Staff Picks: Mermaids, Wrestlers, and Gawkers


This Week’s Reading


I’ve had Evie Shockley’s latest book, semiautomatic, on my to-be-read pile since last fall and was finally spurred by her Pulitzer nomination to pull it out of the stack. I don’t know that I’ve encountered a poet for whom language is so mutable, a poet so adept at dismantling and reconfiguring it before the reader’s eyes. In the opening poem, she writes, “do i have the rite to write the body ? the right body to remain silent ? habeas corpus, to have the remains dans mes mains, my main man, handy man, unhand me, uncuff me, so i can speak in my sign(nifying) language :: signs, wonders, miracles, temptations.” Each word is a vessel to be drained of meaning and then quickly refilled with fresh essence—emphatically, rhythmically, and sometimes onomatopoeically: “war can’t amass a brass tack. war’s / all bad acts and lack, scandal // and graft. watch flags clash and tanks // attack camps. arms crack—rat-a- / tat-tat!—and ban calm.” Shockley’s punctuation acts like an electric current, shaping the flow of her lines: she uses colons, which suggest correlation; double colons, which imply analogous relationships; and tildes or swung dashes, perhaps indicating omissions (or, when stacked in pairs, making approximations). From “cogito ergo loquor”: “Unmentionables once were underwear : where / were the worst brutalities then?: buried under / under in the most vulnerable organs and held / down by that busy muscle the tongue :: in / silence unspeakable becomes unthinkable : a word / like numberless that runs can’t into won’t … thinkable : unthinkable.” Form is dictated by what the poem has to say and how Shockley chooses to say it. The poem “what’s not to liken,” for instance, is written as a multiple-choice questionnaire about the pool-party incident in McKinney, Texas, in June 2015, each question offering twinned options. Each choice is at once true and inaccurate, a remarkably sly blend of metaphor, fact, and anger. Was the girl shackled like “(a) a criminal” or “(b) a runaway slave”? In this case, was there a difference? —Nicole Rudick

We’re still three weeks away from the summer solstice, so I am not yet technically behind in reading the Spring issue of The Sewanee Review, although I wished I’d had the sense to pick it up earlier. The fiction heading in the table of contents crowns an especially fine-looking list, with exceptional pieces by Christina Wood Martinez and Alexia Arthurs in particular. I’ve lauded Martinez’s work in the recent past, and “Beautiful Young Women” is another fantastic piece. As the story progresses, what looks like an all-girls boarding school reveals itself as something slightly more sinister and strange, themes of female adolescence and eroticism delicately coalesce in a seaside setting and conclude with a resounding finish. Arthurs, whom the Review awarded the Plimpton Prize last year for her story “Bad Behavior,” again puts her talent on full display in “Mermaid River,” a beautiful story about matriarchal love as told from the perspective of a young Jamaican man growing up in the U.S. As always, her nuanced observations capture the heart of human experience. Other pieces of prose included in the issue are by Catherine Lacey, Alexander Chee, and Joshua Cohen, alongside a lineup of poets I’ve not yet read but can’t wait to encounter. —Lauren Kane



In many ways, Lucrecia Martel’s new film, Zama, is a comedy. It features hilarious sexual frustration, absurdly pompous bureaucrats, and a shot with a llama that is worth the price of admission. The protagonist, Don Diego de Zama, often bursts into long, uncontrollable laughter, and the small group of people crammed into Film Forum’s tiniest theater responded in kind. For both the characters and the audience, however, this humor soon transforms into the dark satirical commentary festering at the film’s heart. Martel slowly and carefully reveals that Zama’s jokes are not all that funny. In fact, they betray a toxic colonialist desire to conquer (although who or what seems to be beside the point). The film subtly positions the basic human desire to continue onward, both in life and in narrative, as the central motivating force of banal evil. Martel uses the clichéd trope of the conquistador journey to destroy the genre from the inside out, calling into question the destruction that it justifies in its adventure-seeking. Although Martel does not directly address Argentine history, her commentary on the roots of the country’s class politics is clear and cutting. As I stumbled out of the theater with the rest of the audience, it felt as though we had all become a part of Zama’s band of men, doomed and exhausted adventurers with much to discuss. —India Ennenga

