09/11/13 4:00am

Night Film
By Marisha Pessl
(Random House)

This author’s first work, the masterful Special Topics in Calamity Physics, concluded unexpectedly, shockingly exposing its seamy underside. In this follow-up, the seamy underside forms the foundation, the story unfolding and refolding thereafter in a kind of narrative origami. A disgraced investigative journalist, Scott McGrath, is our way into this thriller; he’s blustery, stubborn, and prone to pronouncements (though, as the print of Le Samouraï in his office attests, he wishes to model himself after invulnerable hard-boiled heroes). McGrath faces professional ignominy after a misleading source feeds him an untrue story about Stanislas Cordova, the mysterious cult filmmaker who once made several psychologically harrowing films that were banned; radio silent and allegedly locked away in an impenetrable self-constructed compound in Upstate New York, Cordova maintains his prismatic reputation: some consider him a genius; others, a sadistic puppeteer. “His energy had no bounds,” his ex-wife says. “He was Poseidon, his actors his school of minnows.” All of those actors vanished from the screen and disappeared from public, intensifying Cordova’s mystique.

When the director’s daughter Ashley dies in an apparent suicide, McGrath sees an opportunity for professional absolution, resuscitating his desire to uncover the Cordova family’s unknowns; digging headlong into the details of her death, he connects her demise to the inscrutable family from which she came. The testimonies of those who came into contact with Ashley reveal disturbing stuff; she’s a “cipher,” the reverberations of her elusive life story creating an echo chamber of sinister prospects and unsettling contradictions. Pessl allows readers to speculate on what’s credible and what’s not, which makes the book feel like a manic “choose your own adventure.” McGrath recognizes the futility of pursuing The Truth. “It was difficult to know where she ended and her illusion began,” he says of one lead—essentially describing the whole book.

McGrath’s investigation seems to lead him toward a grim and mystical revelation. But then the unveiling of a dark destiny is abruptly sideswiped with counter-information—an almost suspiciously pragmatic alternative. At this crossroads, McGrath acknowledges, “I wanted a wilder explanation for her death, something darker, bloodier, more insane.” McGrath realizes how susceptible human nature is to a good story; Stanislas Cordova’s mystique lies in mining the cachet
of sensationalism.

03/27/13 4:00am

The Tragedy of Mister Morn
By Vladimir Nabokov

Nabokov wrote this drama when he was 24, and, surprising to no one, it’s not your typical written-at-twentysomething piece. A jam-packed five-act verse play in Shakespearean pentameter, it’s as ambitious thematically as it is stylistically: it’s an inquest into the Soviet regime’s appetite for destruction threaded with complex romantic relationships. Morn remained unpublished until 1997, and untranslated into English until now. Thomas Karshan and Anastasia Tolstoy adapted a loose five-stress line, and assure the reader in the introduction that the language is “as peculiar and distinctive in Russian as in our translation.”

The play commences with—and hinges upon—the unexpected homecoming of the banished Ganus, which sets off a tangled love triangle followed by troubling political upheaval. Ganus arrives at his friend Tremens’s home, and the two, once allies, now argue from opposite ends of the political spectrum: the former seeks peace; the latter, revolution and destruction. Their debate takes on prescience when Ganus’s actions unwittingly enable the roguish Tremens to seize power (“look into my eyes, as if into a grave,” Tremens says pitilessly). In the concluding act, a character states that authority shouldn’t lay in the hands of one representative, for “a nation is a bodiless divinity.”

Though very much a political play, the emotionally realist romances bear serious weight. Ganus inquires after his erstwhile wife Midia; he slips into a soirée she is having, disguised as an actor playing Othello (as jealous husbands do!) to observe her undetected. Midia, who has not heard from Ganus in four years, has in fact taken up with Morn, the secret king. When Ganus reveals his identity, he and Morn vow to duel for Midia’s love via a game of cards. Ganus, thanks to a sleight of hand discreetly performed by Tremens, is the victor, thus sentencing Morn to his death. Morn, reluctant to die, oscillates between frantic desperation (“I must abandon my kingdom, must jump from the throne to death… all because I kissed a shallow woman and struck a foolish adversary!”) and a sense of duty (“greet death with an immortal cry and gallop headlong through the sky into heaven’s yard”). Ultimately, he decides he cannot pull the trigger (“how many times have I pressed door handles, the buttons of doorbells…” he marvels of his paralysis). Ceding his sovereignty, he flees in the night with Midia, leaving dire consequences in his wake.

