Staff Picks: Birds, Borders, and Broadway


This Week’s Reading

Photo: Carl Fuldner and Shane DuBay.


In 2009, Edwin Rist stole hundreds of bird skins from England’s Natural History Museum at Tring, which holds one of the largest ornithological collections in the world. Among the collection were a number of specimens collected by Alfred Russel Wallace, the British naturalist whose work is often credited with goading Charles Darwin to publish On the Origin of Species. Why did Rist steal them? To tie the world’s most exotic and expensive fishing flies. So begins Kirk Wallace Johnson’s charming The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century, a truly bizarre tale that traces the history of exotic-bird collecting and the feather trade through scientific harvesting, millinery fads, the Victorian era’s fly-fishing boom, up to Rist’s caper and Johnson’s own attempts at retrieving the stolen feathers with the help of some international fly-tying elites. There’s a lot to Johnson’s book, and he ties it together well, reeling you into disparate historical subjects in a thrilling catch-and-release style. The book is The Orchid Thief for the fly-fishing and birding set: worth its weight in exotic bird feathers, which you’ll learn are very expensive. —Jeffery Gleaves 



I don’t know anything about anything, which is why I assumed Tony Kushner’s Angels in America was a play for patriots and, after having seen its Broadway revival last weekend, lauded the performance of “Anthony” Lane to anyone who would listen. My tickets were garnered last minutethrough a Facebook friend of a Facebook friend of my mother’sand I accidentally lit my hair on fire between the two acts, but even from my shitty seat, hair still singed, I was mesmerized. Nathan Lane acted like Nathan Lane, and Andrew Garfield was awful—in the words of Hilton Als, “Flouncing around doesn’t make you gay; it makes you a well-toned actor trying to play an AIDS victim.” The real star was the Angel, played by Amanda Lawrence, and the people who propped her up. Together, they scaled the stage, moving like a spider tangled in its web. —Maya Binyam



I’ve always been thoroughly delighted by the fifties imagination of outer space: the simplicity, the wonder, and especially the atomic-age aesthetic. Christina Wood Martinez’s story “The Astronaut,” in the most recent issue of Granta, populates the mid-century Space Age with astronauts who plunk down from the sky at random, wordless and faceless in their helmets and spacesuits. One such spaceman lands on a manicured lawn belonging to a suburban couple (the wife is the narrator), who immediately take him into their home. What Martinez does with this character is as mesmerizing as the Milky Way on a cloudless night. He never speaks, and the only thing that can be seen by looking at his helmet is a reflection of the looker. It is in the shiny mirror of his headgear that the couple sees all of their disappointments about their childless, passionless marriage. The husband sees him as a son he can take out back to throw the ball around, while the astronaut simultaneously becomes an object of desire for the narrator (who continues to harbor motherly feelings toward him as often as dream about his hands between her legs). The complexity of the strange intersections of motherhood, marriage, and desire are expertly done through this one silent character, while the story as a whole examines agency and intimacy. It’s a tightly woven achievement that you want to sit with and dissect carefully, and one that will stay with you long after you’ve finished. —Lauren Kane

Perhaps there is some subconscious urge to shorten time when the calendar flips over to April but the weather remains stubbornly wintry. Or perhaps my attention span has simply been flagging. Whatever the case, collections of short stories have been appealing of late, and I found myself reading two of them this week, ostensibly for the comfort the medium itself provides. Both proved to be revelatory and immersive in their own right, and an oddly ideal combination when read together. The first, László Krasznahorkai’s The World Goes On, is not so much a collection as an interconnected puzzle—each narrative its own little universe and yet related, in only the way that stories completely grounded in the mundane insanity of human society can be, to all the others. They build, among them, a resonant reflection on obsession, speed, anxiety, minutiae, and how each of these infects the way we live in the world. The stories create a view of humanity that feels timelessly relevant, while Krasznahorkai’s stylistic insistence on the use of emphatic punctuation (“?!?!”) is guiltlessly modern. The second, Yukio Mishima’s 1953 collection, Death in Midsummer and Other Stories, is a similarly self-contained creation, though more concerned with slow sadness than frantically impending doom. Reading “Patriotism,” which contains perhaps the most graphic and affecting description of ritual suicide I’ve ever encountered, felt like slipping seamlessly into a cold pool, goosebumps rising unbidden. Mishima’s endings feel like inevitabilities, while Krasznahorkai’s conjure jump cuts and sharp edges. This aside, Mishima and Krasznahorkai’s shared interest in Noh theater is a perfect demonstration of how these authors overlap—like two overpasses of Shanghai’s Nine Dragon Pillar—right at the intersection of practiced artifice and dissonant beauty. Reading them simultaneously and discovering this interplay was a stroke of luck, but now I cannot imagine recommending one without the other. —India Ennenga

