Staff Picks: Spines, Spaniels, and Sparsity


This Week’s Reading

Still from Ulrike Ottinger’s Ticket of No Return, 1979.

I first learned of the filmmaker Ulrike Ottinger through her association with Elfriede Jelinek, the Nobel Prize–winning Austrian writer about whom my colleagues are probably sick of hearing me ramble. Ottinger has directed a few stagings of Jelinek’s plays, and Jelinek herself appears in Ottinger’s 2007 film Prater. But Ottinger is worth seeking out on her own merits. She uses a punk sensibility and a sense of heightened theatrics to create radically feminist films that are wildly stylish—and wildly stylized—in their approach. As luck would have it for those of us in New York, Metrograph is showing a series of her films this weekend. I’ve seen only Ticket of No Return, her 1979 masterpiece depicting one woman’s quest to drink herself to death in West Berlin (it’s much funnier than it sounds), but I’m eager to see more, including 1981’s Freak Orlando, Ottinger’s carnivalesque take on Virginia Woolf’s Orlando—Rhian Sasseen 

My last real outing before pandemic panic overtook the city was to Smoke Jazz & Supper Club, a music haven for Morningside Heights locals and Columbia students alike. When I was newly legal, the venue felt like something of a Narnia on the Upper West Side, a passage out of the quiet uptown streets and dirty dives into the world of adult New Yorkers. Two grinning doormen usher you through opaque velvet curtains and into a dark bar where you can order an overpriced Negroni and watch your music humanities professor pluck the double bass. As with any local jazz bar, the small stage is full of world-class musicians, featuring, on my latest visit, the Eric Reed Quintet—with Josh Bruneau on trumpet, Chris Lewis on saxophone, Aaron Seeber on drums, Clovis Nicolas on bass, and, of course, Reed on piano. Lewis was a standout, his sax melodies both crooning and conversational. Seeber exuded the expected high energy of a young percussionist; Reed, however, kept him in check, conducting a measured, rhythmic dialogue among piano, drums, and bass. As Broadway shuts down amid bans of large gatherings, Smoke may yet provide musical respite: on weeknights, crowds are sparse and relaxed, concerned only with jazz and what to order the next round. —Elinor Hitt


Paul de Vos, Three springer spaniels on the hunt for partridges, 1604–1679, oil on canvas, 69″ x 89″. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.


In the ur-Hemingway novel, Hemingway (or Robert or Jake or whatever), back from some campaign or other, gets a good shave and a handful of papers to sit with at the bar. Imagine being able to escape the orbit of a news cycle. When Emily, the editor of this sturdy magazine, sent around a news item earlier this week, I was initially reluctant to click. But rather than bitter news, the link contained a hilarious and wonderful departure. In 2018, as part of the Glass Handel project, the actress Tilda Swinton staged her pups playing in stunning Scottish landscapes to Handel’s Rompo i lacci, from his opera Flavio. It is at once Real Art and a joke on pet obsession. With relatively little sleight of hand, Swinton and her partner, Sandro Kopp, have created a doggy dance to the music of time. Along with a new appreciation for Handel, I found myself dwelling on the beauty of dog play, their parallel role in our universe, at once undeniably part of and undeniably immune from it. They leap for toys as though their lives depend on it—but they don’t. The seawater tossed from their tails is the calligraphy of joy. They look at the camera, operated by Tilda presumably, like she is their Prometheus—and she is. They are puppies one moment and adult dogs the next. Another clip going around the office is of an old-timer in Italy addressing the conditions removing pasta from the shelves. “There wasn’t this much panic when World War II started,” he complains. I’ve been thinking about my own wartime poet, W. H. Auden, whose “Musee des beaux arts” is timely: “About suffering they were never wrong, / The old Masters: how well they understood / Its human position: how it takes place / While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.” But especially: “Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot / Where the dogs go on with their doggy life.” —Julia Berick

Having recently devoured Ottessa Moshfegh’s prodigious My Year of Rest and Relaxation, I was hungry for more. So I picked up her 2015 novel Eileen, whose eponymous lead is a genuinely repulsive person: she lives in filth, consumes only gin, revels in the ritualistic cleansing of her bowels, and gleefully describes herself as “ugly, disgusting, unfit for the world.” And yet despite these noxious traits, Eileen is driven along by a growing sense of longing and lust (for Randy, her coworker at the prison, and later for the new teacher there, Rebecca Saint John), which finally places her in a position of authority at the book’s grim close. Moshfegh’s portraits of the dark underbelly of human emotion have never been put to sharper, more satirical use; along with the protagonist of My Year of Rest and Relaxation—who, while physically beautiful, sets out to uglify herself through a gradual process of wasting away—Eileen seems an inverted study of the ways female desire and sexuality are so often perceived as gross and dangerous. The painful contortions both characters go through as they seek to relate to their bodies are a reminder of the heavy load of consciousness women bear as they move through the world. Structured around Eileen’s longing to leave X-Ville (each chapter follows a single day in the week leading up to her departure), the novel is, in its bones, about the desire to escape—not just a town but the grotesque visions and ideals that cloak the self. —Camille Jacobson

Working from home necessarily places you in confrontational proximity to all those books you’ve been meaning to read but haven’t gotten around to. However, in the case of the short story, being stationary by a bookshelf filled with those taunting spines is a blessing. I believe that, with the exception of an interconnected book-length project, it is perfectly acceptable and perhaps even preferable to pick up and put down collections at will. The short story as a form asks us to engage with a style or voice as it unspools in a capsule; the narrative arc is crafted with purpose, and you need not read one after another after another to understand the artistry of the writer in question. So with my shelf stretching out before me, I’ve dipped into The Stories of Alice AdamsThe Penguin Book of Italian Short Stories (edited by Jhumpa Lahiri and presented in a gorgeous hardcover edition far too cumbersome to be read on the subway), and Sontag’s Debriefing; I’ve also embraced the excuse to spend time rereading my beloved Cheever. As you wait out whatever’s happening outside, allow yourself the messy, noncommittal pleasure of picking up, putting down, and getting acquainted with your personal library. —Lauren Kane


John Cheever. Photo: Nancy Crampton.