Staff Picks: Forensic Files, Fireflies, and Frigid Nights


This Week’s Reading

Halle Butler. Photo: Jerzy Rose.

Three pages into Halle Butler’s forthcoming novel The New Me, misanthropic Millie jokes about wishing she had a home intruder for company. Reading this, I immediately canceled dinner plans so I could finish the book in one sitting. Millie spends her days temping at a trendy design firm and imagining an improved version of herself waiting under layers of ill-fitting outfits and outward disdain. She oscillates between denigrating those around her and pitying their transparent desires with detached boredom. The New Me examines working womanhood, with all its privilege, ambition, objectification, and hierarchies, while confronting a nearly universal desire to build beautiful lives that society deems worth living. Every day holds a glittering future self, but reality diverges into nights of isolation, Forensic Files binges, and guilt-driven cleaning. To frame The New Me as the result of capitalism would unfairly simplify Butler’s depiction of contemporary workplace dynamics, but the implication stews as Millie considers her life’s purpose to “slowly collect money that I can use to pay the rent on my apartment and on food so that I can continue to live and continue to come to this room and sit at this desk and slowly collect money.” Regardless, in just under two hundred pages, Halle Butler made me laugh and cry enough times to feel completely reborn. —Nikki Shaner-Bradford 

If I had any brain cells left, I would recommend you read Anne Carson’s The Albertine Workout, a perfect little chapbook that distills everything I love about Carson (granular attention to language, unexpected cracks of dry humor) into fifty-nine paragraphs and a smattering of loosely related appendixes. It seems, though, that I’ve been beaten to the punchtwice, in fact. Instead, I’m going to further degrade myself and my place on the masthead by talking about a film in which Keanu Reeves dons an exquisitely tailored suit, sulks around in the shadows, and shoots a lot of guns. That film, John Wick: Chapter 2, is an exemplary action-movie sequel. Sequels always run the risk of tarnishing what came before, but John Wick: Chapter 2 simultaneously respects the ruthless minimalism of the first film and ratchets up the intensity of its precisely shot battle sequences. We learn more about the secret network of assassins to which the title character belongs (for instance, the society’s New York hotel, the Continental, also has a branch in Rome) but never too much (the contract killers’ obsession with gold coins, thankfully, remains unexplained). This is, after all, a film directed by one of Reeves’s former stunt doubles; the world merely serves as a cold, moody backdrop for Wick’s increasingly ridiculous encounters, a neon-lit stage upon which he can endlessly judo flip criminals and dispense with cronies using only a pencil. It’s like watching ballet. —Brian Ransom


Ocean Vuong. Photo: Tom Hines.


Reading Ocean Vuong’s first novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, I feel as if I am watching a small sheet of paper unfold and unfold and unfold. The story reveals itself one sentence at a time; the time and the voice often shift and surprise, but always with a strong sense of craft and poetry. In one scene, the main character, Little Dog, antagonizes his mother by reaching for her lit cigarette, but before his hand arrives, his attention breaks—eyes shifting before the movement is understood or articulated. He feels a scratch and opens his palm to find a firefly’s severed torso. Here, and elsewhere, Vuong brings us so close to Little Dog’s point of view that we experience the strangeness of the world alongside him. Little Dog has an astonishing will to look closely, at both the smallest of subjects and the largest: war, violence, mental illness, addiction, and intimacy between boys, but especially mothers, labor, and love. The novel is a letter from Little Dog to his mother, and thus even in its diversions (the firefly) or in what it conceals (Little Dog’s first love, whom he says his mother will never meet), there is an underlying sense of acknowledgement. In tracing the distances, the miles, his mother is also brought blood-close, inches from the page. Mothers look at and after us, they always look “too long,” but in doing so, they model a kind of attention and care that embeds itself in our own vision. There is no value judgment here. Instead, Vuong offers observation and respect for what has been given, and an awe for life and what it takes to survive. —Spencer Quong

Last weekend was especially cold here in New York—a high of fourteen degrees Fahrenheit on Monday!—and so instead of leaving my apartment, I spent most of my time indoors, wrapped up in blankets and thoroughly enjoying Kate Briggs’s meditation on translation, This Little Art. Published last spring by Fitzcarraldo, it’s a thoughtful look at the relationship between writers and their translators, from the story behind Helen Lowe-Porter’s controversial translations of Thomas Mann to Briggs’s own experiences in learning French and translating Barthes. Somehow, even writing in English, Briggs is able to convey the frustrating wordlessness that accompanies learning another language, alongside the high that comes from (very rarely, in my case—I’m terrible at languages) getting something right. —Rhian Sasseen

Each Wednesday when Parliament is sitting, the British prime minister enters the chamber of the House of Commons and, for half an hour, responds to questions from members of Parliament. During this session—called the Prime Minister’s Questions, or PMQs—the governing party lines the steep green benches on one side while the opposition lines those on the other. It’s an antique, adversarial arrangement that ensures combative, pompous, and often absurd debate, but it also makes for pretty good television, and in many ways, this weekly pantomime represents both the best and worst of British politics. Occasionally, something juicy sneaks out. In 2009, Gordon Brown gave us an insight into the hubris of high office when he claimed to have “saved the world” in the wake of the financial crash (he meant to say “saved the banks.”). More telling still was David Cameron in 2011, who let the mask slip when he told Angela Eagle, the Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury, to “calm down, dear,” reinforcing in three words the Conservative Party’s reputation as bumbling, boys-club misogynists. As a British citizen who has lived abroad most of his adult life, I have looked to this weekly debate as a way of staying in touch. Watching it has often been exasperating, but it has made me feel better connected—or at least mildly entertained. Now, however, in the middle of the fiasco that is Brexit, tuning into the segment fails to inform or amuse. On a good day, I watch and am quietly embarrassed. On a bad day, I am wholly ashamed. The ceremony, pomp, and jeers have never felt more inappropriate or more outdated. It’s hard to watch the British government, at the behest of 52 percent of my compatriots, turn their back on Europe. —Robin Jones


Photo: Diliff (CC BY-SA 2.5 (, from Wikimedia Commons.