Staff Picks: Cruelty, Obsession, Cheekiness


This Week’s Reading

Larry Rivers, Vocabulary Lesson (Polish), oil on canvas, 22 1/4″ x 33″. Courtesy Tibor de Nagy Gallery © Larry Rivers Foundation / Licensed by VAGA.


What I know about the poets of my generation, I started to learn, in the late nineties, by reading the young critic Stephen Burt. Many of the poets he wrote about seemed forbidding, but he tried to make them inviting. His own poems were often disarmingly direct. One line, from his poem “Kudzu”—“like the body I hated then, and hate”—still rings out to me twenty years later from a blur of more elliptical work. Now Stephen also goes by Steph and Stephanie, and their new collection, Advice from the Lights, has been my subway reading for the past two weeks, especially “Sadder,” an elegy to the poet C. D. Wright, and Burt’s imitations of Callimachus, and the many evocations of childhood in a “wrong” body:

O grapefruit (as color and flavor). O never quite rightly tied laces. O look,
up there on the uneven climbing bars,
too hot to touch where the sun touches, now that it’s spring,

the shadow of a tarp, like a sail between sailors
and thin swings that make no decision, like weather vanes.

O think of the lost Chuck Taylors. The lost Mary Janes.  —Lorin Stein

Larry Rivers’s painting of Maxine Groffsky appears on the cover of our new issue, and I’m pleased as punch. I’ve long been an admirer of Rivers’s art and feel a kind of greedy affection for it: I never tire of seeing it. This week, “(Re)Appropriations,” a small survey of works—more than twenty paintings, collages, drawings, sculptures and relief paintings—opened at Tibor de Nagy in New York. The exhibition displays the changes in his work over five decades, but it’s hard not to get hung up looking at his life-size painting of a boldly nude (except for boots) Frank O’Hara, from 1954, and the collages from the early sixties, which are gorgeously tactile. I admire the way his representations of friends, cultural objects, and historical figures are only partially rendered on the canvas, as though they are already drifting out of River’s view just as he has turned to look at them. —Nicole Rudick 

If you were given a sourdough starter by the person who delivers your takeout, would you keep it alive? When Lois Clary, the protagonist of Robin Sloan’s new novel, Sourdough, does just that, she discovers that her starter contains mysterious powers, and begins baking obsessively. Clary revels, in a foggy, overworked sort of way, in the labor of baking and feeding her starter during her off hours from General Dexterity, a San Francisco robotics company that is “on a quest to end work.” She falls in with a strange crowd who work at a secret, yet to be opened, farmers market on Alameda Island whose members specialize in experimental foods. Before they know it, their specialized work begins to overlap and they start working together organically, “fate” playing out like some kind of microbial yeast toward an unknown goal. Sourdough has delicious characters: Agrippa, the goatherd and cheese maker, who knows more about microbes than anyone; Horace, the market’s librarian; and Dr. Klamath, who runs the Slurry company, a thinly veiled Soylent stand-in, not far from where I grew up outside of Fresno. If you’ve ever been confused about what’s artificial and what’s authentic—can you really tell anymore?—Sourdough is a book for you. —Jeffery Gleaves

From the cover of Advice from the Lights.

Though I’ll never tire of announcing it, it is old news by now that Arundhati Roy’s second novel in twenty years is out and fabulous. “Out” however, is not quite right. Without getting into the grad-school hermeneutics, which the book so cheekily avoids, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness traverses all the borders and complicates all the rules. It was my undying love of The God of Small Things (the tangerine transistor, the pickles, the love laws), rather than my fluency in Roy’s formidable nonfiction, that drew me to The Ministry, but I had to drop my distinction between her fiction and nonfiction almost immediately. Statistics, testimonies, and political criticism are inseparable from the plot, which concerns Anjum, who is a hijra, or “third gender,” and the family she raises around her. In Peter Pan, the lost boys build a house around Wendy, making a little game of the Victorian home. It is in a similar spirit of fun and critique that Roy builds the house, the family, and the novel up around her renegade characters in a way that shelters but doesn’t lock them in. There is an actual house at the center of the novel, too, built in a graveyard. The Ministry doesn’t desecrate the past, but she is breaking ground. —Julia Berick

