Staff Picks: Marlys, Menopause, Mallet Percussion


This Week’s Reading

“The one thing no one will tell you is that these feelings and this behavior will last ten years. That is, a decade of your life. Ask your doctor if this is true and she will deny it.” In Mary Ruefle’s hands an essay about menopause becomes an essay on the human condition; ditto an essay about shrunken heads, and one about milk shakes, and one about dealing with crumbs. We published “Milk Shake” in our Spring issue as a prose poem—and it is that—but reading her collection My Private Property, I’m struck by the conversational quality of this new work, by its anthropological spirit, and by its stubborn emphasis on the facts as Ruefle has found them—whatever your doctor, or hers, or anyone else, may say to the contrary. —Lorin Stein

“One day I was drawing my weekly comic strip, and as I drew the frame, I had a half-memory of being with my cousins after seeing the torch light parade … 9 kids crammed into one car—no seatbelts, 3 adults smoking … And suddenly we were all just throwing up parade food at the same time. On top of this image was a half-memory of staying overnight at a neighbor’s house. Nine kids. The mom said things like ‘Holy Balls!’ When I make a comic strip, I let these sorts of images lead and combine as I move my pen. I try to let one line lead to the next without plan. The only thing I have to do is stay in motion. That’s what I was doing when I first saw Marlys.” Lynda Barry has been drawing the freckled, bespectacled, opinionated eight-year-old since 1986; to my mind, Marlys ranks with Charlie Brown as one of the most genuine and poignant adolescent protagonists in serial comics. The newly updated and expanded collection, The Greatest of Marlys, has been my beach reading this week. If you haven’t read Barry, let this book be your gateway: she is one of a kind, and with Marlys, she is irresistible. —Nicole Rudick 


Like most young professionals, I harbor secret ambitions of rebranding myself as a mallet percussionist. Sometimes I check eBay for a semiaffordable vibraphone, and usually I find one, and I don’t buy it, and I beat myself up about my failure to commit, and then the whole cycle repeats itself a few months later. The death this week of Bobby Hutcherson, one of the most distinctive vibraphonists in jazz, has renewed my aspirations. Hutcherson came to prominence in the sixties post-bop era, and he approached the vibraphone—whose aluminum bars, whirring tremolo motor, and sustain pedal give it a warm, haunting resonance—with an ear for harmony unlike any player that preceded him. Listening to records like Components, Medina, and Stick-Up!, I’m struck by the doleful timbre of the instrument as it comes through in his solos, and by the seemingly infinite dimensions of his chords as they linger in the air. If you’re looking for a sound track to a late-summer weekend, you could do much worse. —Dan Piepenbring

The stories in Charles D’Ambrosio’s first collection, The Point, are deceptive. At first glance, they read like barren sketches shot through by a sad, sad humor. At least that’s how I remembered the collection until last week, when I decided to revisit it. To my surprise, these pieces aren’t just haunting snapshots, they’re stories in which fully realized lives play out (read: end). Death looms large in these pages, as D’Ambrosio allows his characters to establish and destroy themselves in the course of a single story. And though loss is at the heart of the book, he avoids consoling the reader with hazy aphorisms. Instead, brutally but gracefully, he evokes life’s small oddities, ushering our gaze to the wreckage of a car crash, for example, in which “a plastic Jesus drip[s] down off the dash like a lump of black Velveeta.” Moments like this cast the entire book in a bleak but unforgettable light—if I misremembered the general structure of The Point, it’s because I so vividly recalled its aura: lonely, measured, and wistful. —Taylor Lannamann


The majority of my writing has been academic, and I sometimes worry that this is a liability. I’d like to be able to bring readers into the fold of an idea; too often academic writing pushes them out. This week’s discussion of academic writing on The Awl led me to James Miller’s piece, “Is Bad Writing Necessary?”, a nuanced essay written fifteen years ago for Lingua Franca. Miller looks at leftist political writing and traces the debate about whether the more effective critique of the status quo comes from clear and simple writing, or from esoteric writing that might be more precise. Miller’s piece is journalistic, so his conclusion—in favor of clear writing—isn’t surprising. What is surprising is his generosity toward defenders of the esoteric approach, such as Judith Butler and Theodor Adorno, whose questions—can anyone be truly enlightened or politically moved by an idea that they’re able to grasp easily?—Miller raises without dismissing them. Miller situates Adorno’s thought in a way that makes its excesses more comprehensible, but he still presses him on the central failing of his writing: that his commitment to prose too esoteric to be subverted by capitalism also precludes its political efficacy. Miller’s writing is rich, provocative, and context heavy, but also clear—his piece itself may present a way out of the morass it so carefully describes. —Sylvie McNamara