Staff Picks: Wedding Woes and Mutual Hatred


This Week’s Reading


This summer I visited my ancestral home, which is loosely defined as Cleveland, Ohio and tightly defined as any room holding my Great Aunt Laura. She maintains not only my family history (the memory of my great grandmother staying up late playing solitaire, for example) but also a more general understanding of four generations of life in Cleveland.  In the hours I wasn’t rapt around her table, I was reading Dorothy West’s The Wedding. Turned on to West by The Paris Review’s Feminize Your Canon column, I tore through her novel of a late-summer wedding. Set within a carefully cultivated black upper-class community in Martha’s Vineyard, The Wedding is the story of the much anticipated nuptials between a daughter of a respected family and the white jazz pianist with whom she has fallen in love. West’s sympathies are teasingly veiled. Through her characters, who span generations and therefore approach the couple’s union differently, she suggests a certain difficulty but not impossibility of judgement. The Wedding certainly has enough heartbreak and suspense for a beach-read, but West is a sociologist of the first order. Though they are given little credence, writers (and aunties) know better—history is always complicated. The Wedding published in 1995 when West was eighty-seven is a beautiful novel and a record worth keeping close. —Julia Berick

If you scroll too deep into the Internet, it’s easy to feel like the world is ending. The Polar Ice Caps are melting and Trump is gushing toxic tweets. Olivia Laing’s debut novel, Crudo, is a merciless catalogue of the political and personal anxieties that plague us, breathlessly recounted by a middle-aged writer named Kathy who bears an undeniable resemblance to late punk-poet Kathy Acker. In the seemingly cataclysmic summer of 2017, Kathy is about to be married to a man twenty-nine years her senior. But instead of planning her wedding, she spends her days swiping through social media and bemoaning the omnipresent panic brought on by an endless onslaught of information. “Ten years ago, maybe even five, it was possible to ignore the atrocities, to believe that these things happened somewhere else, in a different order of reality from your own.” Though the plot itself is sparse, Kathy’s narrative tumbles along at breakneck speed; it’s uncomfortably crowded with Kathy’s wedding woes, her reactions to political events, and the gossip of the boring, heterosexual couples that Kathy encounters during her vacation in Tuscany. It’s less a novel than a single moment in modernity, deconstructed by the savagely entertaining, Acker-inspired voice of Laing. —Madeline Day  

Of the many chances one has to see Joan Crawford smash a piece of glassware, Johnny Guitar offers only the second best (Humoresque wins by a mile). However, Johnny Guitar, famously disliked by Crawford, may be the most interesting title in her varied career. Its subtext is endless, both politically and psychosexually. Written (without credit) by Ben Maddow, who was blacklisted during the Cold War, there is no mistaking the allegory central to the film for anything but McCarthyism. Vienna (Crawford) runs a saloon “outside of town” that a mob of citizens demands be shut down due to her support for the construction of a nearby railroad. Leading the mob is Emma (an amazing performance by Mercedes McCambridge). Ironically, the film takes its name from Sterling Hayden’s character, but the film is almost as uninterested in men as George Cukor’s The Women. This is Crawford and McCambridge’s show—despite their mutual hatred, other characters seem to evaporate anytime they share the screen. Upon its release, the movie tanked in the United States, but in France was a major influence on arthouse directors, especially François Truffaut. Beginning today, and extending through September 4, Anthology will be offering screenings of the film. After you leave the theatre you’ll find yourself going over some inexplicable plot points that ultimately make Johnny Guitar not only political, or erotic, but also hallucinatory. It’s this dreamlike quality that makes it not only one of Ray’s best films, but one of the great talkies, period. —Ben Shields

