Staff Picks: Dads, Doublemint, Dumplingette


This Week’s Reading

A still from Cosmos.

Nineteen cheers to New Directions for reissuing Eliot Weinberger’s Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, first published in 1987 and hard to find since then. In this tiny volume, Weinberg examines nineteen different translations of a classic four-line poem by the eighth-century poet Wang Wei. The result is the best primer on translation I’ve ever read, also the funniest and most impatient. (E.g.: “to me this sounds like Gerard Manley Hopkins on LSD.”) The new edition, out in October, includes ten new attempts, most of them clearly influenced by the original Nineteen Ways. —Lorin Stein

The Polish director Andrzej Żuławski died in February, leaving us with Cosmos, his final film, adapted from Witold Gombrowicz’s 1965 novel of the same name. The plot, if that’s what this tangle of surreal set pieces should be called, follows a vampirically handsome law student on holiday at a French bed-and-breakfast, where he finds a worrisome succession of dead animals hanging in the woods. Nominally, we’re watching Cosmos to discover who’s responsible for these cruelties; really, though, we’re watching because its ensemble excels at depicting various lunacies, and it’s always fun to watch lunatics. A bloviating patriarch uses a toothpick to pick up spilled peas one by one; a mute priest unzips his fly to reveal a phalanx of bees; someone is dressed inexplicably like Tintin. The movie is an intoxicating pageant of life’s confusions—some violent, some sexual, and some just metaphysical. If you like Resnais, Buñuel, or people who do really good Donald Duck impressions, you will be moved. If not, you’ll at least leave with a new favorite term of endearment: “my dumplingette.” —Dan Piepenbring 


A few weeks ago, I used this space to write about my affinity for journals, Bernadette Mayer, and a line of hers on the late Bill Berkson’s dildo. So it seems fitting that I use it now to recommend what would be Berkson’s final work, Invisible Oligarchs, a transcribed reproduction of a notebook he kept while traveling in Russia between the months of January and June in 2006. It’s a slim book (I read most of it while waiting for a shuttle service at LAX), and yet it brims with the romanticism of a transient and drops tidbits of lush trivia into its readers’ heads along the way. Berkson’s lists are some of my favorite entries, telling us which translations of which Russian books to read, that derm in Russian means “shit” and i vass lybli is “I love you.” Scattered throughout, too, are facsimile pages of the journal itself, with Berkson’s chicken-scratch jottings, newspaper clippings, a Wrigley’s Doublemint sugar-free-gum wrapper and a chopsticks wrapper from a sushi bar on Kazanskaya Boulevard pasted in. Invisible Oligarchs is a gorgeous collection of things—thoughts, pamphlets, bits of trash; as he once said, “You need the ordinary thing—if only to clear the air, change the topic, or simply because it’s so tremendously actual.” —Caitlin Youngquist

In Max Porter’s debut novel, Grief Is the Thing with Feathers, Crow—as in the protagonist of Ted Hughes’s 1970 collection of poetry, Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow—acts as a makeshift grief counselor for a Dad and his two boys after their wife/mother dies suddenly. The dynamic is as absurd and haunting as it sounds. Just like in Hughes’s poetry, Crow makes sense of death through folktales, through language that delivers meaning through sonic quality and free association, and through a devilish sense of humor. His black comedy balances out the novel’s inherent sadness, and it sets Porter’s apart from other grief narratives: the book’s shifts from quiet gloom to anthropomorphic burlesque are laugh-out-loud cathartic. During one of the novel’s most hopeful scenes, Dad, two years after his wife’s death, brings home his first woman since the tragedy. They have clunky, tender sex. After she leaves, he wanders aimlessly around his flat, processing, until: “When I came down Crow was on the sofa impersonating me pumping and groaning.” Don’t be fooled—Crow is “a sentimental bird,” and in his making light of such morose subject matter, he’s slamming the doors behind these men as they pass through each threshold toward healing. —Daniel Johnson

From The 6 Voyages of Lone Sloane.

Did you know there’s a series called Best American Experimental Writing? I didn’t. But I should have: it’s just my kind of rabbit hole. Sesshu Foster’s story “Movie Version: ‘Hell to Eternity’ ” progressively abstracts the differences between a man’s life and his biopic: “In the movie version, the actual colors of the rushing ocean were played by a whirr of a strip through the machine and the sizzling palm leaves were played by folded taco smell. Somebody was played by nobody.” (I recommend his novel Atomik Aztex.) And Aisha Sasha John’s poem “I didn’t want to go so I didn’t go”: “the sound of a hard crust collapsing / the baguette as it’s torn / it and the other noises that have / wet my ear lately the / tinkle / the violet tinkle of the nail spa alarm system.” And Shane Book’s poem “Mack Daddy Manifesto”: “Thus we / obtain our concept of the unconscious / from the theory of repression, a sweet finish // after the the bitter pills of floggings and bullets, / my Tender-roni, my Maytag Blue.” In my defense, this is only the second volume, guest edited by librettist Douglas Kearney. Last year’s guest editor was Cole Swensen, and 2016’s will be the poet Charles Bernstein and the vocalist-artist-poet Tracie Morris. So no more excuses. —Nicole Rudick

Generally speaking, however lauded its artwork and trippy French style might be, a space opera can only break so far into the realm of literary acclaim. But I haven’t enjoyed a graphic novel as much as Philippe Druillet’s The 6 Voyages of Lone Sloane since Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles. The book is actually a collection of short, graphic stories, all six of which you can finish in less than an hour. But I’ve spent the last week with the book, staring—vacantly at times—at the illustrations. This is not your typical, panel-organized comic strip; its pages are more akin to baroque, psychedelic paintings than anything else. Following Sloane as he battles space pirates and mythical beings has his own romantic appeal, but the illustrations are the star of this dark, strange, and spectacular book. —Ty Anania