Staff Picks: Fat Ladies, Flowers, and Faraway Lands


This Week’s Reading

From The Paper-Flower Tree by Jacqueline Ayer.

The Paper-Flower Tree is a tale from Thailand for children, but I bought it for my adult self last month. A young girl without much to her name encounters a peddler. The man doesn’t have too much either, but he does have a tree of mesmerizing paper flowers. The man plucks her a “seed” to plant so that she can grow her own paper-flower tree. The girl tends to it, but it doesn’t grow. When the paper-flower man reappears with a group of actors, she confronts him. He reminds her that he never promised it would grow. But as this is a children’s book, and happy endings are required, the girl wakes up the next morning to find a fully flowering tree. To an adult, or the kind of cynical child who knew early on there was no Santa, the story is about the ways in which magic is a pact between adults, children, and a suspension of disbelief. The book is also a testament to the graceful talents of the author, Jacqueline Ayer. The child of Jamaican immigrants to the United States, Ayer produced illustrations for Bonwit Teller and Vogue before moving to Paris and then Thailand with her husband. Ayer’s story, like that of her tale, is both satisfying and complicated. Her books, after a brief flowering, fell out of print. Enchanted Lion, a uniquely wonderful children’s-book publisher, has brought them back. And so after some patient tending, Ayer’s work is again getting the attention it deserves, including a show at the House of Illustration in London. Maybe you think you’re too old to enjoy a children’s book. Suspend your disbelief. —Julia Berick

I recently wandered into a used bookstore for some browsing and, in a stroke of luck, ended up leaving with two paperback volumes of Richard Brautigan for less than what a sandwich costs in most parts of Manhattan. Trout Fishing in America was, of course, included, but what I read this week was The Revenge of the Lawn. Published in 1971, it is Brautigan’s only collection of short fiction, which includes “The Lost Chapters of Trout Fishing in America.” The title story is, in true Brautigan fashion, the strange and comic tale of a man versus the almost sentient mess in his front yard. “The Revenge of the Lawn” is also probably the longest piece in the collection; there are sixty-three stories in total, all no more than a couple of pages in length. They aren’t really stories at all but rather snapshots of life that have been slightly distorted in their development, like photos from a dark room where something in the process has gone every-so-slightly awry. There’s nothing sloppy in the craft, though, and the true joy of these vignettes is Brautigan’s freshness of language. He renders images in poetic prose that is both unique and precise. One of my favorite lines comes when he is writing about the sky over the highway: “It was really sad with a cemetery-like chimney swirling jagged dead smoke in the air above it.” —Lauren Kane

KGB Bar.

This Wednesday, a dozen people gathered in the dimly lit KGB Bar on the Lower East Side. A floor above, a comedy show was taking place; a floor below, a stage rehearsal. The sounds filtered through the walls, but here on the second story, the evening unfolded with quiet, dedicated passion. In honor of National Translation Month, five translators read from their work. Katherine E. Young read work by Ukrainian poet Iya Kiva as-of-yet unpublished in English. I retained, imperfectly, the lines “Is there cold war in the tap? Is there hot war in the tap? We have been eight days without war.” The translators’ voices cut through the other sounds—the laughter from above, the students in the bars below—and transported us to Romania, to Russia, to Iran, to Portugal. I was struck—it was one of those almost embarrassingly profound realizations, deeply felt and yet never as good said aloud—with how grateful I am to be able to read in translation all the languages I will never speak, to be able to commune with a poet with whom I could not converse. I suppose this week what I’m picking is translation, all of it, in general, but also this poem by José Luis Peixoto from A Child in Ruinstranslated by Hugo dos Santos. At KGB bar, dos Santos read it first in the original Portuguese, then in English:

when it was time to set the table, we were five:
my father, my mother, my sisters
and me. then, my older sister
married. then, my younger sister
married. then, my father died. today,
when it is time to set the table, we are five,
except my older sister who is
at her home, except my younger
sister who is at her home, except my
father, except my widowed mother. each one
is an empty place at this table where
i eat alone. but they will always be here.
at the time to set the table, we will always be five.
as long as one of us is alive, we will always
be five.

