Staff Picks: Interwar, War, and Postwar


This Week’s Reading

Tracy K Smith


“Our bodies run with ink dark blood. / Blood pools in the pavement’s seams. Is it strange to say love is a language / Few practice, but all, or near all speak?” So begins Tracy K. Smith’s poem “Unrest in Baton Rouge,” from the forthcoming collection, Wade in the Water. Like many of the poems in this slim yet searing book, “Unrest” is at once a haunting testimonial of the foulness on which the country was built and an homage to the love—however scant it may at times feel—that’s persevered despite it all. From start to finish, the collection traverses American history, comprising imagined letters between slaveholders, between black men or women and “Mr abarham lincon” or “My Children” or “Excellent Sir”; erasures, using the Declaration of Independence as source material; and poems about “our magnificent roads, / Our bridges slung with steel, / Our vivid glass, our tantalizing lights … ” But Smith writes, too, of more personal moments—the wonders of motherhood, the terrors of womanhood—so that by the collection’s end, we’ve listened to a choir of voices from generations past and present who have shown us the beautiful alongside the monstrous. In the poem “New Road Station,” Smith writes that “history is not a woman,” but in Wade in the Water, she most certainly is. —Caitlin Youngquist

I have carried Joy Williams’s The Visiting Privilege around with me for the past year and a half as though it were my bible. For all intents and purposes, it is: Williams is a powerhouse of a writer, one who could level an entire city with a single sentence, and I feel a devotion to her work that borders on dogmatism. Yet as with most spiritual matters, the exact cause of this fierce allegiance eludes me. After sixteen months with Joy, I don’t think I’m any closer to articulating, or even understanding, why I love her stories so much. What I can say is this: in each of the tales collected in the career-spanning Visiting Privilege, there is a sense that something is shifting just behind the veil. The machinations of daily life take on an Old Testament weight. Things mean what they mean until, suddenly, they don’t. The protagonists are alien to everyone they encounter, alien even to the reader, and their fundamental unknowability captures the desperate isolation of our modern era. I started reading The Visiting Privilege in August last year. Over the months, I’ve bounced my way through story after wonderful story, scratching my head, drinking in the sentences, trying to hold on to each word just a little longer than usual. And now, here I am, interning at The Paris Review, who just announced this week that Williams will receive the 2018 Hadada Award for lifetime achievement. This whole chain of events has a whiff of the beyond for me. Surely, this means something, I say, and then I turn the page, knowing it either does or does not, and making peace with this lack of understanding all the same. —Brian Ransom

With teasing ellipses, distraught lovers, and a long-lost notebook, Sabahattin Ali’s Madonna in a Fur Coat could have easily tipped into excess and yet never does. First published in Turkey, in 1943, Madonna is about Raif, a Turkish expat in Berlin in the 1930s, and Maria, the bohemian-minded half-Jewish woman for whom he falls. It is an advent calendar of surprises. Maria’s assessment that Raif is a little girl offers a much more calm, interesting gender meditation than any D. H. Lawrence riff. Madonna is especially insouciant about religion: as the half-Jewish love interest says, “Nothing in the world tries my patience more than those pine trees decked out in candles and stars … It goes without saying that I don’t have any time for Judaism either.” Madonna reminded me of some of the most lasting interwar novels. It has some of the fevered gender drag of Nightwood, while its cool detached misery also reminded me of Jean Rhys’s writing, especially Good Morning, Midnight. Ali offers the story of what continues to be a small miracle—a man and a woman from different cultures, languages, and religions meet and fall in love. More importantly, they understand each other. —Julia Berick

The drawings in Leslie Stein’s new book, Present, are prismatic, loopy, and effervescent. Her handwritten dialogue, squiggly forms, and watercolor washes are irresistible. In October, she was interviewed by her mother for The Comics Journal, and it’s pretty wonderful stuff; one of the questions is “Do you know how much a gift you are in my life?” So I was caught off guard by the aching loneliness that permeates the book’s autobiographical stories. Stein is optimistic, even when things aren’t going her way (and sometimes wary when they are), but every now and then her optimism wanes, just barely and only for a flash. When she seats herself at a long bar and spies a lovely woman at the other end, she wonders why that woman is there alone. “Then it hit me,” she writes. “The bar was not very long … At the end there was a giant mirror. The girl was me.” These moments accumulate and all the while feel tonally contradictory to Stein’s exuberant drawings; by book’s end, the loneliness feels companionable, like your reflection in a mirror. —Nicole Rudick

