Staff Picks: Gold Teeth, Hawk Noses, Flying Cars


This Week’s Reading


Andy Thomas’s animation of bird sounds.

In 1924, Samuel Beckett, eighteen, lurked at a Sunday salon in Dublin, standing obtuse and silent against the wall, his head down as conversation breathed around him. Five years later, in 1929, in Paris, he sat silently on the edge of a circle of James Joyce’s acolytes, while “Shem” (Beckett’s affectionate sobriquet for Dublin’s literary master) held court. On a balmy afternoon, in 1932, he slouched into a corner during tea at Walter Lowenfels’s (a cheerful American—and failed publisher—in Paris’s literary society), where he sat “tall, thin, looking like a forest ranger in a Western.” Beckett’s dark form—I imagine him in the shadows of these parties, hunched, hawk-nose angled down, and blue eyes focused on a point—is a recurring image in the early chapters of Samuel Beckett, the 1978 biography by Deirdre Bair that I started reading this weekend. But these aren’t my only impressions of him. Bair was given unprecedented access to Beckett: the book was written while he was still alive, and though he didn’t give her any interviews, he allowed Bair to write to his friends and family, informing them that they should give her whatever they like. And so Beckett emerges—layered, brilliant, brooding, genius. —Caitlin Love

From the first page of Antonio di Benedetto’s 1956 novel Zama—in which the eponymous hero spies a monkey’s floating corpse “caught among the posts of the decrepit wharf … ready to go and not going”—a humid nimbus cloud of despair settles over the story, never to dissolve. Set in the Paraguay of the late eighteenth century, Zama follows a bureaucrat in his tortured efforts to secure a better position in far-off Buenos Aires, where he hopes to settle with his even-farther-off wife and children. Listless, phlegmatic, and increasingly horny, Zama wanders the lush country doing something close to nothing, watching almost distantly as he loses his moral compass. As a study in exile, paranoia, and the lonely tedium of quashed ambitions, this is great shit. But read it above all for the triumph of its style: Zama holds forth in deep, stewing paragraphs as pompous as they are incisive. It’s Sartre by way of J. Peterman, and in Esther Allen’s translation it still feels unique and alive. —Dan Piepenbring 


In April, Harper Perennial reissued a new paperback edition of Michael Chabon’s Summerland, the then-mysteriously underrated successor to his Pulitzer Prize–winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. I always thought it was Chabon’s best, so its muted critical reception somewhat perplexed me. Granted, it’s an all-ages epic fantasy framed around summer-league baseball in Washington State—and on top of that, a Virgil-esque werefox, a tree that connects all worlds, and a flying car take center stage. In this reissue, Chabon writes an introductory essay that addresses a question he was often asked: Why did he write something so disorientingly eclectic? “I did believe in fairies,” it begins. “I did. I did.” He wrote Summerland, we learn, in grief: in 2000, he and his wife had to terminate a pregnancy. Through this book, he sought to recapture the magic he’d once believed in, back when he would search the woods behind his childhood home for signs of faerie rings. Such a loss, he suggests, “is and always has been the inheritance of every American … The way lost things had the power to both haunt and to exalt, to move and to reproach—that steered the book I decided to write, about fairies and baseball.” —Daniel Johnson

Nautilus’s latest issue is devoted to noise and the idea that an “unwanted sound or signal” might better be described as being unintentional (and perhaps more fruitful) than undesirable. In the early aughts, Stephon Alexander conducted postdoc work at London’s Imperial College and recalls leaving the annual quantum-gravity cocktail hour with a friend and an unknown man with a gold tooth. To Alexander’s surprise, the conversation between his friend and this “gold-toothed wonder” dipped into the physics of space-time, the mathematics of waves, and music. To his greater surprise, the stranger turned out to be Brian Eno. Eno’s “generative music,” or “an audible version of a moiré pattern,” invigorated Alexander’s research into the physics fundamental to the birth of the universe. “The initial vibration of the energy fields,” he concludes, “sonified throughout the space-time background like the vibrating body of an instrument, generating the first structure in our cosmos and then the first stars and eventually us.” As a kind of coda, I recommend listening to a recording made of protons whipping around inside the Large Hadron Collider—a sound akin to “something like mutated aquatic mammal sounds making a cameo on a Brian Eno composition.” —Nicole Rudick