Staff Picks: Sharp Women and Humble Turtles


This Week’s Reading

Michelle Dean.

What I like most about Michelle Dean’s book Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion is its cumulative effect. It’s not a biography of one or two or even three brilliant intellectuals, but ten: ten women writers (all are referred to by their last names alone, comme des garçons) who are variously funny, acerbic, insightful, opinionated, and complex. Together, they make a sisterhood, even though, Dean explains, most would likely balk at that notion. All were persistent in their rejection of ever-evolving accusations of aggression, vindictiveness, unseriousness, and facileness. In fact, the number and variety of stories in Dean’s book also illustrate how hard it is for women to find the “right” tone among male-dominated ideologies. (Dean’s primary subjects are white; a book about women of color would evoke other, unique difficulties.) Of Pauline Kael, Dean writes, “It’s plain she was hoping the brilliance of her work would be enough, as it would be for a man in her position.” Such a small desire, and still so fresh. —Nicole Rudick

All happy gardens are alike, except that they’re not, not at all, a truth rendered in Penelope Lively’s thoroughly charming forthcoming nonfiction Life in the Garden. As with all successful nature writing, reading this book is like being taught a new way to see. What previously registered as a vague, general whole now registers as an abundance of individual parts, each worthy of their own attention. Lively’s nimble book is a captivating kind of memoir balanced on pillars of social history and art criticism, examining the role of the garden as a mainstay of modern culture (and as such, subject to the influence of waxing and waning trends and styles) and its significance in selections of literature and art (my personal favorite being the cameo of Mr. Noakes from Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia). As a card-holding member of the New York Botanical Garden, I recognize that the color of my personal fascination with gardens is as an American, born and raised in a country where the garden is less an integral part of the cultural fiber than it is in Lively’s Britain. But Lively herself asserts that there is a magnetism to the garden that transcends nationality, hooking into themes of time, transience, and memory. —Lauren Kane 

Kevin Young

This week, I’ve spent much of my spare time poring over Kevin Young’s most recent collection of poems, Brown. The book comprises four sections, each as piercing as the one before, and it wears one of the most handsome jackets I’ve seen in a long while: scraps of paper—pink and maroon, white and a fleck of yellowish green—frame other scraps, black, brown, and gold. Throughout the collection, Young returns to the theme of childhood, and of growing up black in America. As the poet watches his son dance to jazz, recalls his first sleepover (“It’s as if you / have died when I head / into your room … though you / are just down / the street”) and the time “another neighbor / & good friend / called him nigger,” he is deluged with memories of his own boyhood experiences from Topeka, Kansas. He writes of when he first heard the word jigaboo, of when his wrestling coach asked him to moonwalk, of the brown boys that died after nights shared at house parties. With Brown, Young proves once again that he’s a formidable poetic force whose work we’ll be reading for lifetimes to come, and reminds us, too, to listen up now. Here are a few lines from “Triptych for Trayvon Martin”:  “There are gods / of fertility, / corn, childbirth / & police / brutality—this last / is offered praise / & sacrifice / near weekly / & still cannot / be sated—many-limbed, / thin-skinned, / its colors are blue / & black, a cross- / hatch of bruise / & bulletholes.” —Caitlin Youngquist

I was cringing during every moment of Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation, and yet I could not put the book down. Moshfegh’s novel, out this July, tells the story of a young woman who decides to duck out of the world for a year. With the help of an array of pills, one by one or in combination, the protagonist goes into hibernation. Moshfegh’s protagonist is brutally dreary, and the brutality of her dreariness is often very funny, but the book is really quite serious. Her year of rest and relaxation begins in the fall of 2000, and as the months pass and the reader senses the approach of September 2001, her dreary outlook on the world outside of her apartment starts to seem less brutal than trivial. The events of 9/11 are hardly mentioned, but they are nonetheless present from the first page to the last. The book seems to anchor itself to “real” experiences of pain and to validate itself by their relevance (the death of the protagonist’s parents, for instance, or the looming attack). But it is mostly, almost by juxtaposition, about the realness of a more subtle and very private expression of pain, no matter the cause, no matter how seemingly trivial. That’s what kept me reading even as my cringing muscles grew sore: feeling in my screwed-up face, barked laughs, and watery eyes the translation of that private kind of pain into something I could share. —Claire Benoit

