Staff Picks: Border Towns, Brylcreem, Backstairs Intrigue


This Week’s Reading

Matamoros, Tamaulipas, 1978. © Alex Webb / Magnum Photos, via Aperture.

I’ve long felt that the best recommendations for photographic work come from other photographers. From Aaron Stern and Jordan Sullivan I learned about the work of Alex Webb, who, as luck would have it, has a show of photographs at Aperture right now. On view are Webb’s photographs from Mexico taken between 1975, when Webb was twenty-three, and 2007. He shot the images on the streets, in border towns, but it doesn’t feel right to call this street photography: there’s a theatricality to some of the photographs, but subdued, without the performative pomp of much American street work. One depicts a scene of mourning in which three anguished women are momentarily frozen in classical poses as they lament over a man’s body. Another shows a deserted boulevard of buildings under construction shot from an elevated perspective; the rocky terrain and buildings are mainly white, but in the foreground is a cardboard box from which an array of colorful women’s shoes bloom like a desert flower. There’s a sense of precariousness in many of these photographs, but it’s frequently offset by Webb’s brilliant use of color—acid green, sky blue, dusty rose—which light up each moment like a small celebration. —Nicole Rudick

I recently dove into C. K. Williams’s final collection of poetry, Falling Ill (which will publish posthumously early next year), and I’m in awe of it. As the title implies, it’s an unflinching chronicle of what it’s like to die, from terminal diagnosis—for Williams, the “alliterated appellation” multiple myeloma—to the difficulty of waking, to the things one says to oneself as the illness takes over, things like, Am I still hereCatch your breathAre you ready. Williams writes carefully, matter-of-factly, of death’s crippling seizure: the pops and farts and groans his body makes in defiance of him, the fear that has “outwitted me again / changed its costume sharpened its knives.” The book is slender, with fifty-two poems: one per page, each five stanzas of three lines apiece. Williams voids every poem of commas and periods as if to weave his unself-conscious urgency and unease into the very fibers of the collection. The last poem, “Farewell,” leaves us with these indelible, inconsolable words: “there must be // a way to cry goodbye aloud to leave you / these inadequate thanks without resorting / to rending farewell oh dear heart farewell” —Caitlin Youngquist 


In a moving section early in John Haskell’s American Purgatorio, the narrator stands in his backyard garden with shears in his hand. His wife has recently disappeared, and he worries, delusionally, that she’s been kidnapped, but already dark signs are emerging that her absence is by design: a receipt in her desk for a car tune-up, a map with felt-tip marker lines between New York and California. He doesn’t yet believe she’s left him, as he stands, helpless in his denial, surveying his bulbs and hydrangeas; pruning this verdant sanctuary will keep the plants beautiful and from dying. So he holds the clippers “to save something. To be rid of pain and fear, which was my pain and my fear, and although I anthropomorphized the dumb green garden, it was my own dull gnawing that was gnawing me … Since I couldn’t cut that, I turned to the plants.” What happens is devastating: he ruins the garden methodically, prunes “to death every plant I ever cared about.” Each page of Purgatorio rocks with a similar, ironic pathos—the narrator fighting for control and the truth, not realizing that he doesn’t have access to either. —Caitlin Love

I was unfamiliar with the word feuilleton (a short literary composition often having a familiar tone and reminiscent content—think of The New Yorker’s Talk of the Town) before I read Robert Walser’s newly translated collection of them, Girlfriends, Ghosts, and Other Stories. These eighty-one brief sketches are catalogued as short fiction, but read more like flash essays, or brief, beautifully composed diary entries. My favorite is a single-page bomb of joie de vivre titled “Remember This”: “Remember how you rejoiced at the sweet, fresh green spring, how enchanted you were by the silver-white, sky-blue lake, how you greeted the mountains, how you found everything beautiful that encountered you and you encountered, how you were enfolded by a splendidly vast, undisturbed freedom, and how happy you were in its embrace.” When Walser isn’t laying on his unflagging enthusiasm, he’s gleefully injecting novella-sized plots into two-page character sketches, like this one from “The Red Leather Pouch”: “She was, confidentially speaking, a spy. In certain times certain persons are entrusted with a mission. The spy had been assigned by such and such government to pry from certain hands a little pouch with letters, sketches, etc. What backstairs-intriguishness I’m bringing into this!” —Jeffery Gleaves


Nursing a cold last night, I stayed up too late reading Jane and Michael Stern’s Sixties People (1990), a kind of material history of that decade of decades. The Sterns, who were interviewed in the magazine last year, devote every chapter to a different archetype: there are playboys, of course, as well as perky girls, hippies, and, perhaps most profitably, young vulgarians, those inscrutable teens in pancake makeup and pussycat blouses. From a profusion of dusty ad copy and forgotten proper nouns (Brylcreem, Sansabelt, the Watusi), the Sterns have assembled a witty, astute collection of essays in the guise of a novelty book. Not to damn them with faint praise, but no one has ever written so well about hairdos: there’s a three-page disquisition on the beehive that says more about the era’s gestalt than any documentary could. “Each of the people we describe in this book had a distinct idea of what a better world would be,” the Sterns write in their introduction. “Some wanted to save it; others wanted to blow it up; a few just wanted to find a pair of fun pantyhose.” —Dan Piepenbring

Regina McBride’s Ghost Songs is a haunting memoir of her grief at eighteen, when both of her parents died within months of each other, both by suicide. It gets more complicated when we learn that McBride was raised Irish Catholic, with the ironclad belief that suicide is an unforgivable sin: she’s further tormented by the idea that her parents are now forever trapped in a world between the living and the dead, and she sometimes sees them as apparitions. Her journey toward recovery takes her from New York to the desert of New Mexico and finally to the shores of Ireland, where she is able to reconcile the events that happened to her and to her parents. The magnitude of the author’s grief is at times overwhelming; there’s an unerring sense of distress and disorder. By the end of the book, we’ve pieced together her life—I felt an odd, poignant sense of calm with her when, in the final pages, she sits in a café in Dublin. —Nollaig O’Connor