Staff Picks: Trail Mix, Safe Sex, and Conversation


This Week’s Reading

Armistead Maupin. Photo: Christopher Turner. Courtesy of Harper Perennial.

Why did I sleep on the Tales of the City television reboot? Maybe my 2019 self knew that her October 2020 counterpart would desperately need to hear one of her favorite fictional characters, Anna Madrigal (played by the incomparably sympathetic Olympia Dukakis), declare to a doom-mongering millennial documentarian: “We’re still people, aren’t we. Flawed. Narcissistic. Doing our best.” I write now to recommend the show, but with the caveat that you must read all of the books first (start here), and it’s not a bad idea to watch the previous television adaptations, either. Go ahead, immerse yourself in the five-decade epic of Mrs. Madrigal, a San Francisco landlord who resembles a fairy godmother (imagine!), and the eclectic tenants of her hilltop home as they navigate friendship, romance, and gender identity. Armistead Maupin’s Tales series found me when I was about twenty-four, and it gave me both an escape from my own situation and an education about the wider world. Like Dickens, Maupin writes for the masses, and he originally published the first five books of the Tales in serial. He gives characters names like Anna Madrigal, DeDe Halcyon, and Mary Ann Singleton; Michael Tolliver, the boy looking for love at the center of it all, is surely an outright nod. And like Dickens, Maupin is both an operatic storyteller and a documentarian of contemporary social issues, though he doesn’t judge or preach. The Tales were where I first met and loved transgender characters and where I learned about AIDS as it was experienced personally and over decades by gay men, rather than as a distant reason for high schoolers to practice safe sex. The books were, sad to say, revelatory for me even in the early aughts—but when they were first published, in the seventies and eighties, they were revolutionary. Beyond the candid treatment of then-taboo subjects, each book interweaves juicy personal stories and a dark secret that the gang works together to uncover—a stand-in for the real danger in their lives and a nudge that living honestly is the best policy. But these are cozy mysteries: whether you’ve recently broken up with your person or you’ve just found out they’re a psychopath, you can always go home to Barbary Lane, where Mrs. Madrigal will roll you a joint and affirm your human value. Now that things are feeling scarier than ever, what a godsend it is to revisit Maupin’s clear-eyed yet somehow still hopeful world. —Jane Breakell 

The A24 Podcast returned this week with a conversation between the composer Nicholas Britell and the actor Nicholas Braun, both of Succession fame—a show that supposedly shouldn’t fill one with nostalgia for their childhood but, for me, somehow does. But even if I weren’t waiting patiently for the third season of Succession, relishing my coworkers’ tales of Kieran Culkin sightings around Manhattan, I still would have clicked that podcast notification with the same eagerness. I treat most podcasts like trail mix—picking out the M&M’s, making time only for the titles that feature names I already know—but The A24 Podcast (and The Paris Review Podcast, I am obliged to add!) is not one of those. Each installment manages to surprise me—a commendable feat for any interview, let alone podcast. Even predictable pairings such as Jonah Hill and Michael Cera don’t go where I expect; their conversation includes Hill’s advice for living unselfishly, and anecdotes about Prince at parties. I am reminded each time I listen that what I seek, maybe, is the emphasis on caring for the craft, whatever it may be. Often, I feel the urge to return to the podcast’s first episode, “All the Way Home with Barry Jenkins & Greta Gerwig.” In California, I used to listen to it on the long weekday walks I took to feel like a New Yorker again in that strange desert town with its unwalkable sidewalks, its uncrossable roads. Recently, playing the episode for the first time while fixed in place—my kitchen, as I did my silly little tasks, made a meal, cleaned my mess—I was struck by what Gerwig says about times of stillness as times of growth. The year having gone the way it has, I nodded my head solemnly as she spoke, surprised at having found something new here since my previous revisitation in February. “These moments where what looks like being lazy or a fallow period or like you haven’t done anything, a lot of important work can get done there, when it doesn’t look like anything is happening on the surface,” she tells Jenkins. “By the time you were making Moonlight, you had stored up a lot.” And we’re probably not all stockpiling the stuff that would make us each a Moonlight, but there’s something here in the stillness nonetheless. —Langa Chinyoka


Marie NDiaye. Photo: © Catherine Hélie. Courtesy of Knopf Publishing Group.


I cannot think of a novelist who has been so consistently recommended to me with unfettered enthusiasm as Marie NDiaye. This week I began reading her with The Cheffe (translated from the French by Jordan Stump), the work of a masterful prose stylist calmly and elegantly assembling layers of psychological realism with the same precision and focus her titular character might use to prepare one of her famous dishes. The story of the Cheffe is told by way of an unnamed narrator’s lovesick memories, a clever and impressive construct that presents a portrait of a woman who is both mystic and artist. The narrator’s reverent tone lends the novel a hagiographical quality as it examines artistic obsession and devotion with a grace that, to me, inspires enthusiastic recommendation. —Lauren Kane

At only fifteen minutes in length, the 2018 short film Blood Orange brews up a bizarre and cruel ambience with the lightest of touches, creating a viewing experience that is equal parts concerning and charming. Despite the ableism, murder of pets, and other violent ends, this little Australian film feels somber only when removed from the context of the delightful narration that bookends the story. The whimsical piano tune and the Wes Anderson–esque voice-over gave me space to enjoy the film’s craft rather than wallow in its darkness, thereby creating a fiendishly pleasant dark humor that I wish we saw more of in film. —Carlos Zayas-Pons

I picked up the poet Choi Seungja’s Phone Bells Keep Ringing for Me, translated by Won-Chung Kim and Cathy Park Hong, because she was an influence on Kim Hyesoon, whose collection Autobiography of Death (translated by Don Mee Choi) I haven’t been able to stop thinking about since I read it in 2019. Choi first started publishing in 1979 and has since then become, as Hong explains in her preface to the book, “one of the most influential feminist poets in South Korea.” The work included in this collection is stark in its examination of the power differentials between men and women. Loneliness, the politics of the twentieth century, and the body all appear as topics in poems such as “Toward You” (“I will come to you. / Like syphilis germs flowing through veins, / like death gripping life”) and “The End of a Century” (“The 1970s were a horror / and the 1980s a humiliation. / Now, what stigma will the end of this century stick with me?”). I’m in awe of how bracing these poems can be, how critical and clear-eyed Choi is about the destructive elements of consumerism, patriarchy, and heterosexual love. —Rhian Sasseen


Choi Seungja. Photo: Sinyong Kim. Courtesy of Action Books.