Staff Picks: Like Art, Like Death, Like …


This Week’s Reading


I’ve been losing myself on the train this week in Gabrielle Bell’s new comic, Everything Is Flammable. It doesn’t come out until April, so I’m jumping the gun here, but once I read it I couldn’t not write about it—it’s that good. Bell writes and draws stories with deep humanity, and, impressively, that humanity—painful, awkward, and uncertain—is her own. This new book spans a year and follows Bell as she travels to and from her mother’s home in rural Northern California, navigating the guilt she feels as an absent daughter and the anxiety she feels in trying to care for her independent mother. Bell’s self-awareness and observations never result in tidy epiphanies; the book’s strips open out into one another, accumulating without resolution. She is also always funny, and her distinct blocky hatching style gives warmth to every panel. The ineffable quality is that she makes all this look easy. —Nicole Rudick

Having spent hours puzzling over dumb subway ads (worst recent offender: HelloFresh, whose come-hither copy begs, LET’S MAKE SWEET, SWEET POTATOES TOGETHER) I’m having a ball with Glenn O’Brien’s Like Art—a collection of his columns on advertising, which ran in Artforum from 1985 to 1990. As the title suggests, O’Brien treats ads as art objects, which is to say he understands that most of them are meaningless, even if their effects on us aren’t. Though he offers withering pronouncements (“You can’t run a jingle over emaciated faces and bloated bellies,” he says of an AT&T ad about using your long-distance plan to call Ethiopia) and even occasional praise, really his columns amount to a kind of advertisee’s diary, recording the idle chatter that passes through us as we process hundreds, maybe thousands of ads every week. Here he is on cigarettes: “In London recently there were billions of billboards everywhere with the image of scissors cut out of purple fabric. Near one corner was the British version of The Warning: ‘Cigarettes can seriously damage your health.’ But I couldn’t figure out if this was a cigarette ad or an antismoking ad. It was the most abstract ad I’d ever seen. I wanted to stop people on the street and ask them what it meant, but I didn’t. I still don’t know.” —Dan Piepenbring 

Sifting through near-forgotten books on my shelf the other night, I came across Aracelis Girmay’s collection The Black Maria, which I promptly reread—it proved as alluring and torturous as I’d remembered. Comprising two sections, The Black Maria (a phrase that conjures up not only the bitter image of a patrol car whisking wrongdoers away but also of the dark spots of the moon, once mistaken for seas, called maria) brims with the histories of the African diaspora and the racism that swarms this country. Each line heaves with a grief several hundred years old as Girmay writes of the African people who have died at sea; of feeling hunted, in America, like “another animal, one it is legal to kill. A bear or boar.”; of a black child who, to study the stars, climbs to the roof of his apartment only to be met by officers—“you might be holding / your breath for him right now / because you know this story.” And yet Girmay’s verse is startlingly poised, even as it bellows with her immeasurable sorrow and outrage, even as it wakes our own. —Caitlin Youngquist

Richard Howard’s new translation of Guy de Maupassant’s Like Death haunted me with its lyrical force. The novel tells of the decline of an artist named Olivier Bertin—from youth, from fame, and ultimately from life. In his prime, Bertin embodied joie de vivre: “Paris had been utterly smitten, had adopted him, toasted him, and he straightaway became one of those brilliant figures …He had entered the city as a conqueror, to universal approval.” But that was also how “Fortune led him to the threshold of old age, petting and caressing him all the way.” Drastically unprepared for growing old, Olivier clings to his youth. His lover, Anne, by comparison, is always aware that her age determines her value; she watches as Olivier becomes increasingly obsessed with her teenage daughter. Written as Maupassant himself was dying, Like Death arrests readers with its searing prose, gripped by the same anxiety preoccupying its protagonist. Howard has done us the immense service of conveying Like Death’s intense psychology to a new generation of readers. —Madeline Medeiros Pereira