Staff Picks: Candlelight, Cellmates, Cult Leaders


This Week’s Reading

From the cover of The Book of Emma Reyes.


Emma Reyes grew up in astonishing poverty in Colombia—illiterate, illegitimate, and abandoned. Remanded to a Catholic convent, where she endured a strange mix of manual labor, religious fear, and wonder, she escaped at age nineteen. This is where her memoir, The Book of Emma Reyes, leaves off, but as an adult, she became an artist and an intellectual and befriended a host of Latin American and European notables, including Frida Kahlo, Lola Álvarez Bravo, Guiseppe Ungaretti, and Alberto Moravia. Hers is an incredible biography by any measure, but the book’s most startling element is Reyes’s clear-sighted, unsentimental remembrance of her difficult childhood. The narrative comes in the form of twenty-three epistolary sketches written by Reyes between 1969 and 1997 to her friend, the critic and historian Germán Arciniegas. (He once showed them to García Márquez, who effused about them to Reyes herself; furious with Arciniegas’s breach of privacy, she didn’t write him another letter for some twenty years.) Reyes is gloriously unceremonious in her telling: the memoir begins in a garbage heap and ends with a dog sniffing another’s behind. —Nicole Rudick

Fans of the Parisians, our softball team, know Tony Hatch as a power hitter and stalwart first baseman. I know him as Cousin Tony—a man of intense enthusiasms, most recently English literature of World War I. Which is how I was slipped a copy of Siegfried Sassoon’s Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, the follow-up to his slightly better known Memoirs of a Foxhunting Man. I was up reading it most of last night. And if your blood stirs to the grim pluck of young officers reading Thomas Hardy by candlelight, with trench mouth, in months before the Somme, it may keep you up reading, too. —Lorin Stein 

Nothing screams “beach read” like a biography of a cult leader. Really: if you’re schlepping to the Rockaways this weekend, you could do worse than bring along Jeff Guinn’s The Road to Jonestown. Having been taught to think of Jim Jones as no more than a charismatic lunatic, I was surprised to see him emerge, in Guinn’s deft telling, as a quintessentially American figure—one whose rise to power was bound up in politics, race relations, evangelism, Midwestern social mores, and the postwar economic boom. Jones, who got his start as a preacher in Indianapolis, was a passionate, albeit dogmatic, advocate for socialism and integration; too bad his fervor was the perfect vehicle for his innate sociopathy. As a kid, Jones broke into a casket manufacturer’s warehouse and convinced his friends to nap in the coffins. Years later, he convinced his congregation that a mass of chicken offal was a tumor he’d just ripped out of some guy in the restroom. Guinn’s book is a master class in deception and control; all aspiring cult leaders should read it. For bonus points, pair it with the forty-five-minute recording of Jones exhorting his followers to drink that fateful Kool-Aid—the single most disturbing pep talk ever caught on tape. —Dan Piepenbring

Still from Le trou.

The other evening, I wandered into the theater to catch Jacques Becker’s 1960 film, Le trou (The Hole), and was left in stitches. It’s an adaptation of the eponymous novel by José Giovanni, which is itself based on a true account from 1947: five cellmates (Gerard, Manu, Roland, Monseigneur, and Geo) in Paris’s La Santé Prison spend their days plotting their getaway—a scheme that involves jury-rigged dummies and digging through to the sewer beneath them. The film stars one of the men involved in the 1947 jailbreak, Jean Keraudy, a locksmith whom Giovanni knew well from his time inside. And, like the rest of the cast, he’s brilliant. As one might imagine, not much happens in Le trou—there’s plenty of hammering and sawing and buffoonery with the guards—but the moments I enjoy most are those in which the men quietly chat among themselves: of popping lovers’ blackheads after sex, of making ties out of blankets. With the exception of one, they never speak of the crimes committed before their incarcerations, nor how long their sentences are, but I hardly care to know: by the film’s end, I adored them all. —Caitlin Youngquist

It’s no surprise that Alexander Calder, credited with inventing the “mobile,” studied mechanical engineering in college and began his career—after brief stints in hydraulics and mechanics—making toys. His playfulness, as well as his mastery of force, space, color, form, and movement, are all on display in the Whitney Museum’s exhibition “Calder: Hypermobility,” open through October. The show features a selection of Calder’s kinetic sculptures (which incorporate motors), stabiles (self-supporting abstract works), and his famous mobiles, which hang in delightful arrangements of wire and metal. Many of his works haven’t been activated in decades, but the Whitney’s art handlers bring these pieces to life once a day. One favorite: Blizzard (Roxbury Flurry), a suspended splash of white circles balanced in an airy swirl. I say “airy,” but what stuns me about this piece—and most of the works in Hypermobility—is its uncanny weight. The force of Blizzard gathers heavily in the sculpture’s center, despite the round sheet-metal flurries playing in space round the wires, where you would expect the weight to be. Even when the mobile is static, its potential energy overwhelms one enough to leave you hanging, like the work, in suspense. —Caitlin Love

Alexander Calder, Parasite, 1947, sheet metal, rod, wire, and paint, 41″ × 68″ × 28″. © 2017 Calder Foundation, New York / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

I know I’m reading a good book when it makes me mutter, What is this? Eugene Lim’s slim and very weird Dear Cyborgs evoked that response in me plenty of times. It’s a novel that seems to agree with the theory that reality is an illusion. It has superheroes debating subversive philosophies, monologuing stories of failed—and lame—artistic endeavors, and considering the merits of ecoterrorism. Midway through, we read an excerpt of the thriller novel Inspector Mush Tate and the Case of the Missing Daughter, in which a Bond-esque chase scenes ends with a sushi dinner downtown. All the while, our protagonist recounts encounters with his archnemesis Ms. Mistleto, who has her own stories of resistance. If that’s not enough, all this is bookended by the mysterious specter of the protagonist’s childhood friend Vu—after he reappears, the two collaborate on a series of comics until he suddenly vanishes again, this time for good—and a book whose plot predicts the future. Dear Cyborgs is like the image inside a kaleidoscope, especially if that image comes from the midnineties cyberpunk-tinged dream of a middle-aged vegan asleep in Zuccotti Park circa 2011. In other words: it certainly keeps you on your toes. —Jeffery Gleaves

Luis Negrón’s slim, tragicomic debut, Mundo Cruel (2013), casts an unflinching eye on gay men in the developing world. Comprising nine experimental stories, the collection bursts with intellectuals and hustlers, setbacks and triumphs, all set on the author’s home island of Puerto Rico. In “The Vampire of Moca,” a particularly witty story, our narrator is equally frustrated with his unrequited love, despite considerable effort, as he is with his lack of air conditioning. Negrón’s fiction pops with an authenticity not often afforded to marginalized people living in the Caribbean. Gay life isn’t exclusively filled with depressing narratives set to the backdrop of uplifting Whitney Houston songs; it’s much messier than that, and Mundo Cruel captures that complexity brilliantly. —Ryan Strong