Staff Picks: Constipation, Hubris, Sincerity

Arista Alanis, “ … on down the road” (detail), oil on canvas, 30″ x 24″. From the cover of Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude.

I first encountered Arthur Schnitzler’s work as an undergraduate, when I read Traumnovelle (which was adapted by Stanley Kubrick in Eyes Wide Shut). NYRB Classics has just come out with a recently unearthed Schnitzler novella, Late Fame, and I was excited to relive my college days with some fin de siècle Viennese fiction. Picking up this story in the spirit of nostalgia is apropos: the narrative follows an aging man, Saxberger, who is suddenly swept up into a group of young artists. They’ve discovered a book of poetry that Saxberger published thirty years earlier, have decided he is a genius, and want to hold a reading in his honor. What ensues is Saxberger’s comedic reckoning with a life he could have had: attention from a glamorous woman, exuberant toasts, and an ardent career in art (rather than as a civil servant). The cast of characters is vibrant with types—the tragedienne, the brooding critic, the romantic Wordsworthian—all rendered each with their own shade of irony. As he spends more time with this cohort, he comes to realize that he is not the person they want him to be: “His efforts were in vain. Laughable was what they had been. It was over. At heart it was simple and not even very sad—no sadder than age itself, hardly sadder than the thirty years in which no verse had ever occurred to him.” The levity of Schnitzler’s tone mitigates any deeply poignant feeling and saves the story from slipping into the realm of the melancholic, where it would perhaps be less appealing. The story considers questions of artistry and recognition (if a book of poems is published but nobody reads it, does it really exist?), but it is best in the subtle fun it pokes at its characters and their delusions of grandeur. —Lauren Kane

The first I ever heard of Ross Gay was from another poet, who, at a reading, mentioned anecdotally that he had come across Gay at a café in Harlem. When asked what he was up to, Gay responded, “Writing down things that delight me.” Two seasons later, with Gay’s most recent book in my hands, I see how wonderful and serious an occupation this is for Gay. This collection is called Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude—and it is. Almost no one has the faith he seems to have in poetry’s ability to tap grace from the happenings of his life. (Don’t mistake his exuberance solely for bliss: my guess is that as a black man in America, Gay cannot afford naivety.) He looks to the act of writing as real alchemy, and death, disappointment, and inequity become honey in his hand. Gay devotes a poem to getting shit on by a bird, finds subterranean rhythm in “the passenger seat of this teal Mitsubishi,” and, in “An Ode to Buttoning and Unbuttoning My Shirt,” does magic with the most quotidian tasks: “sometimes / the buttons / will be on the other / side and / I am a woman / that morning.” —Julia Berick 

The other morning, I woke up earlier than usual to read Mary Jo Bang’s newest collection of poetry, A Doll for Throwing, and was in awe from start to finish. The book comprises fifty-five prose poems, most no more than a paragraph in length, and yet the philosophy guiding each along is so staggering—so sweeping—that I’ve found myself returning to it again and again. The collection draws on Bang’s studies of the Bauhaus movement in Berlin, which sought to unite art and design. Taking the artist Alma Siedhoff-Buscher’s doll, Wurfpuppe, as inspiration for the book’s title, and the life of the photographer Lucia Moholy as fodder for the poems inside, Bang delves into early twentieth-century German history. She braids in more ubiquitous anxieties, too—she writes of the concerns of women, of borders and of terror (“Buy a ticket, catch a train, cross a border … The sway of terror like a dance band, ratcheting up the drum beat”)—and pauses to muse on the beauty of the unnoticed: cicadas on pine trees and mothers in crimson lipstick and pearl buttons. My favorite lines are the simplest ones, like these, from “Dwelling in Our Time”: “Did you know what I meant when I said, Do you want someone to love you, or just this?” —Caitlin Youngquist

From Goodbye Christopher Robin.

