The Review’s Review: Magma, Memphis, and the Middle Ages


This Week’s Reading

“Ptolemy with a falcon,” from Der naturen bloeme by Jacob van Maerlant

When you go on a first date, do you struggle to make conversation? Read Morris Bishop’s The Middle Ages, a popular history from 1968, and your troubles are over. Did you know that if you failed to attempt to return a lost falcon to its rightful owner, flesh was cut from your breast and fed to the falcon? Did you know that there was plastic surgery, with noses, lips, and ears enlarged via skin graft? Did you know that to become a Master of Grammar at Cambridge, you had to prove that you were skilled at beating students by hiring a boy and hitting him with a birch rod, with a beadle as your witness? Did you know that, at the same time, there were rules against the hazing of freshmen? One statute from Germany: “Each and every one attached to this University is forbidden to offend with insult, torment, harass, drench with water or urine, throw on or defile with dust or any filth, mock by whistling, cry at with a terrifying voice, or dare to molest in any way whatsoever… any who come to this town and to this fostering University for the purpose of study.”—Benjamin Nugent

One thing I love about Agustín Fernández Mallo’s work is his willingness to draw a wild, excessive, unmanageable perimeter around the material of his story, defying any attempt to center a particular character. The Things We’ve Seen is his newest novel in translation and, like his earlier Nocilla Trilogy, it plants its feet in unlikely locations—in Florida with a retired astronaut, at a conference about the internet on an uninhabited island—and often veers sharply off topic. Mallo’s work is rare these days in how it conveys the sheer size and depth of the physical and informational world—you have to squint to find yourself in all of this, but when you do, there’s a stormy sense of arrival.—Alexandra Kleeman

While I was in New York earlier this month for the first time since the pandemic started, I read Daisy Hildyard’s The Second Body, which argues that we all have two bodies: the one made up of guts and blood and needs, and the one in complex interaction with global and environmental systems. Hildyard raps with butchers as they cut flesh, describes a river flooding her house, and pulls in larger questions about the permeability of all kinds of boundaries. Her exploration of being at once separate and intimately joined proved an apt, unsettling complement to New York, which gave me just the sensory bombardment I was hoping for.—Nina MacLaughlin

Roy Hargrove and Mulgrew Miller are two mainstream jazz giants who died too young in the past decade. In Harmony, a new two-disc set of live performances, resurrects their music and their memory. Miller is a luscious, capacious, and wildly capable pianist, able to offer up anything the moment demands from jazz past and present. He makes a comfy bed for Hargrove’s liquid flights across this set mostly composed of standards recorded at two live dates in 2006. It’s deeply relaxing music, the kind that tempts the listener to tune out and fall back into it, though it also rewards close attention. I’m particularly partial to the gentle samba “Triste” and the eight-and-a-half-minute version of “Never Let Me Go.” These two players are utterly in tune, and listening to them, I feel, as this anxious and lonely pandemic drags on, in tune, too, connected at least while the music plays.—Craig Morgan Teicher

I didn’t travel much this summer, but I did read It Came From Memphis, Robert Gordon’s transportive cultural history of that city’s music scene. Drawing equally from research and personal experience, Gordon is an ideal tour guide, the kind of lively and digressive raconteur who writes like he’s holding court in the back booth of a dimly lit dive bar. I bought the book for insight into artists I already knew and loved—Aretha Franklin and Alex Chilton chief among them—and came away with a whole new roster of musical icons: Mose Vinson, Furry Lewis, Mud Boy and the Neutrons. But the book’s real protagonist is Memphis itself, and its deeper story is the unique “cultural collision” of “black and white, rural and urban, rich and poor” from which all of this amazing music emerged.—Adam Wilson

Icelandic writer Thóra Hjörleifsdóttir’s debut novel, Magma, has a clever beginning. At first it seems you’re reading brief sketches of various men, their contradictory behaviors and alarming preferences carefully catalogued by the narrator, twenty-year-old university student Lilja. In fact, it’s a portrait of just one man—the nameless “he” with whom Lilja is in an increasingly coercive relationship. Translated from the Icelandic by Meg Matich, Magma is a sharp portrayal of the slow, airless progression of an abusive relationship, one that asks big questions about the state of heterosexuality.—Rhian Sasseen


Eruption at Bardarbunga, Iceland. Credit: NASA/GSFC/Jeff Schmaltz/MODIS Land Rapid Response Team


For more fiction, read Benjamin Nugent’s story “The Treasurer” from our Summer 2016 issue, and Adam Wilson’s story “What’s Important Is Feeling” from our Winter 2011 issue.

For more reading from the Daily: Craig Morgan Teicher’s conversation with Kaveh Akbar, and an interview with Alexandra Kleeman.