Staff Picks: Foxes, Unicorns, and Ghostworms


This Week’s Reading


Yrsa Daley-Ward’s new collection, bone, opens with a small explosion, a two-line poem called “Intro”: “I am the tall dark stranger / those warnings prepared you for.” The poems that follow pick up the dual meaning here—of threat and of erotic desire. Often, the two are intertwined, as when she writes of an affair, “Remember on the right night and / under the right light / any idea can seem like a good one.” Daley-Ward, who was raised by her religious grandparents in a small town in Northern England, self-published bone in 2014; it sold more than twenty thousand copies, a staggering figure for a self-published book, let alone of poetry. Penguin reissued an expanded edition, with forty additional pages, last month. The excellent long autobiographical “It Is What It Is” describes her brother’s heated reaction to their father’s funeral, and the breathlessness as she narrates their swift escape along the highway, thinking of their separation as children, propels the poem to its painful close. “Today is the first day of the rest of it,” she writes in the last poem, resigned but also dogged, “Of course there will be other first / days / but none exactly like this.” —Nicole Rudick

Assigned reading can be either tedious or life changing. Pastoralia, the second story collection from the 2017 Man Booker Prize winner, George Saunders, falls into the latter category for me. A little more than four years ago, I was a junior in college, a shy journalism student who didn’t especially identify with any of the newshounds surrounding me. I enrolled in a fiction workshop, and when that went well, I enrolled in another. The critiques, the meat of the class, were valuable, but what I long for now are those undergrad creative-writing syllabi, packed as they were with revelations: the full-moon beauty and madness of Kelly Link; the plinky, playful fables of Italo Calvino; the lyrical precision and tightly knotted emotions of Alice Munro. Those first encounters with the writers on those lists shaped the way I think about fiction. The author who struck me most, though, was Saunders, in whose work I found everything I’d ever wanted from writing but never known how to express. His stories full of arresting images and incredible heart, tales that were bitingly funny and dark without descending into cynicism. I fell under the spell of short fiction and began writing my own. And now I’m here—probably as the result of a number of factors, but I can’t discount the impact of stumbling across Saunders at the right time. I hope he wins every prize there is. —Brian Ransom

Our southern editor, John Jeremiah Sullivan, sent me a “unicorn chaser” yesterday. A unicorn chaser, he explained, is a palate cleanser of rainbows to revive the soul after a long day’s work. This one features a handful of high school dancers auditioning for the “Feel It Still” video with the choreographer Brian Friedman. (At least, that was JJ’s gloss.) Full unicorn cavalry arrives fifty seconds in. —Lorin Stein

When I took piano lessons as a child, I was taught how to play notes staccato, striking each one with a quick hit of the key; such is the prose of Ann Quin. She writes a third-person narrative that silkily slides, in the style of stream of consciousness, through the heads of her characters. I’m chagrinned that it took me this long to find her work. I did so thanks to And Other Stories, which will come out with a collection of rare and unpublished writing by Ann Quin, titled The Unmapped Country, in January of next year. The fragmented images that construct the interior world of these characters are dark and seductive. In “Nude and Seascape,” a man has a violent infatuation with a corpse found on a beach; told through the perspective of insanity, it is both horrifying and captivating. In “A Double Room,” a couple’s furtive weekend trip is the setting for the quiet dissolution of their relationship. This is a collection I will doubtless pick up again and again, but at the moment, my favorite story is “Ghostworm.” Quin’s deceptively simple staccato, the kaleidoscopic sentence fragments, and treatment of time leaves you disoriented. —Lauren Kane

An unsolicited and unpublished book-cover proposal by Paul Hillebrandt.

I’ve been reading Isaac Bashevis Singer’s extraordinary novel Shadows on the Hudson, which follows a group of Jewish émigrés in New York in the late forties, and thinking about the overlaps between Singer and Saul Bellow. Singer moved to New York in 1935, in flight of metastasizing Naziism, and broke into the literary world in 1953, with the publication of “Gimpel the Fool” for Partisan Review. The story was translated from the Yiddish by Bellow in the same year that he would publish his breakthrough, The Adventures of Augie MarchSinger then fired Bellow as his translator—Singer was wary of Bellow accruing too much credit for Singer’s work. In later years, Bellow would refer obliquely to “friction” between the two, which is akin to the way diplomats euphemize a screaming match as a “frank discussion.” One feels there is much left unsaid and pulsating beneath this firing—they are too similar for it to simply be a matter of jealousy: They were both intensely and ambivalently Jewish writers confronted with the confounding American wilderness. Both were away from Europe during the Holocaust, and were haunted by it. Bellow and Singer were cousins thrown together by the accident of history, and they seemed to dislike each other in a way that only familial similarity can engender. And yet in literature, they are friendly and they seem to converse. In Shadows on the Hudson, one is struck by how Bellovian Singer is when dealing with urban reality. It was serialized in Yiddish by Forward in the late fifties, and I would bet Bellow read it, just as Singer surely read Bellow. —Matt Levin

Having read and appreciated the cultural critic Alan Jacobs for some time now, I was less wary than I might otherwise have been of his new book’s audacious title, How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds. I came to the book trusting where Jacobs would take it, and I wasn’t disappointed. How to Think is refreshing and hopeful, even as it points out some of our worst habits of “not thinking”—our tendency toward snap judgment, for instance, or our creation of and animosity toward “Repugnant Cultural Others.” Those habits are driven by, in a term Jacobs borrows from Marilynne Robinson, our “hypertrophic instinct for consensus,” an instinct Jacobs believes to be “magnified and intensified in our era because we deal daily with a wild torrent of what claims to be information but is often nonsense.” Jacobs doesn’t stop with the descriptive, gently guiding his readers toward better ways of thinking. I particularly appreciated his thoughts on disposition: “There can be more genuine fellowship among those who share the same disposition than among those who share the same beliefs, especially if that disposition is toward kindness and generosity.” That is a vision of disagreement that ought to appeal to you; if it doesn’t, that might be evidence of your need for it. Whatever your positions, this book is a guide in how you should hold those positions, and how you should regard and interact with those of a fundamentally different mind. —Joel Pinckney

The other day, I met a friend of a friend and within twelve and a half minutes, I went from thinking I quite liked her trousers to mentally planning an udon feast in her honor. Such is the magic of being introduced to someone by a trusted source, and such was the case with the food writer Patience Gray: while unknown to me, she was beloved by my beloveds. I came to her through Angela Carter’s rapturous review in the London Review of Books of Honey from a Weed, a narrative of Gray’s life and sustenance in secluded Carrara in the Italian boot, where she “ ‘met a number of people around Carrara not at all averse to cooking a fox,’ and tells you how to make fox alia cacciatore (with garlic, wine, and tomatoes). ‘Exactly the same method can be applied to a badger … ’ ” So when Fasting and Feasting, a biography of Gray by Adam Federman, was published last month, the appeal was immediate. The book is a satisfying portrait of an uncategorical woman. The biography begins with a tension that suffuses the entire book. Gray “liked to say that life began at Spigolizzi,” where she moved with her lover at the age of fifty-two. But Federman carefully (though not tediously) notes all the years prior as well. There was quite a bit before fifty-two: her children were born outside of marriage, which shocked her friends and family, she translated Larousse Gastronomique, and she was the Observer’s first “women’s editor.” Fasting manages to present Gray as a woman who wanted to define herself, while also filling the gaps in that definition. I think we are becoming fast friends. —Julia Berick