Staff Picks: Borscht, Barns, Blazes of Greatness


This Week’s Reading


The closest I’ve come to visiting Ukraine is binging on late-night pierogies at Veselka, where I arrived so drunk you could’ve told me I was in Kiev. I’ve had a much richer (and largely more sober) experience with Sophie Pinkham’s Black Square: Adventures in Post-Soviet Ukraine, the best travel book I’ve read this year—it’s a funny, alert, and more vital account of life there than any you’ll find in the media. Pinkham has a gift for portraiture; even the people she meets in passing feel alive on the page. In an excerpt on the n+1 site, she hikes and camps on the Crimean cape of Meganom, where naked Moldovan hippies spend the summer playing panpipes and living off the land. Pinkham tries to cross the chasm between her life and theirs: “I had never been so acutely aware of my lack of the basic skills that have allowed people to keep themselves alive for millennia,” she writes. “I met a six-year-old who could make borscht; her twelve-year-old brother could dive for mussels. Neither could read—but what good was reading when you were hungry for dinner? The children reminded me of deer, slim and agile, with caramel limbs and sun-bleached hair. They almost never cried, probably because no one would have listened.” —Dan Piepenbring

“Richard Howard was once asked how he would translate the French word x—a recherché term intended to stump the Master—and responded, ‘I don’t translate words.’ On the one hand, this is clearly untrue. All translators spend a great deal of time fretting over their choice of words. On the other hand, it is exactly right.” In the current issue of Public Culture, our poetry editor, Robyn Creswell, makes a case for nonliteral translation. His main exhibit: the crummy (but literal) New York Times translations of Osama bin Laden’s famous eloquence: “The effect of the Times’ translations, which toggle between barely grammatical speech and weak imitations of rhetorical commonplaces, is to confirm the idea of bin Laden, and of Arabic speakers more generally, that many Times readers already had—that of a strange and potentially deranged exotic, whose speech shows no ability to connect one thought to another. And in this way Arabic itself gets represented as an untranslatable language, which has pretty much been its historical fate in English.” —Lorin Stein 

The only people, I imagine, who don’t like Dwight Garner’s reviews are the writers who get zinged in them. Like Marina Abramovic, whose memoir receives blistering treatment in Garner’s latest. It sounds as though Walk Through Walls is an easy target—an advance version of the book inspired the hashtag #theracistispresent—but still, in Garner’s hands, even taking an obvious flop to task is a lesson in panache. “I knew I was going to dislike Ms. Abramovic’s memoir on Page 10,” he admits early on. “A tolerance for a certain amount of pomposity is a prerequisite for keeping up with serious art; otherwise you’re always sitting at the short table and using the plastic cutlery. In Walk Through Walls, Ms. Abramovic pushes this tolerance to its limits.” Later, Garner bemoans the book’s “implicit injunctions to warm one’s hands on the blaze of her greatness.” It’s perhaps mean-spirited of me to say, but one’s hands are satisfyingly warmed on the blaze of Garner’s words. —Nicole Rudick

From the mezzanine of the Broadhurst Theatre, I watched Jack O’Brien’s revival of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s 1928 playThe Front Page. It was sensational. Not only does it star a phenomenal cast, with Nathan Lane, John Slattery, John Goodman, and Robert Morse (whom my mother remembers as the cutie from the 1967 musical How to Succeed in Business), but it comprises three acts of some of the wildest, funniest, raunchiest banter I’ve heard in a while. The premise: Chicago newspapermen hang around an office in the city’s criminal-courts building, running their mouths and generally making asses of themselves as they wait for the news to roll in. And boy, does it. But it’s the play’s loud, outré characters, rather than its action, that makes it so good: there’s a germophobic poet who swats the others with his umbrella when they get too close, a German policeman who’s always lurking around, a sheriff who willfully offers his gun to a convicted murderer. The hardest hitters, though, are Slattery (as the wily reporter Hildy Johnson) and Lane (his boss) whose chemistry onstage is magic. As Frank Rich wrote in 1986The Front Page “still ticks louder and faster and funnier than equivalent Broadway contraptions manufactured a decade or two decades after it.” —Caitlin Youngquist

The Front Page.

I’m having trouble describing Kelly Reichardt’s new movie, Certain Women, without crooning, lamely, that “it’s beautiful.” Set in Montana, the film is a still and gentle look at three women whose story lines are split into virtually unconnected chapters. None of the women seem to be at the biggest crossroads of her life, just somewhere in the middle of the big human mess. Laura (Laura Dern), a lawyer, struggles with a desperate client; Gina (Michelle Williams) is building a house; Jamie (Lily Gladstone) falls in love with Beth, a young law-school graduate (Kristen Stewart). The art of these characters is in their gestures: they all smile and frown and furrow their brows and blink and stare, quietly moving through their lives. Each of these actresses is at her best, but I loved Lily Gladstone, whose character is the focus of the last chapter. Her world is defined by the monotony of ranch life: she tends horses, opening the barn and feeding and watering her wards, gathering hay, over and over and over. Her story is marked by an inarticulate loneliness—she barely speaks. —Caitlin Love

I’m convinced you can be anything with a name like Jericho Parms. In her debut essay collection, Lost Wax, Parms makes a study of liminality, looking at the multiple things she is, existentially and literally. The title essay, which borrows from the lost-wax casting method used by sculptors, examines the impossibility of ideal forms; it features Roman statues, an older couple Parms met in New Mexico, and, mostly, the essential failures of human relationships. “I’m puzzled by how often we revere and repudiate the examples set before us,” she says: “The Romans never hesitate to adept their own forms from existing Greek works … yet somehow, I became beholden to the legacy of my parents’ marriage, upholding their free-spirited ideals even when I knew those ideals had failed them.” Parms is at her best when she’s wound up and evoking specificity out of abstraction: “Here, Cupid, Here, Psyche. Here, too, I’m reminded of a Polaroid of my parents.” Her writing has a lyric quality that fans of Lia Purpura and Maggie Nelson will enjoy. —Jeffery Gleaves


Still from Certain Women.

Buried somewhere in the deluge of heartstring-yanking reporting surrounding the Chicago Cubs’ Series win is this ESPN feature by Bradford Doolittle and Luke Knox, which breaks down every roster move made by Theo Epstein since he was hired as the Cubs’ president of baseball operations in 2011. It weighs each transaction by its current Wins Above Replacement (WAR) rating—otherwise known as the newest sabermetrical gold standard for measuring baseball production—and, taken together, they arrange themselves into a comprehensive, curse-breaking flowchart. Theo, referring to his role in leading the Boston Red Sox to a World Series win in 2004, said himself, “I don’t believe in curses, and I guess I played a small part in proving they don’t exist, from a baseball standpoint.” This feature exposes curses for what they are—simple but sometimes monumental empirical obstacles. And it still manages, somewhat boyishly, to lionize Theo as a legendary wizard who conjures numerical value where, before, there was none. —Daniel Johnson