Staff Picks: Millepied, Monk, and McPhee

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I knew, when I was a little girl, that I wanted to walk up the steps of Lincoln Center in the gathering dusk. Last night, my man and I put on our finery and stepped into the travertine at Lincoln Center to see the American Ballet Theatre. The evening’s first dance, “Souvenir d’un lieu cher,” by Alexei Ratmansky, felt like a warm-up for Benjamin Millepied’s world premiere of “I Feel the Earth Move” (others disagree). The lights came up after “Souvenir” and we watched a tech cross the floor without cover of a curtain to direct a slow undressing of the stage. Up came the wings and the fly and then, with no music, no light change, no cue discernible to the audience, a battalion of dancers crossed the stage. What followed was some of the most beautiful and fully realized dancing I’ve ever seen. An accomplished dancer, choreographer, and former director of the Paris Opera Ballet, Millepied uses everything he knows and everything the dancers do, too. The piece nodded to traditional corps de ballet movement and to synchronized swimming, to sociology and to the high drama of the theater. The principal, Misty Copeland, covered the stage with hovering energy; Herman Cornejo, also a principal, became my second favorite athlete. The music was Philip Glass. At intermission, members of the American Ballet Theatre’s Studio Company and of the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School took over the Promenade for Millepied’s “Counterpoint for Philip Johnson,” the “first work to be performed by ABT outside the proscenium setting of the Koch Theater.” There was contagious delight and many iPhones held outstretched. When we settled back into our seats to watch Millepied’s “Daphnis and Chloe,” I was impressed again by his fluency. When nearly everything had been said, Stella Abrera danced volumes about sexual consent. The curtain came down eventually, of course, but with the feeling that Millepied was back there, still dismantling, in the wings. —Julia Berick

My oldest friend, Elaine, is one of the all-time great book recommenders. She’s the person who turned me on to the work of Barbara Comyns Carr and Pictures from an Institution, and so when she silently hands me an ancient Penguin paperback (as she did last week in London), I take notice. The novel in question is Jennifer Dawson’s 1961 debut, The Ha-Ha. It’s the story of a young woman who’s been hospitalized for schizophrenia. Though that premise sounds grim and even lurid, it’s not: the tone is quiet and the narrative is often dryly funny. While the portrayal of the narrator’s illness is sensitive and rings true, this book feels destigmatizing in the true sense of the word. Plus, it’s just a charming read. On the other hand, if you’re looking for an altogether more distressing first-person fictional account of an Englishwoman descending into mental illness (and really, who isn’t?), you have to go out right now and buy yourself a copy of Stephen Benatar’s Wish Her Safe at Home. It’s funny, it’s horrifying, it’s deeply upsetting, and you won’t be able to stop reading it. In fact, I can’t think of anything better suited to Halloween—although this will stick with you much longer than any ghost story. —Sadie Stein

I started reading Wendell Berry in high school, but I really fell in love with his writing in college. His writing resonated with me in ways words never had before, and it almost single-handedly redirected my course of study to literature. In hopes of giving me a special graduation gift, my mom sent Berry three of his books and asked if he would consider signing them. He went beyond that, returning the books with brief notes on the front page of each, thoughtful and kind in their specificity to me and my stage of life. It was a gesture, from both, that touched me deeply—the combined work of two people in my life, one constantly present and one very remote, that have most shaped how I want to see the world. I’m challenged by their fiercely clear eyes and their firm clench on joy, despite all the facts. In Berry’s new book, The Art of Loading Brush, he is a frustrated advocate, speaking out against local wastefulness and distant idealism; he is a gentle friend, asserting as he always has, the hope possible in caring for the world, and your specific place in it. As far as I’m aware, The Art of Loading Brush is singular in Berry’s corpus, in that it includes essays, stories, and poetry all in one volume. It reads like a summation of his life’s values, as stated elegantly in one of his earlier poems: “what I stand for / is what I stand on.” —Joel Pinckney

The centennial of Thelonious Monk’s birth has been an occasion to celebrate not only the storied character of Monk himself but the rich, wild jazz scene of an erstwhile New York City as well. Robin Kelley’s biography, Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original, truly does both. In Kelley’s thick tome (reissued this year with a new afterword), Monk is depicted not as an island but rather as a brilliant, individual thread woven into the artistic, cultural, and social narrative of New York in the mid-twentieth century. However, Kelley’s goal is to tear away the shrouds of mythos in which Monk is veiled; the biographer’s loyalty is to his subject, complex and flawed and brilliant and human, before anything else. He ends the biography with a beautiful passage that does Monk justice by viewing him not from the foot of any musical pedestal, but rather from the perspective of the dance floor at the Five Spot Café: “To know the man and his music requires digging Monk—out of the golden dustbins of posterity, out of the protected cells of museums—and restoring him to a tradition of sonic disturbance that forced the entire world to take notice.”  —Lauren Kane

Jennifer Egan. Photo: Pieter M. van Hattem / Vistalux

To exist in this modern, plugged-in age of ours is to be perpetually drowning in wonderful—and terrible—things to read on the Internet. Open tabs swarm my phone like locusts, and when I’m in need of reading material on the train, I swipe my screen and watch all the reviews and Wikipedia entries and poems flicker before me like whirling casino slots. When the magic on the screen has come to a rest and the foam has risen to the top, I tap into whatever article my phone has landed on. I’m glad I decided this week that I should read Alexandra Schwartz’s excellent profile of Jennifer Egan in The New Yorker. Part of the article’s appeal is that Egan might be one of the most charming people on the planet. (About the 1942 American Merchant Seaman’s Manual, which Egan used as research for her latest book: “I was lapping this up like it was a chocolate sundae!”) But what really carry the piece are Schwartz’s close readings of her subject’s work, as well as her keen eye for the revealing, juicy details that make up a life. This is one of those great literary profiles: In a single sentence, Schwartz articulates what I’ve never been able to tease out about why I like Egan’s writing so much. “She is a realist with a speculative bent of mind, a writer of postmodern inclinations with the instincts of an old-fashioned entertainer.” I can’t wait to see whom Schwartz tackles next. —Brian Ransom

Somehow, I managed to make it through my college English classes without reading a full-length book by John McPhee. I rectified the situation last week, when I picked up a copy of Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process. The jacket features the sort of praise you would expect to be lavished on one of literary journalism’s most august pioneers: “He has been for dozens and dozens of nonfiction writers,” says David Remnick, McPhee’s former student, “what Robert Lowell used to be for poets and poet wannabes of a certain age: the model.” What struck me, though, after reading Draft No. 4, is just how little of McPhee’s writing process would lend itself to imitation: few readers are likely to adopt his Gordian outlining methods or the floppy disk–era computer program he uses to organize his notes. Yet it’s precisely McPhee’s own authorial quiddities, and the generous sum of attention he pays them, that makes Draft No. 4 such a refreshing addition to the genre: he doffs that guise of didacticism, common to so many writing guides, under which a writer’s personal style and tastes might be gussied up as gospel. That’s not to say that the book is self-regarding: McPhee has a way of putting the subject of his work before its author, even when the two are the same thing. And from McPhee’s pages, writing emerges as a process of slow but undeniable metamorphosis, like a force of nature: less something to mimic, exactly, than to admire. —Spencer Bokat-Lindell

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