Staff Picks: Vengeance, Evil, and Grace


This Week’s Reading

Still from Phantom Thread.


As often happens when watching a perfect movie, by the time the first shot bloomed across the screen, I nearly forgot I had a body. I would have forgotten entirely except that Phantom Thread made my heart pound and my palms sweat. Friends, this is not a thriller, though it was thrilling. Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film, and allegedly Daniel Day-Lewis’s last, is about a couturier in postwar London. It is about devotion, though depending on who you ask it is either about a man’s devotion to his work or a women’s devotion to a man. Either way, the film itself was made with obvious devotion. The clothing is arresting. What color is that bowtie except, perhaps, Proustian? The interior shots each want to be a still. Each time Day-Lewis’s character drives through the English countryside, his perfect sports car enrobes him like his gowns enrobe his clients. Weather, branches, or crowds be damned, he is a perfect pilot in a perfect vehicle. Both the movie and the characters run the risk of failing to live up to the exacting standards they set. But to my intense satisfaction, Phantom Thread is the picture of success. There is a twist, a fetish introduced so deliciously that it makes the trailer for the final Fifty Shades movie look like it belongs in Barbie’s beach house. If this is Day-Lewis’s last movie, what a way to go. —Julia Berick

Eka Kurniawan

I recently read Eka Kurniawan’s novel Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash as if either the book or I were outfitted with afterburners. Vengeance is a comic picaresque that the publisher has likened to a Quentin Tarantino film; Kurniawan’s prose, translated from the Indonesian by Annie Tucker, is pungent and blunt, but there’s more talk of fighting than actual fights, and a scene in which a pair of 18-wheelers battle for dominance at high speeds on a two-lane road could not have been reproduced in film to such great effect. The novel’s protagonist is Ajo Kawir, who suffers a youthful erotic mishap that leaves him impotent (he treats his “bird” as a kind of Yorick, delivering monologues to it and wondering whither its gambols). He fights to relieve his frustrations and meets the tough-as-nails Iteung, who kicks his ass and wins his heart. The course of true love doesn’t run smooth, as we know, and Ajo Kawir abandons his old life for one spent making long-distance hauls. There are disappointing moments later in the novel—Kurniawan’s handling of gay and female sexuality is rather awful at times—but the physicality of his prose and his story is invigorating.—Nicole Rudick 

Still from Alias Grace.

An obvious solution to the cold: a Netflix miniseries that keeps your eyes glued to your computer and makes you forget why you’ve ever wanted to be anywhere but inside. This week, I picked Alias Grace, and it did just that. The second in a lineup of Margaret Atwood novels being adapted for TV, Alias Grace takes place in nineteenth-century Canada and revolves around Grace Marks, a domestic servant convicted of murdering her employer. The show begins as Grace, fifteen years into her confinement, begins meeting with Doctor Jordan in order to tell him her tale. Flashbacks full of neat costumes, colorful flowers, and dark red stains ensue. It seems to me, ultimately, to be a series about the bags under their eyes: hers, dark from the start; Dr. Jordan’s, getting darker and darker; the viewer’s, oncoming, as a planned forty-five minutes turns into two hundred and seventy. Is Doctor Jordan meeting with Grace to learn her story or for a chance to be near her? Alias Grace probes the question: Are you watching for the story or are you watching for the teller? Either way, it is certainly worth the bags. —Claire Benoit

Leonora Carrington

I was disappointed but not at all surprised to see Missouri on Fodor’s 2018 “No List,” the travel publication’s annual assessment of the places in the world least worth visiting. But what I can say in my home state’s favor, aside from mentioning that many of my friends and most of my lovely family live there, is that it serves as the home base for Dorothy, a small press with a good heart and a laser-precise focus. I’ve spent the first few weeks of the year lost in the dreamy bliss of Dorothy’s The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington. Although I’d been prepared for a lethal dosage of strangeness from the French surrealist’s twisted tales, I hadn’t anticipated just how funny these stories would be. “I went to fetch my car,” the narrator of “The Royal Summons” says, “but my chauffeur, who has no practical sense at all, had just buried it. ‘I did it to grow mushrooms,’ he told me. ‘There’s no better way of growing mushrooms.’ ” “Three Hunters” sketches a woman’s visit to the forest manor of three profoundly sad, seemingly immortal brothers who are burdened with an unfortunate curse. After dinner, the narrator follows one of the brothers to a room filled with “nothing but sausages. Sausages in aquariums, sausages in cages, sausages hanging on the walls, sausages in sumptuous glass boxes.” With a tear, he explains, “Whatever trophy we try to preserve becomes a sausage.” Each story is bursting with moments like these, delicious non sequiturs rattling out of the margins like spoons falling from the sky. I am generally a jumpy reader anyway, but with The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington, I gallop across the pages, desperate to see what new tricks Carrington will pull, thirsty for the next grotesque turn or unsettling tableau. —Brian Ransom

