Staff Picks: Cairo, Cruising, Chrissie, Kmart


This Week’s Reading

Fire in Cairo.

“How many reasons have I for going to Moscow at once! How can I bear the boredom of seven months of winter in this place? … Am I to be reduced to defending myself—I who have always attacked? Such a role is unworthy of me … I am not used to playing it … It is not in keeping with my genius.” Thus Napoleon in 1812 in Lithuania, on the eve of his disastrous Russian campaign, which would destroy the French army and cost more than a hundred thousand French lives. The whole time, Napoleon’s aide-de-camp Philippe-Paul, Count de Ségur, was taking notes. His inside account of the debacle—now known in English as Defeat—was a best seller when it appeared in 1824 and became a key source for War and Peace. Readers will recognize scenes from Tolstoy’s novel, but Ségur’s Napoleon is, if anything, even more vivid, because Ségur loves him and believes in him even when his genius lets him down. —Lorin Stein

The carnival that erupted in Cairo’s Midan Tahrir in 2011, and continued in one form or another for two and half years, has spawned any number of books and films. Maybe because the initial skirmishes were so chaotic or because the outcome of the revolts is still unclear—although a Thermidorian reaction now stretches into the foreseeable future—a documentary approach to this history has often seemed like the best one. Matthew Connor’s book of photographs, Fire in Cairo, goes in a wonderfully different direction. Taken during the spring of 2013, prior the ouster of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi, Connor’s photos are aslant and at times surreal. The violence of the revolts is present, even omnipresent, but as a mood rather than something concrete to look at. His shots, which have no captions, are full of fog, lasers, and common Cairene objects made mysterious through close-ups. There is also a gallery of portraits, many of whose subjects have their faces covered—by veils, helmets, or homemade gas masks. The effect of the book, for me, was to make the revolution strange again; it brought me back to that exciting time when none of us knew quite what we were looking at. —Robyn Creswell


Boyd McDonald’s Cruising the Movies: A Sexual Guide to Oldies on TV landed on my desk this week, and if the title didn’t hook me, then the cover image of a sassy young man in tight-whities and white high-tops sure helped. McDonald looks every bit the tweed Ivy Leaguer in his 1949 Harvard yearbook photo, but by the sixties, he’d ripped off the conservative postwar band-aid to reveal the sordid desires underneath. Originally published in 1985, Cruising gathers McDonald’s reviews written between 1983 and 1985 about films made between 1936 and the early eighties; the short feuilletons are gossipy, erudite, political, and largely about genitals on-screen. (McDonald also edited a series of chapbooks called Straight to Hell comprising “true homosexual experiences.”) His writing is feisty and funny, as when he levels a critique of Ronald Reagan in John Loves Mary (1949): after observing Ronnie’s rather feminine legs on display in the film, McDonald moves on to the “big fat tits” Reagan developed later, which “supplied an additional incentive to make himself feel manly by issuing, as President of the United States, an anti-homosexual statement. What a hero.” —Nicole Rudick


The Kmart 30th Anniversary Program

When Mark Davis worked at a Kmart in the early nineties, corporate HQ sent prerecorded “Kmart Radio” (call sign KMRT, natch) cassettes to be played storewide. Davis had the good sense to hold onto these, and now he’s made them available online in an archive called “Attention Kmart Shoppers.” I know nineties nostalgia is irksomely de rigueur now, but there’s something special about these cassettes—I say this having gotten through about five hours of them. They’re the primary documents of a commercial culture at an uncomfortable distance from our own, neither near nor far. Each contains a mix of adult contemporary hits (Wilson Phillips fans, you’re in for a treat) and cornpone advertisements. We’ve come to associate nineties ads with Gen X disaffection and irony; Kmart gives the lie to that. “Capture those memorable moments of Aunt Maude and Uncle Jake in the egg-throwing contest,” says an ad for the photo center. “Your son catching his first fish, or maybe the whole family taking it easy in the backyard.” Another invites shoppers to buy a “Show Your Colors T-shirt” to help fund a Star Spangled Banner monument. Listening to them feels, for better and for worse, like mainlining the past. —Dan Piepenbring

Chrissy Hynde, not caring.

Chrissie Hynde, the Pretenders’ frontwoman, has written a memoir, and she doesn’t give a shit. In a recent interview with NPR, she refuses to talk about episodes from the book, Reckless: “Can I just not repeat stories … Can we talk about things outside of that? Is that possible?” When asked about her role as a feminist icon, she said, “I’m not here to embolden anyone.” Hynde insists that she’s merely telling her story and that her music was just that: “It’s just a three-minute rock song,” she said of “Brass in Pocket.” “I don’t think it’s as loaded [as you’re saying].” It’s easy to see her callousness as disingenuous, but the media is filled with flashy headlines, gotcha sound bites, and placating, crowd-pleasing interview questions. One gets the sense that Hynde was promised an honest conversation somewhere along the way, and it’s not one she feels she’s getting. —Jeffery Gleaves

Thanks to a friend at the office, I was introduced to a new anthology of South African verse, In the Heat of the Shadows. Few anthologies celebrate the country’s diverse and luminous voices with the élan of this one, in which young and older poets mingle to create an ars poetica for a society ardently trying to reset its foundations. They bring attention to the nation’s crisis for equal education (“bare children with chapped lips can’t go to school”), economic inequality, venal patronage politics (“notwithstanding that you had something to fight for, / something greater than clothes and a car, / more lithe, more radiant inside its own skin / You were so beautiful then”), and gender violence (“His hands / were two chickens pecking at the hard seeds on my breasts. I told him / to leave my mouth alone”) to name a few. Shadows testifies to the importance of poetry in the work of remembering and healing. In the words of the South African poet laureate Keorapetse Kgositsile, poetry breaks “through all the silences / in the crevices of our turbulent memory.” —Joshua Maserow

I spent this week aspiring to become a reader of Clarice Lispector. On Monday, I bought The Hour of the Star, and, not quite having had time to dig into it, I’ve spent most of the week admiring the paratext of this latest edition, translated by Benjamin Moser: the day-glo cover, with its starburst of bright orange and highlighter magenta; the typeface; and, of course, the thirteen titles Lispector has given this book: Singing the Blues, or She Doesn’t Know How to Scream, or Whistling in the Dark Wind, or Discreet Exit Through the Back Door, or …  In her only televised interview, Lispector says of her early reading, “I chose books by their titles, and not their authors, because I didn’t know anything.” Finally, I’m enchanted by Moser’s suggestion in the afterword: “Paradoxically, the better one’s Portuguese, the more difficult it is to read Clarice Lispector. The foreigner with a basic knowledge of Romance grammar and vocabulary can read The Hour of the Star with ease.” I think if I’m hoping not only to read Lispector but to read like Lispector, I might be off to a good start. —Hannah LeClair