Staff Picks: Sexy Pulp, Blockheaded Heroines, and Terrifying Trees


This Week’s Reading

Virginie Despentes’s ‘90s feminist punk pulp fiction makes for the best summer reading—all of her sparkling rage goes incandescent in the sunshine with a glass of something effervescent. Luckily, Feminist Press will be publishing Pretty Things (translated by Emma Ramadan) on August 14th. First published in France in 1998, it’s the story two identical twins: Claudine, the hyper-sexualized man-eating “pretty one,” and Pauline, the bitter reclusive “smart one,” who dresses in baggy sweaters and has never before shaved her legs. Beyond a body, the only thing the sisters seem to share is an explosive anger at men and a complete disdain for each other. When Pauline decides to impersonate Claudine, she pulls on the trappings of femininity like a heavy high camp drag routine, taking shaky steps through Paris’s 18th arrondissement in Claudine’s high heels.

She never thought it was possible to go out like that without someone shouting, “Where’s the costume party?” Her appearance, legs on display, silhouette transformed. And no one realizes that she’s not at all like that. For the first time she understands: No girl is like that.

It’s pulp in every sense: propulsively readable, violent, sexy, with all the satisfaction of an inevitable ending. And yet it’s also a feminist parable, blunt and unrelenting in its wrath, and it feels as fresh now as it would have ten years ago. Despentes—who is also a cultural critic and filmmaker—was shortlisted for the 2018 Man Booker International for Vernon Subutex, which will be coming out from FSG this fall. If you haven’t read her yet, it’s time to start at the beginning. —Nadja Spiegelman

At this point in history, it’s fair to say Louisiana folk know a thing or two about masks, so I was curious to watch “Mask Maker,” the latest video from Baton Rouge-to-Los Angeles duo Moon Honey. I instantly recognized front woman Jessica Joy’s vocals: her voice warbles like Joanna Newsom’s, if Joanna had somewhere to be. Paired with Andrew Martin’s psychedelic guitar, the duo’s sound is pretty damn infectious—and that’s before pictures. “Mask Maker” is live-action stop-motion, if I’m describing it right, and does more with masks—or specifically, one four-sided mask—than anything I saw in seven years of Carnival. I don’t want to give away the plot of the four-minute video, but things do not go well for our blockheaded heroine, and the way the cubed mask spins, in time with a very catchy hook, does more to convey the breadth of human emotion than many a midcentury novel. —Emily Nemens

Grief wanders hospital corridors; it sits in empty kitchens and wakes in the middle of the night; times passes as it stares out the window. It is a complicated and adult business, but the unhappy reality is that it is not the preserve of adults. Grief forces itself upon all ages. This is the compulsory truth of children’s novel, A Monster Calls, by Patrick Ness. Originally conceived by the author Siobhan Dowd during a period of ill health, the idea was taken up by Ness and illustrator Jim Kay following Dowd’s death. It is the story of thirteen-year-old Conor and his struggles with his mother’s mortality—like Dowd, the mother in A Monster Calls has terminal cancer. As her condition deteriorates, an ancient and terrifying yew tree comes to life and visits the young boy. Readers slowly discover the reason behind these appearances, and when the inevitable lesson comes it is a suitably knotty one: guilt, we learn, is one of grief’s horrors. This is not a traditional message for a thirteen-year-old protagonist; nor a common one for young readers. A Monster Calls is a harrowing book. As a kid, I never quite got over Piggy’s death in Lord of the Flies; as an adult, I don’t think I’ll get over Conor sitting on his mother’s hospital bed, holding her hand. Wee laddies aren’t supposed to lose their mums. —Robin Jones

Is there room for nice people on television anymore? With brow-furrowed reporters in slick suits and endless hours of snickering late-night talk show hosts, turning your TV on is bound to confer dread. Morgan Neville’s documentary about Mr. Fred Rogers—who I remember from my childhood as a saccharine, sweater-wearing family man—has been branded as a temporary remedy for the news cycle, transporting audiences back to a “simpler time”. Since the release of Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, critics have raved about the heartwarming innocence that the film induces. At first, Neville’s documentary seems to relief from current events, replacing presidents with puppets and politics with songs. His actual aim, however, is to uncover the truth about Mr. Rogers, a man who never wanted his audience to escape the problems of the world—he wanted us to understand them. Through the various testimonials of those who knew Mr. Rogers, the doc drives home that despite what we like to believe, the Neighborhood wasn’t without its flaws. Fear and conflict were as much a part of the Neighborhood as they are of the real world. Mr. Rogers wasn’t smoothing over the difficult things in life, but teaching us how to deal with them. This disarmingly relevant film insists that even though our current situation (political or otherwise) may seem daunting, we can still be better towards one another. —Madeline Day

When Oscar Wilde sailed to America on Christmas Eve, 1881, for a 50-date lecture tour, he had only a slim volume of poetry to his name. Michèle Mendelssohn’s new biography, Making Oscar Wilde, offers an astonishing window into Wilde’s American flaneuring, adding to what even extreme Oscar-obsessives like me thought they knew. In America, Wilde’s androgyny didn’t go over well with the “gentleman” classes, who grumbled when their wives took notice of the aesthete’s gender-bending sex appeal. Equally concerning was his Irish background; Mendelssohn has uncovered numerous newspaper cartoons that reimagine Wilde as African. Without a doubt, these details of the lecture tour are Mendelssohn’s chief update to Wildean studies; most of the rest is familiar. The title, Making Oscar Wilde, promises something much more expansive than what you get; it’s not at all a study of Wilde’s intellectual or scholastic development (there’s very little on Walter Pater and John Ruskin, and not a word on J.K. Huysmans). Yet Mendelssohn makes a serious endeavor at excavating beyond Wilde’s aphorisms, outfits, and scandals. This is a sociological biography, one that feels very current in its study of racist scapegoating in the U.S., and how that culture left an imprint on an eccentric foreign visitor with a fading Irish accent. —Ben Shields

In her magnificent collection of essays, Sidewalks, Valeria Luiselli utilizes relingos, vacant or empty spaces, as a way to give meaning to gaps or erasures in text, in architecture, and in the self. Laura van den Berg’s beautiful and unsettling new novel, The Third Hotel, picks up a similar strand, constructing a narrative of memory, geography, loss, and emptiness. Van den Berg’s novel is a palimpsest of B-grade Latin American horror films, the psychology of grief, and the very idea of narrative as a meaning-making enterprise. It is a dazzling novel in which Cuba is rendered a terrain vague, a kind of interstitial or liminal space between the world of the living and the memory of the dead. Julio Cortázar could see himself walking the partially erased and re-inscribed streets of van den Berg’s imagination, but in the end those streets are, without a doubt, van den Berg’s own.  —Christian Kiefer