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Staff Picks: Sohyang, Sacred Deer, and Steamers

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This Week’s Reading

Rowan Ricardo Phillips.

 

Rowan Ricardo Phillips’s poem “The Peacock,” in The Paris Review’s Winter issue, begins with the line, “Music for when the music is over.” It’s how he defines a poem and it’s a phrase that appears as the title of a piece in his 2012 collection, The Ground. Musical is exactly what the poems in this collection are. The language flows and skips within and between lines, pausing on occasion to cycle through refrains, so gracefully that you are nearly stunned when you remind yourself that the words are unaided by instruments. They are in many ways mythic, making characters of Orpheus, Eurydice, and Dante, as well as the poet himself. But don’t be put off by the nominal associations with the realm of the dead; these poems are very much alive with sensuality and they exist in Phillips’s physical world, which includes Harlem, the West Indies, and Barcelona. This collection is charged with urgency, which is signaled at the start, in the final lines of the first poem: “Tonight I touched the tattooed skin of the building I was born in / And because tonight is curing the beginning let me through. / And everywhere was blurring halogen. Love the place that / welcomed you.”  —Lauren Kane

My girlfriend likes to poke fun at my family for resembling the cast of a wholesome sitcom. She claims that our fluffy dogs and our deep love for one another make us seem like we just marched off the set of 7th Heaven or some other toothless WB trash. Her points are valid. Our adoption of the Icelandic tradition Jolabokaflod (roughly translated: Christmas book flood) lends significant weight to her argument. As I understand it, Jolabokaflod is a tradition borne out of a paper ration in Iceland during World War II that involves exchanging books as gifts on Christmas Eve and then immediately sitting down to read said books. My family did this for the first time last year, when I received Lucia Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women, but I screwed up and didn’t start the book on the twenty-fourth. I still haven’t. This year will be different. What better way to spend the evening before the holiday chaos, before the shuffle of extended family and the flurry of wrapping-paper scraps, than to nestle in with a new book? “’Twas the night before Christmas / when all through the house / every Ransom was reading / curled up on a couch.” —Brian Ransom

Still from The Killing of a Sacred Deer.

The Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos has managed to establish a trademark style over a mere four feature-length films. Whether in Greek or English, his films all share intentionally stiff dialogue, a private idioverse of hermetic characters, and sudden bursts of graphic violence. Yet despite all this, his films are very, very funny. Lanthimos is at heart a satirist—his films are often shaped around a seemingly unremarkable convention followed through to its extreme logical end. In Dogtooth, parents raising their children in a walled-off compound teach them a language of misdefined Greek words and subject them to a bizarre ritual system of reward and punishment: it is the privacy of the nuclear family stretched to absurdity. In The Lobster, socially stunted loners must find a mate in forty-five days or be turned into the animal of their choice—the social standard of couplehood made Kantian law. His new, excellent film, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, has that same Lanthimos lobotomized weirdness—plus the best cinematic aping of Kubrick that I have seen in a long time—but without even the slight tethering to the normal of his previous films. In this one, it is not social convention, but an artistic convention being totalized. The movie takes place in a twenty-first century America that is subject, inexorably, to the laws of Greek tragedy. Paradoxically, it feels more serious than his other films precisely for being grounded in something purely artistic. As good as they are, his previous movies occasionally feel like a clever prank, a verbal trick, and no more. The Killing of a Sacred Deer, by submitting to the dictates of a total vision—Greek tragedy is a subsistent world unto itself, with its own laws, its own logic—feels truly real, and suffocating (in the best way). —Matt Levin

“O Holy Night” is not, strictly speaking, a Christmas carol. Perhaps it was at the time of its debut, but for as long as I’ve been alive the song has served primarily as a sonic tumbling floor on which divas choose to perform their vocal acrobatics. The critical element here—familiar, too, to any post-Whitney gesture at the National Anthem—is not the particular arrangement, or even the soloist’s interpretation, but the voice qua voice. Mariah Carey and Céline Dion set the standard for “O Holy Night” a long time ago, of course, and their versions still loom large in the canon of campy Christmas music. But my favorite rendition in this mode belongs to Sohyang, a Korean singer who, for reasons that escape me, remains unduly obscure in the United States. Vocal cords are fallible, fragile things, and singers spend most of their lives trying to conceal the seams that join the stretches of their range: in that technical regard, Sohyang’s voice is extraordinary, a length of bulletproof satin spread over three octaves. Her performance here doesn’t quite scream Jesus—she could just as well be singing about a Chipotle burrito—but it’s as close to revelation as the song is likely to bring me. —Spencer Bokat-Lindell

Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday (forthcoming from Simon & Schuster in February 2018) is at once strangely of and outside of the current moment. The novel is carved into three distinct sections. “Folly,” the first and most compelling portion, tells the story of Alice, a young female editor in New York City, and her romance with Ezra, an older, wealthier and very famous writer. While it explores the inequities of love without a balance of power, it avoids the simple clichés of the #MeToo movement. Their relationship is layered, believable, and not without inexorable charm. The second section, “Madness,” breaks completely from the first. It is narrated by an Iraqi American man who, on his way to Kuwait in the final days of 2008, is detained by immigration officers at Heathrow and spends a weekend in a holding cell. Those two disparate stories echo against each other with themes of misplaced power and impotence, and yet the third section reveals a different, and surprising, link between them. The novel feels ultimately less about the vast gulfs between us than about the ability of literature to lessen the divide.  —Nadja Spiegelman

From left: Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman.

I’ve been reading biographies of the American transcendentalists over the past few months—Emerson: The Mind on Fire, Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind, and Walt Whitman’s America: A Cultural Biography. In my sudden blitz on the subject, I was existentially reaffirmed in the value of the philosophical life, especially during times of turmoil and change. The decades leading up to the American Civil War were strange; steam engines changed relationships to space; penny papers, a new, cheaply made print medium, prospered; public lectures became standard fare in American communities; and political discourse was vitriolic and estranging—sound familiar? —Jeffrey Gleaves

It’s impossible to keep up with all the good work being done by literary magazines; better to try and consistently read a few. One that I’ve chosen to follow is AGNI, in large part due to the writing of its editor, Sven Birkerts. An incisive cultural critic, Birkerts has, for decades, followed how technology is affecting our minds. I read Readings, his 1999 collection of essays, this summer and marveled at how relevant Birkerts’s insights, from before the age of social media, still feel. It seemed that he was speaking precisely to the way I felt my social-media addiction scraping away at my capacity for attention. In short—he is the sort of attentive and thoughtful figure I’d like to curate my reading. And under his editorship, AGNI is a magazine worth your attention. There’s much worth reading in the magazine’s most recent issue, its eighty-sixth installment. It opens with Birkerts’s editor’s note, a reminiscence of Derek Walcott at Boston University, a poet who “could make the slightest nuances of sound serve him.” Of particular note are Donald Quist’s reflection on the great danger he, as a young black man, obliviously put himself into through acts of petty shoplifting; and Bruce Beasley’s poem on the horrors of what happened to Freddie Gray. If you’re looking for a literary magazine to support, AGNI is one that consistently delivers. —Joel Pinckney

Maylis de Kerangal

The concept of Maylis de Kerangal’s The Heart is so simple. The novel tracks a heart transplant, from the moment a car crash makes the heart available to the moment it is sealed in the body of a long-waiting recipient. The parents of the donated heart reel at the idea of dividing their son’s body and divesting his organs. The woman who receives the transplant is also loved, by her grown daughters and by a man delicate enough to lay flowers upon her naked body. This is a story about medicine: there are egos and doctors and muted passions. But there are also marriages that have quietly failed and surfing; there is good sex, a little bit of opera, and some texting. De Kerangal has handled the pregnant metaphor of the title with, forgive me, surgeon’s hands. She cares too much for human emotion to play the book for heavy dumb tragedy. The heart, it turns out, is a delicate organ. —Julia Berick

One more, very important, recommendation from me this week: The best purchase I have made this year was a twenty-four-dollar portable steamer. You simply place your crumpled white shirt on a hanger, wave this appliance around it like a magic wand, and poof: the wrinkles are gone. I have spent my life not quite knowing how to iron (my mother, like a true second-wave feminist, taught her son how to sew buttons and her daughter how to use power tools) but luckily, the technological miracles of the twenty-first century have come to my rescue. Although not particularly sexy, I can’t think of anyone who would not thank you profusely for offering them this for Christmas. —N.S.