Staff Picks: Land Mines, Laugh Tracks, and Ladies in Satin


This Week’s Reading

Joan Didion. Photo: Brigitte Lacombe.

Joan Didion’s Let Me Tell You What I Mean had me from the title: words can be hair-trigger things, to deploy them is to find oneself surrounded somehow by land mines, and despite the best of efforts and intentions, what one meant seems almost never to come through cleanly. So how does Joan Didion do it? Her words are still weapons, but the diamond-encrusted kind, as beautiful as they are deadly, and, more important, they are entirely at her command. Let Me Tell You What I Mean, a collection of essays spanning essentially the last third of the twentieth century, is a tiny jewel box of a book, and you could read it for the prose alone—no one places a so like Joan Didion—but the real magic is that she pulls it off: she tells you what she means, and every injury is on purpose. There is a generosity to that, I think, and it feels like a gift just to understand what someone else meant even if one cannot hope to return the favor. —Hasan Altaf 

Saturday Night Clive was a TV show that aired in the UK in the late eighties. Each week, for an hour or so, the presenter played short video clips, introduced out of context to make whoever was on-screen look like a bit of an idiot. The format was, even then, pretty tired. There was a laugh track, and there were also, I think, scripted interviews—some were sort of serious, but most were played for laughs. It wasn’t a good show, though in those days there were only four TV channels, so a show didn’t need to be good for it to be part of your Saturday night and the cultural background of your childhood. The Clive of the show’s title, however, is the talented poet, gifted memoirist, respected literary critic, and kind-of-annoying broadcaster Clive James, and this was my introduction to him. I’m sure this was the case for most of my generation. And so growing up, I never really thought to read his books. It wasn’t until 2011, when James’s health first started to fail—and the newspapers started to write nice things about him—that I became aware of him as a literary figure. James died in 2019, but I’m glad I got to read bits of his work while he was still alive, especially his later poems. It was good to know that he was still writing, and still trying to work out life and his relationships, while you were reading that later stuff. Last weekend, though, I read about James’s early years in Unreliable Memoirs, his account of growing up in Australia. As a kid, he sounds like a nightmare, but James is a wonderful teller of stories and a hilarious observer of the solipsism of childhood. I should have read it sooner, of course, but I was bemused when I first encountered him. His loving though long-suffering mother, it seems, felt likewise. —Robin Jones


Alexander Lernet-Holenia. Photo: United States Information Agency. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.


Count Luna, the 1955 novel by Alexander Lernet-Holenia (translated from the German in 1956 by Jane B. Greene and recently reissued by New Directions), begins with a man named Alexander Jessiersky disappearing into Roman catacombs, on the search for two priests and on the run from the law. The second chapter picks up with Jessiersky’s nobleman ancestor losing his title to the Austrian Empire’s reclamation of East Galicia in the early nineteenth century. The paternal lineage tying the two together reveals all the emotional inheritance that leads to Jessiersky’s inadvertent role in sending a man named Count Luna to a Nazi concentration camp. Count Luna becomes an obsession for Jessiersky (who believes the Count still alive), driving him to dark corners of the mind and the countryside, only to end up, yes, in ancient subterranean graves. At turns thrilling, understated, and outright strange, this novel gives in energetic spades a complex, ugly portrait of nobility and power. —Lauren Kane

This week, the sun came out for the first time in four years. So what’s the perfect soundtrack? For me, it’s been M. Ward’s latest record, Think of Spring. This is his second full-length in a year, following the gorgeous Migration Stories, which features a full band and lots of studio fanciness. Think of Spring is a solo affair, just Ward and his acoustic plus some hardly noticeable overdubbing for texture, all of it recorded at home during the pandemic on a TASCAM four-track. It’s also a covers album, Ward’s version of Billie Holiday’s classic Lady in Satin. These are familiar jazz standards, though you likely won’t recognize them—Ward has given each tune a new country twang, flattening the melodies and substituting his fingerpicking for Holiday’s orchestral backing. Think of Spring is a quiet, mellow record, good for listening to while you stare absentmindedly out the window. Why this album now? Because these songs are all about lost love and the bittersweet joy of remembering; they’re all kinds of ambivalent, pushing and pulling at the heartstrings that Ward plucks so gently. They’re in the same mood as me: grieving and hopeful. —Craig Morgan Teicher

Mac’s Problem, by Enrique Vila-Matas, came out in Spanish several years ago and appeared in Margaret Jull Costa and Sophie Hughes’s English translation in 2019, but reading it now feels very appropriate. In this strange Groundhog Day of a time, wherein each day feels a lot like the last, Mac, with his hair-trigger paranoia and his great enthusiasm, makes for a welcome compatriot. During this January of the pandemic, many of us stay at home all day, perhaps only leaving the house to take the same routes within our neighborhood for essentials. We set goals for ourselves about better futures (New Year’s resolutions, postpandemic plans) and give side-eye to strange characters (where is that person’s mask?!). Enter Mac: Our protagonist has lost his job as a lawyer and so spends all day kicking around the house, making the most of his time in his home office (there is a lot of gazing out the window). He has set about starting a diary (does anyone else’s New Year’s resolution involve better documentation of ideas?) and falls into a rabbit hole of improving his neighbor’s flawed and forgotten early novel. Mac’s routes through his Barcelona neighborhood felt a lot like my own footpaths through Alphabet City. There is even a neighborhood foe, found in a nefarious nephew; side-eye ensues. Perhaps most important, Mac’s indefatigable hope was buoying—it made me ready to bear a bit more of these Groundhog Day days. But don’t wait until February 2 to pick up Mac’s Problem: you have only until January 31 to get the novel as part of the The Paris Review’s subscription bundle with New Directions—available here. —Emily Nemens


Enrique Vila-Matas. Photo courtesy of New Directions.