Staff Picks: Boats, Brands, and Blasphemy


This Week’s Reading

Still from We Are Who We Are. Photo: Yannis Drakoulidis / HBO.

The promotion for Luca Guadagnino’s new miniseries, We Are Who We Are, was vague at best, teasing not much more than a gorgeous trailer, Kid Cudi and Chloë Sevigny in starring roles, and the promise of some kind of sun-drenched coming-of-age story set in Italy. For me, at least, that was enough. In the opening of the trailer, the two main characters are sitting on a boat. One asks, “Why do you read poetry?” And the other responds, “Every word means something.” When the first episode premiered this Monday, I took these words as instruction, trying to figure out exactly what I was watching, what it would become. Fourteen and brimming embarrassingly with earnestness and angst in equal measure, both characters seem to be doing the same. Fraser, the protagonist and new kid in town, is achingly New York. Being of the city seems to be the only information he’ll willingly, proudly give about himself, and I laugh, because anyone from here can understand that. Despite his ostentatious clothing, his bleached hair and painted nails, he doesn’t seem to have a sense of himself. Already the show is painting a picture made up of details he can’t define or articulate. But we see him at his most vulnerable, at his most violent, so predictably giving himself away. There are seven more episodes in the series, which will carry me to November. Good. I’d been starting to wonder what else I would have to talk about come October, when I can no longer sigh over the lost summer and wallow in nostalgia. —Langa Chinyoka 

There is plenty of plot in Ryad Girod’s Mansour’s Eyes: the novel begins with a crowd waiting for a condemned man to walk to his execution; then come the diagnosis of a crippling disease, detours into different eras, and appearances by figures up to and including Mansour Hallaj, the tenth-century mystic famous for the “blasphemous” statement “I am the truth.” But the thing that struck me immediately about the book was how well Girod captures the mundane details of life and relationships, like watching passersby at a mall or trying to get drunk at a stuffy party. One of the most difficult quotidian activities to capture is driving, and Girod delivers sentences like this: “The immense rocky plateau was cleaved in two by Mekkah Road; it was deserted, magnificent, giving way to sheer cliffs that looked out over a long expanse of red dunes we could make out, at that moment, only intermittently, at the end of each wadi or the bottom of each dizzying crevasse over which bridges gave the impression that they were trying to stitch together, bring closer, connect every escarpment on the plateau.” (Mansour’s Eyes is Girod’s first book to appear in English, translated from the French by Chris Clarke.) Life, history, and relationships all tend to be understood through milestones and major events and “great men,” which seems, when you think about it, rather a convenient fiction—the truth lies more in the little things, the day-to-day, to which this book brings a gentle but revelatory touch. —Hasan Altaf


Lucrecia Dalt.


I’m not quite sure how to describe No era sólida, the new album from the Colombian electronic artist Lucrecia Dalt, or even how to apply language to it at all; in some ways, it’s about the acquisition of language itself. With whispers and synths, Dalt presents the burgeoning consciousness of a figure she calls Lia coming to life for the first time. On the titular final track, Lia, by way of Dalt, at last sings in Spanish rather than in syllables of nonsense; her journey complete, she borrows lines from Clarice Lispector’s A Breath of Life: “Can paralysis transform a person into a thing?” No era sólida is filled with empty spaces and scattered beats. I recommend first encountering it the way I did: alone and late at night, or early in the morning, the spare hour in which the two converge. —Rhian Sasseen

I picked up Ross Gay’s Against Which a few months ago after attending a lecture he gave about Nikky Finney. Speaking then, Gay’s voice lit up the room. He presented every phenomenal poetic idea with a delicate consideration for his audience; he made himself wonderfully legible without sacrificing any of the depth in his own or Finney’s art. Now, having finished Against Which, I find his poetry no less thoughtful, rich, and modest. He infuses his work with a palpable care that carried me through all three sections of the book on a procession of beautiful words. Despite the heaviness of many of the poems—including one about a lynching and a handful on watching someone die—I felt each one draw me closer to what I see as the central demand of the book: care more. It hurts, but it does so much good. —Carlos Zayas-Pons

Phil Elverum is one of the little hearts inside my heart, a musician whose new work always seems to speak from wherever I happen to be. He makes one-on-one music, perfect for a pandemic, best heard when there’s no one else within earshot. Elverum began his career in the late nineties as the Microphones, a name under which he made noisy, lo-fi indie rock. He rechristened himself Mount Eerie in the mid-aughts, shortly after his legendary album The Glow Pt. 2 brought him a modicum of fame—he didn’t want to submit to the strictures of his own branding, so he changed his moniker. Now he’s brought his past into the present with his new album Microphones in 2020. It comprises a single forty-five-minute song (which I think sounds best on the double-vinyl version, which slices it into four twelve-minute songs, like how cutting a PB&J diagonally somehow makes the sandwich bigger). Elverum is a bit like the John Zorn of indie rock, almost willfully oblivious to the conventional boundaries of musical genres and subgenres; Microphones in 2020, like many of Elverum’s albums, slides nonchalantly between folkie soft strumming, teeth-shattering metal, and sludgy washes of ambient sound, all while Elverum’s thin, humming voice rides the changing waves. He’s read—as he attests in songs on various records—the work of chatty West Coast experimental poets like Joanne Kyger, and he recounts, in this extended meditation, the growth of his art over the past two decades in a kind of prosaic stream of consciousness: his early recordings (“I put the name Microphones on the tapes I would make late at night after work at the record store”), his grieving in music over the death of his first wife, his reasons for renaming his one-man band, and his uneasy reconciliation of old and new identities. Elverum has stuck to his deep practice of making, aging in his art; he plays the music of my youth but spares me the sickly sweet nostalgia—Pavement, for example, do not sing about tripping heavily over one’s feet into one’s forties. He makes me feel like it’s okay for grown-ups to scream and weep. I’m less lonely, though not exactly less alone, in his company. —Craig Morgan Teicher


Phil Elverum. Photo: Katy Hancock.