Staff Picks: Meta, Menudo, Mandates


This Week’s Reading

Camille Claudel.

Jim Harrison, who died last year at seventy-eight, was a gourmand with a trencherman’s appetite—food comes up in his Writers at Work interview several times. Though he evokes an atmosphere of overindulgence, the man was sensible and had rules for his dinner guests, the first being very practical considering: “No one is allowed to use cocaine before the meal when I cook … Cocaine creates a sort of bubblegum nimbus that slaughters the palate and sensuous capacities, in addition to shrinking the wee-wee and tearing holes in the social fabric.” Jane and Michael Stern once described Harrison’s food writing as a “combo plate of Hunter S. Thompson, Ernest Hemingway, Julian Schnabel, and Sam Peckinpah.” The years didn’t change him, evidenced by the new, posthumous A Really Big Lunch, a collection of essays from the 2000s in which Harrison goes on about “left-leaning, spit-dribbling, eco-freak readers” who wouldn’t want to eat freshly killed meats and suggests that Ronald Reagan “eat my menudo in order to regain the foreign affairs advantage.” He compares a red wine from Chateau Grillet to the “seductive quality of the minute hairs on the back of a woman’s thigh in high summer” and reminds us that of all the animals, man alone cooks. The collection is chockablock with these zingers as well as plenty of half-baked, hilarious theories you can ponder while planning your first summer barbecue. —Jeffery Gleaves

Craig Morgan Teicher is fast becoming one of my favorite contemporary poets. In his new collection, The Trembling Answers, I love that he recognizes small moments of wonder in the quotidian without trying to have those moments transcend the workaday world. So, for instance, he thinks on “high school nights  // spent grieving high school nights—they stick / in the heart like sharp bones, / clog the way like / artery-fat.” There is also an overriding sense in his poems that the life he once imagined for himself is not exactly the one he now leads. Who doesn’t gaze into a mirror with their younger self and see dissatisfaction looking back while, in turn, trying to elicit an understanding that the future they behold, though spare and sometimes troubled, is on balance pretty terrific. Teicher’s poems transpire in a “plain mood,” during “eventless afternoons,” and end “on a low / note, or so tonight would have it,” nights when “I put the kids to bed. I did the dishes.” These humdrum moments contain both contentment and regret—the latter, “the hooks that won’t come out.” This is a book about facing, daily, “this one life that is all I am.” —Nicole Rudick 

Just yesterday, I plucked an advanced copy of Ange Mlinko’s latest collection of poems, Distant Mandate, from the shelf, and I’ve had my nose in it ever since. Though it’s a slim compendium (just shy of ninety pages), its conciseness belies the grandeur of the various worlds it holds inside. Mlinko moves, effortlessly, from the southern landscape of Texas, where a city “smokes like a witch’s sabbath,” to the Vatican, where “we could eat grapes half the morning like Goethe / hunkered against an obelisk, / waiting on the proper angle for the season / to see the Sistine sun-kissed”; from the American frontier where “a riderless ass gallops up to your wagon” to the legions of Greek myths that enthrall her. All the while, Mlinko pays homage to her literary predecessors: Shakespeare, Ovid, and Virgil, among others. Hers is a collection of small histories, one that begs to be read with care. The poems I’ve enjoyed most so far, though, are the ones where Mlinko writes matter-of-factly of her own days. My favorite lines from “Dentro de la tormenta”: “The revelry of others shows up as / Bags under my eyes … In our room above the café / the bass drops were abortifacient.” —Caitlin Youngquist 

Sadie came back from England with a quietly peculiar book: Mr. Tibbits’s Catholic School, by Ysenda Maxtone Graham. The school in question, officially known as Saint Philip Neri, was founded in London in 1934, by a cricket-obsessed Catholic convert, Richard Tibbits, who remained headmaster until his death in 1967. Then his nephew took over for the next twenty-two years—with the widow Mrs. Tibbits as his second-in-command. Both were Anglicans. If England, as a country, is known for its eccentrics, there is something almost inescapably eccentric about English Catholics—starting with their schooling—and Saint Philip never tried to be normal. It was always a home to oddball masters and a cosmopolitan student body, most of whom, on the evidence of Graham’s book, regard it with affection and loyalty. She writes about the comings and goings of teachers, the fates of sports teams, stories in the school newspaper, even changes in the refectory menu, with the close attention that another historian might bring to a history of wars and cultural revolutions. It is pure, if ludicrous, indulgence. —Lorin Stein