Seagull Books has recently released the first in their new Hungarian list, a series edited by Ottilie Mulzet. The book collects the first two novels of Gábor Schein, The Book of Mordechai and Lazarus, in one edition. I made it through the first this past week. The Book of Mordechai, originally published in Hungary in 2002 and translated into English by Adam Z. Levy, tells the story of a Hungarian family through snapshots of their lives from several generations—both before and after the Holocaust—interwoven with the biblical story of Esther. The novel jumps between the family’s story and that of Esther in nearly every paragraph, resulting in a disorienting read. The reader is displaced and ungrounded, just like the family at the heart of the novel, just like Esther and Haman. There’s much to ponder in this book—a grandfather’s insecurity over his wife’s first husband’s disappearance during the Holocaust; a group of friends in Budapest in 1951 and 1952 whose “talk was full of the dead … the only thing in which they took absolute pleasure.”The Book of Mordechai is a creative look into the horrors of the Holocaust and the effect it’s had on the relationships between its survivors. It represents a wonderful beginning for Seagull’s new venture. —Joel Pinckney

When it comes to the Internet, I remain on the whole unconvinced. Every now and then, though, someone thinks of a good use for it: about a month ago, The New Inquiry, in partnership with the Bronx Freedom Fund, released a software program that “uses computer processing power to get people out of jail.” In the crudest terms, Bail Bloc allows people to sublet the parts of their computer they’re not using, the rent from which then gets donated to a bail fund for low-income New Yorkers. (It is difficult to overstate the exploitative nature of United States’ uniquely harsh bail policies; you can read about New York’s here.) The New Inquiry bills Bail Bloc as just one project in “a series of situated, confrontational, rhetorically deliberate experiments through software.” It is probably all of these things, but the semantics turn out to be rather beside the point: according to the panel on my computer, the app has raised $2,114 to date—enough to bail two people out of jail. For them, and all the others it will fund, the project’s value will no doubt prove more physical than figurative. —Spencer Bokat-Lindell

An installation from “Good Fences Make Good Neighbors,” by Ai Weiwei.

I recently had the pleasure of walking through Washington Square Park at night and was able to admire the lights on Ai Weiwei’s impressive sculpture under the iconic arch. So I was delighted to see that Brick’s hundredth issue features an interview with Ai in which he discusses traveling to refugee camps in Syria, growing up in China, and dealing with tragedy through art. The rest of the issue includes the voices of Gail Jones, Anne Carson, a conversation between Louise Erdrich and her sister, and fiction by César Aira, among many others. Nicholas Ruddock’s poem “Storm” is as tumultuous as its title, a tornado picking up the debris of modern life, and as it comes to a close, states: “No, we didn’t ask for this, not directly, / aquifers of poison being sucked skyward, but here we are.” Reading through the exciting litany of writers, one feels that important attention is being paid as much to the highly cerebral as it is to the world that we live in. —Lauren Kane

Julien Gracq’s Balcony in the Forest is the oddly relaxing and surreal account of Lieutenant Grange, who is charged with manning a bunker near the river Meuse, deep in the Ardennes forest, during World War II. The language flows smoothly, meandering like the Meuse, whose presence as a line of defense is felt throughout the book. Grange and his men mostly wait while the war wages far away, as if in a dream taking place somewhere else. Grange is broody and spends a lot of his time outside the bunker, considering the nearby forest and villages as the seasons change: “After days of rain that turned the underbrush to jelly and stuck rafts of rotten leaves to their shoes, suddenly a dry, clear east wind swept the sky and hardened the roads, crackling the pin-oak leaves that still hung from the branches; it was as if a brisk and biting St. Martin’s summer, already hemstitched with frost, had ventured into the very heart of December.” The war does reach them, abruptly, in the end. Balcony in the Forest is about detachment, how most humans react when the world around them is burning down. That’s something we all know plenty about. —Jeffery Gleaves