Staff Picks: Sex, Stand-Up, and South Korea


This Week’s Reading

Ha Seong-nan.

There’s something pleasingly matter-of-fact to the many off-kilter moments found in Ha Seong-nan’s short story collection Flowers of Mold (translated from the Korean by Janet Hong). When problems arise for her characters—a potential intruder in a woman’s farmhouse bedroom, a woman’s loss of memory following the arrival of a new neighbor, a group of tenants faced with eviction by a spoiled and wealthy landlord—their approaches to solving them are no-nonsense, even as the stories themselves border the surreal logic of dreams. The tenants hatch a plan to kill their landlord; the woman’s memory loss betrays her own place within her family; the intruder may exist and may be buried in the orchard. Ha lends a critical eye to capitalism, advertising, and gender in contemporary South Korea, and in each story, she combines the ordinary with the extraordinary to truly disquieting effect. —Rhian Sasseen 

I know I’m only adding an insignificant note to a swelling chorus when I recommend Garth Greenwell’s Cleanness—it’s already drawn praise from Sheila Heti, Édouard Louis, Carmen Maria Machado, Alexander Chee, Adam Haslett, and, in this same section a few weeks ago, my own colleague Cornelia Channing. But when I finished it, on a plane, where emotions are always more heightened and I am given to dramatic gestures, I clutched it to my chest. I was grateful for this book, as if it had been written for me alone. “I could hear music, Balkan pop, the uneven dreams and pipes, a woman’s voice singing restlessly around them,” the narrator says at one moment. “I couldn’t make out the words but they were always the same: something about love, I thought, something about loss.” The foreignness of Bulgaria—where the narrator is an openly gay American teacher—serves only to remind us that in every place, the song is always the same. Yet in Cleanness, we hear the words in uncannily high definition. Greenwell writes about moments of nuance with unrelenting precision, seeking not to flatten them but to fan them out into an array displaying their every possible shade. His structure reflects that gentle exploration: the sentences revise and layer over themselves, and the sections of the book, each of which could stand alone as its own story, seem to inhale and exhale into one another, as if in waves, drawing the water and sending it out again against the shore. And the sex! Greenwell understands, as so few authors do, that sex is not a single act that takes place in the jump cut before morning but a dialogue worth unfurling across pages, an attempt at communication, achieved or failed, in which our truest selves are revealed. We, and his characters, are altered by it every time. —Nadja Spiegelman


Arvind Krishna Mehrotra.


Arvind Krishna Mehrotra’s poem “The House” finishes like this: “On a railway platform // I saw him last, / Who passes before me / In the cheval glass.” Mehrotra’s poetry nimbly distorts the assumptions a reader might make about speaker and subject; up until this final moment of “The House,” the two are understood as separate. Throughout a recent selection of his work published by NYRB Poets, Mehrotra is both understated and sophisticated, often moving between identities and histories. Amit Chaudhuri writes in an introduction to the collection, “At one point, I’m here, sitting in a chair writing a piece in 2014; at another, I’m Ghalib, receiving letters and poems from friends.” However, you would be misled to think that these are cerebral pieces of philosophy; my favorite thing about Mehrotra’s work is that it is always grounded in the small moments of daily life. His sense of humor is like the shadow of a sideways smile. It’s a quietly forceful collection, one whose spine I’ve already cracked in rereadings. —Lauren Kane 

I first met Crissy Van Meter in her role as managing editor for the always astounding Nouvella Books. Since then, she’s founded Five Quarterly and published work in ViceBustleGuernica, and Catapult. Out this week is her debut novel, Creatures, the story of a girl raised by a charismatic drug-dealing father on a fictional island off the Southern California coast. Through a deft handling of temporality and structure, Van Meter traces the emotional wreckage eddying in the wake of that upbringing as her protagonist shifts into adulthood. I am fond of novels that willfully truncate the possibilities—limiting by geography or circumstance and seeing what that does to the narrative—and Van Meter’s book does this with genuine skill, tracing a childhood of nearly literal shipwreck upon a desert island and pushing through to see what such limits do to the human heart. The result is beautiful and moving. —Christian Kiefer

In her new comedy special, The Planet Is Burning, Ilana Glazer is surprisingly nihilistic, her stand-up a frank exploration of the complexities and discomforts of being a woman at the beginning of a new decade. Glazer is best known for her work on Broad City, the recently concluded sitcom that she created with Abbi Jacobson in 2014. In a perfect balance of realism and absurdity, Glazer and Jacobson offered a refreshingly unpolished take on the female-friendship narrative. But after the 2016 election, Broad City took a darker turn, with Glazer’s character openly grappling with depression. The Planet Is Burning allows Glazer to turn even further inward as she examines her own complexities and contradictions in greater depth. In one instant, she embraces her masculine qualities, arguing that she is “sixty to seventy percent female and thirty to forty percent male”; in the next, she admits finding joy in what could be seen as feminine domesticity with her husband. For the second half of the set, Glazer focuses intently on grim and unlikely material, giving a thorough comedic treatment to menstruation and fascism. Yet The Planet Is Burning is something of a celebration. Setting the tone at the top of the show, Glazer takes the stage dancing, clad in her signature cutoffs, her hair styled in exaggerated curls that invariably recall Gilda Radner. And to finish, she nearly embraces optimism. “Women are taking a giant step forward,” she assures her audience. “We are so close to taking it back.” “But,” she concludes in a hurried admission, “I just hope we can do it before the planet bursts into flames.” —Elinor Hitt


Ilana Glazer.