Staff Picks: Raisins, Rhythm, and Reality


This Week’s Reading

Allan Gurganus. Photo: © Roger Haile. Courtesy of W. W. Norton.

In his Art of Fiction interview, Allan Gurganus preaches the power of the sentence. But for me, the real satisfaction to be had from the newly released Uncollected Stories of Allan Gurganus comes from the layers: a shrewd grad student’s thrifting trip becomes the story of a portrait, which is actually the story of a tragic moment in a small town’s history; a local news report becomes a firsthand account of the incident told by a police officer to his tape recorder. (In fact, local news reporters are more than once a way of getting into a story; they act as a kind of chorus for small-town America.) Gurganus’s Uncollected Stories is lean, nine extended narratives often broken up by Roman numerals. He is unafraid of the darkness deep inside his characters. These are tales that left me feeling unsettled and newly aware of strangers I encountered, the likely mysteries in their lives—and yes, in awe of excellent sentences. —Lauren Kane 

Why are the three musicians who make up the jazz group Thumbscrew so wonderful together? It’s almost as if they shouldn’t be—each has such a distinctive sound on their instrument and such a unique musical sensibility. The band’s guitarist, Mary Halvorson, is all prickles and edges and sharp, sudden turns; the bassist, Michael Formanek, plays somewhere between gloopy and ghostly; the drummer, Tomas Fujiwara, is a wonky miasma of rhythmic hailstones. They are all gluttons for rhythm, for finding all its nooks and crannies. Never Is Enough is their sixth album as a collective, and I think it’s their best yet. Recorded and composed during an extended residency at Pittsburgh’s City of Asylum, this is a tight series of new compositions by a band that is now deeply in sync. The trio breezes and bangs through songs that bubble and squawk and shriek and slide over and around their boundaries. This is aggressive, rock-facing jazz, but it’s not the kind of music that makes you want to cover your ears from the inside—it manages to be heavy, intellectually stimulating, and relaxing all at the same time. Plus, the vinyl version comes with a little live EP on the fourth side. —Craig Morgan Teicher


Terry Waite. Photo: James Gifford-Mead. CC BY-SA 4.0, (, via Wikimedia Commons.


Terry Waite was released in November 1991. He had been held hostage in solitary confinement in Beirut for 1,763 days, and his release dominated the news in Britain to such a degree that even eight-year-old boys like me couldn’t help but take notice. His name and face, and particularly that image of him waving from the door of an airplane when he arrived home, were familiar to everyone, and deference to this unassuming man became part of my generation’s cultural inheritance. Growing up, I often saw the best-selling account of his imprisonment, Taken on Trust, on bookshelves back home, though I never read it. Something about this pandemic brought him to mind, however, and I found myself ordering it one lazy afternoon. Last weekend, the book arrived on my doorstep, and I’ve barely left my comfy chair since. It’s a remarkable story, though distressing, of course. Waite had been in Lebanon to negotiate the release of other prisoners and in the process was taken hostage himself. Taken on Trust, it seems, was written in his head while he was in prison—a remarkable literary achievement—and the scenes alternate between memories of his previous life and his years in captivity. It’s a testament to his skill as a writer that the everyday scenes never feel like they’re getting in the way of the main event, and there are many moments of quiet poignance in both of these disparate parts of his life. He resists entirely the temptation to sensationalize. Reading Taken on Trust, I’m reminded of Lionel Trilling’s statement on Orwell: “He communicates to us the sense that what he has done, any of us could do.” But this, of course, is merely an act of generosity on Waite’s part: most of us would not be able to endure as he did. And very few of us, when first stepping back onto home soil, would still be possessed of the good manners to thank the assembled crowd for having braved the drizzle on that soggy English day. Gosh, what a thoroughly decent fellow he seems to be. —Robin Jones

This week, I’ve been reading Jenny Hval’s Girls against God, translated from the Norwegian by Marjam Idriss. It’s a strange book, and I can’t quite pin it down. Witchcraft, girl bands, and black metal abound. On one page, it’s a diatribe against small-town life in southern Norway; the next, it’s a criticism of canonical practices in high art. Is it horror? A surreal dreamscape? A feminist manifesto on art and culture? All of the above. The book knows no bounds—in subject matter, genre, or possibility. It moves in and out of time, between the real and surreal. Hval seeks to dispel divisions, collapse binaries, and make space for something new. To nullify the reader-writer divide, the narrator turns and addresses us directly. She calls us in: “Don’t try to follow me,” she says, “just close your eyes.” I don’t try to follow. I’m just along for the ride, trailing Hval’s various whims as she pokes and prods me onward. I keep reading and wait to see where we end up. —Mira Braneck

Raisin meditation is a mindfulness practice in which the practitioner eats a single raisin, essentially, but not before examining the raisin’s every conceivable aspect—its little raisin ridges, its rich raisin history, its aromatics, its weight, its raison d’être! The result is often a greater understanding and appreciation of the subject, followed by, after much practice, a heightened awareness of life’s other overlooked details. Such has been my experience with The Anatomy of Melancholy, by Robert Burton, who trained his mind not on the sun-dried grape but on gloom, or what we might call depression. First published in the seventeenth century, the book is an exhaustive exploration of melancholy in its many manifestations, causes, and cures as told by Democritus Junior, a speaking persona whose namesake was an early proponent of atomism—the explanation of complex phenomena in terms of a collection of indivisible parts. The navigation of such an atomistic approach requires a kind of wanderer’s spirit, as our speaker admits: “So that as a river runs sometimes precipitate and swift, then dull and slow; now direct, then per ambages; now deep, then shallow; now muddy, then clear; now broad, then narrow; doth my style flow.” My efforts have taken me through nearly a third of Burton’s pages—a thousand or so to go—which is to say I have only just begun to go with the flow, to weave through the book’s rocky raisin valleys, to press against its tender edges, to hold it to the light and appreciate the delicate translucency of its flesh. Never has melancholy seemed so meditative. —Christopher Notarnicola


Gilbert Jackson, Robert Burton (detail), 1635. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.