María Gainza. Photo: Rosana Schoijett.
My favorite genre of novel is one I like to call “women interacting with art.” Membership is somewhat limited but disproportionately loved. On this shelf sits works such as A. S. Byatt’s The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye, Ali Smith’s Artful, and now María Gainza’s Optic Nerve. Although each book is unique, they employ a similar philosophy: a belief that life becomes entangled with the art we touch. Gainza’s novel, translated from the Spanish by Thomas Bunstead, follows an Argentine woman alongside her beloved works of art, contrasting her memories with the history of her favorite paintings. Falling somewhere between essay and close personal narrative, Optic Nerve reads like a museum. It encompasses countless styles, eras, and characters, offering new stories and ideas for our narrator to follow down winding hallways. Considering artist legacies, Argentine culture, and the accuracy of perception, Gainza paints life and art as adjacent forces; fabricated images and stories become real, casting their shadows onto memory. At one point, Gainza describes the narrator’s childhood home filled with antique furniture, and the bathroom with “a pile of Sotheby’s catalogues dating back to 1972, the shelves bowed under their weight.” The image serves as an unlikely metaphor for Gainza’s book: built around everyday life but haunted by a history of art stacked high in the corner, quietly shaping the space where it sits. —Nikki Shaner-Bradford
Pam Houston has spent much of her writing career responding to the landscapes, textures, and mythologies of the American West in ways that have expanded what is possible in that literature—in terms of style, in terms of voice, in terms of structure. She is one of this nation’s greatest writers and one who frankly doesn’t always get the respect she deserves (especially, dare I say, from the East Coast–focused literary establishment). Her new book, Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country, is a searching, emotionally complex memoir about her relationship to her home in the Colorado high country. This is the story of a life both well lived and well interrogated, a book that manages—with seeming ease—to walk an emotional tightrope: by turns funny, heartbreaking, horrifying, and magisterial in its carefully rendered descriptions of the landscape she so loves. It is a beautiful, breathtakingly honest book, one I hope cannot be ignored. —Christian Kiefer
Phil Elverum. Photo: Jacob McKinley.
Phil Elverum’s music, whether as Mount Eerie or the Microphones, is infinitely rewarding. Each of his songs is a nest of quiet self-references and sparsely rendered images: the moon, the trees of Washington, the breeze keening through everything. I’ve listened to him for years; he’s one of my favorite artists. His 2009 album Wind’s Poem, which I’ve been revisiting over the past couple weeks, is as threaded with nature and personal history as anything he’s made, but it’s more mysterious. The vocals lie low in the mix, surrounded by—and often submerged beneath—droning synths and black-metal guitars. David Lynch’s influence on Elverum has never been a secret, and the lyrics throughout Wind’s Poem seem to nod to a particular moment in Twin Peaks when Agent Cooper finally enters the otherworldly Black Lodge via a moonlit puddle—or, as Elverum might say, “a deep hole, full of water, reflecting sky.” (To seal the deal on this association, Elverum weaves the synth chords of “Laura Palmer’s Theme” into “Between Two Mysteries.”) It can be difficult to gain purchase in this swirl, but by invoking his own work—interpolating melodies from his previous albums, circling similar images, and implementing familiar sounds—Elverum grounds us with the shock of memory, as though we’ve lived in the Pacific Northwest our whole lives and somehow found ourselves lost in the looming mountains, seeing the lights of the town below, glimpsing, through the fog, something both familiar and not. —Brian Ransom
It’s a lucky thing that Pure Hollywood is now out in paperback. Don’t be fooled by the size of Christine Schutt’s latest story collection: it is small but mighty. As soon as I finished the title story, in which a young widow tries to find her way out of a bottle and the Piro house, a priceless piece of architecture she briefly inhabited with her much older husband, I had the sensation I should start back at the beginning and read it again. Every sentence ripples and shines, oscillating between percussively tight prose and lush, languorous descriptions. I know we were all looking at Hollywood last Sunday for the Oscars, but let’s look again, through the prism of this sly and smart observer of love and its fallout. —Emily Nemens
During her confinement in the Bellevue Place sanitarium, Mary Todd Lincoln complained of an Indian spirit entering her room to torture her. In Savage Conversations, LeAnne Howe takes this historical fact and spins a drama in verse with a cast of three characters: Mary Todd Lincoln, Savage Indian, and The Rope. In Howe’s telling, Savage Indian is one of the thirty-eight Dakota people executed on the orders of President Abraham Lincoln in 1862—the largest mass execution in U.S. history. This speculation—that the Indian who haunted Mary Todd’s later years might bear connection to the Dakota 38—is both convincing and generative. The harrowing dialogue, fights, and intimacies mirror the tumult of history, which constantly reveals and conceals itself. Throughout, I was especially interested in Savage Indian’s generosity toward Mary Todd. To what extent he is a hallucination or his own sovereign being is unclear, but in any case, he abides by her. He combs and cleans her hair of nits. He compels her to speak and to work through her past. He cuts and sews open her eyelids—an extreme act, to be sure, but one that offers her the chance to view and admit to the horrors of white violence. Mary Todd ultimately doesn’t seize her opportunity—at least not decisively—and I’m reminded of how when people of color offer up their truths and their stories, America often ignores or contorts them in its own interest. It’s too easy to claim a heroic legacy for Abraham Lincoln or for any person. The truth is difficult, and Savage Conversations is at times distressing, but I left the story with a deep sense of gratitude for Howe’s dedication to complexity and nuance. —Spencer Quong
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