Staff Picks: Baseball Cards, Barbarian Days, Blow-up Dolls


This Week’s Reading


Cesare Paverse.

In the evenings, I’ve been reaching for Cesare Paverse’s 1936 debut collection of poetry, Hard Labor, translated from the Italian in 1976 by William Arrowsmith. Finished in exile in the small Calabrian village of Brancaleone, the book is haunted by disenchantment and a sort of muted longing. Pavese’s language is often plain, though nonetheless striking. His poems are short—few run over a page and a half­—but they read like stories. He takes us into the fields, where frost “murder[s] the wheat”; into the bedroom, where “[the girls] know how to love. They know more than the men”; to dinner. There’s a cat in heat, a waking country strumpet, a drunk whom he imagines fumbling into the sea. The ease with which Pavese kernels these small narratives into every one of his poems has left me in awe, wondering how his countless other works could have followed such a debut. Here are a few of my favorite lines from “Two Cigarettes”: “… If I come up to her room, / the woman whispers to me, she’ll show me a snapshot of him— / tanned and curly-headed. He shipped on dirty tramps / and kept the engines clean. But I’m better-looking.” —Caitlin Youngquist

War_So_Much_War-front_largeI managed to get my hands on an advance copy of War, So Much War, the first English translation of Mercè Rodoreda’s final novel, whose original Catalan version was published in 1980. The last shall be first, I guess: I’ve never read any Rodoreda until now, and hadn’t heard of her until last month, when my sister practically hurled a story of hers at my head. (I didn’t get to it.) So far the book has proven itself a weird but entirely bewitching introduction to the writer. The story follows Adrià Guinart, a teenaged boy who leaves his home in Barcelona at the onset of the Spanish Civil War, forging an errant path through the Catalonian countryside, making glancing and baffling contact with the fighting. More than anything, it’s a medieval romance. The first clue is the novel’s elliptical title (in Catalan: Quanta, Quanta Guerra…), which suggests romance’s cumulative, episodic, ongoing form. Sure enough, the plot is mostly a list of encounters. But romance is as much about discreteness as it is ongoingness, and each of the book’s short, reliably surreal chapters is like a small, beautiful stone. What is astonishing is that Rodoreda writes without visible contempt for her form—a brave stance, considering that the Western novel arguably had its genesis in the ridicule of medieval romance. But the farther I get into War, So Much War, the more I realize that Rodoreda’s form is the only one suited for her subject: the interruptions, the absurdities, the frivolities of war. —Oliver Preston

I want to go surfing. This desire stemmed from William Finnegan’s marvelous new memoir, Barbarian Days, which I picked up after reading the excerpt on the Daily. Finnegan, a longtime staff writer for The New Yorker, has an easy, fluid way with description; he moves quickly through his scenes without seeming to stint on the details. In his sixty-three years, having lived in Southern California, Hawaii, South Africa, and San Francisco, and traveled though the South Pacific islands and Portugal in between, Finnegan has more or less always kept surfing. He puts you right there with him while he rips inside the hollow tubes of huge waves, the golden, late afternoon purple light shining through, the reef visible beneath. It’s the kind of book that makes you squirm in your seat on the subway, gaze out the window at work, and Google Map the quickest route to the beach. In other words, it is, like Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild, a semi-dangerous book, one that persuades young men like myself to trade in their office jobs in order to roam the world, to feel the ocean’s power, and chase the waves. —Jeffery Gleaves

Don West.

Like many ’90s kids who grew up in suburban Ohio, I often stayed up late watching Don West sell baseball cards on Shop at Home. (If you haven’t heard of him, watch the linked video. He’s the consummate salesman—and embodies the virtues of television retail.) In retrospect, though, I don’t think I was Don West’s target audience. Many of the players whose cards excited him were people I’d never heard of, people who had long ago retired. One such player was Mike Schmidt, who came up again and again—and who hadn’t played professional baseball for years. For me and my best friend (another Don West fan), Mike Schmidt and his baseball cards became something of an inside joke. When something excited us, we’d mimic Don West and yell, “Mike Schmidt!” (I think I even bought my friend a card of his, years later, as a Christmas present.) And then yesterday, out of nowhere, I actually read about Mike Schmidt—in a beautifully written story by Jeremy Markovich. Markovich, it turns out, became weirdly obsessed by a rumor that Schmidt, as a college student, had hit a five-hundred-foot home run—a nearly impossible feat, as far as sports lore goes. The essay, which winds you through his various attempts to verify the feat, finally gave some long-awaited context to my own Mike Schmidt obsession—and settles the score on the five-hundred-footer, once and for all. —Stephen Hiltner

9781628924770The rituals of hotel life have been so often fetishized that you’re right to be wary of books about them. But Joanna Walsh’s Hotel, due in September as part of the Object Lessons series, isn’t some coded advertisement for luxury living: it’s a slim, sharp meditation on hotels and desire. Walsh worked for a while as a hotel reviewer, so she knows whereof she speaks—from suites around the world, she ponders how the logic of the market has warped hotels not just to accommodate our wants but to teach us what to want, and how. That makes Hotel sound like some leaden riff on Veblen; it isn’t. In fact, Veblen never rates a mention: instead, Walsh invokes everyone from Freud to Forster to Mae West to the Marx Brothers. She’s funny throughout, even as she documents the dissolution of her marriage and the peculiar brand of alienation on offer in lavish places. And best of all is her laconic side, as seen in the final chapter, “Postcards from Twenty-six Hotels”: “The skirting board was chipped. While having sex, I noticed that, as the hotel manager had told me, I could see the Eiffel Tower in the distance through the window.” Or: “I got drunk in this hotel, as in several others.” —Dan Piepenbring

Bukowski’s The Bell Tolls for No One, recently released in a comic book–like paperback, follows the hard-boiled genre bent that reached its surreal apotheosis in his final novel, Pulp. The obvious influence is to Hemingway—see: the title—but perhaps more interestingly, the editor David Stephen Calonne notes Bukowski’s debt to the crime writer James M. Cain, who had also, unbeknownst to me, shaped the style of Camus’s The Stranger. The book includes some of Bukowski’s roughly drawn illustrations, which fall somewhere close to pornographic Ziggy or adult-themed New Yorker cartoons. One features an asthmatic customer at an adult bookstore asking the cashier to inflate his blow-up doll for him; another shows an expressionistically drawn party girl surrounded by gawking men with the caption “God, a woman could get bored.” The subject matter is a more amplified version of the usual Bukowski fare—stalwart, sleazebag protagonists; spectral, deathly women with emphatically described upper legs. As always, the most one can hope for in Bukowski’s universe is “a grim yet comfortable isolation.” —Casey Henry

9781616890346The Electric Information Age Book, by Jeffrey T. Schnapp and Adam Michaels, chronicles the “publishing revolution” of the late twentieth century by studying three groundbreaking works—The Medium Is the Massage and War and Peace in the Global Village by Marshall McLuhan, and I Seem to Be a Verb by Buckminster Fuller. All were designed (or “coauthored”) by Quentin Fiore; all were “coordinated” by the literary innovator/adman, Jerome Agel; and all used multimedia storytelling to capture the era’s radical changes in media, technology, and environment. Yet despite their originality, these books were decidedly not avant-garde—McLuhan and Fuller were essentially intellectual celebrities. Instead, they embraced pop culture, mass appeal, and the fragile paperback, and in this way became instant classics. Schnapp and Michaels call them “Inventory Books,” and The Electric Information Age Book embraces the same techniques: a narrative collage of text and images, heavy variations on typography and layout. Some might call it messy, but I think it works.  —Jane Robbins Mize