Staff Picks: Bikes, Bogs, Bolshies


This Week’s Reading

From You & a Bike & a Road.


I’m kind of in awe of Eleanor Davis’s drawings. Her color work creates whole new worlds, but her black-and-white art is really eye-popping. In a comic last year, she made a remarkable drawing of two intertwined figures that breeds Japanese shunga with Aubrey Beardsley’s switchblade Art Nouveau. In her new book, You & a Bike & a Road, she leaves many of the drawings uninked. The comic logs her solo trip, by bike, from Phoenix to Athens, Georgia, over the course of fifty-eight days; the bare pencils accentuate the spontaneity of her adventure and her recording of it and reveal the impressive underpinning of her art. The array of forms that are so vivid in her color work come through here as layers of patterns or as gentle, articulate outlines. Her characteristic hulking but weightless figures are drawn with a fluidity that begins to approximate Saul Steinberg’s uncannily descriptive line: the quick tiny marks indicating a man’s underarm hair, the ethereal contour of enormous clouds hovering over a broad landscape, the symphonic chaos of a city scene. There is sometimes the sense that as she travels, the road and landscape exist only just ahead of her front tire, as they do for Harold and his crayon, and that making discoveries is only a matter of pushing forward, even when you don’t know if you can and even when you don’t know what lies down the road. —Nicole Rudick

To mention the lost generation these days is to summon a miasma of Left Bank clichés and nostalgia for expat glamour. None of that works its way into Julia L. Mickenberg’s American Girls in Red Russia: Chasing the Soviet Dream, which focuses on an entirely different sort of lostness. Forget “Bernice Bobs Her Hair”: this is “Bernice Becomes a Bolshie.” At the heart of the book is Ruth Epperson Kennell, who in 1922 left San Francisco for Siberia, where she and other like-minded Americans founded a communist colony. Kennell and her cohort valorized the working life. “We are building here,” she wrote in The Nation, “not a new Atlantis, but a new Pennsylvania.” As that decidedly unglamorous description suggests, life in the colony was full of drudgery, and the equality Kennell sought was not always in evidence. But with time she came to feel liberated in Siberia, especially when communism helped her shrug off bourgeois morality: in short order she dumped her husband, swam nude, and found love. “I seemed to move in a dream world,” she wrote, “constructed of desires I had never hoped could be realized.” Mickenberg tells Kennell’s story—and those of many other women who traded domestic servitude for Das Kapital—with flair and aplomb. And there’s not a flapper in sight. —Dan Piepenbring 

Left, Ruth Kennell in Siberia; right, the Kuzbas colony in Siberia.

Mary Gaitskill has published fiction in nearly every journal and magazine of note. Now, in Somebody with a Little Hammer, a collection of essays, her nonfiction is getting its due. In her essay on date rape—published in Harper’s in 1994 (and little, sadly, has changed since then)—she looks at the rules and semantics of courtship as they’ve played out in her own life: “If I said no, things could get ugly, and I don’t think he had any idea of how unwilling I was—the cultural unfamiliarity cut both ways … My bad time was made worse by his extreme gentleness; he was obviously trying hard to turn me on, which, for reasons I didn’t understand, broke my heart.” Gaitskill writes about sex—its social customs, expectations, and, of course, that whole “interpersonal” part—with clarity and grace, slashing as many binary oppositions as she can along the way: “To teach a boy that rape is ‘bad’ is not as effective as making him see that rape is a violation of his own masculine dignity as well as a violation of the raped woman … Learning by example runs deep.” A large part of the book is given over to Gaitskill’s book reviews, and she’s an excellent critic, balancing generous readings with a shrewd eye—she never bares teeth, even when what she has to say is negative. —Jeffery Gleaves

Ernst Meister’s collection Wallless Space, in translation from Wave Books, is like a rock cairn in some foggy, existential German bog. Each of Meister’s poems is small, hard, pointing both somewhere and nowhere. An early stanza in the collection reads, “Scent of flowers / only / thought left.” Haunting is not the right word for this, but Meister is clearly concerned with ethereal questions about consciousness; his lines, in their brevity, can be both elegant and unsettling, evocative of abstract questions about the nature of space and how thought can occupy it. Another stanza: “I won’t find out / what earth might be / when I myself / am earth.” Meister studied for a time with the German philosopher Karl Löwith, and his work is informed by that continental tradition, right down to its tendency toward dialectical circularity. His paradoxes sit there and expand, as do many poems from this collection—lean, dense, kinetic, asking about the misty whole of being. —Noah Dow