Staff Picks: Buses, Basements, Boots, Bed-and-Breakfasts


This Week’s Reading


Space suits.

I finally got my hands on a copy of Spacesuits, an illustrated history of the protective clothing worn by space explorers, from the earliest designs in the 1930s to the universally recognizable suits worn during the Apollo missions. The book, with its clinically detailed photographs and methodical descriptions of suits, helmets, gloves, and boots, is surprisingly enthralling; one doesn’t expect vacant clothing to so easily assert its own cultural significance. What’s also surprising are the immense efforts required to preserve these suits—which, it turns out, are among the most fragile items in the Smithsonian’s collection. For some rather timely evidence, look no further than the Kickstarter campaign launched this week by the Smithsonian—with a $500,000 goal—to better document, display, and preserve the space suit worn by Neil Armstrong on Apollo 11. —Stephen Hiltner

I have copies of most of Dubravka Ugresic’s books, and all of them are heavily dog-eared; flip to any page, and it’s more likely than not that several sentences are underlined. I suspect my various notations are due to the fact that Ugresic pulls no punches, and so reading her work—especially her nonfiction—is like having it all laid out for you. And by “it,” I mean, to borrow from Douglas Adams, “life, the universe and everything.” The editors of Music & Literature have given over a third of their latest issue to Ugresic, and my copy of the magazine is already thoroughly dog-eared and underlined. Ugresic’s writing is radical, accessible, aggressive, pungent, and funny, and she is one of the most unique writers in exile at work today—and one of the best writers, period. In an interview in the issue with Daniel Medin, she explains that “as an outsider I was free to shape my own literary taste, to pick my own literary traditions, to build my own system of literary values.” She is quick to add, however, that “going against the mainstream is not an aesthetic category. Risk is moral category, which shapes our attitude toward our vocation as well as our ideological, political, aesthetical, and ethical choices.” —Nicole Rudick

nextnextlevelHaving just returned from a two-week tour in which my band played for many a small crowd in many a dank basement—see photo below—I approached Leon Neyfakh’s The Next Next Level with some trepidation. It, too, concerns musicians, small crowds, and dank basements: that is, it concerns “the problem of making art in the twenty-first century.” Neyfakh tells the story of his friend Juiceboxxx, a white rapper who’s pursued his craft on the fringes of DIY culture for more than a decade. Juiceboxxx, whose name belies his creative energy, tours constantly, publishes ceaselessly, and self-promotes relentlessly. But what’s the point, really? As he tells an interviewer, “When you fucking kind of have this identity based on this totally absurd premise—like, where do you go if you want to stop doing it, man? Like, where do you go?” As someone who’s poured time and energy into a band called Vulture Shit, I ask myself these questions a lot. Neyfakh’s perceptive, thoughtful book may not make them easier to answer, but it’s a much-needed balm: a funny, broad-minded, enchanting reflection on the intersection of art and commerce. You’ll find no better account of what it’s like to make music outside the mainstream in 2015. —Dan Piepenbring

maintenanceSet in London in the not-too-distant past, The Maintenance of Headway is a short philosophical novel about double-decker buses, the men who drive them, and the fools they carry—i.e., us. “Runners were divided into two sub-categories: ‘logical’ and ‘illogical.’ Logical runners ran in the same direction as the bus they were pursuing. Illogical runners were the ones who’d given up waiting for the bus and begun walking towards the next stop. Then, when they suddenly heard the bus approaching, they came running back. It made no sense whatsoever.” Having finished The Maintenance of Headway, I was delighted to discover that the author, Magnus Mills, is in fact a bus driver. Delighted and not at all surprised. —Lorin Stein

Being trapped for three-and-a-half hours in the tchotchke-laden lobby of a bed-and-breakfast sounds like torture—but the playwright Annie Baker isn’t afraid to linger in the places you might most want to avoid. Her new play, John, doesn’t budge from the exquisitely kitschy ground floor of a Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, B&B, even when all the action is taking place upstairs and offstage. Baker sets her play to the pace of real conversations, and the result—clocking in at more than three hours, with two intermissions—is funnier and more thrilling than you might imagine. John is even longer than Baker’s Pulitzer-winning play, The Flick, whose length and long silences had audiences walking out and canceling their subscriptions to Playwrights Horizons. But watching John is far from boring: it’s like eavesdropping on a bizarre conversation among strangers, one complete with supernatural suspicions, sexual insecurities, and a downright brilliant cameo appearance by Samantha, the American Girl doll. —Rebecca Panovka

Where you make music in 2015.

“your eyes / are like broken glass are / you unemployed?” asks Peter Ackroyd’s speaker in “among school children,” a poem from his 1987 collection, The Diversions of Purley. This question is answered in the second stanza—with yet more questions, directed to the children of the title. “Read the poem again, and think about / the last lines. Why was nobody smiling? / Try to explain in your own words how / the writer felt when he saw the girl / with eyes like broken glass.” Ackroyd’s poem is playfully self-reflexive; it ironizes the way we dissect texts in search of clear-cut, bite-size “messages.” As Yeats wrote in the poem whose title Ackroyd borrows here, there is no way of neatly dividing one’s lived (or reading) experience into constituent parts, “into the leaf, the blossom, or the bole.” In the dense, lyrical, demanding poems that are comprised by Diversions, any such divisions come undone; boundaries of genre, typography, and authorial subject become blurred. Even the title of the collection contributes to this blurriness, shared as it is with the volumes of John Horne Tooke’s late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century philological treatise. But while a second edition of Tooke’s Diversions of Purley is selling on Amazon at $540, you can treat yourself to a first edition of Ackroyd’s poems for a penny. —Chloe Currens

I’d never read Marilynne Robinson, but I’d come to closely associate her with mothers. My own mother claims Gilead is her favorite book, and my stepmom owns hardcover copies of all three of Robinson’s novels. So when I recently found Housekeeping on my aunt’s bookshelf, I decided that if most of the mothers in my life loved Robinson, I should try to love her, too. I was surprised to find that Housekeeping, with its focus on two orphaned sisters, is all about the absence of mothers; the narrator, Ruth, distorts memories by blending the observations of youth with revelations that can only come with age. The result is rich in imagery and imagination and, at the same time, soothingly meditative: a book about the search for comfort and stability in unstable circumstances. —Jane Robbins Mize