What We’re Reading: Disaster, Calamity, Ecstasy

From the cover of The Violins of Saint-Jacques.

I bet you didn’t know that Patrick Leigh Fermor, recognized as Britain’s greatest travel writer during his lifetime, penned a novel, or that it was adapted into a three-act opera in 1966. No new productions are scheduled, but The Violins of Saint-Jacques was reissued last week, so I’ve spent my mornings with a nameless narrator listening to Berthe de Rennes, an elderly Frenchwoman, recall a Mardi Gras ball on the titular Caribbean island in February 1902. The Violins is a kind of travel book, too: chock-full of elaborate details about French architecture, local politics, geography, and the weather. The moldering French aristocracy’s tense relations with local “creoles” are never far from view, nor is the Romeo-and-Juliet-style plot between the mayor’s and governor’s families. The island’s volcano lingers above the lot. Though Saint-Jacques is a figment, the novel’s later, defining event (spoiler alert) is based on something that occurred in Saint Pierre on Martinique, on the same date. In his travel writing, Fermor had an uncanny ability to take readers somewhere impossible; so, too, with this novel. Saint-Jacques never existed and the world it’s based on is long gone, yet The Violins of Saint-Jacques is a full-color Caribbean cruise–cum–French tragedy, one well worth the trip. —Jeffery Gleaves

The other day, I plucked an advance copy of Meghan O’Rourke’s new collection of poems, Sun in Days, from a colleague’s bookshelf and curled up with it in one of the office reading chairs. Though I had barely begun before having to return to my work, I found myself mesmerized and finished the book later that evening. It’s a slim compendium, just over a hundred and twenty pages, with an arresting cover: a tangerine-colored globule plunging into an aqua-blue backdrop, like blood in seawater. The poems that follow are arresting, too. O’Rourke’s sparse, unguarded verse traverses the mind of a woman preoccupied with loss and longing, recounting the days that were and the ones that will never be. She remembers a childhood in Maine, the smell of fish guts on her father’s overalls; the addict that paces outside her Paris sublet; she writes over and over of the daughter she wants but cannot have and of her mother who’s died. The lines I love most, though, are the ones that heave with a sort of quiet lonesomeness, like these from “The Night Where You No Longer Live”: “Did you love me or did I misunderstand // Do you intend to come back // Will you stay the night.” —Caitlin Youngquist 

I had been curious about the nineteenth-century French historian Jules Michelet since reading Edmund Wilson’s lavish praise of him in To the Finland Station, as not only the inaugurator of modern historical writing but a master stylist—intense and sweeping and vivid. I took this praise at a distance, thinking of Michelet as I do of old comedies like Duck Soup: I appreciate that it’s funny, I understand that people who I find funny find it funny, but it doesn’t make me laugh. There are a few too many generational layers for it to touch me ungloved. So when I came across Katia Sainson’s translation of Michelet’s The Sea, the first translation since 1861 and published by Green Integer in 2012, on the remainder table at McNally-Jackson, I picked it up out of curiosity, not expecting much. Instead, I was astonished by Michelet’s intellect and style—and his immediacy. The Sea is a simple book: Michelet picks a topic (the sea) and writes about it from every angle he can think of—historical, literary, scientific, mythological, personal. It is Cubist, almost, and sits comfortably beside the free-jazziest of Eliot Weinberger’s essays. He describes a storm he witnessed, recounts dramatic seafaring stories in the style of a French Melville, takes a tour through various ocean myths. He ponders ingenious little questions such as, Why don’t we group the world into marine basins instead of continents? He drifts off into protoscience fiction reveries, imagining a group of aliens who circle the Earth in a hot-air balloon and infer that whales are the dominant species and the land is barren. It is an intimate, unpretentious book; the impression is that of sitting in a comfortable room with Jules as he gets slightly buzzed and expansive. The Goncourts wrote that Michelet’s works “seem to be written by hand. They are free from the banality and impersonality which the printed thing has; they are like the autograph of a thought.” That is true, and, remarkably, still true. —Matt Levin

Antibodies refers to the body’s little defensive warriors that fight off invasion. But in the New Museum’s electric and robust Carol Rama survey, “Antibodies,” on view through September, the term is folded into layers of meaning. Born to a Catholic family in Turin, Rama began her career in the forties. Her early watercolors undercut her traditional upbringing: they feature women in distorted sexual poses—legs spread, tongues out, faces expressing ecstasy or pain. She also painted dismembered feet, onanism, defecation, women pulling snakes out of their vaginas—this, in Mussolini’s Fascist Italy. These early, figurative works are her most famous, but the exhibition highlights Rama’s deep commitment to varying forms: over sixty years, she made representational work, sculptures, and textiles, and minimalist paintings that use ripped rubber tires. Despite much of her art’s transparent physical gooeyness, I’m struck by a peculiar guardedness, which comes across throughout her oeuvre. Collectively—through the stern scowls on the faces of women in those early watercolors, the straight lines in a few of her minimalist works, and the architects’ grids she painted on late in her career—her work expresses a rigid and protective fierceness, one that fights against the world’s nonbiological parasitic invisibilities: madness, death, pain, fear, and melancholy. —Caitlin Love

