Staff Picks: Conspiracy, Camaraderie, Catsup


This Week’s Reading

From the cover of The Mark and the Void.

Two days ago I gathered up a big stack of submissions to read over lunch … but I also took our brand-new office copy of Mary Beard’s SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome. Just in case I ran out of stuff to read, was my ridiculous thinking. The next time I looked up, an hour later, I was late for a meeting and deep in the heart of the Catiline conspiracy, and hadn’t even asked for the check, or looked at a single short story. I’ve promised myself I won’t open the book again until Thanksgiving. —Lorin Stein

In 1917, a Yale professor of public speaking named Grenville Kleiser published Fifteen Thousand Useful Phrases: A Practical Handbook of Pertinent Expressions, Striking Similes, Literary, Commercial, Conversational, and Oratorical Terms, for the Embellishment of Speech and Literature, and the Improvement of the Vocabulary of Those Persons Who Read, Write, and Speak English. I’m about two thousand useful phrases in, and let me tell you, this thing moves. It reads like an epic poem written in concert at the stuffiest dinner party in New Haven history. Of especial utility is section seven, on “Literary Expressions,” full of well-wrought piffle fit for the impending holiday-party season. You’ll want to commit “A campaign of unbridled ferocity” to memory. And “The nameless and inexpressible fascination of midnight music.” And “She bandies adjectives with the best.” And “A shadow of melancholy touched her lithe fancies, as a cloud dims the waving of golden grain”—plenty of occasions to put that one to good use. And (last one, I promise, though I’m going to have to devote a whole post to these some day) “The multiplicity of odors competing for your attention.” With these and roughly 14,995 other phrases at your disposal, you’ll be able to aggravate and annoy even your closest friends. —Dan Piepenbring 

As advertised.

It’s daring to begin a novel with the words “Idea for a novel”; it’s also surprising that it’s taken this long for someone to do it. Credit the Irish novelist Paul Murray, whose The Mark and the Void is a playful yet probing DeLillo-esque in-joke masquerading as a foray into the liminal world of international banking. You don’t really need to know anything about banking in order to follow the plot or to get the jokes: Murray clearly envisions his reader as a degree-holder in literature, not economics. (The main character inside the frame narrative, Claude, has an academic interest in simulacra; Murray himself is a character, self-parodied as a feckless sufferer of writer’s block whose first book, For Love of a Clown, was about a clown; et cetera.) Winking glibness abounds, but there is also compassionate insight: “Here, on the teeming road, are the Irish: blanched, pocked, pitted, sleep-deprived, burnished, beaming, snaggle-toothed, balding, raddled, beaky, exophthalmic; the Irish, with their demon priests … wavering camaraderie, their flinty austerity and seeping corruption, their narrow minds and broad hearts, their drunken speeches, drunken fights, drunken weddings, drunken sex, their books, saints, tickets to Australia … their dreams, their children, their mistakes, their punching-bag history, their bankrupt state and their inveterate difference.” —Henri Lipton

David Bowie is releasing a new album—his twenty-fifth—in January, called Blackstar. Yesterday he revealed a ten-minute video of the album’s eponymous lead single. Bowie is sixty-eight and still more avant-garde than any living pop star. His pipes aren’t as strong as they once were, but his creative mind is as sharp as ever. The video, directed by Johan Renck and made in close collaboration with Bowie, is science-fiction-voodoo-cult brilliance—with Guillermo del Toro–esque costuming, dance moves reminiscent of Merce Cunningham, and fake, weird sets à la Mike Kelley. In the oblique lyrics, Bowie works in sly references to Major Tom and Ziggy Stardust, and the music is a mélange of electronic samples, live jazz tracks, drum and bass rhythm, and minimalist melody. But Bowie’s voice is the most stunning element. He appears as Aleister Crowley–style prophet (or madman, or both) and sings in a kind of processed susurration. I really don’t know how else to describe it—it’s beautiful and singular. It’s Bowie. —Nicole Rudick

M.F.K. Fisher.

Next week, with its family nostalgia and elastic waistbands, will bring a wave of tasty sentiment through the country. M. F. K. Fisher’s 1968 essay “Once a Tramp, Always …,” which first appeared in The New Yorker, is a sort of shameless basting in gastro-memory, and a great pre-Thanksgiving read. It takes its name from Mark Twain’s travel book, A Tramp Abroad; both authors share a curious longing, apparently, for “mashed potatoes with catsup.” Fisher explores the relation of memory to appetite: the mere memory of the perfect potato chips she’d eaten some thirty years earlier were enough to sate her desire, but, conversely, she never quite had enough caviar to pacify her craving for the stuff. It’s a wonderful, often funny essay on childhood eating and the meting out of sensual pleasures, one that may give license to an annual, ritual gorging. —Jeffery Gleaves

Astra Taylor’s documentary Examined Life (2008) is a breezy, enjoyable attempt to bring philosophy down from its patrician perch to the hurly-burly of daily life. Taylor recruits eight contemporary thinkers—Cornel West, Judith Butler, Avital Ronell, Slavoj Zizek, Peter Singer, Michael Hardt, Martha Nussbaum, and Kwame Anthony Appiah—to talk fundamental questions. Given the Olympian cast, it is a little disappointing that the film fails at its primary task: apart from Appiah, Butler, and Singer, no one is able to frame their ideas in ways that show how philosophy applies to all our lives in equal measure. All the same, it fails pretty well. There’s a lot of joy in these denizens of the seminar room putting their ideas into conversation with public spaces. Hardt bumps into a rock while boating and talking about revolutionary politics in Central Park. Singer talks about the ethical obligations of the rich to the poor surrounded by the glitz of Fifth Avenue. And in Tompkins Square Park, Ronell explains how “anxiety is the condition of ethicity” as a man on a bench looks up, with annoyance, from his newspaper. —Joshua Maserow

At my parents’ house, I picked up my childhood copy of Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy. I must have read it once—what else would have inspired a relatively sedate child to snoop around neighbors’ backyards?—but I don’t remember making it to the second half, which is darker than I expected. When her friends and classmates get ahold of her spy notebook and discover the unflattering but truthful observations she’s recorded about them, they ostracize her; she becomes uncompromising and even hateful. What I find most compelling about the book now is the way Fitzhugh describes Harriet’s visceral, compulsive need to write. Without her notebook, Fitzhugh writes, “The thoughts came slowly, as though they had to squeeze through a tiny door to get to her, whereas when she wrote, they flowed out faster than she could put them down.” As for the moral of the story, there really isn’t one. Spies can be scathing and vengeful but, Harriet discovers, it pays to learn how to be resilient and accommodating—to fly under the radar. Even if I didn’t completely understand that at age eleven, I think it sank in anyway. —Hannah LeClair