Staff Picks: Caterpillars, Cells, and Charlottesville

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This Week’s Reading

From Fabiola Ferrero’s photo-essay on Venezuela, linked in Todd Pruzan’s Tinyletter.

All week, Sadie looks forward to the stern diktats and severe pronunciamentos in Sam Sifton’s cooking newsletter (“I loathe accounts of slaves peeling shrimp”). Me, I like to take it a little easier with Todd Pruzan’s Superb + Solid, a TinyLetter devoted to Pruzan’s long-held interests in graphic design, politics, music, and whatever catches his eye and ear. In the current issue, Pruzan reprints a photo-essay on Venezuela; he also reprints a psyops flyer dropped over Europe during World War II; and he reviews the score of an ambient iPhone game. I don’t even know what that is, but I have been following Pruzan’s interests since he helped start McSweeney’s, and even before that, and they are contagious. —Lorin Stein

The first deception in Henry Green’s Concluding is the simplicity of the cover. There is nothing so minimal to be found within the novel, which is lush enough to get lost in. Green’s novel, written in 1948 and republished by New Directions this month, has tempting fairy-tale elements. The fog lifts on a glorious summer day on an estate in rural England. The “Great Place” has been converted to a girls institute for “Service” (Green’s use of capitalization creates an ever-rising totem of bureaucratic satire). The institute is run by two power-hungry matrons whose sworn enemy is an old, retired scientist, Rock, who is a parishioner on the school’s grounds. The novel takes place over one long day, the day of the annual dance. In the summer haze, there is plenty of shadow and light. At the start of the novel, two girls are missing from the school and, though this is sinister, their fate fades in and out of focus in a way that makes the reader fill complicit. There are plenty of distractions. Rock has three white animals: a goose named Ted, a cat named Alice, and a pig named Daisy. All the girls at the institute seem to have names beginning with the letter m, and there are approximately three hundred of them. Whether you will find this all fun will depend upon how much you like a high-hedged English maze and whether you can wink back at Green’s descriptions of scores of young girls slipping into sexuality. Green is pretty straight-faced: who the true innocents are is a matter of perspective. The book is at its best when it’s ambiguous: “Life and pursuit was fierce, as these girls came back to consciousness from the truce of a summer after luncheon before the business of the dance. For already the shadows were on the creep toward the mansion.” —Julia Berick

I am so grateful that my family is committed to doing a summer book club each year. It’s true that we encounter the same road bumps every year—Dad likes something a little more plot driven, maybe spooky, possibly with Scottish detectives wading through fog; Alex is a maniac whose dream novel is a Kafkaesque nightmare starring a skateboarding cat; Matt prefers a book with ideas he can chew on; and Mom tends to suggest about fifty excellent-looking science books about everything from octopuses to ghosts to brain tumors. As time presses on and we all get older and stretch farther apart—geographically at least—I take comfort in knowing that, however briefly, we can occupy and discuss the same pages. We read The Vegetarian this year, which is a great book full of swaying trees and violence, questions about women’s bodies and the effects of patriarchy. But the book doesn’t matter. Just pick something up and gab about it with your family. There’s only one way to discover your father’s opinions about sentimentality in art. —Brian Ransom

Louise Bourgeois, no. 5 of fourteen, from the installation set À l’Infini.

Louise Bourgeois has always seemed to me to be a total boss. If you haven’t seen Robert Mapplethorpe’s portrait of her posing with her phallic sculpture Fillette, look it up. (The work is not phallic so much as it is a phallus, but let’s not quibble.) I was eager to see “Louise Bourgeois: An Unfolding Portrait,” MoMA’s new exhibition of her printed oeuvre—around three hundred books, prints, sculptures, and more. The show is tremendous, but I realized that I don’t know her work as well as I thought I did. I didn’t know her wonderful music pieces, for instance—red bodily blobs painted individually onto music paper—or her Cells, one of which is on view: a thrillingly appealing enclosure comprising a sky-blue wooden folding screen encircling a modest stool; a chance to be alone with oneself in the middle of everything. Another piece is the opposite: a large cage not gilded but presided over by one of Bourgeois’s breathtaking spiders (while a smaller one skitters up the wall nearby). My favorite work was Ode à la Bièvre, a fabric book with lithographs, an homage to the river from Bourgeois’s childhood. It reminded me of Ashbery’s “Into the Dusk-Charged Air.” On one page, Bourgeois wrote, “With the soil from that river we planted geraniums, masses of peonies, / and beds of asparagus. There were hawthorns, / pink and white, and purple tamarisk, / and trees of cherries … And honeysuckle / that smelled so sweet in the rain.” —Nicole Rudick

