My Ex Recommends


The Review’s Review

Mark Fenderson, An Idyl of St. Valentine’s Day, 1909. Internet Archive Book Images, No restrictions, via Wikimedia Commons.

My first real lover was dumb, virile, hilarious—I didn’t trust a word he said. Certainly nothing he recommended. This is why, for years, I stayed away from his favorite book, Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. Until now. I’ve given in, and the epic Western is, predictably, blowing my mind, and, perhaps less predictably, my groin. 

I am never sure when carnage might strike—when I might find men whose naked bodies have been “roasted until their heads had charred and the brains bubbled in the skulls and steam sang from their noseholes,” when I’ll come across a “charred coagulate” of bodies or a decapitated man whose severed neck “bubbles gently like a stew.” While reading, my muscles stay flexed. Blood pulses through dilated vessels. Awaiting climax, I am in a state of constant tension. Groin on vibrate. I never uncross my legs. This is reading as grotesque edging.

It doesn’t help that the novel’s landscape is excitingly predatory: “The sun rose … like the head of a great red phallus until it cleared the unseen rim and sat squat and pulsing and malevolent behind them.” McCarthy’s pulsing, penile sun has been making its way into my dreams. So have men—naked, dangerously erect, charging off cliffs, their bodies bursting into constituent parts on the way down, blood running after them in silken crimson ribbons of … But fuck, I can’t do it like him. I wake frustrated.

Adding to the tension is McCarthy’s syntactical cadence. No matter the content, the persistent beat of his language (biblical, oratory, metaphorical, parodic, straightforward) generate a steady thrum—a rhythm that seems to emanate from the throbbing, carnal core of the earth itself. Or perhaps it’s a lover’s incantation—or weapon. You might say that, while reading, McCarthy’s language functions like straps fastened over my body. Hard as I might writhe, those straps are never tightened, they are never loosened—and even though I’ll finish, I will not be released.  

—Sophie Madeline Dess, author of “Zalmanovs

Absalom! Absalom!, William Faulkner
The Annotated Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, ed. Elizabeth D. Samet
Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, James M. McPherson
The Civil War, John Keegan
The Civil War (PBS documentary), Ken Burns
CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, George Saunders
The Killer Angels, Michael Shaara
Shiloh, Shelby Foote
The Trees, Percival Everett

—Emily Stokes, editor


My first husband, when we got together, wanted us to exchange our copies of our favorite books. He was carrying mine around in a bag and immediately lost them. Can’t quite remember what all his were—definitely Sartre, Hesse, The Leopard.

—Lidija Haas, deputy editor

I heard the title song from The Avalanches’ Since I Left You, an electronic album rumored to contain more than 3,500 samples, for the first time during an impromptu date at the library. A bearded new friend and I were exchanging our favorite songs, and he pulled up Since I Left You on YouTube. We stood at a computer console nodding our heads to the swirling, symphonic arrangement. I don’t know how I didn’t swoon right there on the spot; I don’t know how the head-nodding and moon-eyed glances didn’t segue into a Lady and the Trampstyle spaghetti kiss over the Avalanches’ spaghetti western strings. I can’t remember if we actually split a pair of earbuds, but we did go on to spend seven years together. As I write this, I’m listening to “Since I Left You” for the first time in a long while. If the song has a hook, I’ve always heard it as: “Since I left you / I found a world so new.” In researching the song’s provenance (an admittedly difficult thing to do given the sheer amount of samples used to make it), I learned that the chorus comes from The Main Attraction’s Everyday, which includes the lyric “Since I met you, I found the world so new.” What a difference a word makes. Between “left” and “met” there are thousands of memories and diametrical (last and first) impressions: the silent treatment and the music of early years; hiding resentment behind laptops and sharing a screen; standing apart and swaying in unison. The subtle shift in the article I hear in the lyrics of “Since I Left You” and its source material—“a world” vs “the world”—sums the tension one negotiates between idiosyncrasy and overlapping sensibilities when building, cohabiting, and disassembling a world with someone, and then again in starting over. In its opening seconds, Stay Another Season,” the song that “Since I Left You” transitions into, seems to sample Rick Astley’s Never Gonna Give You Up.” The potential connection between the sentiments expressed in those titles evokes the kind of excommunication, exhumation, and exorcism associated with parsing an ex’s impact.

