Staff Picks: Barbecues, Beyoncé, and the Bourgeoisie

Nancy Hale. Photo courtesy of the Nancy Hale Papers, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College.

Before picking up Where the Light Falls—a selection of Nancy Hale’s short stories forthcoming from Library of America this September—I had never heard of her. My ignorance, unfortunately, seems to be common. Despite being one of The New Yorker’s most prolific writers from the thirties to the sixties and a recipient of ten O. Henry Awards, Hale has been woefully overlooked. In some ways, this is understandable. Her concerns are primarily upper-crust, her scenes largely composed of WASPs feeling fraught. But how many men have written about these subjects to lasting acclaim? And while Lauren Groff, the collection’s editor, argues that Hale’s bourgeois subjects belie fierce political commitments, Hale’s prose is so compelling I hardly care. Every sentence pulses with energy and specificity. In “Midsummer,” Hale makes teen angst exciting again: “She wanted to climb the huge pine tree on the lawn, throw herself upward to the top by some passionate propulsion, and stretch her arms wildly to the sky. But she could only sit around interminably in chairs on the lawn in the heat and quiet, beating with hate and awareness and bewilderment and violence, all incomprehensible to her and pulling her apart.” Hale’s stories are rich, delightful, and often strange. They nearly always end abruptly, as if on an inhale, preparing you for whatever comes next. —Noor Qasim 

Staff-picking a Beyoncé album is like endorsing water or cosigning sleep: of course it’s essential, of course everyone is already aware, of course, of course. But are you aware? Are you aware that Beyoncé’s live album Homecoming, released as the audio companion to her Coachella concert film of the same name, is the single most joyous piece of art I’ve experienced this year? It’s difficult not to slip into hyperbole when discussing America’s reigning queen of pop, and I tend to feel queasy about the weird ways we deify celebrities these days, but I can’t help myself here: Homecoming is perfect. By playfully incorporating hits from the entirety of her catalogue—and by paying homage at every turn to the black artists who inspire her most—Homecoming stands as a monument to the enormity of Beyoncé’s cultural influence. But some things, like Beyoncé’s work, are so ubiquitous as to be almost invisible. We forget that each of us engages with art—even beloved, ever-present, near-mandatory art—on intimate terms. Personally, the album serves as a profound reminder of all the ways her music has touched upon my life: I remember sitting in the family minivan and struggling to comprehend the lyrics of “Say My Name” in the Twin Chimneys Elementary parking lot while I waited for my older brother to step out of the school and into the encroaching Midwest summer evening; I remember purchasing a “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” ringtone for my first phone, a charming gray Nokia brick; I remember standing on the Hoyt-Schermerhorn subway platform, rewatching the video for “Formation” over and over, marveling at the wealth of striking frames, images I carry in my brain to this day. Above all, though, Homecoming makes me want to go forth and create—a ridiculous conclusion, perhaps, to draw from one of the biggest pop culture spectacles of the past decade, but a conclusion nonetheless. “Fuck ’em up, B!” someone shouts into the canyon of silence stretched between Beyoncé’s vocal runs. I know I’m not the intended B here, but the cry emboldens me just the same. —Brian Ransom

 

Camille Grávis, Captive balloon with clock face and bell, floating above the Eiffel Tower, Paris, France, ca. 1895, watercolor over graphite underdrawing. Public domain.

 

I suppose this is more of a wish than a recommendation. I need more time. Don’t you? Especially this week. Like I could use about two and a half to three more hours each night after my kids go to sleep but before I am so exhausted my eyes slam shut. Which also means I don’t want this additional time to come out of my precious few hours of sleep. I’m looking for a kind of infusion of added time—three or so hours that could be inserted into or shimmied under the minutes between, say, 9:30 and 9:45. That way, I could have my three extra hours—to write, catch up on work, have something to eat and drink, and maybe even have an engaging conversation with my wife—and still do the things I normally do at night—drink a bit more, worry, make plans and run through child-oriented checklists, fret, mourn the recent and distant past, catch up on other work, scan headlines until my soul goes completely bald, and have a few minutes to myself to wind down—before falling into bed around 11:15 with a book I’m far too tired to rake my eyes across. I think more time would be great. I recommend more time. —Craig Morgan Teicher

The Altruists, Andrew Ridker’s debut novel, is about an unhappy family burdened by the weight of the past. The story centers on two millennials, Maggie and Ethan, who return to their hometown of Saint Louis to visit their irritable father, Arthur, an irrelevant professor who hopes to reconnect with them following the death of their mother, Francine. Ridker tells the family’s story through a series of flashbacks—Arthur’s affair, Francine’s abandoned dreams, their fraught marriage and failures to build a healthy family—punctuated by chapters of forward momentum in the present. We see Maggie and Ethan act out in response to the inevitable realization that their parents are as flawed as anyone. Ridker psychoanalytically peels back layers of time to reveal the truth and, in doing so, crafts wholly complex, three-dimensional characters we come to love. As we root for them, Ridker brings up larger questions about what it means to live a good life, both for others and for ourselves. —Camille Jacobson

This heat is unbearable. I don’t know what to do with myself. Sitting in my basement apartment with the fan blowing in my face, I dream of fresh air. I imagine what it would be like to be back home in southwest Scotland, perhaps out for the day at one of the little coastal villages like Rockcliffe or Kipford, a sea breeze coming in from the Solway. Even on the hottest of days, the damp shade under a tree provides all the reprieve one needs from the sun. And—even better—the quiet. Yellow lichen on rocks, seaweed, and silence; gorse bushes interrupt every sight line. It was to Rockcliffe that I was transported by this passage in Max Frisch’s Montauk: “To be alive: to be in the light. Driving donkeys around somewhere … That’s all our job amounts to! The main thing is to stand up to the light, to joy in the knowledge that I shall be extinguished in the light over gorse, asphalt, and sea, to stand up to time, or rather to eternity in the instant. To be eternal means to have existed.” Gorse, asphalt, and sea—nothing better could describe the lazy Sunday afternoons, our family barbecuing in car parks by the beach, that my brother and I enjoyed growing up. And standing up to eternity in the instant—surely every child’s unconscious goal during long summer school holidays. In Montauk, those instants prolong into adulthood and span Frisch’s marriages, friendships, and career as he reflects on them from a holiday with a lover on Long Island. Each reflection is bittersweet, but there is a push and pull of memories that brings understanding of some sort. These memories, like the piece of wood Frisch throws into the waves, come back to him to be picked up and thrown again, or left to be swept back out to sea of their own accord. Some sort of closure results, and paddling in the shallows he observes: “It is just the present moment he wants, nothing at all.” —Robin Jones

 

Max Frisch. Photo: Jack Metzger.

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