Staff Picks: Cuddy, Boont, Zuzzo


This Week’s Reading

From the cover of Wi the haill voice.


Do we need a translation of Vladimir Mayakovsky’s poems into Scots? The late Scottish poet Edwin Morgan would certainly say we do. His belief was that Scots is more suited than English to the “ ‘barbarian lyre’ of the revolutionary spirit” in Mayakovsky’s verse. And I think I agree. Wi the haill voice, a collection of Morgan’s twenty-five translations originally published forty-five years ago, was reissued last year in the UK, and I’ve just discovered it. Scots reads onomatopoeically, reproducing the verve and jump of Mayakovsky’s verse: “Forcryinoutloud! / The starns licht up—aa richt: / does that prove some loon hud to hae it?” I don’t know the language and so used the book’s glossary to perform a second translation (and learned many wonderful words in the process, including grumphie [“pig”] and collieshangie [“squabble”]). But really, it’s more fun to read without meaning, instead feeling the rhythm and energy of the language, which becomes a zaum-ian exercise: “The cuddy cam clunk, / cloitit doon doup-scud, and wheech / but the muckle-mou’d moochers wena lang / in makin theirsels thrang.” —Nicole Rudick

Last week, the podcast Some Noise finished up a three-part series on the Anderson Valley, home to Boonville, the birthplace of the Boontling language. The area is a sort of last stop on a trail to nowhere at the end of America—the stretch of California is sometimes called “the lost coast.” It’s a steep, rugged, isolated country whose industries are logging, hops farming, grape orcharding, and, relatively recently, marijuana growing. Host Najib Aminy learns all this while investigating gentrification in rural America, but he also stumbles upon decades-old feuds between San Francisco’s exiled hippies and local rednecks, and lots more. “Times has changed terribly,” says the old-timer Wes Smoot, also known by his Boont name, Deacon, meaning “looker” (perhaps “seer”). Smoot is one of the last fluent speakers of Boontling, whose words, Aminy finds, exist mostly on wine and beer labels glued to the drinks produced in the area. In 2018, pot will finally be legal for recreational use in California. As the date approaches, residents of the Anderson Valley, located squarely in the state’s notorious Emerald Triangle, are both weary and eager about the next boom. Aminy finds it fitting that one of the latest Boontling words, invented by Smoot is “downstreamer.” “Downstreamers are salmon come up to spawn,” says Smoot. “And when they spawn, their life is done, and then they start back downstream. Well, when they go downstream, they’re all wore out, and, finally, they die, you know?” —Jeffery Gleaves 

Somebody left Thom Jones’s 1993 story collection, The Pugilist at Rest, on the discard table in our lobby last week. Somehow I’d never read the famous title story, so I took it and read it on the subway, then came home and read it to Sadie. By the end, one of us was in tears: not Sadie. It was ridiculous. I’ve never been in combat, never lost a buddy—I haven’t been in a fight since I was a kid. It wasn’t the scenes of carnage in Vietnam that choked me up (though those were the parts that impressed Sadie), it was the wild leaps in tone the story made, from stoical reportage to a desperate, almost fussy refinement, when the narrator talked about books—that, combined with the old-fashioned artistry of the plot, holding the story together, modeling its own kind of control in the face of grief and shame. It’s an unfashionable kind of story, a boy story. It is theatrical. But it’s been a while since I read anything that sounded so perfect to my ear. —Lorin Stein

