Staff Picks: Concentric Circles, Carpenters, Coffee House


This Week’s Reading

From the cover of Alma Thomas, by Ian Berry.


“Vincent is a waiter at Coffee House. It’s called just that—Coffee House. The name hasn’t changed in a hundred years, even if the business has.” From its opening lines, Ghachar Ghochar—Vivek Shanbhag’s novella about the secrets of a nouveau riche family in present-day Bangalore—exudes such a sly, ironic charm that it’s easy to forget you’re reading a translation. Ghachar Ghochar introduces us to a master. I can’t wait for his translator, Srinath Perur, to show us more. —Lorin Stein

Among the many, many, many reasons to miss the Obamas is their smart and wide-ranging taste in art. They chose three Alma Thomas paintings for the White House, one of which, Resurrection, was placed in the Old Family Dining Room, making it the first work by an African American woman to hang in a public area of the White House. Thomas made Resurrection in 1968, only eight years after retiring, at age sixty-eight, from teaching junior-high art in Washington, D.C., and devoting herself to painting. Resurrection consists of concentric circles of paint daubs, her signature “Alma Stripes,” radiating outward in rainbow colors that are electric with possibility. All of her early works are of a piece—brightly hued and joyous, like oversize pointillist versions of Sister Corita Kent posters. The Studio Museum in Harlem gave Thomas a show last year, which I missed, but a gorgeous catalogue is now available (which makes me doubly sad I missed the show). Alongside NASA’s Apollo missions, Thomas made her Space series, which, though formally similar to the earlier work, seems tempered in mood. Snoopy Sees Sunrise on Earth, from 1971, depicts a globe of color stripes floating on a pale blue-green field: I sense her awe of the cosmic scene, but also perhaps its fragility. “I began to think about what I would see if I were in an airplane,” she explained of the series. “You look down on things. You streak through the clouds so fast you don’t know whether the flower below is a violet or what. You see only streaks of color.” —Nicole Rudick 

I found Ian McGuire while piecing together our new digital archive: his story “The Red Monk” appears in our Spring–Summer 2001 issue. His first novel, The North Water, wouldn’t debut until fifteen years later, in the spring of 2016. The story is about the six-month expedition of the Volunteer, a ship coughed out to sea in the last gasp of the whaling industry, just as the reliance on blubber is giving way to coal oil. It’s an ill-manned vessel populated with villains and fugitives—two in particular: Patrick Sumter, an Irish field surgeon, and Henry Drax, a brutish harpooner—who rape, murder, and steal from each other on the journey. While a novel like Blood Meridian—to which, along with Moby Dick and Heart of Darkness, McGuire’s debut alludes often—suggests existential and metaphysical purpose to nihilistic violence, The North Water makes no effort to elevate its characters’ brigandage. The worst of these men possess virtually no interiority, no emotion. They act on primal impulse and greed, and any abstract explanation to their degeneracy is supplanted by McGuire’s impressive and relentless focus on the physicality of whaling expeditions: the slimy resin of blubber, the stink of a grown man’s shit, the taste and gelatinous texture of a seal’s eyeball. It’s a terrifically grotesque novel with the thrilling inertia of adventure/survival narratives; once I started it, I had a hard time stopping.  —Daniel Johnson

On the train to work the other day, I reread Sonia Sanchez’s book-length poem Does Your House Have Lions? (1997) and was reminded of what a masterly talent she is. Lions is an epic, torturous and ravishing, about Sanchez’s brother, who decades ago died from AIDS. Sanchez writes of his youth: the estrangement of his father, his move from the South to New York City, the revelry he sought there. Throughout the poem, a choir of voices speaks, bringing a full picture into view. We hear from the father (“and my son’s body blood-stained red / with country-lies, city-lies, father-lies, mother-lies”), from the ailing brother (“O forgive me tremor / O forgive me rumor / O forgive me terror”), even from their family’s ancestors. Still, the lines I find most harrowing, brimming with the most love and the most sorrow, are Sanchez’s own:

and the days rummaging his eyes
and the nights flickering through a slit
of narrow bars. hips. thighs.
and his thoughts labeling him misfit
as he prowled, pranced in the starlit
city, coloring his days and nights
with gluttony and praise and unreconciled rites.

