In place of our staff picks this week, we’ve asked five contributors from our new Fall issue to write about what they’re reading.
After a long dry spell, my interest in reading renewed recently when I read the opening lines of Rachel Cusk’s forthcoming book, Transit: “An astrologer e-mailed me to say she had important news for me concerning events in my immediate future. She could see things that I could not: my personal details had come into her possession and had allowed her to study the planets for their information. She wished me to know a major transit was due to occur shortly in my sky.” As readers of Outline will know, Cusk absorbs other people’s stories, letting them rest in her mind and retelling them as her own. In one section of Transit, the narrator has a student over to her house. The student is in her late thirties, and has three hundred thousand words of notes about the painter Marsden Hartley, whose work she saw once in Paris. Marsden Hartley and the student are, the student says testily, the same person. After asking a few questions about the student’s research, the narrator asks her what happened the night before she saw the paintings. The next sixteen pages are the story of that night. I admire and envy Rachel Cusk for her maturity and her shameless intelligence, and her coldhearted willingness to steal stories from her students. —Amie Barrodale (“Protectors”)
I’ve been (very slowly) reading and enjoying Richard Brody’s Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard after a recent rewatching of Pierrot le Fou. My girlfriend and I were actually trying to watch a Rohmer movie, but the Internet stream kept cutting out, so we turned to our scattered DVD collection. The low-key charm of Full Moon in Paris gave way to the hyperactive extravagance of Pierrot, and neither of us was at all sure how we felt about the change in tone. We were simultaneously overstimulated and a little bit bored. We wondered how seriously we were supposed to take any of it; somehow it had all made a lot more sense when we first saw it in college. An incident described early on in Everything Is Cinema presages our viewing experience. Before either Godard or Rohmer had made a full-length film, Godard directed All the Boys Are Called Patrick, a short film based on a script of Rohmer’s. “Little in the film suggests that Godard had any particular devotion to the story,” Brody writes. “Eric Rohmer was surprised and dismayed by the changes Godard had wrought upon his script and ended their collaboration.” —Andrew Martin (“No Cops”)
I’m currently writing a memoir, and I keep returning to Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby for inspiration. This is precisely the kind of book I want to write. What makes Solnit such an effective memoirist is the way in which she takes elements of her life and gracefully ties them to complex spiritual and environmental notions and phenomena. On the surface, the book is about a cancer scare, a trip to Iceland, and her fraught relationship with her mother, who is living with Alzheimer’s. But Solnit uses these experiences to delve deeply into diverse concepts and histories, such as Buddhist philosophy, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and the life of Che Guevara. To me, this book explores what it means to be fleeting in the grand scheme of the universe—in essence, what it means to be human. Memoirs are often at risk of being a servant to the ego, but Solnit is such an empathetic and sophisticated writer that she transcends the “I” with an elegant self-consciousness. —Erika L. Sánchez (“Love Story”)
Guy Sajer, the narrator of the fictional memoir The Forgotten Soldier, is obviously a sociopath. How else to describe a work that begins with the narrator and his fellow German soldiers wandering through the Warsaw ghetto during World War II and experiencing it as a sort of tourism site? Even if we were to try to explain this gruesome moment by saying that he is just describing his own ignorance, how do we handle it when he quotes Hitler approvingly? Fortunately, the interior life of the character does not matter much as he marches confusedly into Russia. What matters are the harrowing and visually dramatic descriptions of what war was like on that tundra: the bombing of a frozen river so that at night enemies won’t be able to cross the chunks of ice thrown up, the incredible cold that causes soldiers to urinate on each other’s hands so that they will experience a little bit of warmth. All of these moments are indelible. Surely this is a work of extraordinary interest. —Akhil Sharma (“The Well”)
Michael Helm’s After James is like a series of deeply unsettling dreams. You know they’re connected, and this knowledge is insistent. Images reappear, but the angles are different. People from one dream are ghosts in the other. Your brain is trying to warn you, perhaps, of an imminent situation, or one happening now, or of a thing forgotten coming back to haunt you. Your brain is trying to find a way to your instincts through your intellect. What measure of belief will cause you to act? How much evidence do you need? Think David Lynch, Roberto Bolaño, the art of David Hoffos, a storehouse of unreleased reports. Think of lying at night in a hotel-room bed, reluctant to switch off the light. —Karen Solie (“A Hermit”)