Staff Picks: Snoopy, Sappho, and Shikaze


This Week’s Reading

Still from 120 BPM.

In need of a pick me up this week, I went to see a French movie about AIDS. 120 BPM is paced like an electrocardiogram, a steady bum-bum of a heart beat, without any sappy manufactured climax or resolution. Instead, you are plunged into the relentless every day lives of the members of ACT UP, an AIDS-advocacy group in Paris in the 1990s, as they throw blood around the offices of pharmaceutical companies, interrupt high school classes to distribute condoms, and stage die-ins. Rather than romanticize their youth, beauty, and “coolness,” as a film about ACT UP easily could, it lingers on the group’s disorderly planning meetings, their internal feuds and diverging ideologies, their moments of misplaced rage at each other, and the indignities of their slow deaths. It is not a documentary, but it feels so real, more real than a documentary ever could—heartbreakingly realistic without ever straining for an overly gritty “realism.” The director, Robin Campillo, and his co-screenwriter, Philippe Mangeot, drew on their own experiences as members of ACT UP, and the film won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival this year. I can’t say that it made me feel better, exactly, but it did leave me replenished in that way that an encounter with truly good art can. —Nadja Spiegelman 

I was predisposed to love Into English, edited by Martha Collins and Kevin Prufer. As I was scanning the ever-changing bookshelf here at the office, I saw the spine, pulled it, and kept pulling, as if I were pulling scarves from a magician’s hat—the book is triple wide in order to accommodate its unique method. Into English takes foreign poems from Sappho to Tranströmer in their original language and places them beside three different English translations. The effect is that of shoptalk moving back and forth across decades, a kaleidoscopic panorama of minor technical disputes. It is a book that in a diffuse way gets at the bedrock of poetry, a book that alerts a reader to the immense, hidden labor that each word performs in a great poem. In an Anna Akhmatova poem, the shift in register feels tectonic when the first two translations use the word “chill” to describe her chest, and the last switches to “freezing”—from literary, faintly British reserve to deeply bitter complaint. I don’t know which is truer to the Russian original—probably neither, which is the beauty of the book. Into English shows on the page the cloud of uncertainty in which translation exists, and the cloud of uncertainty in which poetry exists, the way each word works simultaneously across multiple vectors in its language and its language alone. Reading across the three translations, I felt the root text like a hum in the back of my head, an English that’s basically unspeakable, and which must be pared down before it can fit in the mouth. In this paring, a translation is a window into the translator’s personality, a pleasure in itself that is lost when a translation is presented singly and therefore authoritatively. For instance, the word “unerhörtes” in a Rilke poem becomes “legendary,” “unimagined,” and “fantastic,” respectively. We can see the concept, for which there is no single English word, around which these other words revolve. “Legendary”—there’s your iconoclast, your Bertrand Russell-esque idol smasher. “Fantastic”—there’s your poet, your overheated imagination. Into English is a book to be meditated on, a book that exposes the vast inner chasms of poetry, a book that demonstrates that a great poem is something one can live in. —Matt Levin

Still from The Meyerowitz Stories.

One dark winter, a friend nipped downstairs to have a cigarette. The director filming on her street was undeniably Noah Baumbach, and so she called me. I rushed over and got there just in time to watch the crew drive off. This week, I watched Noah Baumbach’s new film, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected). The phrase adult children, which is used over and over to describe the plot, holds all the awkwardness Baumbach is so interested in and captures so well in his films. In this one, Harold Meyerowitz is an almost-famous artist, and his children become aware that they are all suspended in the same spell of belittled awe. No, it isn’t new, but neither is it old. Adam Sandler, as one of Harold’s sons, made me forget Billy Madison. Emma Thompson, as Harold’s newest wife, Maureen, delivers a line that levels the entire class of people to which I belong. Faced with donating a wok she never uses to Goodwill, Maureen pauses before she says, “You just have this idea of yourself.” I needn’t have rushed to the set: I was there already. —Julia Berick

Michelle de Kretser is a writer I’ve been curious about for a while. I’ve had a copy of her story Springtime since it was published as a standalone book last year, and I read it this week—timing, coincidentally, with Halloween. The coincidence is that, despite its title, Springtime is a ghost story. The entire story is similarly upended: Frances moves from Melbourne to Sydney, whose subtropical climate confuses the seasons and produces an untamed natural bounty—“hip-high azaleas with blooms as big as fists” and “unkempt shadows in the armpits of trees.” The city’s exoticism—which includes its chaotic streets and a “shifty sun”—sets Frances on her heels. The story’s ghostliness is roughly a cubanelle on the Scoville scale, but scariness isn’t its pleasure; it’s the stilling of time, the stifling humidity, and Frances’s sidelong observations of her surroundings and the people she encounters. As with the flora, she notices things that are so fully real they transform, smoothly and brazenly, into the unreal. Of a man she meets, Frances says, “He neither looked nor sounded foreign, but nevertheless brought the possibility to mind.”—Nicole Rudick

Just because Halloween was on Tuesday doesn’t mean you can’t still enjoy one more good monster story. The one I have in mind is from issue 28 of n+1. “Beast Leave” by Trevor Shikaze is like an episode of Black Mirror, with a better sense of humor. In a not-too-far-off future, men are able to take time off work (called “beast leave”) to build their own personal monsters. This process entails literally stitching together pieces of animals, eventually adding a brain and a heart and bringing the sentient creature to life. Think Dr. Frankenstein in the age of social media. The language around “beast leave” intentionally echoes the language of maternity leave and pregnancy. It’s hilarious satirically, but also doesn’t get too hung up on that point. The whole story is a wild ride of the absurd and grotesque. I loved the voice of the narrator, who is thoroughly charming in his frat-dude demeanor (on his first day building the beast: “I’m so stoked. I put on Blink-182 and crank that shit”). I went from laughing out loud to screwing my face up in pure revulsion in the span of a page. Settle into a reading chair with a bag of half-price Halloween candy and get your last ghoulish thrill of the year. —Lauren Kane

Joan Didion.