David Axelrod

I’ve only just discovered the producer/arranger/composer David Axelrod, and so I’m still in the stage where I’m picturing Obama’s chief strategist behind a mixing board, bobbing his head with his eyes closed. But this David Axelrod, who died in February 2017, was a jazzy, soulful Los Angeles studio rat, unafraid of flutes and spoken-word poetry. I’m starting my journey with The Edge: David Axelrod at Capitol Records 1966–1970. Track after track, he pushes his LA studio musicians to go further out into the desert, while he flips through a Rolodex of orchestras, and records the congas so closely you’d expect the percussionist’s hands to knock the mics. Right away, I recognized the palm-muted guitar on the collection’s title track, famously sampled by Dr. Dre, as well as the song called “Holy Thursday,” which is not on that album, but present, strangely, as a melodic foundation for about fifty percent of Axelrod’s songs and also served as the basis for Lil Wayne’s “Dr. Carter.” I’ve always wondered who was responsible for the sound of those toms on the drum fills, and the majesty of the horn and string arrangements. Turns out it was a turtle-necked sorcerer with the same name as David Axelrod. His songs work so well in hip-hop because the performances are saturated with what my middle school drumming book called “deep groove.” If you like Ennio Morricone, the Alan Parsons Project, and other music that makes you feel like a giant on a quest, then buckle up: there’s a new David Axelrod in your life, and he wants to take you on a journey. —Brent Katz

Uzodinma Iweala. Photo: Ruthie Abel

I spent these past few days immersed in Uzodinma Iweala’s second novel, Speak No Evil, forthcoming in March. It’s a small novel, if measured by page count, but a large one if measured by impact. When Niru, a private-school student born of Nigerian parents in Washington, D.C., voices his queerness to himself and his best friend, Meredith, the consequences are devastating. I was struck again and again by Iweala’s ability to impart the experience of Niru’s queer, black, teenage turmoil. It left me feeling as if I’d made two new friends—or, to withhold a “likability judgement,” at least two close acquaintances. —Eleanor Pritchett

Samuel Menashe

As a thin rain fell outside, I browsed the lovely, homey Mercer Street Books—much bigger than its exterior suggests—where the owner plucks his favorite books out of the stacks and sets them front-wise against the rows like eyes. I found, and was overwhelmed by, a water-beaten copy of The Niche Narrows: New and Selected Poems of Samuel Menashe. Menashe, who died in 2011 at the age of eighty-five, was a New York poet of short, close-packed intensity. A private mystic bemused by the writing compulsion, he paid a religious attention to the inner and outer worlds. A typical Menashe poem, “In My Digs,” reads in its entirety: “Caked in a glass / That is clear / Yesterday’s dregs / Tell me the past / Happened here.” Most Menashe poems rhyme but do not flow as we expect rhymed poems to. They have a stopped-up rhythm, each line break like somebody gasping for breath, the syntax convoluted. This is intentional. It is the genius and the mission of Menashe’s poetry to cause us to trip, to arrest our attention on the words instead of allowing us to lightly glaze over them like someone breezing through a museum. Menashe wants us to see and think more like Menashe, and it is a hard yoke. His poetry opens no wide gate to the reader. Unsurprisingly, Menashe is best known for being unknown. Every appreciation of Menashe that I have read begins with his long obscurity, sporadically leavened by critical attention in England. In 2004, Poetry literalized this status by awarding Menashe its first-ever Neglected Masters Award. Ecce Homo Neglectus! At least it came with a fifty-thousand-dollar prize: Menashe was always poor. Throughout his life, with attention and money and without, Menashe’s style stayed consistent—he was hunting for something private and self-sufficient. As I was checking out the collection, dedicated by Menashe on the front page in a humbly legible blue cursive to “The Williams Club, 2003,” the owner said that Menashe had been a regular at Mercer Street Books, and a patient browser. As I was leaving, the owner told me that once, after Menashe had come back to the store after a long absence, he exclaimed, “Sam, Thank God! I thought you were dead!” Menashe just tossed his head back and laughed. —Matt Levin

Zadie Smith

One of the essays in Zadie Smith’s forthcoming collection, Feel Free, is a previously published piece, adapted from a speech she gave at a German literary ceremony, called “On Optimism and Despair.” I read it when it first ran in December of 2016, and still return to it every now and then. I could explain why, but this is a case in which it seems best to let the writing speak for itself:

I maintain that people who believe in fundamental and irreversible changes in human nature are themselves ahistorical and naive. If novelists know anything it’s that individual citizens are internally plural: they have within them the full range of behavioral possibilities. They are like complex musical scores from which certain melodies can be teased out and others ignored or suppressed, depending, at least in part, on who is doing the conducting. At this moment, all over the world—and most recently in America—the conductors standing in front of this human orchestra have only the meanest and most banal melodies in mind. Here in Germany you will remember these martial songs; they are not a very distant memory. But there is no place on earth where they have not been played at one time or another. Those of us who remember, too, a finer music must try now to play it, and encourage others, if we can, to sing along.

Spencer Bokat-Lindell

Li-Young Lee

Much like the feathered white wings unfolding against the light blue background of its cover, Li-Young Lee’s forthcoming poetry collection, The Undressing, has a softly shrouded intricate grace. The four parts of the collection are seamlessly linked by transitions in tone that step artfully from the end of one to the start of the next. They are also tautly conceived in a way that I can only call novelistic: the breadth and depth of plot and character are robed in lyrical lines and images. Lee guides his narrator from the throes of youthful passion and love through the pain of adulthood—reckoning with family history and humanity’s violence—and concludes with a climactic defense of poetry against a harpy-like characterization of self-doubt. The arch of the collection stretches gracefully toward a stunning ending, and I was left short of breath by a verse in the penultimate poem: “And of all the things we’re dying from tonight, / being alive is the strangest. / Surviving our histories is the saddest. / Time leaves the smallest wounds, / and your body, a mortal occasion / of timeless law, / is all the word I know.” —Lauren Kane