Staff Picks: Traps, Tall Tales, and Table Saws


This Week’s Reading

César Aira. Photo: Nina Subin. Courtesy of New Directions.

César Aira’s latest book to appear in English, The Divorce (translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews), brings to mind an older approach to fiction—that of pure fabular storytelling, unencumbered by character development or realism. The plot is essentially nonexistent: a freshly divorced academic travels from Providence, Rhode Island, to Buenos Aires in order to distract himself from his emotions, and spends a day sitting outside a café around the corner from his guesthouse. While sitting there and chatting with a video artist named Leticia, he encounters Enrique, the guesthouse owner, who is holding a bicycle and appears to be freshly soaked from a large amount of water that has just been splashed upon him. Multiple stories quickly emerge: a surreal childhood encounter between Enrique and Leticia, the impoverished background of an acquaintance of Enrique’s named Jusepe, the strange life of Enrique’s mother (including the time she narrowly survived a mob killing), and the mysterious origins of the love of Enrique’s life, who is connected to the water with which the narrator finds Enrique soaked. These are tall tales in the most pleasurable sense of the term, looping and linking around one another as though to echo the strange circularities and synchronicities that so often repeat themselves in the course of a human life. “And with one hand,” writes Aira of Enrique, “he went on holding the delicate machine at his side: that ‘little steel fairy,’ the bicycle, from whose spinning stories are born.” —Rhian Sasseen 

There’s a scene in L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables where Anne and her best friend, Diana, have a proper tea party. They wear fancy dresses and inquire after each other’s family, there are lots of pleases and may-I’s, and then they get absolutely wasted off of raspberry cordial. I’ve always cherished descriptions of food in literature, and as a child I wanted to taste that delicious, illicit cordial more than anything. A few weeks ago, I picked up a bottle of Current Cassis, a black currant liqueur made in the Hudson Valley. I was drawn to the Matisse-esque logo, and I’ve long loved the taste of currants. I poured it over some ice, and immediately I was in Avonlea—it was the cordial. Syrupy and tangy, Current Cassis tastes like a special occasion. I’ve enjoyed it in a Kir Royale and used it to replace vermouth in Negronis. There was only one small problem: the girls in Anne of Green Gables drank raspberry cordial. I pulled out my old copy of the book and returned to the scene that had burrowed itself into my taste buds: “Anne, you certainly have a genius for getting into trouble. You went and gave Diana currant wine instead of raspberry cordial.” It was currants the whole time. —Eleonore Condo


Anna Webber. Photo: TJ Huff.


Anna Webber has been a jazz artist to watch for more than a decade. She uses complicated, often inscrutable schemes to produce aggressive, emotional, and intellectually stimulating music in which improvisation and composition duel in all sorts of surprising ways. She’s achieved a new level of artistic maturity on her past few records (2020’s Both Are True, recorded with the big band she coleads with Angela Morris, is particularly stunning), and Idiom, a new double-disc set, offers a deep dive into her musical world. The first disc features Webber’s long-standing trio with the pianist Matt Mitchell and the drummer John Hollenbeck. When he’s not closely tracking Webber’s intricate melodies and rhythms, Mitchell plays like a table saw (I mean this in the best way), shooting sparks in every direction. And nowhere else can you hear the brilliant and otherwise gentle Hollenbeck prodding and pounding—though he is no less precise here than in his own, more mainstream music or in his work with Meredith Monk. The second disc records a new thirteen-piece ensemble, though don’t expect much swing—this music is hyper, uneasy, and amorphous, punctuated by patches of silence and sudden bursts of noise. The musicians are searching their instruments for not just notes but sounds, and I often feel like I’m exploring some dark place while holding a flashlight with dying batteries—it’s exciting and a bit scary. —Craig Morgan Teicher

The internet is a fount of testaments to the enormity and sheer multifariousness of human achievement. This week, for instance, a fourteen-year-old named Zaila Avant-garde became the first Black American to win the Scripps National Spelling Bee, but she initially garnered attention for her Guinness World Record–setting basketball skills. In a video posted this past April, she dribbles balls of various sizes and colors like some combination of a celestial deity and a living planetary mobile. Summer Games Done Quick is an extended display of similarly astonishing feats, albeit of the digital variety. The yearly charity event, the 2021 installment of which will wind to a close this weekend, showcases the absolute pinnacle of speedrunning, the practice of completing a video game as quickly as possible. Just about any game can be subject to speedrunning; a cursory glance at this year’s schedule reveals such wildly divergent titles as Grand Theft Auto III, SpongeBob’s Truth or SquareFactorio, Need For Speed: Porsche Unleashed, and Demon’s Souls. I suggest tuning in for even five minutes just to witness a little controller wizardry. If you’re unsure of where to jump in, Bubzia’s blindfolded run of Super Mario 64 tomorrow promises to be jaw-dropping. —Brian Ransom

Barry Windsor-Smith’s Monsters is no gentle giant. This staggeringly detailed 365-page graphic novel revolves around the orphan-turned-outcast Bobby Bailey, who unwittingly signs up for an experimental U.S. military program bent on building a super soldier from Nazi technology salvaged during the final days of World War II. If this description reads like a recipe for some musty bargain-basement hero pulp, then Windsor-Smith has set an exceedingly well-concealed trap. Ornamented with the sensational décor of comics, this book succeeds in reaching beyond those familiar baubles of genre and form to string uncommonly delicate stories of loss, familial bonds, abuse, and romantic love over a not-so-distant history of hatred and violence that haunts us still. Thirty-five years in the making, this is a narrative of patience—foremost in the Latin sense—that asks its readers to take their time, to sit with the brutality of its scenes and sink through the inky depths, to feel for and with its characters, burdensome though these feelings may become, because emotions of this heft should be difficult to bear and their steady transfer from the page requires stamina of the heart. Achingly good, epically scaled, and impeccably designed, Monsters will leave you changed. —Christopher Notarnicola


From Barry Windsor-Smith’s Monsters. Image courtesy of Fantagraphics Books.