Staff Picks: Continentals, Cocoons, Comics


This Week’s Reading

Paul Rudolph’s Walker Guest House, as pictured in The Florida Houses.

Don’t let the breezy title put you off. At the Existentialist Café, Sarah Bakewell’s group portrait of Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre, Beauvoir, and the other “Continental” philosophers who flourished before and after World War II, is chatty, irreverent, gossipy, unabashedly personal—as far from the existentialist tone as it’s possible to get—but it’s also a work of deep intelligence and sympathy, reminding us how exciting those thinkers can be. And it’s a page-turner. I was so sorry to finish the last chapter that I almost—almost—ran over to the Strand to see what they had by Merleau-Ponty. —Lorin Stein

“They worked / They worked / They worked / and they died / They died broke / They died owing / They died never knowing / what the front entrance / of the first national city bank looks like.” Pedro Pietri wrote “Puerto Rican Obituary” in 1969, after having served in Vietnam. There’s no mention of that war in the poem, but there’s a strong sense of futility, death, and disaffection that must have been informed by witnessing the violence of war and then coming home to unfulfilled dreams. “Obituary” is the first poem in City Lights’ new collection of the late poet’s work, much of which is otherwise only available in out-of-print or photocopied editions. I hadn’t heard of Pietri before reading this collection, which is a shame because he strikes me as the Ginsberg of the post-Vietnam era—combining politics, race, and the personal in performative poetry. His lines are propulsive and witty, especially in the playful “Telephone Booth” series, which reads like a flirtatious midnight conversation: “because I do not / want to make / future generations /  lose sleep I / will do my very best / not to influence / anyone regardless / of what a nice ass / they seem to have.” —Nicole Rudick 


Pedro Pieti, from the cover of Selected Poems.

The architect Paul Rudolph is best known for his 1962 Yale Art and Architecture building, a Brutalist fortress that’s either a triumph or a terror, depending on whom you ask. (I’m on Team Triumph, for the record.) In Sarasota, Florida, last month, I had the chance to see some of the innovative, enchanting homes Rudolph built in the fifties, all of them still radiant with postwar optimism and inventive edge. The Cocoon House, cantilevered over the water on Siesta Key, features steel straps, wall-to-wall jalousie windows, and a concave roof made of a flexible vinyl compound developed by the military; the Umbrella House has an elegant latticed sunroof spanning its length, its interiors arranged as efficiently as a ship’s quarters. Admirers of the Eames Brothers or Le Corbusier should seek out Christopher Domin and Joseph King’s Paul Rudolph: The Florida Houses—a perfect primer, it provoked in me a lethal combination of midcentury nostalgia and real-estate envy. —Dan Piepenbring

In Tom Hart’s short comic “RL,” he, his wife, and their two-year-old daughter, Rosalie Lightning, flee New York after years of living “an early adventure full of potential and cultural stimuli and fertile friendships”—an adventure that brought the young couple inevitable debt and soul-crushing misery. The only bright part of their lives, and Hart’s comics, is Rosalie. She’s too bright, in fact; readers learn of her adorable language (bumbites for “bug bites”) and her obsession with the moon. It’s shocking, if retroactively obvious, when she dies one night in November. “RL” is just the beginning of Hart’s new graphic memoir, Rosalie Lightning. He constructs the narrative arc so well, brings you so close to his tragedy, that I believe many copies of this book are going to end up salty and warped with tears. Rosalie acts as a vehicle for powerful, universal ideas—and isn’t that how big parents tell us their children are in their lives? Rosalie Lightning should come with a free box of tissue. —Jeffery Gleaves

A panel from Rosalie Lightning.

I moved to New York last week, and I decided to spend my first days here reading departure narratives. Thus a return to one of my favorite short stories, Justin Taylor’s “So You’re Just What, Gone?”, which appeared last year in The New Yorker. The story is a constellation of departures both concrete and abstract: it begins with sixteen-year-old Charity on a flight out of Logan Airport, and the rest takes place in her grandmother’s house. The old woman has Alzheimer’s—the ultimate departure from sanity—and Charity feels abandoned by friends who ignore her desperate text messages. (“My Grams is losing it,” she sends to her crush, Evan. “All she does is clean the same clean shit. She’s like bleaching bleach.”) It’s my favorite short of Taylor’s, if only because of how deftly it explores the cruel and hysterical ways people leave us, and some of the absurd ways we tend to our loneliness. Perhaps the best part, though, is the title, which occurs to Charity when Evan stops responding to her. I love the poignant rhythm—that interminable beat before the last word, the place where we can find all the people who ghost us: right on the teetering edge of gone. —Daniel Johnson

Just a week ago, Orthodox Christians were celebrating Christmas, so I hope I’ll be excused for sharing a belated Yuletide find. All kids from one to ninety-two can agree, I think, that there are few places more unlikely in which to find something new and fresh to enjoy than from within the pantheon of holiday music. Nevertheless, sometimes fate reaches out a hand and lets fall an oddity like Arlo Guthrie’s song, “The Pause of Mr. Claus,” calling attention to the very serious political undertones of the Santa Claus myth. What is with that conspicuously red suit? And free presents, for everyone? I, for one, always thought Saint Nick bore an uncanny resemblance to Marx. Listen to this one as you take down your Christmas tree this weekend. —Robert Magella