I’d been ogling Gunnhild Øyehaug’s collection of stories, Knots, long before I got around to reading it. Wrapped in a jacket of candy-colored pinks and purples, the book was already tempting, but it was all the marvelous things Lydia Davis and James Wood had to say of its author that finally drove me to open it. So this week, Knots was my traveling companion; and it was as good as its admirers let on. Translated from the Norwegian by Kari Dickson, the book is Øyehaug’s first to appear in English. It comprises twenty-six stories, each one a delectable morsel of whimsy and wit, with notes of sadness. She writes of a man “with an umbilical cord that no one could cut,” who spends his life fastened to his mother; of a father whose right side folds in on itself, “like a flower that closes its petals at night;” of a boy who dreams of rhinos as his parents split up. There are others, too, that are far less fanciful yet just as stunning, ones that muse on the more mundane: the meaningless sex we have, the anxieties we wrestle with, the illnesses our lovers get and never shake. Through it all, Øyehaug’s storytelling is magnificent, her range nonpareil. Here’s a taste. —Caitlin Youngquist

Like all the best interwar British novels, in Henry Green’s Doting everybody wants to sleep with everybody they’re not supposed to sleep with. Arthur Middleton especially wants to schtup a friend’s nineteen-year-old daughter. He discovers this while on a familial double date of sorts with Mrs. Middleton, their son Peter, and the alluring Annabel Paynton. Middleton and Paynton flirt by speaking of the time they first met: she was six, he thirty-one, it’s super icky. But what’s not icky are the words Green puts in his character’s mouths. Doting is mostly dialogue, the kind that carries action-movie level suspense alongside the hilarity of a novel of manners—as if Oscar Wilde and Quentin Tarantino teamed up to write an Evelyn Waugh remake. —Jeffery Gleaves

This week, I’ve been listening to This American Life. I was stunned by their most recent original release, from September 24, titled “White Haze.” Act 1 profiles the Proud Boys, a right-wing men’s group whose leader vehemently denies accusations of white nationalism, though members of his group attended the Charlottesville rally (and have since been kicked out of the group). The piece also tells the story of Dante Nero, a black comedian and relationship consultant who gets involved with the group. The second act focuses on Jason Kessler, himself a former member of the Proud Boys and the organizer of the Charlottesville rally, and his conflicts with the vice mayor of Charlottesville, Wes Bellamy, who is black. The episode is deeply harrowing and complex. It questions its own purpose—namely, in giving voice to people like Kessler, a practice that Bellamy firmly opposes. But as Robyn Semien, a producer at This American Life, points out, “Ignoring Jason Kessler isn’t going to make him go away.” And as far as efforts to understand Kessler and his counterparts, this is one of the best I’ve encountered. The reporting from Semien and her colleague Zoe Chace is important and stunningly good. They delicately balance judgment-free storytelling with their own need to respond to horrifying and troubling claims. The episode is important listening and, regrettably, a necessary education on America. —Joel Pinckney

There is no delight quite like the kind provided by leafing through a good anthology; it is much the same pleasure as wandering through a museum gallery. Indeed, I think of them as totable exhibitions, exciting in their unique curation. One such thoroughly absorbing anthology is Bloomsbury’s Surrealist Poetry, which presents a hundred and fifty poems representing André Breton’s surrealism, translated from their original French and Spanish by Willard Bohn. The translations are given with the English facing the original text, an exciting construction that makes this volume as much a recreationally academic endeavor as it is an immersive experience of surrealist verse. I found myself particularly enjoying the section devoted to Aimé Césaire, who Breton himself described as “le plus grand monument lyrique de ce temps”–“the greatest lyrical monument of our time.” I am always enchanted by Césaire’s sublime relationship to his language, which he uses to craft lines that are musical and illusory. You feel that you are always about to wrap your mind around them, but are never quite able to, like trying to run in a dream. From his poem “Prophétie”:

there where adventure preserves its keen eyes
there where women radiate with language
there where death is lovely in one’s hand like a milk season bird
there where the tunnel picks from its own genuflection abundant
plums
more violent than caterpillars

Lauren Kane

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