Staff Picks: Comma Splices, Nice Zones, and Ladies Alone


This Week’s Reading

Nona Fernández. Photo: Sergio Lopez Isla. Courtesy of Graywolf Press.

There is an incantatory quality to Nona Fernández’s The Twilight Zone, a feeling of walking, as though under a spell, and then accidentally tripping into the murky unknown. Translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer, the novel traces the reverberations of Pinochet’s dictatorship throughout Chilean life from the eighties to the present day, using pop culture—in particular the television series The Twilight Zone, though Ghostbusters, Billy Joel, and the Avengers movies are also invoked—as a jumping-off point. This is a brilliant move: when reality features frequent disappearances, torture, and televised interviews with the military members who committed these atrocities, it becomes its own kind of dark fiction. “I wonder how we’ll tell ourselves the story of our times,” the narrator thinks at one point. “Who we’ll leave out of the Nice Zones in the story. Who we’ll entrust with control and curatorship.” —Rhian Sasseen 

A Fairly Honourable Defeat may or may not be the book that an Iris Murdoch fan would recommend to get a reader started, but sometimes these things are decided for you, and this robust, devastating novel has set me on my own Murdochian evangelism. A Fairly Honourable Defeat begins with Hilda and her husband, Rupert, discussing the strength of their union; it concludes with Simon and Axel discussing the strength of theirs. In between, there is manipulation, doubt, and betrayal, alongside lengthy debates about good and evil. As though I were watching a play, I was immediately pulled into the lives of these frustrating, flawed characters, and distraught not to be able to intervene as their tragic fates were sown and reaped. It’s a meaty book that breezes by but lingers long enough for you to get your hands on more Murdoch. —Lauren Kane


Sterling HolyWhiteMountain. Photo courtesy of Sterling HolyWhiteMountain.


Rarely have I read a story that delights in punctuation as much as Sterling HolyWhiteMountain’s “Featherweight,” in the April 5 issue of The New Yorker: the exuberant exclamation marks, the trippy comma splices and ellipses, the suspended hyphens in “long nights, two- or three- or four-times-in-a-night nights.” For this reader that would have been more than enough on its own, but “Featherweight” is a remarkable story, with a light touch that befits its title; it’s not until you reach the end that you realize how far HolyWhiteMountain has brought you—and then you go back to the beginning to see if you can figure out how he did it. I still haven’t—like the best stories, this one reveals little of its seams or scaffolding, but it is a delight to read, and the writer one to watch. —Hasan Altaf

NoBudge is a streaming platform like no other. The name comes from “no budget,” as in no-budget filmmaking, but NoBudge also calls to mind the idea of no compromise, which is indicative of its mission to curate and champion truly independent works of cinema. You might like Naz Riahi’s award-winning Sincerely, Erik, a short about a bookseller’s struggle to connect with his patrons. Or Dan Arnés’s Please Enjoy Your Stay, a surreal comedy about a musician who can’t seem to check out of his hotel room. Or Caleb Johnson’s Joy Kevin, a keyed up hour-long drama anchored in an artist couple’s disdain for their too-small apartment. If NoBudge were a friend you’d made during grad school, they would probably live in a too-small apartment and be a bit awkward at social gatherings. They would be the kind of friend who pulls you from a conversation to introduce you to someone you might never have met otherwise, someone who would take up your hand and shake up your heart. And then you and NoBudge might not see each other for a while. Because maybe it’s blockbuster season. But you might check in on them one quiet evening in your own too-small apartment. Because they always have something important to say. And aren’t you wondering how they’ll manage to say it? —Christopher Notarnicola

A lot has been said about letter writing in the past year, so I’ll refrain from waxing poetic. For now, I’ll just say this: it’s as great as all those articles claim it to be. I’m fairly certain my pen pal would agree. We’ve been corresponding almost exclusively by mail for years; our addresses change, but the notes keep coming. My pen pal, an avid art lover, sends me postcards featuring famous portraits of solitary women (think Hopper’s Automat, Sargent’s Madame X). I write back, illegibly, with whatever stationery is on hand. Recently, to add to the arsenal, I ordered a box set of postcards from The Believer. I didn’t look too hard at its contents before purchasing; I love The Believer, and the postcards feature art and words from the pages of the magazine. I was pleasantly surprised, however, when the set arrived and I learned that its contents play host to more than a few women reveling in their solitude. Among the many: a woman smiling under a beach umbrella, legs unshaven and sunglasses big and bug-eyed; a woman lying on the floor, legs propped up against the wall while she listens to records; a woman sitting outside her Airstream, camping in a desert, with the neon lights of some city glowing in the background. Plenty of options to counter my dear friend’s seemingly endless supply of lone ladies. If alone time isn’t your thing (or if you’re a bit sick of it after this year), don’t worry: the set includes a great variety of content from The Believer—excerpts from comics, previous covers of the magazine, and lines pulled from poetry and interviews. There’s a little something for everyone. Is your pen pal an animal lover? Check in on their pets alongside a drawing of a couple of monkeys and a turtle. A poet? Ask them how the work is coming, accompanied by a line from Natalie Diaz. A gardener? Celebrate the arrival of spring with a rendering of potted plants. There’s a great assortment to choose from, and I bet there’s at least a few your pen pal will love. —Mira Braneck


An assortment of postcards from The Believer’s box set.