Many others have remarked, both on this site and elsewhere, on the Internet’s campaign to consign Joan Didion to the canon once unironically known as “lady writers.” In this increasingly popular reading, the most noteworthy aspect of Didion’s work is her feminine air. (By such curious interpretations does one come to declare, as I read in The Atlantic two or three years ago, that “to truly love Joan Didion … you have to be female.”) There is something nefarious in this tendency to reduce Didion to an aesthetic—feminine or otherwise—a compulsion to present her delicate sensibilities as the stylish accessory to a privileged, if enviable, passivity, rather than the glass through which she has so keenly perceived the world. Fortunately, her new Netflix documentary, The Center Will Not Hold, which came out last Friday, presents viewers with the full sweep of her work, and refuses to sever the link she has always maintained between her style and her character. It so happens that you do not have to be a woman to love The White Album, nor a man to love Political Fictions. You may, however, have to be an American in 2017 to appreciate the fine aging on “Insider Baseball,” which she wrote for The New York Review of Books almost thirty years ago:

It was by 1988 generally, if unspecifically, agreed that the United States faced certain social and economic realities which, if not intractable, did not entirely lend themselves to the kinds of policy fixes people who run for elected office, on whatever ticket, were likely to undertake. We had not yet accommodated the industrialization of parts of the third world. We had not yet adjusted to the economic realignment of a world in which the United States was no longer the principal catalyst for change … What continued to dominate the rhetoric of the campaign, however, was not this awareness of a new and different world but nostalgia for an old one, and coded assurance that symptoms of ambiguity or change, of what George Bush called the “deterioration of values,” would be summarily dealt with by increased social control.

Spencer Bokat-Lindell

New York’s weather earlier this week gave me the occasion to revisit some of my favorite rainy-day music, the foremost of which is Tiny Ruins, the musical creation of the New Zealander Hollie Fullbrook. Her lyrics are often wistful and imaginative, filled with the sort of light longing that feels most appropriate with the rain falling in sheets outside your window. Take “Me at the Museum, You in the Wintergarden,” a song with a peculiar magic to its imagining: “I await the day when I work at the Museum, / with you across the way in the Wintergardens. / So young and so warm, we’ll storm, we’ll swarm / the parks on our lunch breaks, we’ll lie on the lawn— / smile so stealthily, buttery and brief.” Characterized by muted drums and percussions, hushed tones, and the wonderfully smooth singing voice of Fullbrook, the music of Tiny Ruins has a unique quality that is both peaceful and haunting. It makes you feel like closing your eyes and imagining a perfect day, and then alerts you to something slightly sinister in that day. Everything is beautiful, and everything is not alright. “Noise before the dawn lures me up and about, / Padding on bare feet, quiet as a lover’s doubt,” she sings in “Carriages”—and we never discover just what is making that noise. Instead, the song progresses to a new sequence of self-reflective thoughts: “All of the trials of my good friends, / All of the ways to save and make amends / Strike me at this hour so clear, / But a thieving sky, she steals me here.” Rainy day or not, listening to Tiny Ruins will make you feel that peculiar sort of ache that we all need to feel every once in a while. —Joel Pinckney

Yesterday, a friend gave me a book that had helped her through a difficult time. “Just keep it on your bedside table. It always cheers me up.” For me, at first, Good Ol’ Snoopy had the opposite effect. As the title suggests, this is a selection of comics featuring not the soulful, melancholic Charlie Brown but his “lovable” dog. Which is to say, Good Ol’ Snoopy represents Charles M. Schulz at his most stridently cheerful—Snoopy doing his dance of glee, Snoopy reveling in the powers of his own imagination, Snoopy showering Lucy with unwanted hugs and kisses, et cetera. I admired the drawing, of course. Chris Ware’s books have helped me appreciate the elegance of the squiggles I took for granted as a kid. But it wasn’t until halfway through the book that a cartoon made me laugh. It was the writing that did it, and the concept. Here, at last, was Snoopy jangled, Snoopy as bit player and stooge. Plus: “Does rubbing a balloon bother you, Violet?” That one line wiped a thousand gift cards from my memory—and Good Ol’ Snoopy had cured another patient. —Lorin Stein

Halloween is just one day of delicious darkness, but its penumbra engulfs the entire month of October. I have always loved the idea of October as the most speculative of thirty-day stretches, a time when the possibility of ghouls breaking the surface of our waking world seems more likely than ever. And yes, it’s November now, and I mourn the conclusion of the spooky season, but I urge you to read one last tale before you hang up your glow-in-the-dark skeleton tracksuit: Karen Russell’s “Haunting Olivia,” about two brothers who stumble upon a pair of spirit-seeing swim goggles that they then use to search for their sister’s ghost. It is one of my favorite short stories. It isn’t scary, and there are no craggy trees and no howling wind, but the story captures the thrill of bumping up against something that escapes understanding better than just about any other piece of fiction I’ve read. —Brian Ransom