Staff Picks: Spooks, Oddballs, Dopes

Jan Morris.

I went to visit Jan Morris in North Wales a few months ago and heard her saying some of the same things you will hear in this recording. Nothing made me miss America—and especially New York—more than hearing this distinctly English woman, ninety years of age, lyrically and lovingly reminisce about her time there. “I’ve loved America since I first knew it twelve presidencies ago,” she says, “and I love and honor all that’s best about it today.” —Mitzi Angel

The current issue of Granta contains an essay so good, so expressionistic and yet so cooly observed, that it made me think of Didion or Naipaul at their best. In “Notes on a Suicide,” Rana Dasgupta uses the death of a nineteen-year-old girl, in a town outside Paris, as a prism through which to view contemporary France and what it means to be young today: “Océane was the first person to broadcast a live suicide on today’s social media platforms. During the hours I spent watching her online videos, however, I never got the feeling that she was, in other respects, unusual. I saw traits in her common to a lot of people these days—and possibly to myself, even if they are more pronounced in the young: she was subdued, serious, intermittently funny, distracted by constant electronic tics, slightly unavailable to herself … In so many respects, Océane seemed entirely normal, and I sensed that her online exploit, too, would become more customary over time.” —Lorin Stein 

I am a generally lachrymose person, a quality that has invited no shortage of embarrassment into my life. I will shamelessly admit, though, that I wept after finishing the story “Mothers” in Carmen Maria Machado’s forthcoming collection, Her Body and Other Parties. “Mothers” is in Machado’s masterful surrealist style, and by dispensing with traditional narrative structure, she is able to evoke the melancholy of time’s passage, the nostalgia of motherhood, and the pain of a failed and violent marriage. The story’s twenty pages deliver a wallop to the heart that I didn’t see coming. The entire collection is forceful, although it never takes itself too seriously: “Especially Heinous” reimagines synopses of Law & Order: SVU episodes; “The Husband Stitch” riffs on scary fireside stories and suburban legends. But she writes with a sincerity I didn’t realize I was missing until I found it in these pages; it’s rare to encounter an articulation of feminist themes that isn’t self-conscious of them. For instance, her characters enjoy sex, neither shamefully nor aggressively, but simply because they do—no explanation needed. Machado’s work, like her characters, is accessible and nuanced, textured without being overwrought. The publication date is October third: mark your calendar. —Lauren Kane

The Little Hours probably won’t win the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, but it should. Based on a duo of stories in The Decameron, the film follows a group of irreverent, sexually frustrated nuns who live in the Italian countryside. The plot is almost nonexistent; instead, the film builds a fourteenth-century play set—complete with period-appropriate garb—and lets loose a cast stacked with some of the best names in comedy (Aubrey Plaza as the wicked sister with a penchant for violence, Dave Franco as the dopey runaway servant with a mop of ridiculous hair, and Kate Micucci, whose tremendously goofy facial expressions carry many of the film’s best scenes, in a breakout performance as the tattletale who desperately wants to fit in). The dissonance The Little Hours strikes between its humble setting and its thoroughly modern raunch is oddly beautiful. I don’t think I’ve seen another movie like it. —Brian Ransom

Aubrey Plaza, Brie Larson, and Kate Micucci, in Little Hours.

In 1900, a group of divers scouting for sponges plunged into the Mediterranean sea off the small island Antikythera and discovered a ship, ancient and massive, full of Hellenistic treasures. Among the artifacts they pulled from the waves was a heavily corroded bronze mechanism with visible gears and wheels. It was stunning in its complexity, but indecipherable. Was it a clock? A machine? They didn’t know. This anecdote comes early in Automata, a history of “objects that re-create the rhythms of life mechanically.” A few examples of the automata featured: elaborate, ancient clocks that use water to mark the passage of time, dolls that could perform Gluck for Marie Antoinette. I was surprised while slipping through this gorgeous volume, released by Editions Xavier Barral in May, that humans have been making automata for thousands of years. But then: the Western Roman Empire fell, the Dark Ages stormed through, and humans forgot (or destroyed) the most ancient of these technologies. Even after the Antikythera (as the mechanism came to be known) was found, it took more than a hundred years to unlock its secrets, a feat that was accomplished with the help of a special X-ray called—I’m not kidding—the Blade Runner. Turns out, it’s a 365-day calendar that once indicated the movements of the heavens with dials and pointers and is “the world’s first analog computer.” Caitlin Love

I hadn’t heard of Camille Bordas or her new novel, How to Behave in a Crowd, before picking it up on the staff shelf earlier this week, but enticed by George Saunders’s blurb, I thought I’d give it a try; it didn’t take long for me to see its charm. The story is told from the perspective of eleven-year-old Isidore Mazal, the youngest of six and the oddball among the children in that he is not hyperintellectual (by the novel’s conclusion, three of his five siblings have completed dissertations). Isidore, for his part, is kindhearted and thoughtful, emotionally sensitive, and befuddled that others are not the same (and self-doubting for that same reason). Unbeknownst to him, Isidore becomes the cornerstone of the family as they face a tragedy they are ill-equipped to handle. Bordas, in her first novel written in English—she has two previously published novels in French—brilliantly inhabits the mind of Isidore, convincing the reader that Isidore can be, and indeed appropriately is, both emotionally healthy and emotionally insecure. The reader is left with a felt sense of his emotional state that is perhaps the only way to approach understanding the mind of a sensitive eleven-year-old boy. —Joel Pinckney

Gather round to hear a chilling tale about … a talking mongoose named Gef. Okay, it’s not exactly campfire material, but Christopher Josiffe’s account of the real-life Dalby Spook, in Gef! The Strange Tale of an Extra-Special Talking Mongoose, is seriously weird stuff. Gef first appeared to the Irving family on the Isle on Man in 1931; initially a malevolent presence in the house, he later becomes something of a Gollum—curious, mercurial, and anomalous—and rarely showed himself to strangers. (“I won’t talk for these people,” he once exclaimed of some reporters. “They are all liars.”) Josiffe’s book is exhaustive, and his enthusiasm for the project is borne on every page. He covers the media sensation around Gef from every possible angle, drawing upon contemporaneous opinions of spiritualists, mediums, newspapermen, neighbors, and more, leaving no archival stone unturned in his quest to flesh out the mystery of the “man-weasel.” Josiffe draws no satisfactory conclusions but notes, rather tenderly, that unlike other cryptids, “Gef has a palpable, definite personality … It is this sense of his being an actual individual that endears him to so many, and engenders the strange feeling that one knows him.” —Nicole Rudick

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