Caitlin Youngquist


Imagine a cutthroat dance competition with no sensationalism or vanity, a challenge so detached from spectacle that the media hardly covers it: that’s the national Malambo contest, held for centuries in the Argentinean village of Laborde. Leila Guerriero’s A Simple Story taught me all about it. The Malambo is an arduous dance, especially performed at length, as it is in Laborde; it demands rigorous training and peak physical condition, and its practitioners embrace an almost priestly regime of asceticism and self-denial. For their troubles, they get … the pleasure of a job well done. The victor in Laborde, as Guerriero explains in her canny book, receives no cash prize and only a modest trophy. What’s more, he agrees never again to participate in the contest, effectively ending his career at its zenith so others can have a shot. It’s so unlike anything in the U.S.—to marry success to sacrifice; to pursue ritual for its own sake—that it feels instructively alien. Hats off to Guerriero, who aimed “to tell the story of the festival and to try to understand why people would want to do such a thing: to rise to greatness only to immediately succumb.” —Dan Piepenbring

I was saddened to hear about the passing of the historian and former California state librarian Kevin Starr last month. Starr is best known for his eight-volume series Americans and the California Dream, which I cannot recommend highly enough. Running to thousands of pages, the books posit that the elusive American Dream is most fully inhabited by California, which is, after all, America’s golden “Promised Land.” When he was young, Starr dreamed of being a “literary man”; as a result, his work paid close attention to cultural movements, shifting public sentiments, and new artistic aesthetics, often turning to biographical sketches of the large personalities that embodied all three. The time of the bespectacled, bow-tied historian may have come to its end when we lost Starr. Back when California was broke in the early 2000s—mostly due to a horribly gridlocked state legislature—I saw him at small bookstore in that crazy, beautiful, “Nuclear Free” county of Marin, where I heard him say, “Historically, California politicians from both sides of the aisle used to retreat to smoke filled backrooms and make deals with each other—some well intentioned, some not—now, with so much ideological motivation, they don’t even do that anymore.” An observation I’ve thought of often since then. —Jeffery Gleaves

Still from The Detectress, via the Museum of Modern Art.

This Monday, I rushed through the rain to see “Ethnic Profiling: Stereotypically Speaking” at the Museum of Modern Art. A collection of six comic shorts from the silent era, the presentation is a part of “Cruel and Unusual Comedy,” a month-long series on early twentieth-century slapstick. The movies here—among them Oh, Sammy! (1913), which depicts a romance in a Jewish sweatshop, and Do Your Stuff (1923), which displays a foray into Chinatown—turn Schadenfreude on its head. Each sharply examines our regard for marginalized bodies. Overt stereotypes create a productive discomfort: prosthetic noses and taped back eyes made me cringe, but they also pushed me to reconsider the historical context. Presented alongside MoMA’s exhibition “Making Faces: Images of Exploitation and Empowerment in Cinema,” “Ethnic Profiling” challenges audiences to engage with the ethics of performance, which, in light of recent events, raises questions still very much alive today. —Madeline Medeiros Pereira

An affluent businessman with a wayward relationship to the truth has risen to power, dragging his murky business dealings into the public sphere: it sounds like a Gaddis novel. I’ve been thinking of Carpenter’s Gothic (1985), one of his shorter books, which takes place entirely in one house—and describes such an overlap between business and government. A character named Paul, a Vietnam vet who married into money, is caught in an ethics scandal as the bagman paying off politicians for his father-in-law’s business. Paul is not lovable; he is angry, gruff. Believing in the American ideal of the self-made man, he tries to forge a path in his wife’s family’s business, often telling his well-heeled spouse that he’s “getting things lined up.” But Paul is simply not powerful enough to effect change in his world; there are, Gaddis seems to say, only a select few who can pull the meaningful strings, and the pathos of Carpenter’s Gothic comes from this brute fact: Paul is not one of them. As a study of the perceptions of power—of its movers and shakers—the novel remains all too applicable. —Noah Dow