Staff Picks: Men-Children, Motown, and Middle Age


This Week’s Reading

Jennifer Croft.

Of late, I’ve encountered a cluster of victorious, independent teens in my reading. In Tara Westover’s Educated, Tara splits from her Idaho family’s abuse to thrive in the British education system. In Lara Prior-Palmer’s Rough Magic, Lara decamps from a posh English upbringing to ride a pony across the Mongolian-Manchurian steppe. A similar narrative even springs up in the latest Sally Rooney novel, Normal People: Marianne quits her hometown to find some version of herself and success at Trinity. These stories detail train wrecks and triumph, following young women going it alone to overcome anything, everything. Jennifer Croft’s new memoir, Homesick, takes that same fabric of the young woman finding her way and makes an entirely different garment. Here is a young woman refusing to let go of her family: little sister Zoe gets sick, and Amy (Jennifer’s stand-in) frets and fumbles her way through treatment, waiting for news. Amy goes away to college early, but the broadened horizons are hardly a panacea to the troubles at home—instead it opens up a new level of longing and absence. And while the propulsive narrative of the aforementioned books is compelling (there’s even a race, that most rocket-fueled of story lines), in Homesick Croft teaches us to read another way: the story is told between long, potent subtitles and short vignettes, between the focus of Croft’s photos and what might be out of the frame. It’s a slower sort of storytelling, a family wound up together, heading not toward victory but acceptance. And in creating that intricate web, one built of ambitious form, unflinching recollection, and her own style of multifaceted lyricism, Croft has arrived at a triumph of another kind. —Emily Nemens 

Overcome by Lana Del Rey’s new album, I cast about for what it sounded like. And then it hit me: time travel. Norman Fucking Rockwell! heralds a new frontier in technology, so much does it suggest what a young Fiona Apple or early Cat Power or even the lo-fi rock band Pavement at their peak might make after flashing forward to our current era and then returning to the nineties—safe in the Clinton administration, but burdened with the knowledge of what’s ahead. The first track alone is worth the price of entry, which in 2019 is zero, with 75 percent interest from pure guilt. Del Rey, who previously has idealized a male so full of testosterone he exists only in the black-and-white publicity shots that plaster diner walls, takes apart the softer man of our era. “Goddamn, man-child,” she croons. Later, she drops the best white-girl burn of all time: “Your poetry’s bad, and you blame the news.” The building chord progressions deepen the discord. The lines break like popcorn. The album has the intimacy of a record playing at full volume to a late-night backyard. It’s not exactly a departure for Del Rey; it’s more a final confirmation that she was in on it the whole time. A friend put the album on this past Saturday night, which in 2019 is just pressing some buttons on my computer, and it whirled (if you will) in the background as we ate tacos and wondered about what’s next. —Julia Berick


Prince performing at Coachella in 2008. Photo: penner (CC BY-SA 3.0 ( Via Wikimedia Commons.


In his 1985 Art of Biography interview, Leon Edel describes the process of beginning a biography as “a little like falling in love.” I was reminded of Edel’s interview this week while reading Dan Piepenbring’s piece in The New Yorker—an excerpt from his forthcoming biography, The Beautiful Ones, partly cowritten with Prince in the months before the musician’s death in 2016. It opens with the line: “On January 29, 2016, Prince summoned me to his home, Paisley Park, to tell me about a book he wanted to write.” At the time, Piepenbring was twenty-nine, had never published a book, and had been hand-picked by Prince from a list of potential writers based solely on a personal statement about his relationship to Prince’s music. Over the following months, Piepenbring and Prince—a somewhat unlikely pair—developed ideas for the book. They talked about race and music and language, about publishing and power and trust. Prince was enthusiastic, if somewhat scattered. He wanted to write a book about his childhood, about the music industry, about his mom. He wanted to write a book that solved racism. He wanted to write the biggest music book of all time. It is a rare and thrilling thing to witness an icon brainstorming his own legacy, and Piepenbring is with him every step of the way. What emerges is a uniquely intimate portrait of an artist who for most of his career kept the media and the broader public at a distance. A few months after Piepenbring began working on the book, Prince died. It was sudden, unexpected, and he was left to carry on the project alone. The book comes out in October, and if this essay is any indication, it’s going to be heart-rending. Piepenbring’s writing is playful, incisive, and sincere. There’s more than a little love in it. —Cornelia Channing

In Vigdis Hjorth’s Will and Testament, translated into English by Charlotte Barslund and published by Verso’s new fiction imprint, family is as much of a cage as it is a comfort. The novel follows Bergljot, a middle-aged Norwegian writer, as she’s drawn back into a treacherous family dynamic following an inheritance dispute involving her parents, her older brother, her two younger sisters, and two summer cabins. An accusation by Bergljot against her father was made in the past, and lines have been drawn: Bergljot, her brother, and her three adult children stand on one side, with her sisters and parents on the other. I won’t reveal the allegation that stands at the center of this novel (though you can probably already guess) but Hjorth’s exploration of how trauma imprints itself on memory, shaping and confining the history of one’s life, brings to mind the work of Elfriede Jelinek and Marina Abramović, two artists the main character engages with in her own work. Will and Testament is a compulsively readable novel, one that turns questions of shame into weapons against silence. —Rhian Sasseen

My mother grew up on Motown. The Supremes were supreme, Diana Ross a star without equal. The Temptations followed close behind. These artists comprised the soundtrack of her childhood and provided the hymns for every Sunday morning of mine. My mother would dance and clean the house, our kind of church. Waiting for the curtain to rise at Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations this past weekend, my mother recounted old memories that remain fresh. I have heard about TCB, a television special featuring these kings and queens of Motown, countless times. My mother saw the moon landing, but in comparison to TCB, it hardly seems to have made an impression. Although the special was a raging success at the time, it is now available only in grainy YouTube footage, which I finally watched this week. It’s worth seeing for the clothes alone. I would do bad things to own the bubblegum-pink silk suit Ross dons during a medley of “Eleanor Rigby,” “Do You Know the Way to San Jose,” and “Mrs. Robinson.” But TCB is much more than clothes. It is entertainment, and above all, it is an impressive feat of black performance. Midway through the special, Ross dances at length to an instrumental track while wearing costumes modeled after the traditional dress of various African tribes. Ross goes on to quote Martin Luther King Jr., who had been murdered just months before. This could be viewed, cynically, as a tepid political statement in response to tragedy, a commercial move that helped to launch Ross’s solo career. But it is also a much-needed interlude in an evening of love songs, a choice to pin down the vaguely universal, to ground the evening’s work within the political moment. I don’t know if my mother remembers this specific sequence; I would like to think she does. But even if she does not, I know she still feels that electrifying energy, a feeling of boundless potential that—even in the darkest moments—manages to shine. —Noor Qasim


The Supremes in 1967. Photo: GAC-General Artists Corporation-IMTI-International Talent Management Inc. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.