Camille Claudel’s loaded gaze is not easily forgotten. Photographed in 1884, the twenty-year-old is resolute—her eyes poignantly impart a sense of the staunch resistance she met as a woman, particularly as a female artist. Already a few years into her relationship with famed sculptor Auguste Rodin at the time the image was taken (who was not only married but over twice her age), Claudel was overshadowed by her mentors and committed to Ville-Évrard asylum by her family. Her unique gifts (particularly evident in pieces such as The WaltzClotho, and Woman Crouched) were suffocated so successfully during her lifetime that she fell into obscurity—kept only marginally alive through fleeting resurgences over the century since. Perhaps the most famous image of her, this photograph dominates discussions of the new Musée Camille Claudel. Opened just last month in Nogent-sur-Seine, the museum establishes her significance over seventy years after her death in the asylum, where she spent the last thirty years of her life. As Emma Garman writes in a recent essay for Lapham’s, “It feels fateful and a little cruel that the museum, long in the making but beset by obstacles and delays, is now launching in the centenary year of Rodin’s death, with all its inevitable hoopla. For Claudel longed, above all, to escape his shadow, to be recognized as an artist with her own distinct and original style.” —Madeline Medeiros Pereira

Having greatly enjoyed the adroit aphorism of The Last Novel and Wittgenstein’s Mistress, I picked up a copy of David Markson’s Springer’s Progress, an earlier work, if only to try to chart this elevated stylist’s style. Where Wittgenstein’s Mistress operates in a bone-dry, somewhat vacant setting (whether this setting is mental or physical is part of that book’s gambit), Springer’s Progress is a bawdy, earthly romp. Lucien Springer, often referred to as Loosh, is a novelist whose work has dried up far faster than his libido. The absence of the one impulse and the presence of the other occupy much of the book. But, interestingly, Markson’s language in this book is freed up in a way that it isn’t in some of his later work. There is a palpable sense of delight in the rollicking movement of Springer’s quick phrases, particular words (there is a partly meta conceit where characters ask each other about their elevated diction), and lack of interest in formality. A telling section, both for Springer’s character as well as for the style of the book, begins, “That disheveled vahine look when the light’s oblique, Gauguin she once put him in mind of? Dreamy morning’s speculation in it.” The lurches and allusions of Markson’s writing here are compelling to the end. —Noah Dow

Ah—Westerns! Picture this: it’s 1876, “even before the wounds of the Civil War have healed in Missouri,” and Jesse James and Cole Younger and their gang are near to receiving amnesty for a lifetime of robbing trains. But when the railroad owners buy away the pardon and send a group of Pinkertons after them, Jesse and Cole develop a scheme to rob the biggest bank west of the Mississippi. This is roughly the flow of Philip Kaufman’s 1972 The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid, but I find the plot irrelevant to the masterful weirdness that happens in every scene. My favorite scene involves a farce of a baseball game, which Cole (played by Cliff Robertson) attends with the banker he’s trying to scheme. Cole hasn’t ever seen baseball before—“It’s our national sport!” the gentry of Northfield, Minnesota, chorus—to which Cole, true to his home south of the Mason-Dixon, quips, “Our national sport, gentleman, is shooting and always will be.” The game itself is a slapstick tour de force sprinkled with the surreal: a three-legged dog hops around the field, the ball lands in a cow patty, two bumbling Yankees run to catch a fly ball and bump heads instead, and a creep in an afghan stands at the edge of the game—inexplicably. The ball comes to Cole just as the game winds down. Someone grabs it from him and flings it back into play. As if to prove his earlier point, Cole shoots it like a clay pigeon, and the game ends with wads of baseball raining on the field. —Caitlin Love