When I first saw Annie Ernaux’s Simple Passion in a used bookstore, I was intrigued by its faded cover and shockingly slim spine. It took me just under an hour to finish the sixty-four-page book, but Ernaux’s spare style and cunning language have lingered in my mind ever since. The autobiographical novel, published in 1991, chronicles an affair between an unnamed narrator and a married man. While the narrator reveals herself to the reader as a middle-aged writer, mother, and teacher living outside of Paris, she keeps her lover anonymous, only disclosing that he is of Eastern European descent. But he is almost entirely beside the point. Ernaux is compelled by obsession itself. She thoughtfully records the strange compulsions of lust, writing, “I promised to send 200 francs to Unicef if he came to see me before a particular date” and “I would give money to the men and women sitting in the corridors of the Metro, making the wish that he would call me that evening.” Ernaux bares witness to the intricacies of infatuation and the inexplicable behaviors to which anyone can fall victim while in the throes of obsession. —Ruby Smith

For fans of Ben Loory, it’s been a six-year wait since the publication of his first collection of short stories, a fact he recognizes in the author’s note for his new book, Tales of Falling and Flying: “More stories! Sorry they took so long. Next one will be quicker.” The stories have been worth the wait. Tales is a collection of forty stories, each beginning with a simple image or idea: “A man wakes up one morning to find that both his feet are missing”; or “Once there was a squid who fell in love with the sun”; or “James K. Polk used to keep bonsai trees up on the roof of the White House.” What comes next is frequently comical and dark, often heartwarming, nearly always fantastical, and consistently entertaining. Some, like “The Madman,” are haunting in their portrayals of human cruelty; others make you see the joys of imagination anew, like “The Monster,” in which a boy and the monster in his closet “sit … all afternoon, giving names to the world.” In his appearance on Brad Listi’s Otherppl podcast last week, Loory discussed how integral emotion is to his work. As he sees it, a story will not be good if the reader is not affected by it. “That’s the only way to get a good story,” he told Listi. By that measure, and by almost any other, these stories are a success. —Joel Pinckney

Jeff Dolven, at work on Take Care.

What happens when you lock the poet and critic Jeff Dolven in a room for twenty-four hours with (a) a computer and (b) a catalogue for Braintree Scientific, “an American company that manufactures lab products used in experiments on rats and mice”? This was the experiment undertaken last May by Cabinet Books as part of its Twenty-Four-Hour Book Series. The result, Take Care, is a seventy-nine-page meditation on what it means to care for animals, equipment, and each other. (“This reflex to pure care … may also be triggered by cuteness, against which there is little defense. Perhaps the Braintree cover illustrator knew this, for the Venus-rat, whatever she is, is not exactly cute.”) —L.S.

I’m not going to suggest you watch the entirety of Twin Peaks: The Return, which ended last Sunday. Doing so would be disingenuous because I haven’t finished the series yet myself. (The show is such a strange, one-time thing that I want to prolong it indefinitely.) Furthermore, an eighteen-hour-long piece of media—especially one with as many surreal, puzzling, frustrating detours as The Return—is not a commitment to be taken lightly. But I can recommend the eighth episode of the series without caveats. I don’t want to say too much because it’s such a pure, haunting experience in itself, but it’s essentially a stand-alone hour of television that functions as a David Lynch film in miniature. There are shades of 2001: A Space Odyssey, whizzing pops of color and screaming violins, and the back half of the episode feels like a final distillation of Lynch’s lifetime obsession with small-town America. He hasn’t put out a movie since 2006; this might be the closest thing we get to another Blue Velvet or Fire Walk with Me, and we should cherish it. —Brian Ransom