Staff Picks: Jaguars, Jim Beam, Japanese Divorce


This Week’s Reading

From the cover of Gringos.

Fifty-three years ago, James Baldwin published The Fire Next Time, on the experience of being black in America. The title comes from a slave song: “God gave Noah the rainbow sign / No more water but fire next time.” This month, Jesmyn Ward published a compilation of essays called The Fire This Time. She wanted a book, as she writes in a brilliant introduction, “that would reckon with the fire of rage and despair and fierce, protective love currently sweeping through the streets and campuses of America … A book that a girl in rural Missouri could pick up at her local library and, while reading, encounter a voice that hushed her fears.” Ward has packed a multitude into a modest volume and fulfills, I think, her desire to provide a full and rich accounting of black life, one that is infrequently given voice. The lead piece is a sharply evocative prose poem by Kima Jones about a trip home to North Carolina for a funeral and time in the woods with her cousins, “with red cups, Black and Milds, Jim Beam, a blue lighter plucked from the card table.” Another favorite is Garnette Cadogan’s essay on walking, as a boy in Kingston and as a young man in the United States. The dissonance between the two is startling but not surprising: in the former, “I’d get lost in Mittyesque moments, my young mind imagining alternate futures,” and in the other, walking is “a pantomine undertaken to avoid the choreography of criminality.” —Nicole Rudick

I often go back to Gringos, the 1991 novel by Charles Portis, when I find myself between books. Portis is a fount of comedy; his books brim with deliciously absurd characters. Gringos features a clique of eccentric expats idling in the Yucatán: there’s Rudy and Louise Kurle, a blond duo, in Mexico recording evidence of aliens; Doc Flandin, an aged historian and anthropologist whose life work comprises a comprehensive account of Mayan culture; Refugio Osorio, a native of Mérida who deals scraps from his land in the jungle (I’m fond of his pup, “Ramos, son of the late Chino, bravest dog in all Mexico”). Their comedy comes from the wry observations of Gringos’s hero and narrator Jimmy Burns, a fortysomething deliveryman and former hustler of pre-Columbian artifacts. Jimmy lives at the marvelously shabby Posada Fausto hotel in Mérida, taking hauling jobs to pay his rent. His life there “rocks along from day to day”—he drinks in bars and heads to the zoo “to look over the fine new jaguar”—until he finds himself caught up in violent hippie rituals at ancient ruins and adventure in the Yucatán. —Caitlin Love 


I’ve found myself drawn to poetry collections whose muses are zoological. First, I read T. S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, and now I’m reading Alice Oswald’s collection of Ted Hughes’s animal poems, which spans nearly fifty years of the poet’s career (1957 to 2006) and is fittingly called A Ted Hughes Bestiary. It comprises a hundred of Hughes’s poems, each an homage to another critter, from the otter to the fictional wodwo. The book begins with four short prose excerpts, where Hughes writes of the mice he once plucked from behind sheaves and popped into his coat lining as a boy, until finding another way to “capture” his pets: in poetry. What follows is a tender, mythological, and yet profoundly human look at his creatures: dead pigs bask in their hulk, their pink-white eyelashes stuck shut; gnats scribble letters into the air; two tortoiseshell butterflies escape a May snowfall to sip from dandelions. A few lines from “Owl’s Song”: “He sang / How the swan blanched forever / How the wolf threw away its telltale heart / And the stars dropped their pretense … He sang / How everything had nothing more to lose.” —Caitlin Youngquist

My nostalgia is never stronger than in late summer. Since I’m beginning to sense an autumnal quality to the late afternoon light, I’m happy I got my hands on Stephen Dixon’s Late Stories to help prime my wistful grieving. Dixon, whose first publication was in issue 29 of The Paris Review, has written a collection of linked stories about an aging, recently widowed writer named Philip Seidel, who adjusts to his new life alone by imagining and remembering. The collection colors in the bereavement with details of a life, but here his memory is porous and sometimes counterfactual. In one story, he imagines an affair that never was; in another, never meeting his wife at all; in yet another, learning that his daughter was killed in a car crash in California. It’s not as depressing as it sounds. Actually, Late Stories can be playful: Seidel confuses the naked body of the woman he is dating with his deceased wife’s, decides he knows the difference, then promptly gets them tangled up again. Seidel obviously comes straight from Dixon—his wife, Anne Frydman, died of complications from multiple sclerosis in 2009. Late Stories is a fantastic mourning, fantastically written. —Jeffery Gleaves

Still from Happy Hour.

Can I convince you to see a five-hour Japanese movie about four disaffected middle-aged women? No? Well, humor me: Hamaguchi Ryusuke’s Happy Hour is, in its quiet way, the most inventive and perceptive film I’ve seen this year, and far more accessible than its running time would have you believe. Set in a foggy, twinkling Kobe, it follows its four heroines as they turn to friendship to escape the muted forbearance of their work and love lives. (Comparisons to Cassavetes and Sex and the City are both correct and totally irrelevant.) And yeah, it’s fucking long. Its three major set pieces—a touchy-feely “communications” seminar, a divorce-court hearing, and a fiction reading—play out in nearly real time. But if you accept that its duration draws your eye to minutiae you’d otherwise ignore—and that Hamaguchi’s camera knows when and where to focus—you’ll find yourself immediately engrossed. In the tension and clarity Happy Hour wrings from silences, glances, interruptions, and throat clearings, the movie has more to say about intimacy than whole shelves of mid-list novels. Bonus: it will answer a lot of your burning questions about Japanese divorce law. —Dan Piepenbring

Gawker has given the world at least one writer I can celebrate without caveat: Jia Tolentino, whose pieces are worth rereading to help make sense of Gawker’s existence and demise. “No Offense,” her essay on Internet outrage, is a nuanced and rigorous critique of contemporary feminism, but it’s also an explanation of the pressures that shaped Gawker’s style and content. Tolentino concedes the reductive sanctimony of the viral outrage pieces that constitute a sizeable chunk of Gawker-affiliated blogging, but Gawker’s readers, she reminds us, are the ones who demand such pieces. To write something more complex and responsible (like her piece on David Bowie’s death) is to swim upstream: i.e., to be ruthlessly and publicly berated by thousands of aggressive commenters. These are not just “men’s rights activists”—the Left wields its pitchforks, too—and reading Tolentino’s work is a humbling reminder that Gawker’s problems are also the problems of its audience—which is to say, us. If we’re at all tempted to revel in Gawker’s demise this week, we might consider setting aside our sanctimony and instead renewing our commitment to clicking more bylines like Tolentino’s. Otherwise, we’ll continue to get the Internet we deserve. —Sylvie McNamara