Staff Picks: Cavewomen, Contentlessness, Crawfish Étouffée


This Week’s Reading

From the cover of Scattered at Sea.

This week, in anticipation of sending files to our printer, I’ve mostly been reading the work that will make up our Fall issue. But I’ve snuck moments to read from Amy Gerstler’s new collection, Scattered at Sea. Gerstler’s poems are witty and direct, informal but also decisive. She seems to be thinking about things that other people aren’t thinking about—or they are thinking about them but don’t take notice of the fact. So we have “On Wanting to Be Male,” in which she “Lusted after their sprint speed, briefcases, Tahitian aftershave, crew cuts, blue nuts, thrusty cutlasses” instead of the “undulating, oft-colonized potential baby cave” of the “female model.” Elsewhere, she imagines herself as a cavewoman who “Can’t keep cave clean” and has “Tender feeling for baby mammoth as we eat him.” There are moments of sublimity, too, as when she describes a sunset as “a cocktail of too many boozes / she’d like to switch off / via remote control / but there’s no antidote / for celestial events.” And when she says of the early Greek philosophers, “getting a lot of the science right /  While still pawing through entrails to divine the future,” I feel the distance between then and now shrink to almost nothing. —Nicole Rudick

SpeechwriterBarton Swaim’s memoir The Speechwriter is about his time working for Mark Sanford, the disgraced former governor of South Carolina—but Sanford’s name never appears in print, which helps the book to shrug off the lurid connotations of political tell-alls. There’s actually nothing scandalous in The Speechwriter: it’s a sober, lucid, funny story about language and its fraught relation to statesmanship. Early on, Swaim learns that what the governor wants from him isn’t well-honed rhetoric—it’s logorrhea, a torrent of verbiage designed to conceal the total absence of content at the heart of the gubernatorial body. “Sometimes,” he writes, “I felt no more attachment to the words I was writing than a dog has to its vomit.” In the extent of its dysfunction, Sanford’s office seems like something out of an Armando Iannucci show, and Swaim allows himself to feel cynical about it, but never inhumane or Orwellian. In fact, unlike nearly every book of its kind, The Speechwriter at its core is sensitive and apolitical: Swain just wants to understand why we so often insist on mangling the language.Dan Piepenbring

Matthew Gavin Frank’s anti-cookbook, The Mad Feast: An Ecstatic Tour Through America’s Food, will make you hungry, yes; more important, it’ll interest you in the autoerotic side effects of preparing crawfish étouffée, and what Jefferson Davis had to do with the creation of the Philly cheesesteak. The fifty essays—one from each state—and accompanying recipes are heaped with digression on top of digression: they have titles like “The Material Consequence of Boston Cream Pie.” I couldn’t help but laugh when I saw his recipe for barbecue ribs placed happily after the essay “A Blow to the Head for St. Louis Barbecue,” which is nearly entirely about murder and the slow-motion killing of a pig with a hammer. The Mad Feast specializes in this kind of absurdity by juxtaposition; it’s a raucous gastro-crawl through regional American cuisine that’s left me curiously hungry for, among others, Creamy Cape Cod Clam Chowder, Key Lime Pie, California Rolls, Peanut Soup, and Moravian Spice Cookies. —Jeffery Gleaves

selectedLaterPoems_mech_NEWTRIMSIZE.inddA few weeks ago I took home a big book, C. K. William’s Selected Later Poems. As I find often happens with big books, the collection sat on my floor for a while, bolstering a small tower of more slender volumes. And it stayed there until my friend came over and spotted the author’s name on the barely visible spine. “Have you read this?” No. “You would like him. He’s smart.” When he left, I opened it. The book is big because the poems are big, wider than my hand is long, with sentences stretched and hanging over lines—all while avoiding the familiar poetic metaphors for vastness, the eyes-glazing-over-ness, the grandeur. I myself had never read intelligence, or maybe the act of thinking, so clearly manifested as a form of ongoing expanse that one can get lost in or gorge on. Of course, most people who will pick up this book know this, and much more, about Williams already. But if you, like me, are new to reading him, this selection feels like a logical place to start. In other words: You would like him. He’s smart. —Jake Orbison

Wayne Koestenbaum’s recently reissued Andy Warhol is billed as a biography, but the book is far from traditional. Koestenbaum’s extravagant theoretical leaps, like Roland Barthes on pep pills, are the primary showcase here. See how he traces Warhol’s infatuation with insubstantiality and arresting physical processes to a complex family relationship with “candy,” silk-screen blotting from his mottled complexion, and the interminable studies of subjects on film as a dissecting sexual act. The scholarly chassis undergirding the process shows through in Wayne’s take on Warhol’s largely neglected films, which reveal Andy’s perception of “time as traumatic and as erotic.” This ethic is particularly evident in the erotic trilogy spanning 1963-1964, where “eros does not exist apart from time: time is arousal’s medium. Excitement imposes a “before” and “after,” and extends the “during,” making the duration of sex … seem, some days, spacious and airy, and, other days, cloistered as a tomb.” —Casey Henry