and yet when I read Sante I find myself nodding along. Sante reminds of the cigarette’s once guiltless, universal status in our culture, from the prison yards to the mouths of Diana Vreeland and Jean-Paul Belmondo. He traces the more intimate joys of smoking, too—the tiny details a nonsmoker would never think of, like the ménage à trois of hand, mouth, and lungs that ignites that delicious rush to the head; the way an ashtray functions as a sepulcher for the fallen ones; the distinction between the thumb–index finger hold and the fork method. For Sante, the cigarette confers power and serves as punctuation, accessory, and friend. “Cigarettes, like zoological parasites,” he writes, “are the secret sharers of countless lives, of moments of impenetrable intimacy. They have witnessed romance, rage, epiphany, confusion, elation, despair, serenity, chaos.” —Caitlin Youngquist

sleeperholdI’ve been reading Jibade-Khalil Huffman’s stunning, strange new collection, Sleeper HoldAside from writing poems, Huffman is also a visual artist, though to say “also” is maybe redundant: his work in text, projection, and collage shares an open border with his poetry. Many will reach for the word collage to describe Huffman’s odd, vernacular poetry—his contortions of register, his straight-faced (even solemn!) allusions to celebrities like Cedric the Entertainer, his ever-right-branching sentences—and I’m tempted to do the same. But I have the sense that collage is most often used to describe bad found poetry, which Sleeper Hold decidedly isn’t. A better point of comparison might be specifically Huffman’s collage. The forms in his collage are miraculously edgeless; as an artist he seems more interested in conflation and ambience than contrast. It’s the same in his poetry. Huffman’s guiding principle is elision: his sentences and subjects elide quietly into each other and into the ether, the white of the page exerting a nearly physical force on the language that passes through it. —Oliver Preston

Now in its twentieth season, The Drilling Company’s Shakespeare in the Parking Lot program produces eclectic adaptations in, yes, an active Lower East Side parking lot, where the action could be interrupted at any time by a car entering or leaving the performance space. In 2010, they staged Julius Caesar as a fight for control of a city school system, with women playing Antony, Brutus, and Cassius; this year, the director Hamilton Clancy reimagines As You Like It in the Victorian era, with the Forest of Arden as a steampunk fantasy world “where lovers can be free.” Clancy turns the fight between Orlando and Charles into a slow-motion boxing match. The venue lends an improvisational feel to the performances, challenging the actors to stay true to the script while submitting to the peculiarities of, well, the parking lot. —Andrew Jimenez


A still from The Tribe

This week in movies about deaf prostitution-ring operators: The Tribe, written and directed by Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy. The film made a splash at Cannes last year because its dialogue consists entirely of sign language, without subtitles; it toys with silence and alienation in unprecedented ways, tracing the crimes and misanthropic diversions of a criminal gang at an all-deaf school. Even if the novelty dims around the half-hour mark, and the more transgressive moments are couched in stretches of unexplained action—sweeping shots of processional, athletic winter-wear attired Eastern Europeans are interrupted by glares of violence or sex, as in Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible—it’s fascinating to watch a young inductee into the deaf school fall under the sway of his compromised classmates, all through sheer gesture. —Casey Henry