Staff Picks: Rivers, Rituals, and Rainy Days


This Week’s Reading

Clarice Lispector, 1969. Photo: Maureen Bisilliat / Instituto Moreira Salles. CC BY-SA 4.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons.

For me the phrase stream of consciousness has always conjured water, as though that stream were something external, a river into which a writer or book dunks the reader. When it comes to Clarice Lispector, it feels more apt to think of blood: she is the kind of writer who does not submerge you in something else so much as she gets into your veins and changes you from the inside out. Her latest novel to appear in English from New Directions is An Apprenticeship or The Book of Pleasures (translated from the Portuguese by Stefan Tobler), and the confection of the title is a feint; Lispector’s needle is sharp, she slips it in like an expert, she knows exactly how much to give you—“A human being’s most pressing need is to become a human being”—to keep you coming back for more. —Hasan Altaf 

My college professor Aaron Fogel wrote a poem about a man who had never heard of Frank Sinatra. It’s a wonderful poem about ubiquity and chance and the losses inherent in living. The idea is that by coincidence, the man happens to be out of the room every time Sinatra is played, or he’s looking elsewhere whenever Sinatra appears in a headline or on TV. I thought about this when I heard Mac Miller for the first time, a full year after his final album came out. For just about everyone else, the talented rap artist, who died in 2018 at the age of twenty-six, was hard to miss. His early albums did well, especially among my cohort at the time—white, middle-class college students—but as his audience grew and grew up, so did he. Beginning with 2016’s The Divine Feminine, Miller’s sound and subjects became more complicated, and so did his collaborations: that album features, among others, CeeLo Green, Anderson .Paak, Kendrick Lamar, and Ariana Grande, a pop vocalist on a whole other stratum of fame. The collaboration with Grande turned into a romance, which flamed out in the spring of 2018. Six months later, while in the midst of promoting his album Swimming, Miller was found unresponsive in his California home. With appearances lined up on major networks, several interviews in print, and a young, gossip-hungry audience already trained on his every move, his sudden death left sizable lacunae into which all kinds of projections could play. I skipped all this and began with Circles, a posthumous album released in January 2020, right before we really needed it. Left unfinished at the time of Miller’s death but completed by the composer and producer Jon Brion, Circles is stupefyingly beautiful and distressingly promising. Dynamic but consistent in register, it brandishes Miller’s talent and flow. A comforting inability to choose a favorite makes it an album I can play on repeat, though “Blue World” stands out (Obama agrees). From the relative vacuum of Circles, I’ve slowly explored Miller’s previous work. Stepping into the earlier albums, I’ve found additional delights and listened into the more public story about a musician who captured several million imaginations. Can one listen to “Stay,” from The Divine Feminine, without thinking of the Twitter storm that occurred when his megawatt ex called their relationship toxic? There’s a particularly intoxicating sequence on the Swimming track “Hurt Feelings”: “Driving with my eyes closed, missing all the signs / Turn the ignition, I’m driven and sitting pretty / Listening to Whitney and whipping it through the city.” It’s a counterweighted self-consciousness that’s all too easy to mourn. I know I’m late to the party, to the graveside, to the memorial, but it seems appropriate this year to listen to music with a kind of swinging door quality. Elegiac? Yes. Jubilant? Also yes. —Julia Berick


Still from Cecilia Mangini’s Divino Amore (1963). Courtesy of Another Gaze.


I had never heard of the Italian filmmaker Cecilia Mangini, but when Another Gaze, the London-based feminist film journal founded in 2016 by Daniella Shreir, tells me to watch something, I listen. Until Monday, March 22, the magazine is offering eight free screenings of Mangini’s work via its new, beautifully designed, irregular streaming site, Another Screen. Mangini, who frequently collaborated with Pier Paolo Pasolini and died earlier this year, was a subversive documentary filmmaker of daily life and traditions in twentieth-century Italy; many of the films included in this retrospective are brief, eleven-minute-long snippets of disappearing rituals and communities, often hauntingly filmed. Stendalí, from 1960, records a female mourning ritual among the ethnic Greek communities of southern Puglia; 1963’s Divino Amore follows a nighttime pilgrimage to the Santuario della Madonna del Divino Amore, near Rome. The program includes an enlightening essay on Mangini’s work by the writer and translator Allison Grimaldi Donahue and an interview with Mangini by Gianluca Sciannameo (translated from the Italian by Livia Franchini). An absolute treat. —Rhian Sasseen

I’ve followed the music of Gillian Welch—which is really the duo of the songwriter Welch and David Rawlings, her partner in life, harmony, and lead guitar—for twenty years. In that time, the duo has honed a brand of folk that draws together strands of American music from the past while sounding like nothing else. Their voices, sung and on guitar, are so intricately intertwined that it’s impossible to parse them—every sound comes from both of them, like a soft chorus from somewhere just outside of time. They just won a Grammy for the album of covers they made in lockdown, All the Good Times, and it’s deep and dark and wonderful—but I’m not staff picking it this week. Around the same time, they also released Boots No. 2: The Lost Songs, a box set of forty-eight unreleased songs written and recorded in one weekend in 2002 to catch Welch up on material she owed for her publishing deal. The original tapes were rescued in March 2020 after a tornado hit their Nashville recording studio. There’s a hell of a lot here, more than any reasonable listener can digest in a reasonable amount of time, but of course, it’s all good. I recommend just spinning these discs whenever a rainy-day mood strikes; one or two songs always seem to rise to the surface and clarify themselves. Right now, I’m smitten with “City Girl,” which is about halfway through side E of the vinyl. I know I’ll be finding this music for years to come. It feels as old as forever and always has something new to tell me. —Craig Morgan Teicher

I turned to Kevin Prufer’s The Art of Fiction because I’m not one for the static image in poetry. In his latest from Four Way Books, Prufer conveys images in motion, in flux, not transformed through his lens but spied in the process of change, a lens not after that of photography but of cinema. If The Art of Fiction were a film, action would be more than direction. The camera would move with deliberate foci, the scenes with subtle match cuts. The music would never swell nor fade beneath our range. All lighting would be natural, though at times it might encourage us to turn our heads or squint. The mise-en-scène would teach us story. When the text gives language to the inhuman—a drone, a trough of poisoned hog feed, a leopard, a bottle of vodka, the “ever-expanding blackness” of a room—their words would come to us through soft focus or relief. And everything else would register cinema verité, bold and crisp like a document, handheld or rendered over the shoulder, real in ways that cause us to forget we are watching something made, real in ways that show both truth and fiction and make us wonder what we’re doing if we’re sitting there in the dark looking only for differences. Start with “I Have Voted” or “The Newspapers,” both of which appeared in the Fall 2019 issue. —Christopher Notarnicola


Kevin Prufer. Photo: Emy Johnston. Courtesy of Four Way Books.