Staff Picks: Phillips, February, and Fake News


This Week’s Reading

A banner depicting Joice Heth, by the artist Mark Copeland.

When a review copy of Kevin Young’s Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News landed on my desk, I turned to Nadja and said, This book is going to win the Pulitzer Prize. Bunk is a barefisted reckoning with American culture, an extension of sorts of Young’s whip-smart book-length essay The Grey Album that coils, swerves, and diverts out at right angles from itself. It begins with a seemingly benign look at Joice Heth, a black woman whom P. T. Barnum added to his sideshow and claimed to be the 161-year-old nursing maid of George Washington. The question is, Was Heth in on it? Was she paid for this? And even if she was, was Barnum’s humbug—something designed to deceive and mislead—essentially a co-opting of black pain and suffering? How does that change when we discover that Barnum actually bought her from another showman? Young’s inquiry spins out from there and looks at the outrageous headlines of nineteenth-century penny papers, fake memoirs, false reporting, and the unmistakable Americanness of the hoax—which is essentially a performance, one the viewer willfully participates in, as disingenuous as it is. Young is a pure essayist in the vein of Emerson and Montaigne. Reading Young, you feel like you’re making connections along with him, and it’s exciting, at times flabbergasting, to peel back the layers of the American psyche together. Bunk was long-listed for the National Book Award for Nonfiction and is a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism. I stand by my prediction of Young’s Pulitzer, and am taking bets. —Jeffery Gleaves

OMB Peezy. Photo: Jabari Jacobs

Because I am a dweeb who lines the walls of the dog crate he lives in with year-end lists, December is my favorite month. I love when media outlets and people look back on their year with a critical eye and assess which pieces of cultural detritus are worth preserving. The process brings order to the chaos. Not all lists are created equal, though—I can survive without peeking at, say, Car and Driver’s ranking of the top twenty-seven Saab memes. In fact, the abundance of lists almost necessitates another list, a list of lists, a meta list. If I were to make said meta list, Andrew Nosnitsky’s “Best Rap 2017” would hover somewhere near the peak of it. Nosnitsky—Noz for short—is a semi-retired rap critic who now runs a record shop in Oakland, and what I love about his lists is that every year, they point me to artists and songs I never would have found on my own. (This year, my favorite—besides the ubiquitous “XO Tour Llif3”—is OMB Peezy’s “Lay Down,” which just slaps.) All my rap obsessions over the past few years are artists I approached at first with skepticism, and it just so happens that all these obsessions are also figures that Noz championed early on. Noz is the reason I got in on the ground floor of Young Thug, and Noz’s enthusiasm for Pluto is what eventually converted me to the so-called Future hive. My advice? In Noz we trust. —Brian Ransom

After that interminable January, I—both my tired brain and my sun-starved body—am looking forward to a more terminable February (which will be, at least, three days shorter). I’m Not Here (Koyama Press, 2017), a graphic novel by the artist GG, is the perfect companion to the second month of the year—bleak, quiet, and steeped in a romantic blush pink. Through these hundred pages, we follow a young woman who explores her home and her neighborhood through the lens of a camera. The drawings are masterful in their simultaneous expression of thought, emotion, and material reality and are often unaccompanied by words for pages on end. Their quiet tone made me linger with them, sitting with each panel individually just as the protagonist sits with her thoughts. We sit with this woman through eight panels of putting her hair in a bun, through four panels of watching a photo develop, through three pages of a silent dinner with her mother. This subtle exploration of family and the grief of adulthood is a meditative experience. —Eleanor Pritchett

Sigred Nunez and her latest novel, The Friend.

I, too, love dogs. When I read the excerpt of Sigrid Nunez’s latest novel in the Fall 2017 issue of this magazine, which featured a Great Dane, I sat and stayed. That excerpt and the novel’s promotional material suggest that the book is the classic tale of a woman and the horse who loved her—I mean, the dog who loved her—but Nunez is too astute for that to be all. Sure, animal tales can tell us about ourselves, but Nunez is also interested in the violence that only humans can do to each other. The protagonist is a writer who has just lost her best friend to suicide. This friend was her former professor and perhaps the unrealized love of her life—“Perhaps not,” the narrator might prickle back.  She inherits the friend’s friend, a harlequin Great Dane. The dog is horribly depressed at the loss of his owner, master, and companion. (Nunez wrestles with the subservience inherent in doggy lives.) So is the protagonist. She misses her friend. She is also openly wearied and worried by the dense egotism and sensitivity of her writing students, who are, according to her, all millennials and snowflakes. But is she frustrated by her students dismissing Nabokov as gross and morally unreadable? Or is she also mourning her own studentship, when her friend was young, irresistible, and her professor? Or both? The novel is deeply sad but haunted by a sense of humor. I laughed out loud at the suggestion “Wouldn’t it be easier if we named all the cats Password?” The sweetness in the book is grizzled and hard-won, but why not? The novel is about suicide and sex trafficking and watching another generation imperfectly inherit your life’s work and art. Oh, and it is also about a dog. —Julia Berick