Nadja Spiegelman

From Everywhere Disappeared

There’s always something I’m missing out on—of that I’m sure—but I didn’t realize I was missing out on Patrick Kyle’s short comics, which he’s been publishing in small-run booklets since 2013. Luckily, a generous selection has been collected in Everywhere Disappeared. In some stories, Kyle marries geometric precision with surrealist accumulation (and occasional painterly marks), meaning that those panels are disordered with orderly elements. That appealing chaos creates a unique architecture within and between pages and gives an elasticity to the way the narratives progress. Often, those narratives involve circularity or refraction: one story proposes the idea of art as “a communicative invention used to encourage the layman to feel” and then offers a white painting that allows one “to look into nothing and forget.” In another, a character kills a worm that has been ravaging his garden. The worm forgives the gardener and ponders reincarnation; the gardener, racked with guilt, cuts off his own head and reflexively and ironically notes that it “won’t matter if I go. My garden doesn’t need me anymore.” If the comics seem abstract, the feelings underlying them aren’t. In a story about Crocodil, a “nonviolent dog,” the animal is beset by a man who leaps onto its back—an action accompanied by the sound effect “Agony”—and rides the dog around. And that’s the end of the story. Haven’t we all been there? —Nicole Rudick

Jennifer Paterson and Clarissa Dickson Wright.

I recently discovered a cooking show from the late nineties called Two Fat Ladies. It starts with the ladies in animated form, popping out of a cookbook and driving a motorcycle across a table covered with breads, fruits, and olive oils. Then they arrive in reality, rumbling through Cornwall, Jennifer Paterson driving, Clarissa Dickson Wright in the “double-wide sidecar.” Throughout the show, they traverse England, squeezing produce and suffering no fools. They are flinty with vendors. They shop at quaint bakeries and graphic butcher shops and run into traffic jams of sheep. They are strict about keeping their heavy, gray-skied British fare disgustingly authentic. In the kitchen, they blend their cooking advice with sex jokes, and their allusions are often too British for me to understand—but the poetic flights of saltiness are unmistakable. They are a pair of Samuel Johnsons. You don’t need to love food to be lit up by their table talk. The show’s datedness adds to the charm as well. In her memoir, Spilling the Beans, Dickson Wright revealed that the two birdies (“foulmouthed, sweet old ladies,”) butted heads off-screen and stayed in separate hotels throughout filming. I’ve heard similar things about Hall & Oates. Sometimes collaborations are stormy. But when the ingredients are all in proportion, this funny, weird show still hits the spot. —Brent Katz

On Tuesday’s commute home, as passengers around me bemoaned the announcement of train delays, I secretly rejoiced. I was halfway through Thousands, by Lightsey Darst, and I didn’t want to stop. Darst’s new collection is less a series of individual poems than an extended unfurling of the poet’s inner and outer life. Divided into five chronological sections, Thousands follows the poet through the end of a marriage, a move, a pregnancy, and much more. Darst’s poetry is searing and frank—“Even the wedding photographs can be thrown out without a word.” Her poetry is also vulnerable and uncertain; there is no pretense in her work, and she’s unafraid to address poetically unsexy topics: “Be honest: it makes me ashamed that I’m halfway to seventy & I can’t / earn enough to have a child—maternity care / isn’t covered on my current insurance.” One of the collection’s strengths is how Darst weaves quotations, dates, and places into her work, making attributions in the margins. It allows the reader to feel both intimately involved as an observer, but also, somehow, present—a presence the poet jarringly acknowledges at the end of the collection’s fourth section with an invitation: “What are you but passage, stranger? Be passage with me.” Reading plunged me into reminiscence: Darst makes attributions to Cocoa Cinnamon and Caffé Driade, two college haunts of mine. But this is a collection in which all readers will recognize something, if in nothing else then in the humanity of the poet herself. —Joel Pinckney

I knew a little about Grace before I picked it up, having been to Paul Lynch’s reading of his most recent work, but I was still taken aback at the subtle beauty with which he renders one girl’s experience in the Irish Famine. Grace, the story’s protagonist, is forced out of her home by her own mother, who cuts off her hair and tells her, “You are the strong one now.” Lynch never shies away from the subject matter—the impossibly grueling winters Grace faces, the people she meets and can never trust, the heartbreak of losing a family member—but he entwines it all with prose that sways from brutally realistic scenes into the fullness of the landscape and back again in just a few words. Though the story could have been overwrought, in Lynch’s deft hands I found myself enthralled as Grace cuts herself a path through a forbidding world. —Johanna Zwirner

The Believer is back. After a two-year hiatus from newsstands, the snarky offshoot of the Dave Eggers empire has returned to circulation, this time under the benevolent patronage of the Black Mountain Institute in Las Vegas. Like many literary-minded millennials in Northern California around the turn of the century, I subscribed to two publications: McSweeney’s and its bizarre nonfiction cousin. At the time I understood very little of what I was reading. I’d certainly had never heard of the likes of The Paris Review—what do they review anyway? As my introduction to literary magazines—my Harvard, my Yale—The Believer seemed to arrive in my mailbox, situated on a dusty country road across from an irrigation ditch, like a creature beamed down from another planet. I’m glad it’s back, this time with an expanded comics section. The forthcoming issue features an illustrated version of Etgar Keret’s short story “September All Year Long,” drawn by Danica Novgorodoff. —Jeffery Gleaves