Two minutes into the screening of Goodbye Christopher Robin, Simon Curtis’s new film about A. A. Milne and the creation of Winnie the Pooh, Sadie whispered, “That kid is ungodly cute.” It was true. The child actor who plays Christopher Robin has an angelic smile and the resting expression of a golden retriever puppy: hopeful, curious, undaunted by the cruelty of his remote and exploitative parents. “It was almost implausible how cute he was,” Sadie complained afterward. “I get it that A. A. Milne was shell-shocked and emotionally constipated and English, but come on, how could anyone be mean to a kid as adorable as that?” Apparently Disney wouldn’t let the film quote any of the Pooh books. I wouldn’t have, either; when the lights went up, people were still dabbing their eyes. I think it’s fair to say no one was in the mood to revisit When We Were Very Young. —Lorin Stein

Alex Gilvarry’s novel Eastman Was Here is a lampoonish send-up of the fragile male ego starring Alan Eastman, a famous writer and Norman Mailer caricature. It’s 1970s New York and Eastman, who fears he is in the twilight of his career, needs a break: his wife has just left him, his young boys are growing distant, his longtime mistress recently married his editor, and he can’t seem to write anything worth a damn. Because he has no other options, he accepts an offer to report on the closing days of the Vietnam War, and he’s convinced himself that he’s duty bound to do it, that he’s the only person who can tell the war’s story well, honestly, and true—and all those other grandiose delusions. Eastman Was Here is good because Gilvarry understands hubris: “Love me!” Eastman desperately telegraphs as he self-destructs. His self-obsession, the mental backflips he must perform to ensure that he is always the protagonist of the bigger narrative, as he sees it, is as impressive as it is depressing. This may be one of the sadder books you read this summer, but it may also be the funniest. —Jeffery Gleaves

My recommendation this week is a podcast that makes recommendations—in particular, of books that don’t have the readership the hosts believe they deserve. Backlisted is helmed by John Mitchinson, a publisher at Unbound, and Andy Miller, author of The Year of Reading Dangerously. The two begin each biweekly show discussing what they’ve been reading lately, a segment worthy of its own podcast for the varied recommendations the two provide, from obscure histories like Robert Colls’s Identity of England to voluminous classics like Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate. The meat of the program, however, is when Miller and Mitchinson discuss that episode’s featured book with a guest. The conversations are entertaining and insightful, and the subjects are wide-ranging, including books by little-known authors and lesser-known books from literary titans, such as James Baldwin, whose underappreciated novel Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone headlined a recent episode. One of the show’s strengths is its guests: almost always someone with a passion for the work being discussed, such that each conversation is charged with the excitement with which one discusses a beloved book. My favorite guest so far has been the novelist Alex Preston, who came on to discuss Charles Sprawson’s Haunts of the Black Masseur (of which, by the way, only two copies remain at the Strand, after my purchase). Preston reminded me of one of the reasons I love being a reader: the sense that the next book I pick up could change my life. Or maybe it’s the next book I hear about on Backlisted. —Joel Pinckney

Lil B, the Bay Area rapper/outsider artist/living meme/prophet, has given me endless joy over the past seven or so years. His output is astounding (he released more than a dozen free mixtapes in 2012 alone), and he’s a cult icon who has feuded with (and cursed) NBA stars, created his own dance craze, and influenced just about every rapper working today. But how does one approach the oeuvre of an incredibly prolific musician? Quite simply: one piece at a time. Of his some two thousand songs, I’ll single out “Whoopie,” a bouncy, summery song from B’s 2010 mixtape Evil Red Flame. Behind all of Lil B’s music is a deep knowledge of hip-hop history, and “Whoopie” exemplifies this: a glorious riff on the Harlem rapper Cam’ron’s signature meter and rhyme patterns, the track sees Lil B operating at the top of his game as hip-hop’s foremost Dadaist. You see, women love Lil B in the same way they love “morning breakfast”: “I’m like the eggs / you’re like the plate / you hold me up / while I sit in cheese.” Another highlight: “I got money in the safe ’cause I’m paranoid / two guns in my waist ’cause I will destroy / no mask on my face ’cause I’m a idiot.” Yet for all the silliness here—the deconstruction of rap stereotypes and outlandish brags—what’s kept Lil B afloat for so long is his remarkable sincerity. He reminds us to let go of everything—notions about how rap should sound, about rhyme schemes, gender performance, even the meanings behind words themselves—and simply exist. “The main thing I’m trying to press here with everybody is that I love you,” he said at a sold-out lecture at MIT in 2014. “Somebody that doesn’t know you, loves you.” —Brian Ransom

Lil B loves you.

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