The other day, I turned to my sister in exasperation because it was still cold out and still January: “Will it be January forever?” Without saying a word, she grabbed something from the table and held it up to my face. My question could find no better answer than in the cover of this week’s New Yorker“Cruellest Month,” by Roz Chast. A yellow, star-studded, pointy circle frames the precious words LAST DAY OF JANUARY! and obscures the last day’s date, because at this point knowing what day it is matters so much less than knowing the blissful truth that January does not, in fact, last forever. “Cruellest Month,” like so many of Chast’s cartoons, wallows in a quotidian feeling of exasperation and then soothes it just enough. January is cruel but finite. Now it’s February. Time moves forward, even through the cold. As Eleanor likes to remind me, daylight saving time is coming up. She’s not wrong. —Claire Benoit

Last May, Governor Cuomo announced to much fanfare that the latest round of Penn Station track repairs would usher in a “summer of hell.” This was an interesting statement, insofar as it suggested that hell was not already Penn Station’s default state. Fall has come and gone, but, in my experience at least, New Jersey Transit’s overheated system hasn’t cooled off so much as frozen over. One way I try to fill the time in my commute is by subscribing to new podcasts, the most recent of which is Keep It. Launched a few weeks ago by Crooked Media, the same company behind Pod Save America and the like, the podcast is hosted by Daily Beast critic Ira Madison III, Billy on the Street alum Louis Virtel, and Grown-ish writer Kara Brown. Their banter has a compellingly wide ambit, skipping archly across Oscar nominations, Trump’s State of the Union address, and Woody Allen’s continued immunity to the purgative force of #MeToo. Less punditry than smart, high-octane bitchery, it’s precisely what one wants to hear when one’s train starts moving, finally, after a forty-five-minute delay, in reverse. —Spencer Bokat-Lindell

“Wild Is the Wind” is one of those songs with the enduring ability to break your heart. The renditions of Nina Simone and, later, David Bowie wrench heartstrings with particular force. The unmatched voice of Carl Phillips contributes a chapter to the history of the ballad by borrowing its name for the title of his newest collection, which enchants by way of its sheer vulnerability. When reading Carl Phillips, I always feel as though I am in conversation with a friend at some quiet and intimate twilight hour. The architecture of his syntax is smooth and urgent as he ruminates on the place where the interior and exterior worlds connect. The thrust of the collection is to better understand the mortal condition, the realities of passing time, by being attuned to the rhythms of nature; there is no tangible resolution, but the examination is all the more worthwhile for its open-ended conclusion. There is an existential melancholy here, yet you close the back cover with a feeling of quiet rejuvenation. Like listening to a Nina Simone record, the end of the experience elicits the feeling you’ve just encountered something honest and deeply human. —Lauren Kane

Nicholas Roerich, Tibet, Himalayas, 1933.

On West 107th Street, overlooking the Hudson River and within sonic distance of the West Side Highway, is a townhouse museum devoted to the late paintings of Nicholas Roerich. The inconspicuous structure is more home than museum—there are narrow winding stairs, a grand piano, and priceless Buddhist statues crowded on credenzas like knick-knacks. Nicholas Roerich, born in 1874 in St. Petersburg, led the kind of multi-faceted, irreconcilable life that seems ironically reserved for those with a single purpose. Roerich strove to be a mystic, a seeker of transcendental unities. He was the type to find a Tibetan buckle and see a similarity to an ancient Scythian buckle, and from there invent a capitalized universalizing archetype (The Buckle of Life). Yet, like white light diffracted into layers of color, Roerich was also, at different points in his life, a well-regarded painter, a Slavic archaeology enthusiast, an exile of the Russian Revolution, the art designer for the infamous production of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps in Paris, a Theosophist lecturer in the United States, a client of rich American patrons, and a guru to politician Henry Wallace. Wallace, then the secretary of agriculture, funded Roerich’s controversial trip to Central Asia, during which Roerich allegedly attempted to incite a Buddhist rebellion and spent five months interned in Tibet. Roerich was also a prolific writer of baggy oraculars in the vein of Rudolf Steiner and Madame Blavatsky. In the last two decades of his life, he settled in India’s Kullu Valley, among the Himalayas, and painted mountains obsessively. It is these extraordinary paintings that the townhouse displays— mountains pink at dawn, blue-gray at dusk, swaddled in cloud, doubled in lakes. They have a bracing clarity, as if everything superfluous in his seeing has evaporated. He is attentive to the fractures and sheers in the cliffs, reading them like faces. He registers every shift of light and shadow, and in his absorption, he empties himself, removes himself, and becomes a true mystic at last. The landscapes are denuded of people, depersonalized to a shimmering stillness. After all his talk and his various adventures, in these final paintings, he is absent and silent and speaks in a clean, crystalline tone. —Matt Levin