Staff Picks: Bey, Bureaucrats, Bloody Hands


This Week’s Reading

From There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé.


In the early 1920s, a series of unsolved murders terrorized the residents of Osage County, Oklahoma. Most of the victims were members of the Osage Nation—a tribe that had grown rich when oil was discovered on their reservation—but as the killings continued, even their privately funded investigations failed to crack the case, until it drew the attention of an ambitious young bureaucrat in Washington, J. Edgar Hoover. Through heroic and ingenious detective work, Hoover’s agents at what was then called the Bureau of Investigation exposed a cabal of white Oklahomans conspiring to kill Indians for their oil. The case made Hoover’s name, and the Bureau’s, but as David Grann shows in Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI—out this April—the true scale of the conspiracy has never been revealed. It is an incredible story, stirring and impossible to put down, by a writer whose true-life mysteries always go deeper than the reader expects. —Lorin Stein

In a New York Times opinion piece last November, just after the presidential election, the poet Morgan Parker wrote about being “a thing to be hated”—that is, being a black woman. “Society believes that black women are not beautiful,” she writes, “and so maybe I believe that, too.” Parker’s tremendous new collection, There Are More Beautiful Things than Beyoncé, echoes that sentiment but also takes it to task. Her feelings of invisibility alight in the first poem, “All They Want Is My Money My Pussy My Blood,” which doesn’t somuch open the book as explode from it. “At school they learned that Black people happened,” she says of a group of kids. It’s a small, powerful line whose suggestion—in part that black identity is history and thus forfeit in the present—permeates these poems. Parker, though, doesn’t concede the point (“A secret is during commercials / I am living other lives”), and she derives strength and inspiration from other black women, including Mickalene Thomas, whose photocollage appears on the book’s cover. In a poem written in response to Thomas’s work, Parker captures the embodied fullness of Thomas’s images of self-possessed black women: “Jeweled lips, we’re rich / We’re everyone. We have ideas and vaginas, / history and clothes and a mother.” —Nicole Rudick 

From High Lonesome.

Plenty has been said about Barry Hannah’s sentences. In Richard Ford’s 2004 introduction to Airships, he said they “had a perilous feel,” and the title of Jamie Quatro’s 2009 essay echoes that risk: “Barry Hannah’s Dangerous Syntax.” Hannah was edited by Gordon Lish, and, like many of Lish’s acolytes , his sentences glare with grammatical unease—until a second read, when it’s clear that they’re shining with an odd perfection. I’d like to point out one sentence that caught my eye especially, from “Carriba” in High Lonesome: “Put that pussy on my head and wear her down the street like a hat.” Hannah, whose work needled in on “heroism and violence; racial politics; misogyny; religious gilt, atonement and judgment; what it means to be male or artistic in the modern world; and the relationship between jazz music and narrative improvisation,” isn’t necessarily a “prophetic” writer. What I mean is, I doubt Hannah meant for that icy little sexist line to have the weight it has today, as white women nationwide pounce into marches in pink displays of feminism. I wonder what he’d make of it, this line clawing its way into 2017 while the world carousel spins in its rising and falling farce. —Caitlin Love

Under its new editor, Adam Ross, the venerable Sewanee Review has gotten a nice face-lift—I spent last night absorbed in its Winter 2017 issue. Of special note are John Jeremiah Sullivan’s essay “The Curses,” about the “blue music” and “blue songs” that came to prominence in 1870s America, when songs from the plantation first began to reach white ears; and Jennifer Habel’s “P Is for Permission,” a collage poem constructed entirely from The Paris Review’s interviews with Elizabeth Hardwick, Janet Malcolm, Toni Morrison, Joan Didion, Joy Williams, Ann Beattie, and Deborah Eisenberg. Sewn together, their words take on a new resonance: “I was the most ordinary of the ordinary / I was obsessed with Dickinson / I was uneasy with my presence in life.” —Dan Piepenbring

So much can be said about the triumphs of George Saunders’s debut novel, Lincoln in the Bardo: his audacity in describing Lincoln’s consciousness as he sits cross-legged in a moonlit grove not far from his dead son’s tomb, plucking blades of grass; the echoes between the fairground boundaries of the Bardo at Oak Hill Cemetery and the theme parks in his earlier collections, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline and Pastoralia; the momentum the book somehow gains despite its narration, which is mostly a chorus of fragmented and competing voices. But not enough has been said about the subnarrative concerning the novel’s finest character, Reverend Everly Thomas, who is the only spirit at Oak Hill who knows not only that he and all the rest are dead—these spirits, before Lincoln’s earthly intervention, are in utter denial of their state—but also that he is damned to be flayed for all eternity by a “beast, bloody-handed and long-fanged, wearing a sulfur-colored robe, bits of innards speckling it.” The ceremony Rev. Thomas endures, which involves projectile-vomiting angels and diamond doors, before fleeing back to the Bardo is the singular most haunting imagining of Final Judgment I’ve ever read. —Daniel Johnson

Karl Geary’s debut novel, Montpelier Parade, is set in 1980s Dublin, in the midst of a bleak recession. Sonny Knolls, a sixteen-year-old from a working-class family, is smart, but he doesn’t know what he wants to do with his life; he spends his time getting drunk, stealing some bicycle parts, and doing odd labor jobs with his father. Vera is a beautiful older woman who lives in an affluent part of the city; like her home, she possesses a certain grandeur, but it’s become worn and vacant. In Vera, Sonny sees the opportunity and cultural richness that his life lacks. Geary paints such a detailed picture of working-class Dublin—his writing reminds me of Roddy Doyle’s—and he captures that feeling of wanting to shed the limitations and conditions of your background. Parade makes for a poignant debut. —Nollaig O’Connor