Staff Picks: Fever Dreams, Tragic Spells, and In-betweens


This Week’s Reading


Detail from the cover of Jesse Ball’s How to Set a Fire and Why.

Carole Firstman’s ambitiously titled debut, Origins of the Universe and What It All Means, is an essayistic memoir about her relationship with her estranged, eccentric (read: undiagnosed Asperger’s) scientist father, but it’s really a thumbed nose at binary argument and an objective romp through subjectivity’s headspace. Throughout the book, Firstman sets up oppositional arguments in order to force them apart and marinate in the liminal in-between. Is her chauvinistic, mostly absent father good or bad? Firstman thinks it’s hard to say, but it doesn’t stop her from examining the relationship through myriad philosophic and scientific lenses. (I doubt there has ever been a book about family in which one learns more about science and the history of thought.) Though the father does and says things that would make even the least feminist, or simply decent, among us cringe, Firstman’s characterization of family dynamics is pitch-perfect: her own impatience and frustrations with her father balance his foibles and thoughtlessness—and her humor softens the lot. This is a very endearing book, a summer read for the curious mind. —Jeffery Gleaves

The Guggenheim’s recent exhibition “Photo-Poetics: An Anthology” made a huge impression on me; the show featured works by ten photographers—nine women, including Erica Baum—who all work closely, sometimes exclusively, with the printed page. So I was delighted to discover Dog Ear, a book of twenty-five exquisite photographs by Baum. For the series, she dog-eared pages in mass-market paperbacks, then photographed the intersection of words at each fold to create a text of her own. In each tiny piece, bits of sentences read horizontally (“skirts, bee-stung lips,” “It’s a funny thing”) and vertically (“made up her face,” “itchiest dresses”). Part photo, part poem, the results vary in tone, from longing to manic, minimal to marvelous. In “Bear,” which feels like a Tomi Ungerer picture book, where animals scheme and smoke cigars, a polar bear is drunk on schnapps and “pawing” “the birds.” A new, limited edition of Dog Ear comes courtesy of Ugly Duckling Presse. Fittingly, the book jacket doubles as a poster. —Jessica Calderon

It may be based on a British procedural, but the new HBO series The Night Of is unmistakably shot in New York and, just as unmistakably, written by Richard Price. The premise: a studious Pakistani American kid sneaks out of the house with the keys to his father’s cab, then ill-advisedly picks up a passenger, a distraught beauty headed to the Upper West Side. It’s classic noir, with John Turturro as the boy’s schlubby but dedicated defense attorney; and because it’s a Richard Price script, even a desk sergeant (the excellent Ben Shenkman) can steal a scene. Two episodes in, it’s the best TV I’ve seen this summer. —Lorin Stein 

babitz.Slow_Days_hi-res_2048x2048I’ve regrettably never been to Los Angeles, but that hasn’t stopped me from being swept up in Eve Babitz’s Slow Days, Fast Company, which NYRB will reissue next month; Babitz infuses the novel with light, exuberance, and “hot dry winds,” the so-called spirit of Southern California. In a new introduction, Matthew Specktor claims that “Babitz’s Los Angeles is as idiosyncratically true as William Faulkner’s Mississippi.” Slow Days is a love story, addressed to an unnamed male companion. The narrator outlines her intentions from the start: a man is evading her advances and the only way to catch him is to write this book and get him to read it. “The seduction of a non-reader is how I plan to tie up L.A.,” she says. Arranged geographically as Babitz skirts from “one ambivalent attachment to the next,” Slow Days has stop offs in Bakersfield, Dodgers Stadium, Palm Springs, Emerald Bay. A native Southerner, I know well the feeling of being achingly attached to a region, and there is a similar regional magic at work in Babitz’s language. I’m going to have to trust Specktor’s original assertion, though. As John Jeremiah Sullivan wrote in this magazine, there is “a tragic spell of the South, which you’ve either felt or haven’t.” The same thing may be true for Southern California, and I’ll have to read on to uncover it. —Caitlin Love

