Staff Picks: White Sands, Whit, Weiner


This Week’s Reading

From Weiner.

Weiner, man. You’re going to hear a lot of people telling you to see this, so let me offer a meta service and say that you should listen to each and every one of them. The documentary follows Anthony Weiner’s 2013 run for New York City mayor, which ended miserably thanks to an aftershock of the not-quite-sex scandal that had forced him from Congress two years earlier. The film makes a few diligent nods at the suggestion that the sexting scandal obscured more pressing concerns in the mayoral primary. But the real appeal here is characterological. Josh Kriegman, the former Weiner aide who shot the footage, was allowed such intimate access that he ends up, late in the film, incredulously asking Weiner why he granted it. Together with Elyse Steinberg, his codirector, Kriegman presents Weiner as a roiling tumble of contradictions: savvy and reckless, strident and insecure, charming and dickish, and never more serene, it seems, than when he’s watching himself whirl into a rage during a disastrous TV interview. Huma Abedin, Weiner’s wife and one of Hillary Clinton’s closest aides, is in every way her husband’s opposite, and there are moments in the film when her anguish is so obvious that you’re almost rooting for her to show Kriegman, not to mention Weiner, the door. But the camera stays, and so does she. It’s no small accomplishment of this film that you can almost imagine why. —Robert P. Baird

There are certain directors whose new movies you skip out of a kind of scared devotion, because the badness of their later work seems to reveal something that was essentially bad about their movies all along. Then there’s the opposite case of Whit Stillman, whose Love & Friendship surpasses his early movies but makes you (or at least me) like them even better. He has never seemed more at home than in the slightly threadbare gentility of these country houses—somehow the sets look less “period” than antique, in a comfortable way—and his characters have never seemed so at home in their skin. Tom Bennett’s first scene, playing the amiable idiot Sir James Martin, has brightened my whole week. —Lorin Stein 

From Love & Friendship.

If there’s anything that approximates the enticement of garden life itself, it’s the descriptions, in words and pictures, of individual plants and the stories of their provenances. (Yes, pressed flowers and garden plans thrill me; in my other life, I’m a landscape architect.) Last summer, Yale University Press published Mark Laird’s A Natural History of English Gardening 1650–1800, a mammoth and richly illustrated study of the visual culture of early modern designed landscapes. Laird’s focus isn’t on changing tastes but rather on the cultural and “natural” community of gardening and “in the sense of an environment that extends into the clouds, down into the soil, and some way beyond the ha-ha and pale of the park.” So there’s tale of the roller, rammer, and mower John Evelyn used in the mid sixteenth century to preserve his close-cropped lawn against the “subversions” of worms and moles; luscious descriptions of the perfumed bowers of mid-eighteenth-century pleasure grounds; detail of the interest in phallus-shaped fungi; and one man’s theory of where clouds go in the evenings. —Nicole Rudick

This is bad advice, but I’ll give it anyway: any writer in need of a story should just get out there and pick up a hitchhiker. Literature may not want for hitchhiking stories, but you can never have too many. The best I’ve read lately is the title essay in White Sands, Geoff Dyer’s new collection of travel writing. He and his wife pick up a guy—“clean and not looking like a maniac”—sixty miles south of Alamogordo, only to pass a sign a minute later: “DO NOT PICK UP HITCHHIKERS / DETENTION FACILITIES IN AREA.” From there (and this is the best part) almost nothing happens, allowing Dyer ample time to dissect the odd anticlimax of living out a horror-movie premise. White Sands is chockablock with memorable pieces—a trip to Gauguin’s “babelicious” Tahiti, a stay at De Maria’s Lightning Field—but this hitchhiking episode, so loaded with nervous potential, is the one I keep returning to. Dyer’s gift for comic understatement is on display throughout, as when he writes, “I sometimes think that this is all any of us really want from our time on earth: an explanation.” —Dan Piepenbring

white sands

When I saw that Dwight Garner mentioned Babbitt (a favorite of mine) in his review of J. Bradford Hipps’s debut novelThe Adventurist, I promptly moved Hipps’s book to the top of my pile. It’s one of the most truly enjoyable novels I’ve read in a while. Garner notes that Hipps’s Henry Hurt, a software engineering executive at a struggling cyber security firm, “is no Babbitt; he is far from smug or vacuous; he is not a dupe.” And this is true: where Babbitt is pathetic and narcissistic, Henry is brilliant and empathetic, with a cynical eye for detail that exposes the ridiculous vaudeville of corporate culture. “When I see them lined along the catwalk, gazing up with open mouths,” Henry says of men at a strip club, “there enters my head a blasphemous image of Communion takers at the altar rail.” Most suggestive of Hipps’s talent are the passages that feel like homages to that 1920s golden age—Babbitt’s age—of the businessman’s American Dream: “I know that sigh. In it is captured the entire American romance of moving forward, moving on, a job well done, or not well done, or not done at all, never mind, turn the page, a blank sheet, a fresh start, and this time …” Is that not the most Gatsbian thing you’ve read since Gatsby’s final page? —Daniel Johnson

I feel uncomfortable recommending The Lobster, a bleak, black comedy by the Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos. The movie’s deadpan humor, coupled with the violence in its absurdist world, makes for a deeply unsettling and singular experience—one I don’t necessarily want to press on other people. Colin Farrell stars as David, a sad, lonely man who checks himself into a hotel for single people where guests have forty-five days to find a romantic partner; if they don’t find someone, they’re turned into an animal. The film launches you into a meticulously crafted world bulging with desperation. The characters twist their habits to match the personalities of the partners they’re trying to woo, and the effects are often hilarious—one character (Ben Whishaw) gives himself nosebleeds (often painfully) to attract a woman who gets them naturally. The Lobster is also grotesque, please note, but this is its greatest strength: that it can be revolting and funny, moving, and morbid at the same time. —Caitlin Love

From The Lobster.

“The world is fixed, we say: fish in the sea, birds in the air. But in the mangrove swamps by the Niger, fish climb trees and ogle uneasy naturalists who try unsuccessfully to chase them back to the water. There are things still coming ashore.” This is the world of Loren Eiseley’s The Immense Journey: full of insight and strange wonder for the natural world. The book is a study of human nature and the history of human evolution—in essence a piece of anthropological, archeological writing. And yet Eiseley, a scientist by profession, wrote with a poetic sensibility and lyricism that blurs the line between scientific and novelistic writing; his ambition was aesthetic. Journey, with its walks through prehistoric time, is like nothing I’ve read. Its poetic force is grounded in science, and reading it you’re as likely to lose yourself in the rhythm of his prose as in the fantastic energy of Eiseley’s world. —Ty Anania

Last weekend, in a moment of holiday-induced nostalgia, I read Plimpton’s books on baseball, Out of My League and One for the Record. If sports’ media cycles and commercial aspects leave you jaded, and you can recall feeling awe at athleticism only in a vague haze, these books are for you. Plimpton’s childlike enthusiasm for the sporting life drenches their pages, but beneath the theatrics inherent to “participatory journalism,” he writes about baseball’s lore and superstitions with acuity and reverence. (Also fear: Hemingway once wrote that Out of My League has “the chilling quality of a true nightmare.”) It’s enough to make you remember what once “kept you and the others out in the long summer evenings until the fireflies were out and the street lights shining dimly through the pale-silver underside of leaves … The fact that your team in the brighter hours of the afternoon had lost twenty-four to six and your sister had made eight errors in right field wasn’t important.”—Jeffery Gleaves