Carol Rama, Appassionata [Passionate], 1940, watercolor and pencil on paper, 9″ x 13″. © Archivio Carol Rama, Turin. Collection Fondazione Guido ed Ettore De Fornaris, GAM Galleria Civica d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, Turin. Courtesy Fondazione Torino Musei. Photo: Studio Gonella

My fingertips were partially responsible for my selection of Renee Gladman’s Calamaties—the delightfully tactile quality of the parchment cover was damn near irresistible. Of course, Gladman’s work can be counted on to live up to even the most handsome of book jackets. Billed as a book of essays, Calamities enters that exciting, genre-neutral territory between prose and poetry. The pieces are captivating in their humanness; Gladman captures the serpentine path neuroses travel through her consciousness. “One of my favorite words was in my mouth, and I was torn between chewing and swallowing it so that it could become a part of me, another organ that processed or eliminated some material of my being, or spitting it out immediately, without doing any damage to its form, so that I could study the word in all its glory.” Most of the essays conform to a litany-like repetition of the opening phrase “I begin the day… ” Her days are filled with anxieties about writing, about teaching, about existing in the world, but she maintains a sense of humor. In one essay, she attempts to impart the mystery of poetic beauty to her students as the clock ticks slowly past three fifty, the designated end of class: “‘Poetry comes out of nothing,’ I said, opening something I would never be able to close: 3:52. ‘Read the nothing,’ I shouted after them as they walked out the door.” —Lauren Kane

On a long drive back to the city this past weekend, I reacquainted myself with Brian Koppelman’s podcast, The Moment. If you’re familiar with Koppelman, it’s probably because of his screenwriting and show running, which have included movies like Ocean’s Thirteen and Rounders, and the TV show Billions. His podcast, though, is equally worthy of your attention. Through long-form interviews, Koppelman engages with individuals over a wide spectrum of professions—from novelists to chefs, filmmakers to actors. His last three guests aptly demonstrate the podcast’s variety: Alton Brown, creator and host of food shows such as Good Eats and Iron Chef America; Don Winslow, crime and mystery novelist of books like Savages and, most recently, The Force; and El-P, rapper and music producer, and one half of the hip-hop group Run the Jewels. Koppelman is a voracious reader, and his literary interests make their way into nearly every episode. An unabashed Murakami and Saunders devotee, he talks about literature in a way that will remind you elementally why you love reading. Some of my favorite episodes, to get you started: the novelist Ethan Canin, from February 23, 2016; the poet and memoirist Mary Karr, from September 8, 2015; and the novelist Salman Rushdie, from September 29, 2015 (I do work for a literary journal, after all). —Joel Pinckney

From the cover of Calamities.

When our Tomi Ungerer portrait of Günter Grass went missing after our last party, I got serious about redressing my Grass lacunae. From my local library, I borrowed The Box, a book I took to be a gently fictionalized family history in the voices of Grass’s eight children. It reads something like a transcription of various gatherings of the now—grown children as they recall their childhoods. The chorus is sometimes thematic (the children from Grass’s first marriage), sometimes temporal (the children of various wives and mistresses who shared his attention later in his life). The connecting thread is, of course, Grass himself but also the supernatural powers of an Agfa box camera and the woman who wields it. Marie is a photographer and family friend—maybe more. When developed, her pictures show what was not present: the deep past or the children’s dearest wishes fulfilled. Grass readers will recognize the novels that are born and mature along with the children. I loved the book for its food. At different reunions, the children gather around lentils “seasoned with marjoram,” “unfiltered apple cider,” and “fresh sardines, grilled.” Cozy anecdotes suggest both the universality of family life and the quotidian specifics of postwar Germany. It’s the kind of book that makes the general scramble of having children seem inevitably, incurably messy and utterly unmissable. Give up on the idea of raising them right; raise them at all and they might just gather to hash it out over “pizza they had ordered earlier and warmed up” and “bottles of cold cider … out of the fridge.” —Julia Berick

July has not been kind. I’m tired of sweating, and even though my sunburn is no longer peeling, I’m still eagerly counting down the days of summer. Till cooler weather envelops the city, though, the closest thing to winter bliss is January, a game/music tool by the artist Disasterpeace. If you’ve seen It Follows, you’re probably familiar with Disasterpeace’s thrumming, nightmarish chiptune music. January moves at a different pace. You control a guy who paces back and forth on a single square of snowy landscape as flakes tumble from the sky. Your goal is to catch these snowflakes. But these aren’t ordinary dustings from Santa’s beard: each snowflake you catch releases a chilly, celestial sound. As your character continues to walk about, the random assortment of chords creates a song. There’s more to dive into if you’re curious about the possibilities of January as a tool for procedurally generated music, but even without the extra bells and whistles, it’s a simple, relaxing evocation of a season. Play with headphones and in front of a whirring window unit. —Brian Ransom

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