What Our Contributors Are Reading This Month

In place of our staff picks this week, we’ve asked contributors from our Spring issue to write about what they’re reading, looking at, and listening to this month.

Still from Hereditary, 2018.

For months now, I have been waiting anxiously for the movie Hereditary to come out. It’s supposed to be out on June 8, but I keep hoping that this is a publicity joke and that it will come out sooner. Like everyone else, I found out about the movie back in January, when they showed it at the Sundance Film Festival, and the audience lost their minds and reported back to the Internet. Everyone who has seen it has said that it is some sort of love child between Rosemary’s Baby (excuse the pun) and The Shining, maybe with some of The Exorcist thrown in. I don’t know how this could even be possible, but please count me in. As the weather grows warmer, the flowers bloom, and the date grows nearer and nearer to its release, I get even more lovesick and pathetic with longing to see it. I watch its trailers every day, sometimes many times, and have even watched the horror-fan YouTube videos people have made doing close readings of the trailers. I have theories about the movie I have written in several notebooks, and then crossed out most of them. I have visited the Etsy site the movie’s production company has made with beautifully odd dolls that one of the main characters, a supernatural child named Charlie, has made, a hundred times, hoping that they will list more for sale (the dolls sold out immediately). I wait and wait until June 8, begging most people I know to go see the movie with me, but knowing I will probably end up going alone, crying in the dark. Why am I so excited? It’s such an awful time right now. And I get so sick of things—books, movies, poems—that are hailed as great but have no source of catharsis. I want to burn and feel better. I really hope Hereditary lives up to the hype. I don’t know. I have faith. —Dorothea Lasky

Lately, I can’t stop writing love poems. I write a short story—it’s a love poem. I start a new novel—long love poem. Sonnet, sestina, triolet: love poem, love poem, love poem. Maybe this is why “It’s Raining in Love” by Richard Brautigan keeps playing in my mind. I think I accidentally memorized it twenty years ago. It’s a kicky, self-conscious poem right from its opening stanza (“I don’t know what it is / but I distrust myself / when I start to like a girl / a lot”), and I adore the speaker for how cooly he winces at his crushing (“It makes me nervous,” he declares). All that’s A+, but then Brautigan goes on to discuss how crucial inconsequential questions become when you’re in love. Everything is code, sign, weather—even the weather, especially rain:

 If I say, “Do you think it’s going to rain?”
and she says, “I don’t know,”
I start thinking : Does she really like me?

Rain, the speaker asides, shouldn’t be so weighty; it happies slugs, it’s a means of “programming flowers.” “Programming flowers”—! Did Brautigan proactively reclaim the word “programming”? I adore that. So affectedly casual elsewhere, when Brautigan starts “programming flowers,” he slides into rhapsody, reminding me how, enthralled by a lover, we all might become so programmed to bloom. —JoAnna Novak

Last July, Senator John McCain was diagnosed with an extremely aggressive form of brain cancer. His illness has provoked a near tedium of pundits, friends, fans, and foes to measure each day’s news against the legendary maverick’s heroically storied, oft-told life and career in public service. With each passing week, the commentaries grow ever more elegiac, occasionally dancing up to the line of the mythic. But then there’s the indisputable (and, really, unfathomable) fact of McCain’s captivity and character in Vietnam, to say nothing of his recent criticisms of the Trump administration. Because all that crazy POW shit? It actually happened. David Foster Wallace’s account of covering McCain’s 2000 bid against George W. Bush for the Republican nomination, commissioned by Rolling Stone and published in book form under the conspicuously un-Wallacian title McCain’s Promise, is not only an ingenious deconstruction of the symbiotic relationship between campaigns and the media but one of the shrewdest meditations on the McCain mythos I’ve read. In it, Wallace muses on the fine line separating great leaders from great salesmen and puzzles over the candidate’s apparent contradictions, that befuddling coexistence of candor and calculation in McCain—by varying accounts a brilliant, loyal, temperamental, spirited, acerbic, optimistic, ambitious, thoughtful, combative, witty, and mischievous man. Wallace wants to know: Is he for real?  In the end, this politician—with whom the author shares absolutely zero views—seems to win the interior war between DFW’s “need to believe and [the] deep belief that the need to believe is bullshit.”  For all the accusations of pandering, and all the policies Wallace cannot bring himself to even try to understand, he finds his thoughts

Returning again and again to a certain dark box-sized cell in a certain Hilton half a world and three careers away, to the torture and fear and offer of release and a certain Young Voter named McCain’s refusal to violate a Code. There were no techs’ cameras in that box, no aids or consultants, no paradoxes or gray areas; nothing to sell. There was just one guy and whatever in his character sustained him. This is a huge deal.

Insightful, humorous, provocative, hopeful and, despite its age, relevant. —Cary Goldstein

Sun Xun, Time Spy, 2016, woodcut painting. Courtesy the artist and Sean Kelly, New York.

Currently on display at the Saint Louis Art Museum, Sun Xun’s Time Spy is an enigmatic 3-D animation created out of ten thousand individual hand-carved woodcuts. So, to reiterate: woodblocks, animated, in 3-D. I’ve never seen anything like it. An homage to the German printmaker Albrecht Dürer, the Japanese woodblock artist Katsushika Hokusai, and the French filmmaker Georges Méliès, Time Spy is a trippy, hyper-kinetic collage of pulsing black-and white-images. There’s an owl that sort of eats itself, a crow with a camera head, a giant blinking eye with a planet for an iris. According to the artist, it’s a meditation on time, but there’s no story to follow. Instead, there’s the feeling, one I love, of a story just out of reach. It’s maybe about clocks, but also about the universe, then a hand reaches out of the sky to scoop air from the front of a dilapidated mansion. I’ve never found 3-D all that exciting (except when I was a kid clicking through View-Master images of dinosaurs and geysers), but there’s something so compelling about the dimensionality of Time Spy. On the one hand, it’s delightful—a huge nose juts into the room and just sits there—but also the way Sun uses 3-D makes you question why certain images step forward and others fade (so you do think about time and memory and history). Come to Saint Louis by August 12 to see it for yourself; while you’re here, I also recommend the curry at Fork & Stix, coffee and rolls at Blueprint, and the Bell Tree near the reflecting ponds at the botanical gardens. —Danielle Dutton

Instructions for the underworld.

On a visit to the Getty Villa last month, I came upon this tiny bit of hammered gold on which some fourth-century B.C. Thessalonian had engraved a verse dialogue:

Initiate: I am parched with thirst and perishing!
Ever-Flowing Spring: Then come drink of me, the Ever-Flowing Spring, on the right—a white cypress is there. Who are you? Where are you from?
Initiate: I am the son of Earth and Starry Heaven. But my race is heavenly.

This artifact was labeled INSTRUCTIONS FOR THE UNDERWORLD, a genre unto itself, found in tombs from Greece to Southern Italy to Sicily. The speaker is an initiate of the cult of Dionysos and Orpheus. The Spring is something like eternal life, or the source of poetry, if you will. The white cypress is pure oxymoron: normally, the cypress is the funereal tree, the darkest one in a landscape. This reminds me of Auden’s “In Praise of Limestone,” whose ending goes: “when I try to imagine a faultless love / Or the life to come, what I hear is the murmur / Of underground streams, what I see is a limestone landscape.” A faultless love; a heavenly race; whatever our failings, or whatever has failed us, there is always the promise of an imagination that transcends history and keeps poetry alive. This is a fact—a tiny one, but worth writing on a sheet of gold. —Ange Mlinko

A “book report” on Jamel Brinkley’s A Lucky Man, by Chia-Chia Lin

As a new mother, I find myself reading more greedily. Give me something that will tide me over, through the long nights, through the repetition. I found solace in the stories of Jamel Brinkley’s A Lucky Man, in which the characters wear their roles like stiff casts: son, brother, husband, man. Brinkley shows us the small yet pivotal moments when cracks form in that brittle plaster, when the sum of each character’s chaotic, exuberant, writhing experiences can no longer be contained. Even a minor character’s voice has this aliveness: “There was something of the ocean in it, or below it, a quality like sonar, like the wailing of the many drowned and gone.” —Chia-Chia Lin

Recently, while I was driving in the car with my baby, Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata came onto the radio. Glenn Gould was playing. I turned the volume up, partly because I have fond memories of playing the piece as a child and partly because it seemed the kind of music that would please an infant. Gould plays in his characteristically cold way: virtuosic yet restrained. The way he plays the sonata is so disaffected it’s almost petulant—one has the impression he hates the piece. The overall effect is strangely tantalizing. I find myself willing him to play louder or faster. It’s a piece I know well—we all know it too well—yet I find the piece is so affecting that, as it ends, I wish that there was somehow more of it. —Katharine Kilalea

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