In May, the Daily interviewed Joanna Ruocco about the five books she’s publishing this year (I’ll give you a moment to languish, as I did, in the realization of your own insufficient productivity habits). As excited as I am for her new work, I thought I would first try Dan, Ruocco’s 2014 novel. The pages of the compact book follow a precocious girl, Melba Zuzzo, who lives in a hamlet named Dan. Anyone who has lived in suburbia will recognize the tone of small-town weirdness, normally humming just below the surface, that Ruocco plucks out and amplifies. That unsettled feeling comes largely from the ambiguity of time, which Melba believes is a gelatinous substance that envelopes the physical world: “I’ll never figure it out,” she thinks. “Meanwhile, people keep dying and where do they go in the jelly? Do they rot in the jelly and make more jelly? Could time be made of people?” There is always the sense that in Dan, which seems to exist both nowhere and everywhere, no amount of change, even death, is substantive. Ruocco’s skillful subversion of language contributes to the overall strangeness of what’s happening, yet even after I closed the book, I found myself wondering whether or not this place, Dan, is closer to reality than I would like to admit. —Lauren Kane

I gave my boyfriend one of my favorite books for his birthday. Then I took it out of his hands it and read it myself for … the third time? The fourth time? Billy Bathgate, by E. L. Doctorow, sounds nutty when described: it’s about Jewish gangsters in the Bronx in the 1930s. It is funny, but it isn’t a comedy; there is mystery, but it isn’t pulp. The novel starts on a nauseating boat ride on the East River, and Doctorow is great on the look of the doomed man’s black silk socks, the snatch of song he is singing, the vomit on the dress of the woman he was with. There are twists and punches that make me jump even the third (fourth?) time through and sex that still makes me blush. Billy shows himself to be “a capable boy” and goes where the mob goes, as though he is on some sort of lethal, lucrative internship. He first impresses the boss by juggling a series of differently weighted objects and continues to do so, metaphorically speaking, throughout the novel, negotiating loyalty and violence, intelligence and wealth, New York City and everywhere else. Billy is sharp and asks big questions, but Doctorow keeps the ball rolling: “You know, the waitress comes over and says will that be all and then you ask for the check and you pay it.” —Julia Berick

I’ve spent much time this past year in the work of Wendell Berry, the writer and farmer from Kentucky, and have noticed that he creates a variety of impressions. Some champion him for his environmentalism, seeing him as a leader in protecting Earth from rampant industrialism and thoughtless development. Others are dismissive of his regionalism and singularly local focus, or regard him as curmudgeonly and frustratingly contrarian (maybe pointing to his cheeky By the Book interview in the New York Times last year, in which he responded to a question about what author he’d like to meet, living or dead: “I am grateful to have known several authors living and dead, and am not greedy.”) Some see the Port William farming community of his fiction as a model of sorts for their own lives; others see it as a last grasp to a way of life that is done for, a relic of past times. Personally, I have been very moved by Berry’s writings. He paints a picture of a unified life that appeals to me, arguments for its feasibility today notwithstanding. In all the discussions of Berry I’ve encountered, one element of his writing that frequently gets overlooked is its playfulness and joy, of which I was reminded this past week reading through his collection of poems Given. He takes pleasure in his poetry and prose; it is clear that he delights in the world, even in the brokenness and sorrow of which he frequently writes. The little poem “Why” is a good sample:

Why all the embarrassment
about being happy?
Sometimes I’m as happy
as a sleeping dog,
and for the same reasons,
and for others.

Joel Pinckney

Giorgio Morandi, Still Life, 1953.

Michiko Kakutani is stepping down from her role as benevolent (depending on whom you ask) czar of the book universe, but her replacement, Parul Sehgal, is a more-than-worthy successor. If you’re not familiar with Sehgal’s excellent work in the Times and elsewhere, I’d recommend starting with her bimonthly Roving Eye column, which spotlights outstanding international literature. The latest installment digs into that pesky task of chronicling the present moment, but other highlights include the recent Leonora Carrington extravaganza, which tackles the peculiar nature of writing outside one’s mother tongue, and her wonderful piece on Mr. Kafka and Other Tales from the Time of the Cult, whose first sentence demonstrates the power of strong leads, even in book reviews: “Bohumil Hrabal died only once—in Prague, on Feb. 3, 1997—but there are at least two versions of the story.” —Brian Ransom