Staff Picks: Tall and Thin, Tortoises, Tennis Sweaters


This Week’s Reading

A 2014 photograph by Cedric Nunn, from Unsettled, now at David Krut Projects. Ntabakandoda monument, built by Sebe of the Ciskei Bantustan government as a homage to the Xhosa Chiefs who fought the British. Ndoda was a Khoi Chief who was killed in battle by Rharrabe.

A few pages into Barbara Pym’s 1944 comedy of manners Crampton Hodnet, I turned to Sadie in confusion. What’s with the descriptions? On page sixteen, “He was dark and thin, just a little taller than she was”; on seventeen, “He was a tall, distinguished-looking man with a thin, sensitive face”; and on twenty, “He was a short, jolly-looking man, while Mrs Wardell was tall and thin.” As Sadie explained, Pym never saw fit to publish Crampton Hodnet in her lifetime, so it’s possible that all these height measurements are a sign of inexperience and haste. On the other hand, the novel is such a sharp send-up of romantic conventions (handsome new vicar meets long-suffering lady’s companion) that they may be part of the joke. In any case, the book is addictive, with scenes as funny and impatient as anything in her later work. —Lorin Stein

The Greek tragedies were written for and performed by soldiers. Sophocles, a retired general, wrote his plays—many of them postwar tragedies, PTSD tragedies—between two major Athenian wars, and because they were performed during citywide festivals, they seem to have been a part of the civic war mechanism: a way for the citizenry to cope, understand, and grieve together. Bryan Doerries’s Theater of War project, which I first read about in Harper’s, stages readings of ancient Greek tragedies for service members and veterans in an effort to remind them that they’re “not alone across time.” Doerries’s new book is about his readings of the plays—and how he gained support from the U.S. military for his project—but it’s also a study of the therapeutic values of art. Many of us lamely suffer from PTSD headline fatigue: it’s always in the news but rarely makes the front page anymore, not for lack of persistence but because there aren’t many new ways of thinking about it. Doerries’s book implicates everyone when it says that the most useful healing is public rather than private. It’s hopeful, in a way, to consider that we can learn through catastrophe: that this is not a new idea, and that it’s best done together. —Jeffery Gleaves

“All the more elegant forms of cruelty, I’m told, begin / with patience.” That’s the first line in Carl Phillips’s newest collection, Reconnaissance. The book is thin, no more than forty-eight pages, and though you could easily read it in an afternoon, I’d recommend sitting with it awhile longer. Raw and unafraid, Phillips’s poems sift through the cruelties of the heart; he writes of the old lovers that “rise as one before you …/ like perennials you’d forgotten to expect again”; of betrayal, “the kind of betrayal … I’ve been waiting for, / all my life”; of mistakes, “the ones that sweetly rot beneath me.” He left me so mesmerized that I reread the collection as soon as I’d finished it. A few favorite (devastating) lines from “The Strong by Their Stillness”: “You can love a man / more than he’ll ever love back or be able to, you can confuse / your understanding of that / with a thing like acceptance or, / worse, all you’ve ever deserved.” —Caitlin Youngquist 

On Being Ill

The weather is finally changing, which means it’s open season for hypochondriacs. Wreaths of goldenrod pollen are blowing into the city; autumnal viruses are percolating; Duane Reade is advertising flu shots; and my commute today was punctuated with the sniffling and sternutation of fellow passengers. So I’m planning to curl up this weekend with Virginia Woolf’s On Being Ill and a steaming mug of ginger tea. “Considering how common illness is, how tremendous the spiritual change that it brings,” Woolf begins, “it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love and battle and jealousy among the prime themes of literature.” Her essay contains digressive meditations on cloud watching, the virtue of plants, and the sensual, undisciplined pleasure of reading rashly. But amid all this curious furniture (tortoises, theorbos, bowls of roses, plush mid-Victorian curtains), On Being Ill is urgently concerned with language, with a rash grasping after meaning. “Let a sufferer try to describe a pain in his head to a doctor and language at once runs dry,” Woolf writes: “He is forced to coin words himself, and, taking the pain in one hand, and a lump of pure sound in the other … so to crush them together that a brand new word in the end drops out.” —Hannah LeClair

I’m at a loss to say anything about Eileen Myles’s Chelsea Girls that someone else hasn’t said better. But it’s good to see it back in print, and getting credit for its formative role in … whatever you like to call the hybrid novel-memoir mode. (You know the one.) For a novel told in vignettes—digressive ones, at that—it has an incredible momentum, and the parts you’d think would be most boring are somehow the most propulsive. A riff on early-sixties fashion, for instance, is shrouded in social commentary that rings true today: “We wore tennis sweaters, and penny loafers … it was just before hippy and everything seemed to go. Yet it seemed so defended too. You’d get in your assembled coded wardrobe like a bright little tank … It was pretty tense, being in nothing but your uniform. I remember being drunk in the back of a car in Arlington making out with someone named Glen Hobart who later died in Vietnam. We were heading towards a dance. We both wore Madras shirts.” —Dan Piepenbring


Someone with eclectic reading habits and very good taste recently recommended Sergio Pitol’s literary autobiography, cumulatively titled Trilogy of Memory. Although billed as “Mexico’s greatest living author,” Pitol was unknown to me—unsurprising, as this is the first appearance of any of his works in English. More surprising was the volume of unknown writers I encountered within the books. Joyce, Mann, and Neruda I knew—but what about the Romanians, the Venetians, the Colombians? But Pitol is not a pedant, nor does the relative obscurity of many of his references distract from his vivid prose. Writing about himself as a product of the art and literature he’s ingested over seventy-odd years, his gratitude to all those who have fed him along the way is evident, its fierceness endearing. The Trilogy’s introduction considers the connection between his tendency to misplace his glasses and his overall aesthetic. “My near-sightedness,” he writes of in Venice, having lost his glasses once again, “in no way dulled the wonder.” I know what he means. —Henri Lipton

Thanks to the playlist at Brooklyn Social, I’ve been listening to Everly Brothers songs from the late sixties. Their version of Merle Haggard’s “Sing Me Back Home” is so sad I’ve been instructed not to hum it around the house. —L.S.


Cedric Nunn, the celebrated South African photographer, is showing new work at David Krut Projects under the title “Unsettled: The 100 Year War Against the Boer and British.” Undertaking what he calls “radical cartography”—bringing to view the remnants of the spatial grammar of the hundred year Frontier War (1779–1878) fought by the Xhosa nation, the indigenous Khoi peoples, and the British and Dutch settler colonialists—Nunn faced a thorny problem: How do you represent a world sundered by centuries of colonialism? Nunn navigates this quandary by training his lens on the decaying memorials; forgotten battle sites; former mission churches; and the dense, formidable, and picturesque flora of the Eastern Cape. These images, for the most part, lack a human presence; they are depopulated tableaux. When people are included in the frame they are either far out on the horizon or looking directly at the camera with anger, suspicion, melancholy and, in one case, joy and mirth. Gesturing toward the scarred land, the disheveled sites of remembrance, and the communities despoiled by the Frontier War, Nunn helps to break the trend of what Eduardo Galeano calls “organized forgetting.” —Joshua Maserow