Staff Picks: Book Festivals, Benefactors, and Broken Buttonholes


This Week’s Reading


Terrance Hayes’s abiding interest in Etheridge Knight has perhaps long been established, but Wave Books just this month published To Float in the Space Between, a multifaceted, multi-genre work that ultimately lands somewhere between biography and criticism. Hayes’s meditation on Knight’s legacy and impact on American poetry and the Black Arts Movement is conveyed dynamically and with emotionally weighted nuance through excerpts, criticism, anecdotes, and illustrations. The true pleasure of this book is the perennial one of being allowed the clearance to standby and listen as a brilliant poet thinks deeply and at length about another brilliant poet. —Lauren Kane

Often when I travel I keep a notebook and fill it with little moments: sharing vending machine tea with a bespectacled British chemist on the train to Osaka, or chatting with a Florentine chef, hours after his restaurant closed for the night. These small instances of ephemeral connection are precious, and it is a joy to see how Simon Van Booy is able to capture similar glimpses of intimacy in The Sadness of Beautiful Things“Most of the tales in this collection are based on true stories told to me over the course of my travels,” Van Booy tells us. While his stories are often distanced from each other in time and setting (picked up in different countries, in different times), all still resonate in theme. A family is given a second chance by a mysterious, unknown benefactor. A man invites a teenage mugger out to dinner. A hitchhiker struggles with the absence of a person that defines him. Each of these eight stories, while burdened by loss, are also limned with a more hopeful light. Van Booy captures the rare flashbulb memories of trauma, heartbreak, and melancholy, in the lives of people he’s met, but his writing basks in the healing afterglow of what follows. In the sparsely furnished prose of Van Booy’s stories it is easy to pour oneself into his characters, who I delight to know are real people, existing somewhere far away. —Madeline Day


Robert Bly, ca. 2009. Photograph by Nic McPhee

Bringing his full body of work together for the first time, Robert Bly’s Collected Poems is set to release next week. Bly, who published two poems in the first issue of the Review, and told readers in his 2000 Writers at Work interview that those poems where among the first on which he made money, was a Transcendentalist to the core—he argued that Modernist American poetry lacked soul and inward searching. His poems are rhapsodic, often hurdling out of a space of solitude towards nature and the outer world: “What shall we find when we return? / Friends changed, houses moved, / Tree perhaps, with new leaves.” His Vietnam poems are darker, more dispirited about human nature—in his “Listening to President Kennedy Lie About the Cuban Invasion” he writes, “There is the death of broken buttonholes, / Of brutality in high places, / Of lying reporters, / There is a bitter fatigue, adult and sad.” Bly’s poems are calming, the world the live in is quiet, private, and muffled by bordering fields of snow. —Jeffery Gleaves

At the Brooklyn Book Festival this weekend, downtown Brooklyn turned into a Candy Land board. While hearing the Rossellini sisters discuss nudity, Caesar Augustus, and raising poultry was undoubtedly a high point, the real Candy Castle of the day was “Writing About Music and the Self.” The panel of three music writers—Jessica Hopper, Hanif Abdurraqib, and Rob Sheffield—discussed the post-Lester Bangs world in which the technique of inserting oneself into music criticism became permissible. All three of them are brilliant (Hopper wrote my favorite book review of 2017, on Joe Hogan’s Jan Wenner biography), but seeing Sheffield was the biggest treat for me. Sheffield has been a favorite since adolescence, so hearing him riff on Haysi Fantayzee and Harry Styles confirmed that sometimes, you can have good taste when you’re 16. Since the event, I’ve been catching up on the Sheff’s titles that I missed in the past few years as I was pursuing far less important matters like going to college: Dreaming the Beatles and On Bowie. The two elegiac works aren’t technically memoirs like his earlier books, but like his indispensable entries in the Rolling Stone Album Guide, Sheffield’s personality is as enjoyable as his insights. The “Major Tom” chapter of On Bowie is one his finest pieces of writing, and could stand alone as a devotional pamphlet to the greatest of Bowie’s many characters. The best extract: “I have a strange (or not so) identification with Tom’s wife, and an alternate timeline in my head where I’m the toddler he left behind with the wife.” If Bowie, as he says, is the artist as fan, then Sheffield is truly the fan as artist. The stars are never sleeping. —Ben Shields   

Traditional Hinduism distinguishes four stages of life, the second to last of which is vanaprastha— retirement, withdrawal— in which the householder gradually gives up their possessions and retreats from community, revolving inward. Similarly, it is the privilege of the aging artist, tiptoeing toward extinction, to grow austere, to increasingly speak only to themselves. This late art is not inaccessible, exactly— rather one gets the sense of eavesdropping on a conversation in media res, a sense that the work itself is the corporeal interlocutor, the audience an immaterial apparition. I think of Philip Roth’s last books, thinner and thinner, as if he were whittling his perennial themes to a sharp point. I think of Beethoven’s late string quartets, of Goya’s crumbly, sooty Black Paintings, of Wallace Stevens’ gnomic ‘Of Mere Being,’ of the Book of Ecclesiastes, of Basho’s death haiku, of Gogol, starving himself, transfixed by devils traipsing under the door, letting the sequel to Dead Souls burn. And I think of Leonard Michaels and his ‘Nachman Stories.’ Michaels, born two months before Philip Roth, was a darker, stranger, surreal shadow brother of the famous author, singed with the dubious brand of being known as a ‘writer’s writer.’ For most of his career he wrote bloody, jumpy, funny, sex and adultery-obsessed stories, but when he died in 2003 he left behind an unfinished series of short stories, different from anything he had previously written, centering around a character named Nachman whom everyone calls simply Nachman, “as if he were a historical figure.” A respected bachelor mathematics professor at UCLA, Nachman is reserved, passive, and deeply, if silently, obsessed with practical morality. Each of the Nachman stories revolves around a small, trying, social dilemma which, under the steady pressure of Nachman’s attention, grows like those novelty toys that, submerged in water, expand to monstrous proportions. And miraculously, as if borrowing from the wise drabness of Nachman, Michaels’ prose in these stories, without losing any of its intelligence, has put away its showiness, become placid and clean. The rhythm is simple, the language straightforward, absent are hairpin turns into dreamy sado-masochism, yet the Nachman stories are the most mysterious thing he wrote, close as we can get to the hard kernel of Michaels’ mind. —Matt Levin

To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is not for me. I kept repeating this to myself as I watched the buzz for the hit Netflix rom-com rise like a tide, as I saw the Noah Centineo thirst on my Twitter timeline swell and threaten to demolish everything in its path. And I recognize even now, having watched it over whole-grain waffles a couple weeks ago, that the film isn’t quite for me. But that doesn’t matter. Neither does my opinion on it. One of the chief cultural crimes of our time is the suppression and trivialization of art targeted at girls and young women, and I don’t aim to perpetuate it. Let’s blow the canon to smithereens. What a delight, though, to discover that To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before has plenty to offer even for someone like me, a twenty-six-year-old white man with a job at a fancy-pants literary magazine and a heavy depressive streak. I couldn’t resist the movie’s high-stakes teen drama and deliciously sharp script. I found myself gasping at betrayals, shouting, Kiss him! at the screen, tearing up in tender moments. I can’t wait to see Lana Condor pop up in every film and TV show on the planet over the next few years. To all the boys who haven’t seen this movie: Watch it, you dolts. And don’t be afraid to shut up and listen for once. —Brian Ransom