Staff Picks: Detritus, Dreamin’, Dinos

From Paleoart.

First published in 1966, Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain, by Justin Kaplan, is still the standard biography of our most enduringly funny writer—or, at least, the earliest writer who makes me actually laugh. I avoided it till now because I knew Twain’s life got pretty dark. He outlived his wife and all of his children; he lost a fortune through crazy investments; as a writer, he lost his sense of humor. But what he achieved is incredible. On Kaplan’s telling, it’s not so much the individual books as the tone of voice—almost a new way of writing based on the spoken word. Like David Sedaris today, Twain polished his essays by performing them onstage. He spent much of his life on tour and sold his books by subscription, direct to consumers, largely bypassing the critical establishment. In fact, it wasn’t until Twain went to England—and was seriously praised by authors like Browning and Tennyson—that Americans started to grasp his originality. Details like these make the pleasure of Kaplan’s biography worth the pain. —Lorin Stein

There really ought to be some kind of survey of artists’ and writers’ filing strategies. The writing spaces of Luc Sante and Marianne Fritz both have meticulously arranged shelves and file boxes, for instance. Who else? The artist Dieter Roth for one. A show of his book practice at Hauser and Wirth, which I saw this week, includes six hundred binders, each of which contains accumulations of everyday detritus (he called the project Flacher Abdall, or “Flat Waste”). The best part of the show is the installation of his actual studio from Basel, Switzerland, which he shared with his son. As one would expect, art supplies abound—a deeply pleasurable assortment of colors and brushes in jars and plastic buckets—but the studio, complete with tiny kitchen, also contains items that show the artists on temporary leave from the work at hand: a pair of Groucho glasses, a bottle-cap collection, slices of pie on pie-shaped rollerskates, models horses in a homemade cardboard stable. A long wooden table served as an informal canvas and displays scribbled lines like “yes or no or well I don’t know” and doodles of the sort you’d make while talking absentmindedly on the phone. The space is reminiscent, as my colleague Julia pointed out, of Donald Judd’s Spring Street building: a live/work space in which the most compelling details are the human ones. —Nicole Rudick 

The Studio of Dieter and Björn Roth, Ackermannshof, Basel, 1995—2008.

Everyone loves dinosaurs, and so everyone crowded around the copy of Paleoart: Visions of the Prehistoric Past that arrived in our office with a pleasant thud this week. This massive art-object of a book, a collaboration between the writer Zoe Lescaze and the artist Walton Ford, explores the varying answers that generations of artists have found to that burning question: How do you depict the wonders and horrors of prehistory? Lurid, otherworldly colors; solemn, lumbering beasts; sharp teeth drenched in blood and guts: they’re all part of the bizarre fusion of science and creative license that’s helped dinosaurs come alive, if not always realistically, in the human imagination. As Lescaze notes, there’s a psychology underlying all this—you can learn a lot about a person by how he draws his dinos. “Iguanodon,” she writes, “a three-ton herbivorous dinosaur half the length of a tennis court, appeared as a bloodthirsty, cannibalistic dragon in one image, an impish, overgrown lizard in another, an affable, scaly elephant in the next.” Flipping through Paleoart feels, in the best way, like taking a psychoactive substance and becoming a kid again. —Dan Piepenbring

I’m in the middle of Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness, a collection of “four short novels” by the sweet-looking Nobel laureate, Kenzaburo Oe. The title story is about the everyday adventures and routines of a tremendously fat man and his mentally deficient son (based, in some part, on Oe’s real-life son, Hikari), but it’s also about a bitter feud between the fat man and his own mother, and it’s also about the mysterious circumstances surrounding the fat man’s father’s death. Like the rest of the collection, its blend of tenderness and darkness is dizzying. The main draw here, though, is “Prize Stock,” which won the prestigious Akutagawa Prize when Oe was in his early twenties. “Prize Stock” centers on a remote Japanese village in World War II, where a black American fighter pilot crashes in the forest. Isolated from the prefecture and helpless before the slowly churning wheels of bureaucracy, the villagers have no choice but to hold the pilot captive. Frog, a young boy who gets the lucky privilege of delivering food to the prisoner twice a day, slowly develops a friendship with him. However, this is wartime Japan, so we know the pair’s idyllic visits to the spring and naps under the apricot tree won’t end well. A quiet tension buzzing throughout the story culminates in one of the most thrilling conclusions I’ve ever read. (Oe’s Art of Fiction interview is wonderful, too.) —Brian Ransom

Just before the summer weather hit, a friend turned me on to Donnie and Joe Emerson’s long-buried 1979 album, Dreamin’ Wild. At first I thought the record was just one more item missing from my shamefully incomplete music repertoire: the tracks were so yielding and plaintive, causing ripples of nostalgia. Dreamin’ Wild’s most compelling track, “Baby,” is the kind of song you’d play on those long, humid, adolescent drives if you could do a rewrite. Surely it was on a Sofia Coppola soundtrack I’d missed—but no! The real story of Dreamin’ Wild is that it is the teenaged, home-recorded effort of a pair of brothers from rural Fruitland, Washington. A hope that nearly withered, the album was only “discovered” in 2008 by a record collector. It was rereleased in 2012, and you can languish now in the lush sounds that lay in wait for so long. —Julia Berick

From A Month in the Country.

Cutting across some of the center pages of Susan Howe’s latest collection are the words “TANGIBLE THINGS,” which is exactly how I’ve always conceived of Howe’s poetry: artifacts of language that transcend the page and become more than just words, but something just ever more concrete in the world. Debths is composed in a way that is similar to her 2010 collection, That This, beginning with relatively prosaic passages that draw on memories of her life: from a fellowship at the Gardner Museum in Boston to her time as a child at a summer camp called Little Sir Echo Camp for Girls. Echo her work does, as it reverberates with language drawn from mythology, from pieces held at the Gardner Museum, from Apuleius. The epigraph to the collection comes from Finnegans Wake, and the same referential project is happening here as in Joyce, forcing the reader to engage with their own language as only Howe can do. The title section in the collection is a finale worthy of such a project, using charged fragments to create energy from the alphabet’s physicality alone. Debths is a striking collection that meditates with precision on the way the past echoes through the frequency of language.  —Lauren Kane

J. L. Carr’s A Month in the Country tells the story of Tom Birkin, a British World War I vet tasked with uncovering a medieval painting in the church of the country town of Oxgodby. The novel is set in 1920, amid the aftershocks of the war. As Birkin gradually uncovers the centuries-old mural, revealing a judgment scene with sinners being cast into hell—a work, “like all truly great works of art, hammering you with its whole before beguiling you with its parts”—his story bubbles to the surface, progressively revealing glimpses of the hell he experienced dusing and because of the war. The reader is also given insight into how Birkin regards his summer in Oxgodby at the time of writing, an old man filled with longing for a lost time. The novel is sobering, introspective, and funny, its characters lively and complex. Ultimately, it’s a memento to those who survived, living out their years after the First World War, damaged and forgotten. And it gives insight into how, at least for Birkin and his eccentric counterpart Charles Moon, a month in the country helped them recover. —Joel Pinckney

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