Staff Picks: Witch-Hop, Typingpool, and Salkis

Suzy Hansen’s Notes on a Foreign Country is a deceptively narrow book. It seems to be the memoir of a young, untested journalist who finds herself in Turkey, almost by chance, and begins to learn about the U.S. involvement in the Middle East. In reality, it is a book about what it means to be white and American, in the world and at home. I haven’t stopped thinking about it since I picked it up. Among its many virtues, it is the first book I’ve read that gives an honest account of what, for my generation, passed for history class at even a “good” high school. “I was in high school for the Rwandan genocide and the war in Bosnia, but I was conscious of none of it at the time. During my senior year, I learned twentieth-century American history through the lyrics of Billy Joel’s ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire’ … Many years later I unearthed a research project I made about the song.” If that doesn’t make you wince, then you may not recognize yourself in Notes on a Foreign Country. Not everyone will. If you do recognize yourself, then you may also recognize the connections Hansen draws between American exceptionalism abroad, white supremacy at home, and a national self-image based on virtue—a self-image that could survive in no other free country on earth, and that may finally be falling apart in ours. —Lorin Stein

Maybe it was the cover image of Freeman’s: The Future of New Writing that prompted me to pick it up: the bare tree, icy lake, and snowcapped mountains might have been a subconscious relief for my all-too-conscious discomfort at this past week’s mid-October mugginess. Mieko Kawakami’s story, “The Flower Garden,” is aesthetically sparse and cool as well, yet far from simple. It is a brief story that pries with gentle force at the tight societal seam binding female identity and material possessions, and it begins in medias res: a woman is showing her house to a potential buyer, a wealthy, attractive woman much her junior. The narrator, a housewife, spent her entire married life decorating the house and curating its interior design. She feels for it a deep and maternal bond. Yet her husband’s business went bust, leaving them bankrupt, and she is forced to sell. Shortly after leaving, she begins stalking the house, sitting on the bench outside and going to tend the garden (her husband’s favorite thing about the house and maybe about her) after the new inhabitant has left for the day. In a few pages, Kawakami’s austere prose sketches the narrator’s rapidly growing infatuation with both the home and its new owner. Kawakami’s psychological realism is on the expert level of Henry James, suggesting ethereal and nuanced feelings through their material representations. However, unlike James, her mastery comes in the form of a skillful economy of language.  The story blossoms hypnotically into a dark and strange ending. —Lauren Kane

Princess Nokia

A couple weeks ago, I received a text from my older brother. “Wow, I can’t stop listening to these two Princess Nokia songs,” he wrote. “It’s like electronic music with Crime Mob Lady rapping.” This might not sound revelatory, but we Ransom boys speak of “Crime Mob Lady” (whose rap alias, coincidentally and forgettably, is Princess) with reverence. We used to listen to Crime Mob’s crunk classic “Knuck If You Buck” religiously, and at one point, we both bragged of our ability to recite Princess’s verse verbatim. I’m happy to report that my brother is correct: Princess Nokia is a worthy heir to the throne. Like the Princess before her, Nokia delivers her rhymes with a blistering cadence. One need only listen to her song “Brujas” to discover her lyrical acuity, her knack for evocative imagery. “Casting spells with my cousins,” she raps. “I’m the head of this coven.” It’s the best and only witch-hop song I’ve heard. (I’d also be remiss not to mention Princess Nokia’s participation in the takedown of a racist on the subway this week, which culminated in her throwing hot soup on the bigot.) —Brian Ransom

From Charm.

Last week, I had the pleasure of seeing Philip Dawkins’s play Charm. It opened in New York City in late Septemberbut if you hurry, you may be able to catch one of the final performances this weekend. It would be worth it for the costumes alone—flashes of color that transform the fluorescently lit stage, meant to resemble the grim interior of a community center, into a riveting riot of color and exposed skin. Mama Darleena Andrews, a sixty-seven-year-old, black, transgender woman played by Sandra Caldwell, has come to teach the trans youth manners and etiquette à la Emily Post. When she dictates different rules for gentlemen than for ladies, she clashes with the head of the community center, D., who goes by gender-neutral pronouns. But that’s not where the heart of the story is—it’s in Caldwell’s performance of a woman who’s had to be tough for far too long and finally dares to expose some of her own vulnerability. Sandra Caldwell has been acting since she was a teenager, but now, at sixty-five years old, in taking this role, she’s finally decided to come out as trans. She’s giving it everything she’s got. —Nadja Spiegelman

In the concise stories that make up Everything, Then and Since, Michael Parker creates worlds that are defined as much by what they exclude as by what they include. Though Parker’s collection is a slim ninety-seven pages, it includes twenty-three stories of impressive variety and emotional complexity. Parker often writes of life on the margins in the South, and some of the best moments come when those margins are brushed by global tragedy, as in “Typingpool” and “Beamon’s Woods,” which are both ultimately about the enduring pain of World War II. The stories range from six pages to the 186-word “Hold On,” an exemplar of the collection. Every word holds particular weight; much is asked of every descriptor. The narrator of “Hold On” gives a recliner-ridden old woman (his mother? his patient?) her first-ever television with a remote: “She held onto that clicker as if it were her first ever doll baby, carved from a corncob by her daddy before the dust kicked up and blew them out of the Panhandle.” Much is told to the reader; much is left for the reader to tell themselves. Indeed, that’s the accomplishment of these stories: they pack a great deal into the pages given to them, and then ask the reader to take it further. They challenge and expand the reader’s imagination, as all good stories ought to do. —Joel Pinckney

Robert Redford and Jane Fonda in The Electric Horseman.