Nearly fifteen years later, we’ve been separate for as long as we were together, and it’s hard to trace all of his influence. Like the work of a copyright lawyer tasked with identifying the scores of samples that might comprise an Avalanches tune, it’s tough to definitively prove the origins of all the tastes we shared—as in swapping spit, it’s impossible to know where your DNA begins and theirs ends. The associations are loose and incredibly diffuse. I hear him when I play Marlena Shaw’s cover of Carole King’s So Far Away,” (a song included in a mix CD he made for me) and MF DOOM (a master sampler himself) whom I listened to so much that my ex ended up adoring him. We covered each other in every sense of the word. As music aficionados will tell you, covering, sampling, and interpolating are the ultimate demonstrations of love. 

—Niela Orr, contributing editor

Read more meditations on love songs here

Because I grew up homeschooled, fundamentalist Christian–style, I haven’t seen many movies. My exes almost uniformly attempted to give me a crash course in cinema.

Wings of Desire (1987): Almost caused a break-up. D., whom I’d been seeing for a little over a year, had a transformative experience of cinema seeing it and wanted me to have the same. I promised I’d watch it, then kept delaying—because I was tired after work, or not in the mood. One evening he exploded: “If you don’t want to watch Wings of Desire, just say so! Don’t pretend you do if you don’t!” The ensuing argument—about keeping promises, valuing a partner’s taste, and prioritizing transformative experiences of art—lasted till the early hours. I did watch it, after the relationship ended. It’s the best film I’ve ever seen about angels.

Lift (2001): Marc Isaacs stands in the elevator of an English apartment building, filming the residents as they go up and down. The best exchange: “Are you in love?” Isaacs asks a young man. “Yeah,” he responds, ducking his head and facing away from the camera, toward the doors of the elevator. 

Chronicle of a Summer (1961): Recommended by a summer lover in France, all I remember of this film, an early example of cinema verité, is the opening debate about whether it’s possible to behave sincerely when you’re on camera. And flashes of long-legged young women strolling around Saint-Tropez.

Sherman’s March: A Meditation on the Possibility of Romantic Love in the South During an Era of Nuclear Weapons Proliferation (1985): Because S. and I were in the tumultuous period in which the end of an affair becomes visible as a destination, I interpreted this film as a coded message. Three hours of a straight man considering the crimes of history and modernity as well as his own romantic failures certainly didn’t make sustaining love feel possible, and soon it wasn’t. 

—Elisa Gonzalez

I was once in love with someone who loved W. G. Sebald. At the time I thought of this person as the great love of my life, and the intervening years have not exactly proven me right or wrong; he was a person I loved very much and we made each other happy and also miserable. I, especially, made him miserable. But I tried hard to read Sebald, because I wanted to be close to him. I brought The Rings of Saturn on a beach vacation, and I thought it was the most boring book in the world. I even admitted this to him, sort of, in one of our many emails—we were always sending endless emails—and wrote that while I found parts of it gripping, there were other parts that were just “a drag.” We lasted only a few more months, and then we did not speak for years, and during those years I fell in love again, and then out of love, and then back in it, and so on, and I also had occasion to pick up The Rings of Saturn again. I was living in England at the time, and maybe my mood was more attuned to it; maybe I had just grown up a bit. I thought it was brilliant! And sometimes even funny? I read Austerlitz too and I couldn’t believe the existence of a mind like this, one that could synthesize these overlapping images and invented histories and twists and turns, all of it happening in these dense sentences inflected with magic. I wanted, of course, to tell this person about my change of heart, but I didn’t. Part of me wants to say that this might be a metaphor for a relationship that I didn’t recognize as special, or treat as special when I had it, but I’m not sure that’s quite true either—I knew at the time how special it was, and things unfolded as they unfold, and some of that was my fault and some of it wasn’t; we separated, we changed, and my tastes changed, and life goes on.

—Sophie Haigney, web editor

Faces at the Bottom of the Well by Derrick Bell, The Trees by Italo Calvino, The White Album by Joan Didion, the Old Testament, and something called Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee were all given or recommended to me by different exes—I don’t have a type!

—Maya Binyam, contributing editor