In John Ashbery’s introduction to NYRB’s Joan Murray: Drafts, Fragments, and Poems, he writes about her ability to gently deposit a reader into a poem in media res. He calls her a poet of “incompleteness” (there is no one better to trust in recognizing the genius of this than Ashbery), and cites her as one of his key influences. Of her work, he writes, “How did we get from there to here, and what have we been told? As so often, this remains partly or largely mysterious.” Murray, whose quick life occupied the early midcentury, died at age twenty-four (coincidentally, my own age); there is something so poignant about her being a poet of incompleteness when her life was so tragically incomplete. I would be remiss to suggest that there is anything unpolished or inchoate about the fragments in this dense collection. In Murray’s hands, as in the hands of any genius, language becomes a more perfect version of itself. The last stanza of one of my favorite poems, “Talk of People Warning,” reads:
We are faces blackened windows,
Eyes that pass through stone and remember.
Sands that number us, brisk stars to perceive
From the dryboned November,
The seed of us,
 —Lauren Kane

The poet Alvin Feinman was a rare specimen—a recluse who lived among society, a hermit whose seclusion was internal and utterly incapable of being fetishized. Feinman studied philosophy at Yale in the 1950s, and in 1964 published Preambles and Other Poems to praise by such luminaries as Allen Tate, Conrad Aiken, and his former classmate Harold Bloom. From 1969 to 1994 he taught poetry at Bennington College, publishing almost nothing. James Geary, a former student, remembers him as “solemn, deliberate, slow”— an implacably remote social presence liable to quote Yeats in conversational exit, an exhaustive and meticulous reader of poetry who once spent two hours masticating “the philosophical implications of the prefix ‘dis’ in Paradise Lost.” Feinman was fantastically serious about poetry, about its capacity for perfection, for temporarily purifying perception, and his long publishing silence was taken as evidence of that seriousness—the poems were not good enough for his own spiraling standards. He only published new work in 1990, when Preambles was re-published, affording his fresh poems the place of addendum. He wrote, with searing clarity, “that poetry in its essence draws on this pure potency of language not simply as sound but that behind the word is the idea of the word, that in this poetry defends us against the world … and our own egotism, willfulness, our loss of, corruption of meanings: so poetry purges us of the constant crime of speech.” Poetry became to Feinman a scaffold for the divine, and he  became a character from a Borges story, setting impossible literary tasks for himself. He was a recluse because he was always writing but never managed to finish. Yet the few poems he did leave us, even in their unfinished states, are more than good enough. Simultaneously dense and limpid, they flow like an address given in a dream, making perfect sense in the moment, but upon reflection elusive and strange. It is enough to quote the first stanza of his great poem “Preambles,” which reads like a self-portrait through a broken phone line:

Vagrant, back, my scrutinies
The candid deformations as with use
A coat or trousers of one now dead
Or as habit smacks of certitude.

Matt Levin

Anand Giridharadas’s new book, Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, sets out to anatomize the delusion at the heart of modern philanthropy and ‘innovative disruption’: “the idea that people must be helped, but only in market-friendly ways that do not upset fundamental power equations.” Liberals can see that the planet’s future is a Hieronymus Bosch, but it is not as easy to see how our own narcissistic tech messiahs and well-meaning philanthropists have helped occasion this state of affairs. (A good introduction to Giridharadas is his interview on last week’s New York Times Book Review Podcast.) I read the book as a PDF in April, before going into the studio with Giridharadas to record the audiobook. My job, as the director, was to keep him sounding natural and engaged. As he read the dedication to his family, I knew his tone was the one he should use throughout, even when reading statistics and talking about Goldman Sachs. His writing is heartfelt, and in general he has a playful charm, which gives him all the more license to be confrontational. He shows, for example, how the McKinsey model of consulting—going into a company with readymade business world jargon, and analytics that don’t take into account the personalities and culture of the company under review—is used by philanthropists, who send businessmen in to tackle issues like hunger and resource scarcity in countries they know nothing about. He also shows how these “change-makers” justify their methods philosophically. Thought-leaders make their livings speaking on a corporate circuit, where the word “opportunity” gets gleeful applause, but “equality”—which implies sacrifice on the part of the powerful people in the room—leaves the thought-leader feeling like a mediocre stand-up comedian. Giridharadas himself is entrenched in this world of black tie charity events and innovation conferences. Before becoming a journalist, he himself worked at McKinsey. The idea for the book started when he gave a speech at the Aspen Action Forum and called bullshit to his globalist innovator peers, who had invited him to share their scotch and ideas. The drama of this book is that Giridharadas practices what he preaches: he takes a personal risk. —Brent Katz