In the act of mothering, women often quote or misquote their own mothers. In the epilogue of Nadja Spiegelman’s brilliant memoir and family history, I’m Supposed to Protect You From All This, Nadja’s mother misquotes her daughter. She’s trying to compliment a line from her manuscript: “ ‘The bear was seen.’ That’s a great line.” But the bear was actually a heron, and the anecdote, like all anecdotes in this deceptively digestible but deeply complex book, is fourfold. The original line is uttered by the novelist Siri Hustvedt, who remembers seeing a heron with her daughter while her husband is sleeping. Her husband, on the other hand, remembers the same tale but with Siri asleep. Regardless, Siri says, “the heron was seen.” In assembling her remarkable family history, Nadja encounters inconsistencies and contradictions that both she and her mother—the shimmering, accomplished Françoise Mouly—struggle to break. The book emerged in part from Nadja’s careful interviews with Françoise, who becomes almost a sister and a friend. There are many dangers in reading your colleague’s much-lauded book, but I suffered none of them, save a few too-late nights by my reading lamp. I knew Nadja had caught me in her beautiful family web long before the epilogue, but when I reached “the bear” and called out, “No, it was a heron,” to my empty living room, I realized how much I wanted in. —Julia Berick



Jhumpa Lahiri begins the introduction to her translation of Domenico Starnone’s Trick by discussing how she picked the title. Trick’s narrator is an illustrator in his seventies who returns to his childhood home (where his daughter lives) to spend a few days looking after his four-year-old grandson. Eager grandson and grouchy grandpa chat, play, set the table, argue, draw, and—to greater delight to the four-year-old than to the old man—play tricks. Lahiri hovers between “trick” and “gotcha” as a translation of scherzetto, which titles and recurs throughout the Italian original. The story hovers there, too, somewhere between the fun of playing tricks together and the antagonism of one person playing a trick on another. The relationship between the two characters is tense, playful, exasperating, and touching, most deeply in the moments when the two act together. “Then I, too, took off my shoes,” the grandpa narrates. “I got up on the bed, and we jumped for a while, holding hands. I felt my heart in my chest like a huge ball of live flesh that went up and down from my stomach to my throat and back again.” It’s been almost a year since I last jumped on a bed (maybe not so long as one might expect), and reading Trick brought back the feeling: in some ways exhilarating, in some ways weighty, and in all ways exultingly self-reflexive. —Claire Benoit



I’ve heard that Border Districts is not the ideal place to start with the work of Gerald Murnane. I’d love to experience every piece of art in the ideal way, and my obsessive tendencies render me militantly obedient to order when possible, but that’s just not how life works. (I am the same man who saw the second Hunger Games movie without watching the first and walked out thinking it one of the best action movies in years.) Stubbornly, I did not heed the warning about Murnane and have now found myself plunged into the baffling, sometimes tedious, sometimes remarkable world of Border Districts, a snail’s-pace wonderland brimming with marbles, memories, and stained-glass windows. Murnane is not one for plot or characters or even scenes. From the sixty or so pages of Border Districts I’ve read so far, I can assume the narrator is a proxy for Murnane himself: an aging man living out the rest of his days in rural Australia, physically, but mentally immersed in the images that have haunted him his entire life. No detail is insignificant. Murnane spends several paragraphs describing the quality of light that emerges from a church’s window, for example. The word obsession doesn’t quite cut it. What concerns Murnane and his narrator most is how we see the world. “I was too clumsy as a child to paint with my moistened brush the scenery that I would have liked to bring into being,” he says at one point. “I preferred to leave untouched in their white metallic surroundings my rows of powdery rectangles of water-colours, to read aloud one after another of the tiny printed names of the coloured rectangles, and to let each colour seem to soak into each word of its name or even into each syllable of each word of each name so that I could afterwards call to mind an exact shade or hue from an image of no more than black letters on a white ground.” I am flailing here, but I’m also utterly captivated. The narrator stares at photographs until phantom details emerge. He holds different marbles up to the light. He arranges similar shades of his expensive colored pencils in various sequences until he can conjecture the hues operating in the chasms between them. As dull as it can be, the story is so thoughtful and observant that I can’t help but envy Murnane’s focus, his monklike reverence for the minutiae of daily life. God is dead, he seems to say, but the images we form in our minds are worthy of worship. They are just as real as any tangible object and form the basis for our own private mythologies. —Brian Ransom



In Deborah Levy’s forthcoming memoir, The Cost of Living, she attempts to discover who she is in the aftershocks of a shipwrecked marriage and the death of her mother. She is no longer a wife, no longer a daughter, yet still herself a mother, still a woman, still a writer. Other writers—Proust, de Beauvoir, Camus—join the chorus of her thoughts, and although Levy’s career is ascendant (she has just been shortlisted for the Booker Prize when the story opens), she shows us her own work life—a friend’s dusty back-garden shed, a computer on the brink of extinction—as anything but glamorous. Many of Levy’s novels are set in faraway places—the French Riviera, a chateau in Normandy, Spain—and track the lives of vacationers or foreigners, the uneasy relationship between self and place. This memoir is set in the mundane—after the divorce, she moves her two daughters to a block of North London flats, whose grim peeling hallway she ironically nicknames “the corridor of love”—and yet it is the mundane rendered unfamiliar, abrasively, perversely defamiliarized by a seismic internal shift. A pearl necklace bursts on its string, grocery bags explode on a busy road: sometimes things have to break before they can be made whole. Levy teaches us how to gather our lives, ourselves, our whole chicken flattened by a car’s tires, and move forward. The pain floats beneath the surface, the book trembles with it, and by the end, we sense the courage and honesty Levy required to submerge herself, breath held, fully into the past, the strange new present, and the future. —Nadja Spiegelman