Staff Picks: Turtles, Tornados, Teen Dirt-bike Racers


This Week’s Reading

From Works and Days.

“I’m not even sure anything happened to me. / Or to whom everything happened.” So ends Brenda Shaughnessy’s long poem of adolescence “Is There Something I Should Know.” Reading those lines, I realized I had been waiting for that wisdom—that formulation—a long time. Her new book, So Much Synth, is full of these moments. Soulfulness is not a quality I always look for in poets of my generation, but over the last two decades Shaughnessy has stripped herself down to a voice that can sing plainly about disappointment and love in hard circumstances and the lost art of the mix tape, here revived in verse:

As it records, you have to listen to each
song in its entirety, and in this way

you hear your favorite song with the ears
of your intended, as they hear it, new.

Lorin Stein

I’ve never been very diligent about keeping a journal, but the form is one I enjoy reading: the lists one makes, the mundane things that fill an afternoon. Works and Days is Bernadette Mayer’s forthcoming book, at once a collection of poetry and a dated record of a past spring: woven among her verse are her journal entries. I found myself pulled toward these other, more austere little notes. Comprising teensy, often inconsequential moments—like whether it’s rained or has been threatening to rain—these prosaic morsels are gorgeous and serene. Hardly any of Mayer’s days are spectacular, but her eye is so keenly attune to all that surrounds her that nearly everything feels touched with grandeur. She writes of the grackles that remind her of Donald Trump and her broken ulna, of the tornados in Duanesburg and the poems she wrote with Jennifer Karmin and Niel Rosenthalis. She says she hates rye bread and recalls the sound of New York City pavement being swept. But there are delectable, sometimes even bawdy bursts of excitement in the collection, too, like when she writes about the poet Bill Berkson bringing a dildo to sex camp or the heron that “ate my heart.” —Caitlin Youngquist 


“I don’t want to go to the Zoo anymore. The other night I dreamt of an octopus.” So read the first two sentences of Turtle Diary, a hilarious, mordant, sympathetic little novel by the Russell Hoban. Turtle Diary is arranged in alternating diary entries written by two strangers: William G., a divorcé working in a London bookshop, and Neaera H., a single children’s book author. Both are in their forties, lonely in their isolated lives. They’re each marked with the black spot of empathy. William G. makes regular trips to the zoo (in spite of his low-grade whine at the beginning of the novel), where he’s drawn to the sea turtles, though their tanks depress him (“Their eyes said nothing, the thousands of miles of ocean couldn’t be said.”) He anthropomorphizes two conversing birds, who walk “with their heads down and if they’d had hands they would have had them clasped behind their backs.” Neaera H., too, feels the battling wonder and emptiness of the zoo, which equals—and maybe stands for—the battling wonder and emptiness of life. Eventually, William’s and Neaera’s empathy works like a magnetic to bring them, almost telepathically, to identical aims—to free the sea turtles from their tanks—and to each other. I love what Ed Park says in his introduction to the 2013 New York Review Books edition: “[Turtle Diary] offers solace to anyone who has ever looked at her situation in life and wondered … ‘Am I doomed’? (The answer: No.)” It’ll also make you laugh out loud. —Caitlin Love

A few weeks ago, we published an excerpt of Rivka Galchen’s Little Labors, another excerpt of which I’d read in Harper’s last summer. Galchen looks at babies as objects, unruly houseguests, and, most often, animals, calling hers “The Puma,” and, once it can locomote, “The Chicken,” as a way of dismantling the magical states of babydom and motherhood. She writes like a wide-eyed oracle, in a state of knowing calm, and often plays the observing diarist, noting how the presence of the puma/chicken elicits fresh and baffling reactions from the people she sees daily: her family, a disliked neighbor, the corner drunk. In these short essays, anecdotes, and aphorisms, Galchen views motherhood in equal parts euphoria and dread, and her forays into literature, mostly Japanese, look to unravel the myth of the woman writer, but more so of the mother writer. —Jeffery Gleaves

The cast of Spetters.

I’ve used this space before to express my admiration for Paul Verhoeven, whose new film Elle, his first in more than a decade, debuted at Cannes this month. I haven’t seen it yet, but an interview with Verhoeven in the Guardian has confirmed that it’s agreeably disturbed: “It’s a film that walks a tightrope,” Benjamin Lee writes, “provoking and challenging our preconceptions … It stars Isabelle Huppert as the icy CEO of a gaming company who is raped in her home by a masked assailant. But rather than rush to the police, she calmly cleans up, takes a blood-tinged bath and goes on with her busy life. When her attacker starts to threaten a reprise, she becomes entangled in a strange and twisted game.” In anticipation, I watched his excellent 1980 film Spetters, in which a group of horny teen dirt-bike racers behave badly. I won’t elaborate except to say that the film sparked protests in the Netherlands, and its title, in Dutch, is a triple entendre, serving as slang for grease spatters, semen, and hot people (“Dude’s a total spetter”). —Dan Piepenbring