Staff Picks: Cranberries, Canzones, and Catharsis


This Week’s Reading

Téa Obreht. Photo: Ilan Harel.

Many things will be said about Inland, Téa Obreht’s second novel. I can only hope to settle my tent with the believers. A Western as far as the eye can see, Inland starts with lickins and bounties and ends with them, too, teasing your sense of exploration like you’re home alone with the radio tuned to The Lone Ranger. But this is not The Lone Ranger; there are no heroes or, blessedly, “complexly wrought antiheroes.” Instead, reading Inland feels like a rare chance to read about people, history, and myth all at once without any part canceling out the others. The book is a marriage between some sort of Howard Zinn history lesson, E. L. Doctorow at his best, and the kind of murkily beautiful folktale that is so vivid in Obreht’s first novel, The Tiger’s Wife. I stayed up very late with Lurie, an outlaw with an improbable, unforgettable camel companion, and Nora, a homesteader with all the plagues, and felt the deep possibility of the impossible. It is a trick of the light that allows Obreht to introduce the sweet, downy Goatie (“Nobody could prove she was really a goat, and nobody could prove she was really a sheep”) while asking broad questions about American settlement, belonging, race, and undying denial of water scarcity. There are newspaper fights and gunfights and ghosts and romance, and I wish they’d all appeared earlier in the summer so I could tell the world THIS IS YOUR SUMMER READ. But in Inland, the past is present and will continue to be so into the fall and the next and the next. —Julia Berick

I don’t think I’m wrong in saying that ours is in many ways a moment of arbitrary, almost cartoonish cruelty, here at home and around the world. Examples abound; the evil and the suffering are so vicious, so general, so ridiculous—and, for the lucky among us, so far removed—that they can become as meaningless as static. The phrase that has been on a loop in my head these days is Kashmir has no rights, which comes from Agha Shahid Ali’s poem “Lenox Hill”: “Save the right she gave its earth to cover her, Kashmir / has no rights.” He is talking about his mother dying in a hospital in Manhattan but also about Kashmir—and though he asks “compared to my grief for you, what are those of Kashmir,” I am trying to learn from the poem how to walk this line, how to recognize one’s weakness (“How helpless was God’s mother!”) and one’s responsibilities (“I hold back—she couldn’t bear it—one elephant’s / story”). “Lenox Hill” is a canzone, repeating the words elephants, mother, Kashmir, universe, and dye/die, tying these things together, past to present, New York to Kashmir, personal to political; the elaborate, mannered structure keeps grief contained and, by contrast, heightens that grief. There’s a lesson in this, too—that part of what we can do is insist on tuning in, insist on seeing the pattern, and insist on always hearing “what I once held back: in one elephant’s / cry, by his mother’s bones, the cries of those elephants // that stunned the abyss.” —Hasan Altaf


Julio Torres. Photo: Zach Dilgard/HBO.


If you’re not already familiar with the comedian Julio Torres (Los Espookys, Saturday Night Live), his HBO special My Favorite Shapes is an excellent introduction. Sitting in front of a conveyor belt, Torres introduces his audience to each and every one of his “shapes,” highlighting their personalities, their quirks, the dramas that make up their inanimate lives. These shapes range from the simple square—“some of you may be seeing a square for the very, very first time”—to a miniature zoo for which he has created more interesting animals, including their shadows and souls. Torres’s deadpan charm is palpable in the smallest of movements. His glitter-dabbled hands take center stage, pulsing with energy as he mimes “The Transference,” a process by which he moves the life force from a mangled toy to its replacement. A shot of him holding a Brita filter is startlingly elegant. “I have often been called ‘too niche,’ ” Torres says as he places rose quartz on a miniature chair. And yes, I did find myself wondering who, why, how anyone could arrive at this particular form of comedy. But Torres, recalling his deliberations over the pecking order for his shapes, provides the perfect answer: “Oh, I’m sorry, is this one of the many good jobs I’m stealing from hardworking Americans? Because, look, I’m just doing it ’cause no one else was doing it and it needed to be done.” —Noor Qasim

From my extremely limited knowledge of the subject, the contemporary South Korean poetry scene seems extraordinarily exciting. Earlier this year, I read Kim Hyesoon’s Autobiography of Death, translated by Don Mee Choi, and was blown away by its visceral imagery. This week, I’ve just finished Kim Yideum’s Hysteria, published this past spring by Action Books and translated by Jake Levine, Soeun Seo, and Hedgie Choi. Most of the poems in the collection are narrated by a plainspoken yet enigmatic I, and deal with gender, sex, bodies, trauma, and Korean society in language that’s at times brutal, at other times droll. “I want to rip you apart with my teeth,” begins the titular prose poem, which I found extremely cathartic to read on the subway ride home. “I want to tear you to death on this speeding subway … Don’t fucking touch me.” “I hate pain as much as I hate aphorisms,” goes a line in another. There’s an easy intimacy to the poems, whether Kim is writing about menstrual pads, misheard restaurant orders, sexual double standards, or class and poetry. I’m eager to read even more of her work. —Rhian Sasseen

Last week blended into this one, and I’m still trying to escape the New York summer—even if it’s only for a minute, and even if it’s only between the covers of a book. This time, I was led into John McPhee’s The Pine Barrens in the hope of gentle, cool, resin-scented pine air. On that count, I was to be disappointed—the pinelands are fire country, it transpires—though I was grateful for the introduction all the same. The area owes its name to settlers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries who discovered its sandy, impoverished soil to be unpromising for agriculture. The land went uncleared, and the region began its unique, modern-day history. All that wilderness so close to New York and Philadelphia made it a “smuggler’s El Dorado” (smuggling being a “respectable business in Colonial America”); from here, sugar, molasses, tea, coffee, and rum filtered their way into the country. Iron furnaces were next to emerge—the consequence of a geological curiosity that led to a buildup of iron oxide on the riverbanks. This “bog iron” resulted in one of the period’s most important iron industries, an industry that played a significant role in supplying ordinance for the War of 1812 and the American Revolution. For years, each spring, the furnaces were fired up and kept in blast until the winter froze them out. Today those iron towns have all vanished, and cranberry bogs are the area’s main industry (the region produces the third-highest volume of cranberries in the country; the blueberry farms there don’t lag far behind). It’s a various place, with a various past, and McPhee writes about it with genuine affection. When the summer passes and the cool breeze returns to the pines, it may be time to head back out there. —Robin Jones


John McPhee. Photo: Yolanda Whitman.