Helen DeWitt’s forthcoming collection, Some Trickis some trick indeed. Dry and wry and propulsively funny, each thought has been whittled into a lean, sharp blade. In many of these stories (a baker’s dozen), she lacerates the publishing and art worlds, reveling in the horrifying absurdity that results when art is commodified—when awkward artists and their heartfelt creations are judged, packaged, and parceled out by middlemen with one eye on the “market” and another on their own careers. “Climbers” is my favorite of the lot. Gil, passionate and respected, wears “a dark green polo shirt with a small red turtle in the place where a more fashionable polo shirt might sport a crocodile. It has the trusting incomprehension of a Presidential dog.” Later we are told, in an aside, “The unpretentiousness of the humble turtle—it’s hard to explain how this contributed to making people feel shamefaced and crass, but it did.” The European writer everyone in New York is desperate to publish, and therefore “discover,” was “unassumingly dressed in the way that older Europeans are unassuming.” Rachel drinks Campari at KGB bar in “skinny white jeans and a sloppy lilac-blue V-necked sweater, sleeves rucked up to her elbows, cashmere.” Ralph, the high-powered agent who “was not an intellectual but maybe the secret of success was not caring,” wears “a tan polo shirt with a crocodile on the breast, chinos, and sockless Topsiders, because he had never wanted to be a suit.” “The thing you have to understand is that I really don’t understand people,” Gil says, at the start of the story. It’s clear that the DeWitt does, almost uncomfortably well. —Nadja Spiegelman

Each page of Hybrid Child, the first English translation, by Jodie Beck, of a Japanese work of speculative fiction by Mariko Ōhara, feels a little bit like waking up during an overnight flight, opening your window to see the stars, and instead seeing two lions in the middle of a vicious fight stop to blink peacefully up at you from the wing. You also see the glittering expanse of stars you came for, and the deafening silence of outer space, and maybe a robot? The story of the novel is that of Sample B #3, a shapeshifting cyborg of military creation, who becomes self-aware and escapes by becoming human and walking out of his cell. It’s also the story of the legend of Sample B #3, and the legend of the girl, Jonah, whose body the cyborg assumes: because Sample B #3 essentially cannot die, Ōhara is accustomed to moving through centuries of time like they’re nothing. It’s an eerie, beautiful universe populated by humans and things that Ōhara gives the empathy of humans, intentional at every turn about what boundaries she wants her future to have. —Eleanor Pritchett

On a lark, I decided to climb the highest hill in South Dakota: Black Elk Peak in the Black Hills. Four hours later, doused in sweat and crumpled forward like a folding chair, wheezing and admiring a plaque proclaiming “the highest point east of the Rockies and west of the Pyrenees,” I had reached the vista point of a sacred American landscape. The Black Hills have been held as holy for centuries by the Sioux, an ellipse of green-shadow pine and bald gray rocks like an iceberg floating on the Plains. Shadows, scarce on the Plains, accumulate in the folds of the Black Hills, dense and irregular as a mosaic. From atop Black Elk Peak one can watch the cloud tufts pitch and roll, watch the hills, gone black and heavy in the transient shadows, light up like bulbs ticking on. It is a landscape that has been transformed by centuries of humans who have perceived it as sacred, and by the weight of those expectations. By Sylvan Lake, at a trailhead to Black Elk Peak, Crazy Horse had his great vision, in which he received instructions about the necessary preparations to render him invincible in battle. And it was to the peak that now bears his name that Black Elk, the Lakota Sioux medicine man, was taken in his prophetic experience, and from where, as he says in Black Elk Speaks, his brilliant end of life memoir and sermon, he saw “the whole hoop of the world.” The existence of Black Elk Speaks is a product of extraordinary luck—the result of the meeting of a poet, John Neihardt, and the aging Black Elk, who was unknown beyond the remote part of the Pine Ridge Reservation where he lived. The two understood each other enough for Black Elk to entrust his story to the poet. And it is an extraordinary life—from fighting in the Battle of the Little Bighorn to touring Europe with Buffalo Bill to growing old on the reservation (recounted also in Joe Jackson’s excellent biography Black Elk: The Life of an American Visionary). The Black Hills, an ancient American sacred space, are like a cave mouth opening towards the sky, and Black Elk is one of its great voices. —Matt Levin