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This Week’s Reading

From the poster for Obit.


Last week, I stayed up late every night reading the galleys of Stephen Greenblatt’s study The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve. I have already recommended it—at possibly tedious length—to my uncle, my shrink, our Southern Editor, and Sadie, who is reading it now. Greenblatt begins his history with the sensible, but to me startling, question of why the ancient Hebrews bothered to make up a creation story at all. (Really—wouldn’t it have made more sense to just start with Abraham?) He shows that, right from the beginning, people have found the story peculiar—that magical trees and talking snakes were by no means a thing, even during the Babylonian exile, and that lots of people wondered where exactly Moses was getting his facts. From the shaping of the Torah to early allegorical readings of the story, Jewish and Christian, to the radical reinterpretation of the Fall by Saint Augustine, Greenblatt shows how often the story of our first parents, and its meaning, have been up for debate—and how, as Adam and Eve became more and more familiar, more and more human, thanks partly to Renaissance art and Paradise Lost, they grew harder and harder to believe in. The story ends, inevitably, with Darwin, and with Greenblatt in Uganda observing chimpanzees. It is compelling at every turn, right down to the appendix, comprising legends of the fall, e.g., this, from the medieval theologian Duns Scotus: “Adam saw perfectly clearly that his wife had been deceived and that the serpent had lured her into a trap from which she could not now escape. She will have to die, he thought, and God will offer to create a new companion for me, either from another one of my ribs or from some other source. But I do not want a new companion. I want this one and only this one. There is but a single way in which I can remain with her, and that is by conjoining my fate to hers. We will live—and when the time comes, we will rot—together.” —Lorin Stein 

At the time of his death, in 2005, the legendary curator Walter Hopps was at work on a memoir with Anne Doran and Deborah Treisman; he’d worked with both during a later phase of his career as art editor of Jean Stein’s quarterly, Grand Street. The memoir, The Dream Colony, will finally be published next month, shaped by Treisman but unfinished: Hopps left off in 1987, at his founding, with Dominique de Menil, of the Menil Collection in Houston. But the ground he managed to cover is considerable. It’s hard to overestimate Hopps’s influence on the shape of twentieth-century art: he championed the work of countless artists, among them Ed Ruscha, Jay DeFeo, Richard Diebenkorn, Anne Truitt, Robert Irwin, and Frank Lobdell as well as the Hairy Who and underground comix; he was an early supporter of Pop, and he found work produced in the middle of the country to be as worthy of consideration as that made on the coasts. But in his buoyant memoir, he often recounts the details of his many astounding accomplishments as a series of escapades. Among my favorites is Hopps’s narration of a concert given at the Pasadena Art Museum by John Cage, who ground vegetables in a micced blender and then drank the concoction (he was accompanied on piano by David Tudor). The painter Clyfford Still, an elder statesman at that point, listened to the “interesting concert” and then relayed a note: “Please convey my compliments to Mr. Cage, even though our aesthetics are committed to their mutual destruction.” —Nicole Rudick 

From the cover of Dream Colony.

Granta’s given over their latest issue to the Best Young American Novelists (won’t someone please start a band by that name already?), which is how I learned about Halle Butler. Her story “The New Me” won me over from its first paragraph: “Feeling pretty good!” just hanging out there all by itself. Not a lot happens in the story: one woman goes over to another’s place, they drink IPAs delivered by an online grocer; they look at new work clothes the narrator has all picked out in open tabs on her laptop; they switch to cooking sherry and fail to meaningfully converse; the next morning, walking around the park in a drunken haze, the narrator’s mistaken for an indigent person. All the while, she’s trying and mainly failing to convince herself she’s on the cusp of a reinvention. Butler writes in a grim, stinging deadpan that reminds me of the voice I use at the mirror when I’m staring down a daylong hangover—something her narrator does on the reg. She wants intimacy; instead she gets “Sarah talking about her fabled student loans again while I pulled the trigger on some new dresses for my new lifestyle. Some garbage stories about people I don’t know, flaccid pickings at gossip, rote monologue, hollow martyrdom.” —Dan Piepenbring

Ever since I read Alex Ronan’s Daily interview with Margalit Fox, I’ve hoped for another glimpse inside the minds of New York Times obituary writers. So when I heard about Vanessa Gould’s latest documentary, Obit, I rushed to see it. The film, one of the most endearing—and, perhaps surprisingly, uplifting—I’ve seen in awhile, follows the paper’s necrology department as they piece together the lives of the recently deceased: everyone from William P. Wilson, who not only negotiated the terms for the 1960 presidential debate but who also applied the makeup that gave Kennedy his “unflappably cool” look onscreen; to Betty James, the woman who thought up the name for her husband’s new toy—Slinky. The sweetest parts of the film, though, are the interviews with the writers themselves—Bruce Weber, William Grimes, and Fox, among others—all of whom take seriously the task of celebrating their subjects, breathing life and humor into their work. As Fox tells us, “Obits have next to nothing to do with death and absolutely everything to do with life.” The same is true of Gould’s remarkable film. —Caitlin Youngquist

Krystyna Skarbek.

Ever since Simon & Schuster reissued L.A. Woman in 2015, Eve Babitz’s titles have been steadily marched back into print—and lucky for us, the trend continues this July, when her 1979 novel, Sex and Rage, hits the shelves with an appropriately retro cover. Jacaranda, the novel’s young protagonist, is “a native Angeleno grown up at the edge of America with her feet in the ocean and her head in the breaking waves” who plunges headlong into L.A.’s party scene, which she describes as “living on a drifting, opulent barge where peacock fans stroked the warm river air and time moved different from the time everyplace else.” She sleeps with moguls, snorts every available drug, and hardly works until, at the age of thirty, she tires of her purposelessness, recognizes her drinking problem, and heads to New York to start anew—only to find that shallowness pervades everywhere. The entirety of Sex and Rage, in fact, is a kind of pushback against the notion of Southern California’s banality and vanity: it gives great merit to simple beauty and solitude, and does its part to redeem the SoCal lifestyle. I agree with Dwight Garner’s assessment from last week: “reading Eve Babitz is like being out on the warm open road at sundown … going sixty miles per hour with all four windows down. You can feel the wind in your hair.” —Jeffery Gleaves

Krystyna Skarbek, the first and longest-serving female spy for the British during World War II, was finally honored in London this week. Skarbek was beautiful, resourceful, and Polish—a fact she concealed under her alternate name, Christine Granville. Her remarkable list of achievements includes skiing out of occupied Poland with key evidence of the Nazis’ intention to invade Russia hidden in her gloves. Reading about her in Mark Brown’s recent Guardian article, I, too, wondered how on earth I’d never heard of her—how Churchill’s “favourite spy” could possibly slip so far into obscurity. Characterized as “no longer wanted” after the war, Skarbek’s story is an apt reminder of the vicissitudes of political favor, particularly as it pertains to women. Needless to say, The Spy Who Loved, Clare Mulley’s 2012 biography of Skarbek, is next on my list. —Madeline Medeiros Pereira