Jesse Ball’s new novel, How to Set a Fire and Why, seems a departure from a lot of his work: it’s totally without both the fever-dream experimentalism associated with his stories and the subtle, anachronistic, Wild West undertones that lend stories like “The Early Deaths of Lubeck, Brennan, Harp, and Carr” (which was first published in the Review and won our 2008 Plimpton Prize) a certain Americana timelessness. How to Set a Fire is narrated by Lucia Stanton, a sixteen-year-old outsider whose only prized possession is her deceased father’s Zippo, whose favorite movie is My Dinner with Andre, and whose hilarious, razor-sharp, no-bullshit voice is precisely what makes this book such an outstanding, throwback-classical work. I found it impossible not to reminisce of Holden Caulfield when Lucia reappropriates out-of-time colloquialisms to rail on the affectations of her classmates (“ ‘All the time,’ she says, ‘all the time, people basically beg me to freak out on them, and mostly I keep my cool.’ ”), or when she seeks companionship in all the wrong places, such as with the band of pyromaniacs in her high school’s secret Arson Club. It felt cathartic to read this book in our current American moment: a passionate teenage girl, so overwhelmed with losses both personal and philosophical, who’s so utterly confused and disgusted by American structuralist systems and the hypocrisies therein—a freethinking citizen who’s had enough of the circus, and wants to burn it all down. —Daniel Johnson

Wriggle, the new LP from clipping, ex-Hamilton cast member Daveed Diggs’s experimental rap group, has been on my playlist this past month. Wriggle’s best offerings are its weirdest. “Shooter,” for instance, takes its HBK-inspired drumbeat entirely from field recordings of Diggs and bandmates Jonathan Snipes and William Hutson shooting fifteen different guns owned by a friend’s father. Here, Diggs departs from his typical rapid-fire lyrical style in favor of a technique known as hashtag rap, in which a metaphorical statement is followed by a brief pause, which acts like it would in a simile, and punctuated with a single-word punch line: “Clerk’s shittin’ in his drawers, skid row / Thought shit was just a hood game, skip rope / Shooter read the face real quick, Cliffsnotes / Kissed the shoe with the .45, mistletoe.” While rappers like Cam’ron and MF DOOM, and more recently Big Sean and Drake, have used the technique sparingly, Diggs dedicates nearly every line in the song to it. “A part of what we do,” Diggs says, “is push an idea all the way to its limits, to what we see as its outer limits.” —Andrew Jimenez

From Erica Baum’s Dog Ear.

From Erica Baum’s Dog Ear.

Though I first read Rachel Cusk’s Outline serialized in The Paris Review, I recently revisited it in novel form. I was most struck this time by its ethics. I tend to crave a narrative voice that is warped; I love inhabiting a character’s delusion, desire, manipulation, and insight—the more particular and peculiar the better. Outline, though, is composed in large part of stories told to the narrator by other characters, with the narrator’s own voice receding almost entirely. Her curiosity makes space for characters to relay intimate, impossibly articulate tales of their marriages, childhoods, dreams, and failures that have a parable-like ring, as though we are eavesdropping on a more confessional version of Plato’s dialogues. I think a reason I gravitate toward flawed and unlikeable narrators is that I hate being served dogma or ideology with my literature, but Cusk manages to give us a narrator I want to emulate—one who listens carefully and empathetically to others and whose speech is measured, honest, and spare—without the writing seeming heavy-handed or false. It’s difficult to write a deeply-flawed character without judgment, but Outline, similar to Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, made me wonder if it is not even more difficult and courageous to write a narrator who seems truly decent without tipping into fantasy or sanctimony. I’m not suggesting all books should be like this—I think most would probably be dreadful. But Cusk brings a devastating combination of elegant style, intricate observation, and relentless empathy that makes it work. —Sylvie McNamara