Staff Picks: Witches, Wolves, Warlords


This Week’s Reading

From the cover of The Witches by Stacy Schiff.


For a brief second, some fifty pages in to The Witches, Stacy Schiff’s history of the Salem witch trials, I almost started to wonder whether any of the accused were guilty. Like, of witchcraft. I spent the rest of the book waiting for Stoughton, Hathorne, Cotton Mather, and the other investigators to come to their senses and call the whole thing off. Of course I know better, but her retelling of the trials is so vivid, and resonates so deeply with current events, that the nightmare seems to unfold in real time, its causes obscure, its conclusion impossible to foresee, like a terrifying story you’ve never heard before. —Lorin Stein

“One cannot reason anymore with the President. One life for the life of thousands. Lies lies lies airplanes. Warlords profit false idols prophet.” Reading Kate Zambreno’s first novel, O Fallen Angel, is like getting a dose of electroshock therapy—a galvanizing current of electricity straight into the brain. Written in 2007, in the aftermath of September 11 and in the midst of the second Bush’s presidency, O Fallen Angel was published by Lidia Yuknavitch’s small press Chiasmus the following year; it was fittingly reissued last month, a few days before Trump’s inauguration. The novel is related through three characters’ streams of consciousness: the Valium-popping housewife Mommy, one of literature’s great monsters; her daughter, Maggie, a drug addict who pursues a physical and psychological drive toward death; and Malachi, a street prophet, who seems to foresee, among other events, burning towers. O Fallen Angel is blackly funny and brutal, a radical and clear-sighted antidote for banality and complacency. —Nicole Rudick 

From the cover of Wolf Whistle by Lewis Nordan.

Near the beginning of Lewis Nordan’s Wolf Whistle, Solon Gregg walks through the white ghetto in Arrow Catcher, Mississippi, while buzzards “slick and black with rainwater sat [on lamp posts] with hunched soldiers and wattled necks like sad old men in dark coats.” The birds stretch as far as the eye can see, thinking of meat and sucking swamp air inside their lungs “to savor the fragrance of loss.” Loss and death, rain, and race are at the heart of this novel—a surrealist, fictionalized telling of Emmett Till’s murder published in 1993. The setting, Arrow Catcher, is an analogue for Itta Bena, near where Nordan grew up, and crops up in most of is writing. Nordan was fifteen when Emmitt Till was killed, and he knew the murderers. Wolf Whistle shivers with an epic hum; echoes of the Civil War; the atrocities of murder, rape, and oppression of blacks (in Wolf Whistle, specifically Southern in their horror); the Southern language; my home region’s dark underbelly. Even these buzzards—looking down on Solon, who will later kill “Bobo,” Arrow Catcher’s fourteen-year-old visitor from Chicago—are “a part of the glorious history of the South.” Improbably (surrealistically), they’re named after “past and future governors and senators of the sovereign state of Mississippi.” Some of them, a hundred years old, have actually fed on the meat of Confederate troops. Coming in early as they do in the book, they set up right away the rot underneath the violence that comes later. (Pair with John McElwee’s indispensable Oxford American essay about Nordan, “A House of Crossed Logs.”) —Caitlin Love

From the cover of The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie.

It’s been a while since I enjoyed a novel as much as I did Elizabeth McKenzie’s The Portable Veblen. Its premise is one we’ve seen in novels like White Noise and Freedom: set a dysfunctional family with a vicious desire for tradition against some sort of institutional crookery that risks the lives of unaware American consumers. In this case, Paul and Veblen are trying to set a date for their wedding, which proves increasingly difficult both as they meet each other’s parents and as Paul’s lifelong neurological research gets purchased by a corrupt pharmaceutical company. What makes Veblen stand out is how thoughtfully McKenzie traces Paul’s and Veblen’s struggles to scenes from the quiet, everyday trauma of their youth—day-to-day life with an autistic sibling, the awkward thrill of losing one’s virginity on drugs, being accused of cheating in a science fair. Veblen empathizes with how unprepared we are for the seamless shift when youth folds into expected adulthood, and suggests the only way Paul and Veblen will ever mature enough to reach the altar is by stripping themselves of their upbringing—parental complexes and all. There’s a lovely refrain I kept recalling as I read, a lyric from songwriter Dave Simonett, which seems to get right at The Portable Veblen’s tragicomic heart: “It’s a bitch, ain’t it babe, / to live while we’re young? / I’m crushed that the world turned over / so soon.” —Daniel Johnson

Before The Cat in the Hat cemented his fame, Theodor Seuss Geisel illustrated the dangers of American isolationism in more than four hundred images as the chief editorial cartoonist for the New York newspaper PM (1940–1948). Thanks to U.C. San Diego’s Dr. Seuss Collection, you can view them online. You may recognize “Adolf the Wolf,” the cartoon gaining traction lately as a critique of Trump’s travel ban. A boy and girl sit by their mother, “America First,” as she reads, “and the Wolf chewed up the children and spit out their bones … but those were Foreign Children and it didn’t really matter.” Seuss presses this isolationism further in “Our Warm, Warm Cot”: a couple cowers under heaps of bedding as the “Grim Cold Facts” blow frigidly through their window. Viewed today, these lesser-known images draw history close; crucially, they remind us that the distance between the past and present is primarily a matter of memory. —Madeline Medeiros Pereira

Well, I’m doing it: I’m reading Robert Caro’s The Years of Lyndon Johnson. I don’t really know why. I think this is a good time to get acquainted with the more obscure levers of presidential power, and with those who’ve pulled said levers with a certain ruthless efficiency. Granted, Johnson and Trump have little in common aside from their ambition and the office it led them to, but there is, I’ve noticed, this one thing: both men adore their cocks. Don’t all men? I can hear you asking. The answer is no, not like this, anyway—from Caro I’ve learned that in his college years Johnson “would take his penis in his hand and say: ‘Well, I’ve gotta take ol’ Jumbo here and give him some exercise. I wonder who I’ll fuck tonight.’ ” Pair that little gem with, say, Trump’s defense of his penis size last March, or the famous 1964 tape of Johnson ordering pants over the phone, specifying that he needs an extra inch “down where your nuts hang … back to my bunghole”—and you start to see a nauseous continuity in the presidency. Philip Larkin had it that man hands on misery to man; American presidents, then, send down a special breed of misery, an insatiable penile narcissism that the Oval Office has never been without. —Dan Piepenbring