Staff Picks: Mothers, Moons, and Marc Maron


This Week’s Reading

Oliver Beer. Photo: Adam Reich. © the artist.

Every object, the British artist Oliver Beer said as he introduced his Vessel Orchestra last Friday at the Met Breuer, makes a sound, different for each object but always the same sound, constant and unchanging: the thing sings forever at an unchanging pitch. In this installation, thirty-two objects drawn from around the museum, including a Miró vase from 1942 and a five-thousand-year-old ceramic jar from Iran, have been hooked up to tiny microphones and speakers. I don’t at all understand how this works, but when a certain note is played, you can hear the object whose note it is respond. The Vessel Orchestra will be on view at the Met Breuer until August 11, and every Friday, a different group of musicians and writers will, essentially, “play” it. The artists at the performance I attended were the band Mashrou’ Leila and the novelist Rabih Alameddine, who read a series of texts about robing and disrobing, veiling and unveiling. The experience was mysterious to me, the songs being sung mostly in a language I don’t understand, the vases and jars resonating via a process as inexplicable to me as the one that creates consciousness. But there was resonance, harmony, and it made me think that perhaps those are the things we should be seeking—trying not to change ourselves in whatever ways are fashionable but to tune ourselves, to find our own frequencies; trying not to make ourselves heard but just to find resonance with whatever out there is tuned the same. —Hasan Altaf

A few years back, I returned from a trip home to find my mother had slipped Sharon Olds’s poem “First Thanksgiving” into a book I’d loaned her. It was a wonderful gift for a mother to give a daughter, but more than that, it helped me appreciate anew what it might mean to say goodbye to a child or to someone you have loved for so long. I thought of this poem Sunday morning in my favorite coffee shop as I caught up with an old friend. A playgroup was assembling beside us, and every few minutes, our conversation was interrupted by another toddler ambling over with wide eyes or a smile. How eager and curious and tender they were! A six-week-old nestled against his mother’s chest. Later that day, I sat in the fluorescent hum of the Genius Bar, anxiously awaiting a diagnosis for my computer-in-crisis. There, I read another stirring testament to friendship and the joys and sorrows of motherhood: Jill Lepore’s latest piece in The New Yorker, which honors the shared anniversary of her first son’s birth and the passing of her friend Jane. While I tended to my laptop, Lepore perused Jane’s, pondering the “lingering of loss” that accompanied her experience of motherhood. It’s a stunning piece. We should all be so lucky to be remembered with such kindness, honesty, and specificity. —Noor Qasim


Nina Leger. Photo: © Francesca Mantovani.


Not much is known about Jeanne, the central character of Nina Leger’s forthcoming The Collection, beyond her name and her sexual appetite. She could be employed in any number of creative-class professions; she could have any number of incentives to take men back to hotel rooms for sex as frequently as she does. None of this matters, though, which is what makes Leger’s second novel—translated from the French by Laura Francis and out next month from Granta Books—so smart: by refusing to couch her heroine’s sexual desires in any number of psychological motivations, Leger performs the rare trick of presenting female sexual pleasure without shame, morality, or judgment. In one particularly effective passage, Jeanne reads through a series of erotic scenes in works of fiction and finds each and every one of them lacking because of its need to create a reason behind the heroine’s sexual desires. There’s something refreshing, too, in reading a character about whom the reader knows so little; rather than preserving Jeanne in amber, freezing her with one too many unnecessary and stultifying details in the name of realism, Leger creates a character that is as mysterious—and, in that mystery, as true to life—as anyone you might pass on the street. —Rhian Sasseen 

Lynn Shelton’s new film Sword of Trust stars the comedian and podcaster Marc Maron as Mel, a pawnshop owner in Birmingham, Alabama. Along with his sidekick, Nathaniel, and two customers named Cynthia and Mary, Mel devises a plan to swindle Civil War truthers into buying a sword he’s passed off as proof the Confederacy won the war. Throughout the film, Shelton satirizes the ridiculousness, and darkness, of conspiracy theorists while focusing on the core characters, their dreams and disappointments. Shelton, one of the progenitors of the mumblecore film movement, often relies on her actors’ improvisations to support the larger story she’s devised. The mechanism is the most interesting part of the movie, cleverly used to introduce complex backstories and twists that are both comedic and moving. The climax of the film occurs in the back of a truck, the four characters on their way to make the deal with some truthers. This understated, poignant scene is entirely improvised, with guidance from Shelton, and miraculously ties the film together through the characters’ shared loss, thwarted hopes, and emotional crises. Maron’s monologue is one of the best performances of the year, and the film is well worth seeing. —Camille Jacobson

This week, amid the surfeit of articles published to commemorate (and, in a few cases, cast doubt on) the fiftieth anniversary of the 1969 moon landing, one stood out for striking a more somber note. Last Friday, the Washington Post published a document written by White House speechwriter William Safire in the days leading up to the Apollo 11 launch—a draft of a speech that President Nixon was to deliver in the event that the ship never returned. The memo, titled simply “In Event of Moon Disaster,” was part of a contingency plan drafted by NASA and the White House in preparation for the possibility that something might go awry, leaving Aldrin and Armstrong stranded on the moon. The statement is short—just over two hundred words—and deeply poignant. It opens: “Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace.” In a document composed almost entirely of devastating lines, one stands out as particularly haunting. It appears not in the speech itself but as a kind of instructional postscript: “The President should then telephone each of the widows-to-be.” This “to-be” reveals a chilling detail of the document: namely, its expectant syntax, reflecting that the astronauts would still have been alive when the speech was delivered. The whole thing is written in the future tense—“they will be mourned,” “they will be remembered”—yet the tone is reminiscent, elegiac, evoking a kind of anticipatory grief. After all, this was all part of a plan, one that was larger in scope than the life of any single individual. Once the statement had been issued, NASA would end all communications with Aldrin and Armstrong. They were to be left for dead and honored in a fashion akin to burial at sea, with a state-appointed clergyman commending their souls to “the deepest of the deep.” We know now, thankfully, that none of this came to pass. Armstrong and Aldrin went farther into space than any humans before them—roughly 239,000 miles, to the deepest of the deep—and returned to tell the tale. But even so, Safire’s speech is a worthwhile and humbling read, a reminder of how far we were willing to go to discover the mysteries of the unknown, and how close two men came to being lost in it. —Cornelia Channing


The surface of the moon. Photo courtesy of NASA.