Stephen Florida by Gabe Habash has been out and feted for a year. The novel is about a college senior whose sole purpose in life is wrestling. He is orphaned and delusional with focus and trauma. The novel is hopelessly compelling and written in anticipation of the titular character’s fate (dementia). In Stephen, I can’t help feeling Habash has created (forgive me) an ur-male. He is out of touch with his parents, his feelings, his verbal skills, and his bathroom etiquette; he is only in touch with his renown won by persistence, pride, and pain. Habash has said he never wrestled and had never been to North Dakota before writing the book, and both facts show: Stephen would be a more compelling character if he had a bosom friend, a mother, a love of cherry-toned sunsets. Ben Nugent’s “God” and David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest take different risks with their troubled boys, who are surrounded with pals and family—nothing makes them lonelier. The book is terrific, crushes the competition, tops the podium, but, like our hapless hero, think what it could be if it had more. —Julia Berick


Photo: Clara Molden


I’m inclined to say The Purple Swamp Hen and Other Stories, Penelope Lively’s newest collection, brings history to life. Really, though, you cannot “bring to life” something that is already living, and the fact that history lives, inextricable from the present, rings true throughout the book. Lively grants her readers sweet, funny, and moving glimpses into a series of relationships made up of “moments twice preserved.” “How can something have happened twice over,” one character wonders, “one way for him, another for me?” Meanwhile I wondered: What is the difference between one moment twice preserved and two moments? Am I really so much farther from the people in the past than I am from those in the present? Is time really any more tangible a barrier than the contours of my body? And, most importantly, how do I reach across these barriers, of both kinds? Until I realized that the past, the present, history, art, storytelling, memory, relationships, and this book boil down to something quite simple: theory of mind, as the title of one story puts it, or, put another way, empathy. —Claire Benoit

The widely celebrated A. M. Homes released a new short story collection just this week: Days of Awe. “All is Good Except for the Rain,” in which two friends catch up over an almost uncomfortably decadent lunch, is both appalling and fascinating. As the two women shake off the rain and finish composing text messages, their dialogue is brisk, distant and, to me, aptly stilted. Genevieve obscures details about her new lover to pique interest, while Sarah sets a gloomy tone for her story of infidelity. Their awkwardness with each other gradually fades as they share harder and harder truths and give themselves over to “an enormous crockery bowl of chocolate mousse,” which is listed on the menu as “Mousse at Your Discretion.” The story acknowledges the other diners, who overhear their vicious quips and intimate admissions and voice jealousy of their menu selections. It left me feeling caught out, as if I were one of them. I consumed these stories exactly like a spectator of a good fight or a neighbor peering through the hedge, and I felt sharply observed in turn. Homes, with her fierce sharp wit, reveals her characters’ deep flaws. No one gets away with anything and the spectacle is delightful. —Molly Livingston

You might not think a museum-slash-library would be the best venue for the toddling set, but if we’re talking about the Morgan Library and Museum, you’d be wrong. Last Sunday, I met friends and their three-under-three (there are twins involved) for an afternoon at the Morgan. The candy-colored watercolors and pastels of, well, candy, cake, and other treats in the new Wayne Thiebaud show were joyful for all involved, and his diner drawings (“Count the hamburgers!”) were both a lesson in numbers and in his masterful ink work. Another highlight were his drawings of women—everyone knows how he does cake displays, but the candor and character he finds in his portraits will stick with you, too. Added bonus: there’s a Little Prince in the basement and a Mickey Mouse on floor 3, the latter in the excellent new handwriting show. In another conversation, I’ll say what the wee ones thought of the all-glass elevator of Renzo Piano’s atrium, but let’s say for now that all was delight. —Emily Nemens


Wayne Thiebaud, Candy Sticks, 1964, watercolor and graphite. Yale University Art Gallery, Bequest of Susan Morse Hilles. © Wayne Thiebaud/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY