Staff Picks: Unspooling, Erupting, and Recoiling


This Week’s Reading

An image of Tambora taken by the Space Shuttle in 1992, with a view of the caldera produced by the 1815 eruption.

An image of Tambora taken by the Space Shuttle in 1992, with a view of the caldera produced by the 1815 eruption.

On a sad, sad morning, thanks to J. J. Sullivan for sending us this 1989 cover of “When You Were Mine,” by the Blue Rubies. —Lorin Stein

Since Mary Ruefle’s 2008 book Most of It, I’ve watched for a second collection of her short prose. So I was pleased when we published two such pieces from her upcoming book, My Private Property, in our Spring issue. (NB: they’re nestled under Poetry, but as Ruefle told me over the phone, she doesn’t think them poems, per se.) I’ve since gotten my hands on a galley of that book and have read it twice over: Ruefle is as good as ever. In forty-one ambrosial bits, she muses on everything from programs littering a concert-hall floor to menopause to what a bird might think as it watches a woman die. Many of these begin simply—with a golf pencil or a string of Christmas-tree lights—but they unspool into larger existential meditations, on language and death, on creation and sadness and boredom; some are even doused in whimsy. Ruefle’s is a soothing, enlightening voice—always playful, always gentle, and always unfettering some ineffable truth. There’s a closeness I feel toward her as I read this book, as if she’s telling me all the secrets of this world—or at least of hers—and that I’d be wise to listen. “And if you sleep through a truth,” she writes, “you will wake at the bitter end.” —Caitlin Youngquist

This summer marks the bicentennial anniversary of “Frankenstein”—not the book itself, but the spoken nub of the story, which Mary Shelley first narrated by firelight in Switzerland in the summer of 1816. The eighteen-year-old Shelley had traveled with her lover, Percy Bysshe Shelley, their infant son, and Mary’s stepsister to the shores of Lake Geneva. Their idea was to spend the season with Lord Byron, far from the dreary chill of London. This part of the story is well-known: incessant rain confined the group to the house, and to fight off cabin fever, they each wrote a ghost story. Shelley summoned the tale of Frankenstein, whose frequent confusion with his nameless creation became a great gift to two centuries of pedants, and, lately, to Twitter. What I learned this week, however, from a recent episode of In Our Time, Melvyn Bragg’s indispensable BBC radio show, is that the bad weather that night had its own traceable origin. A year before the Lake Geneva gathering, the largest volcanic eruption in recorded history occurred in Indonesia. The explosion, of a mountain called Tambora, threw thirty-eight cubic miles of rock, ash, and magma into the air. The airborne cloak of sunlight-reflecting ejecta circled the globe and was ultimately responsible for the “ungenial” weather of 1816, which became known as the Year Without a Summer. Tambora’s explosion likely killed some seventy thousand people, so it was hardly the innocuous butterfly of classic chaos theory. Still, we can guess that Shelley might have appreciated, at some level, the distant and violent origins of her tale. “Every thing must have a beginning,” she wrote in the 1831 introduction to Frankenstein, “and that beginning must be linked to something that went before … Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void, but out of chaos.” —Robert P. Baird


I enjoy a good piece of science fiction, and I find it a shame that people recoil at the label. This week, I read a novel that offers some degree of defense for the “sci-fi” branding: Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker, which was published in 1937. It’s a wonderful philosophical experiment that tackles the billion-year history of life in the universe, a serious and often awe-inspiring work of imagination. For those who doubt the merit of science fiction as high literature, a more recent edition includes glowing reviews from Borges, Doris Lessing, and Virginia Woolf, and in his introduction, Arthur C. Clarke calls Star Maker “the most wonderful novel I have ever read.” The language, at times, may be overly scientific, but the sheer power of Stapledon’s imagination is enough to keep me engaged. By examining life in the grand scale, he’s able to offer original and poetic insight into the broad topics of life and death, coexistence, community, and romance. —Ty Anania

I know the Review serialized Chris Bachelder’s The Throwback Special over the past four issues, but I’ve only just gotten to read it in full. The stage: twenty-two men gather at a hotel to reenact “the most shocking play in NFL history,” when Lawrence Taylor shattered Joe Theismann’s leg. Really, though, the novel is about the lives of these individuals outside this annual ritual: sunken businesses, spoiled children, failed marriages, loneliness. The moments of deepest empathy are so effective because they’re at once solemn and, given the book’s premise, hilariously idiosyncratic. You’d never think of a continental breakfast as something profound, but to Bachelder and his characters, it is: “Unbeknownst to the men, this was what they came here for, every year … Halfway through their lives—considerably more than halfway, in several cases—the men knew nothing of their own vast contentment.” The point, here, as is true for the entire novel, is that this tradition is hardly about football; the tradition is simply about tradition, and how it allows us to fully realize the self without needing to understand it. Just consider the cathartic moments immediately following the completed reenactment (their best yet): everyone gathered in a hotel room, embracing one another as fanatics might after a pilgrimage, all of them “wild with frantic relief.” I finished the novel on the outdoor subway platform at Broadway Junction; below me, twilight descended on the Callahan-Kelly football field, where I could still hear men shouting in the dark. —Daniel Johnson

Depending on your age, the late nineties were either a last gasp for children’s cartoons or a renaissance. No show encapsulates the epoch more than Animaniacs, which was just made available in full on Netflix. A pastiche of comedic tropes—from the Marx Brothers to Seinfeld—the show centers on the Warner brothers Yakko and Wakko and their Warner sister, Dot, who were created in the thirties by the Warner Bros fledgling animation department, “ran amok throughout the studios” before being captured and locked away in the water tower, and only escaped in 1993. At its best, Animaniacs is an instruction manual for comedy writing—sometimes literally, as when the Warners conclude a multigenre gag by referring to a book titled Acme Comedy Theory. Animaniacs skewered the tired gags of children’s cartoons, paving the way for shows like The Powerpuff Girls and even the brilliant Adventure Time, but it never takes itself so seriously as to put itself above being the butt of its own jokes. At the end of one episode, Dot asks, “So what have we learned?” And Yakko responds, “If at first you don’t succeed, blame your parents.” —Andrew Jimenez