I have a suspicion that the 1979 film Electric Horseman was released to Netflix audiences in order to build interest in Our Souls at Night, a new film featuring the same megastars, Robert Redford and Jane Fonda. I don’t care if it was. I watched rapt for the entire two-hour run time. Redford is Sonny Steele, a washed-up rodeo star, who gained a fortune when he sold his soul as a breakfast-cereal spokesman. Jane Fonda is Hallie Martin, a wicked-sharp reporter from back East. Steel may have lost his self-respect, but he can’t abide by the treatment of a horse who costars alongside him in the Las Vegas promotion for the cereal company. He rides the horse right off the set, off the strip, and into the Nevada night. The horse happens to be expensive and Fonda follows Redford and the story. Electric Horseman was released in 1979, but last weekend it seemed to be set in some parallel universe where things might have worked out differently. Vegas is still the center of lavish American lust, corporations are swayed by a moral majority, the media is interested in a good story but more so in stories of good, reporters always check their sources. Steele says to Hallie, “I like that you’re smart.” No kidding! Redford and Fonda sing “America the Beautiful” to distract Fonda from the pain of hiking in her high heels. With the craggy handsome Red Rock Canyon behind the craggy handsome Redford, everything sure looks okay. —Julia Berick

Janet Malcolm’s books are like a full moon—perfectly round, very remote, and tidally forceful. She often writes about semi-obscure specialists, she withholds the central narrative until sometime around page fifty, and she uses huge undigested block quotes—and yet I am always inevitably riveted by her work. Malcolm’s practice is to find a fight that is seemingly over, or at a stalemate—a lawsuit brought against a journalist by his jilted subject, an alleged murder for hire in Forest Hills, the struggle over Freud’s archives, the various dueling biographies of Sylvia Plath—and to survey it from a great height, to masterfully tell the story by telling the stories of the story (for a dispute inexorably reduces to competing fictions), the ways in which the story has been manipulated in each hand, how manipulation is the nature of hands, and thus how her own handling is a further manipulation. She is not a tricky author. Her sentences are crisp and decisive, but her writing is one great ouroboros, which is what makes her so wickedly fun. Her own philosophical grasp of the slipperiness of truth, and the pretensions of tale weavers toward truth, allows her to puncture the pretensions of the storytellers she encounters. Malcolm calls to mind Fred Hitz, the CIA inspector general during the Clinton administration who said, during an overhaul of the agency, that his job “was to walk through the battlefield while the smoke cleared and shoot the wounded.” Malcolm’s work requires immense patience. She has the talent to be bored for great stretches of time, watching, until a true character flares up. How else but by persistence and patience could she have found the comically curmudgeonly downstairs neighbor of Sylvia Plath? How else could she have elicited the insane rambling gush of the court-appointed child guardian in the Forest Hills murder case? In short, she has a feel for life, and life is everywhere if we care to look long and close enough. I will read a book about anything so long as it is Janet Malcolm writing about it. —Matt Levin

Wojciech Nowicki’s new book Salki (his first translated into English) opens with its narrator awake in a too-small bed during a storm. He is awash in memories—of his family and other Eastern European peoples who have been separated or driven from their homelands. I was particularly moved by the account of a large migration of Turks the narrator encounters on the highway—“the Turkish nation in exile.” He sees “a Turk from Germany helping a Turk from the Netherlands, and while according to the passports it’s a German helping a Dutch, it’s a sham and they know it.” Most painful is the notion that the place from which they’ve traveled isn’t home—not exactly—and the place to which they’re going will have changed so much in the intervening years that it’s no longer the home they left. “In Milosz’s writing, eons separate villages, deep forests and languages collapse. His world has hatred and belching swamps. There you can hear the splash of boots in mud; in Milosz’s realm there’s peeping on women of the village, and ecstasy felt in the herb garden. But now it’s a little bit like everywhere else, reddish asphalt, clean and flat, and the vastness of snow. It’s empty. The real place can’t keep up with the memories. It just won’t.” The people Nowicki writes about seem to have become memories, too—forgotten, in-between people. I recognize them now everywhere: in Syria, Myanmar, South Sudan, and, maybe soon, in Puerto Rico. —Nicole Rudick

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