Staff Picks: Angels, IUDs, and Books in Threes


This Week’s Reading

John Prine.

The first line of John Prine’s song “Angel from Montgomery” is a sentence that captures the listener with its simple introduction: “I am an old woman named after my mother.” The song played many times during the Louisville-based radio station WFPK’s all-day tribute to Prine, who died Tuesday at age seventy-three. During this airwave vigil, strangers’ voices would speak through the warm fuzz of their cell or landline connection, often to share a memory alongside their song request. One man had been the sound guy at a Prine show in the eighties, meeting him for a moment backstage, just long enough to clock how stoned he was. Another had met him briefly while standing one urinal over in the bathroom at the Bluebird Café in Nashville. A man remembered his daughter calling late one Saturday night during her freshman year of college, tipsy and in tears because nobody at the party she had gone to wanted to listen to her music and she missed home—he stayed up and listened to Prine’s albums with her, letting the music connect them across the miles. I let the station play, and the songs unspooled in randomness. I probably could have opened Spotify, pressed shuffle play on the artist page for Prine, and achieved much the same effect. But this wasn’t the algorithm steering. It was a chorus of stories befitting the man it paid tribute to. —Lauren Kane 

Awash with quarantine anxiety, I’m finding it hard to engage with anything that requires much thought. I stare despondently at the stack of literature on my bedside table instead of reading it. Emails from the Criterion Channel taunt me. Galleries that I would normally pop into after work now inundate my inbox with promises of virtual openings and exhibitions. In this brave new world of solitary artistic engagement, it’s tough to know where to start. This Wednesday afternoon, however, I received a note from DC Moore Gallery that seemed distinctly different. It was the first installment of the space’s From the Studio newsletter—personal notes from DC Moore artists on life and work in social isolation. The inaugural letter is written by Eric Aho, a Vermont-based painter who most recently exhibited at the gallery in 2018. This isn’t an invitation into the sterile space of an online gallery but rather into the artist’s country home. Aho takes us on a morning walk to his studio across the Saxtons River Falls. The impasto and the lively blue greens of the paintings he shares are a direct reflection of the craggy, wet landscape. “We can joke that life in Vermont is a form of social distancing under normal circumstances,” Aho writes, but “something is different … Time feels different.” The second installment, sent today, is an update from Robert Kushner, the bright pinks and lilacs of his paintings jumping off large, Matisse-like canvases. These notes read like long letters from old friends, a welcome gesture in times of isolation. —Elinor Hitt


Still from Johnny Guitar.


Johnny Guitar (1954) is the world’s first and perhaps only work of art. This Western, directed by Nicholas Ray, is Johnny Guitar’s in name alone: it is possessed, wholly, by Joan Crawford. Crawford plays Vienna, a saloon owner in the windy desert, waiting for the railroad to be laid as disappointing men pass through—among them Johnny, her ex. Vienna runs a Wild West saloon like Joan Crawford running a Wild West saloon; it is at once an immaculate impression and a radical invention. She delivers every line as if she were trying to summon the dead and moves through space with the authority and precision of a queen on a chess board. This film is only tangentially of this world. Everything is improbable, from the decor and the vivid colors to how perfect each element is. The film is as camp as Joan Crawford playing piano beneath a chandelier as she awaits a mob—which is to say it is camp. Nominally, there is, as in some other films, heterosexual lust, though here it is as vague and played out as it should be; it evaporates before the feelings between Vienna and Emma (Mercedes McCambridge), an off-camera enmity so ardent it was hammed down for the screen. Emma rallies a mob to drive Vienna out of town and claim her land; her torrid hatred for Vienna is all-consuming, electric. Johnny Guitar has a liberating disinterest in sublimation. In its brazen strangeness, the film jettisons Western clichés and sentimentality for an unreal theater of desire. Johnny, drunk and oozing self-pity, asks Vienna, “How many men have you forgotten?” Vienna moves closer, then answers with a bull’s-eye: “As many women as you’ve remembered.” Without breaking his gaze, she flings Johnny’s glass against the wall. —Chris Littlewood

After having my own IUD-related health difficulties last year, I picked up Caren Beilin’s Blackfishing the IUD, published this past October by Wolfman Books, in the hopes that I would find in it some kind of mental companionship regarding the anxieties and questions I still find myself dwelling on. Beilin offers that and more: Blackfishing the IUD is an elegant and angry riposte to the recent widespread popularity of the birth control method among millennial women, as well as a chronicle of the health complications that many have consequently endured. My own experience was mild compared to those recounted here, in chapters that alternate between real women’s testimonies found on the many IUD-related forums online and Beilin’s own painful experience with the Paragard (which triggered rheumatoid arthritis for her at age thirty-three), as well as her meditations on philosophy, art, books, academia, writing, and gender. This is a book that I know I’ll pass along. —Rhian Sasseen

At various points of conflict in Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy, Cromwell wonders why he left Italy. Me, too. “If I had stayed in Italy I could have had a house in the hills, with white walls and a red-tiled roof. A colonnade shading its entrance, shuttered balconies against the heat; orchards, flowery walks, fountains and a vineyard; a library with frescoes … At the Frescobaldi villa the girl came every morning with her basket of herbs. You struck the jars of oil as you passed, and the note told you how full they were.” By the end of The Mirror and the Light, book three of Mantel’s outrageously generous series, we’ve been at Cromwell’s finely wrought sleeve for nearly two thousand pages, and we have plenty of regrets and big dreams of our own. Italy is where it all began. Thomas moved from sharp kitchen boy to sharp banker’s clerk to consigliere to maker of death. I’m sure there are few books that have better lessons about human greed and desire than these, though reviews for the final installment have been less laudatory than those for the previous two. I think Colin Burrow’s critique in the London Review of Books is a particularly cheap shot. He suggests Mantel is overawed by the beauty clinging to the crust of the Tudor court. It is Cromwell, though, who allows his eyes to mete out the cost of a weave, the lay of tile, the drop of a pendant, and the worth and value that humans have learned to stack against the dark and the cold. Heaven for Cromwell isn’t only a list of figures in his favor; it is a stack of figures on fine paper that amount to a very fine orchard in a choice bit of countryside. My family and friends teased me that there couldn’t be any spoilers about the end of the series. My beloved especially enjoyed the joke that Cromwell of course wasn’t still alive now—in 2020. But I couldn’t countenance the loss of such a fine head. If only he’d stayed in Italy, perhaps he’d be calling in to the BBC even now, some dark Arthur, in our hour of need, taking press conferences, arranging mask shipments, and fixing up a trade deal or two to keep the national coffers in fine health—with just a little skimmed off the top, as befits such a loyal knight of the realm. —Julia Berick


Hilary Mantel. © Els Zweerink.