Throughout the play, the language is dense and sometimes awkward, as the translators warned. Nabokov comments on the political furor of the state, using characters as ideological symbols and metaphor-spouting mouthpieces. However, he ascribes to relationships their proper delicacy. When Midia confronts an enraged Ganus about moving on in his absence, she says contritely, “Your things spoke to me, they smelled of you… But gradually my memory lost its warmth… finally translucent, you left my heart on tiptoe.” When things sour with Morn, Midia describes the dissolution of their relationship: “we’ve crossed from a fairytale to the most banal reality.” Be it politics or intimate relationships, Nabokov effectively depicts how quickly passion turns to oblivion.

10/10/12 4:00am

Laura Lamont’s Life In Pictures
By Emma Straub

Early in Laura’s life, in the aftermath of a family tragedy, her father tells her firmly, “You’re an actress now.” Though he means she must feign strength despite feeling sad and vulnerable, Laura instead intuits the instruction as initiation.

Née Elsa Emerson, she’s a wholesome Wisconsin girl and the daughter of a playwright/theater director. Performance is the milieu in which she grows up—and, she decides, her birthright. In her teens, she leaves town with an actor, Gordon Pitts; conveniently sharing professional dreams, they marry and eagerly head to California to break into the film industry. Gordon’s career is on the ascent until a studio exec, Irving Green, narrows in on Elsa. He quickly expunges her name, her marriage, and her past; he rechristens her Laura Lamont and gets the studio behind her to make her a star. From then on, Elsa-cum-Laura “was always two people at once… They shared a body and a brain and a heart, conjoined twins linked in too many places to ever separate.”

Straub, a Brooklyn resident and local bookseller, effectively delves into the prismatic nature of selfhood. Laura’s divide between former and present selves is complex, although neither half is ever quite as magnetic as you’d hope. If stardom is associated with oversized passion and charm, the success of Laura Lamont doesn’t feel three-dimensional: she exhibits neither furious drive nor tireless zeal for her craft. Had Irving Green not plucked her from obscurity—namely the frustrated confines of domesticity and a loveless marriage—she undoubtedly would have remained tethered to her household rather than have become a household name. Over the years, as sadness overcomes her placid nature, it’s precisely this lack of ardor that makes her decline feel more wooden than it should.

Straub’s winks to old Hollywood—the omni-potence of the studio system, the playfully pre-dictable caper comedies they produce—revisit tropes that have shaped many typical onscreen narratives. Laura’s trajectory is well-worn, the fable almost prescriptive: naive small-town girl is attracted to the possibilities of Hollywood, succeeds there, but then falls victim to its fickleness. Laura’s fixation on her past helps balance out this familiarity, as the echoes of her family in her new life have a strong emotional resonance. Breaking away from where and how you grew up does not extricate your memories, and Straub effectively depicts the way family is inevitably instilled in you, new name or not.

Straub’s writing is pleasantly even-keeled throughout, never bowing to actorly histrionics. But for all the milestones—motherhood, two marriages, wealth, fame, mourning, loneliness, jealousy—Laura takes more than five decades (almost the entirety of the book) to come into her own as a self-governed, self-assured person. You wish that she had grown more significantly well before the credits rolled.

07/06/11 4:00am

After Midnight

By Irmgard Keun, Trans. Anthea Bell

Melville House

Melville House’s new Neversink Library is a winning idea for a collection: the DUMBO publisher is reprinting books which, it feels, should be integrated into contemporary literary discourse. However, the first book of the collection, Irmgard Keun’s After Midnight, is not the most persuasive case for forgotten literature.

The story is set in 1930s Frankfurt, as Nazi Germany moves slowly toward war. Irmgard Keun herself wrote under Nazi rule and at one point was arrested by the Gestapo. She escaped Germany in 1936, only to surreptitiously return after she faked her own death abroad. After Midnight was published in Amsterdam in 1937 while Keun was in exile.

Sanna, the novel’s teenage protagonist, feels merely like a vehicle. Her prescient glimpses into the unfolding Nazi system—the alarming socio-political phenomena, the fate awaiting “mixed-race” people (that is, people of Jewish heritage)—are reported with remarkable detachment, a delivery leaving the reader little emotional purchase.

Few of the satellite characters make a bid for the reader’s investment either. Sanna’s entourage is limited to caricatures: there’s her shrewish, dangerous aunt (a Nazi informant); her brother Algin (a despairing writer uncertain about acquiescing to German censorship regulations); Algin’s journalist friend Heini (a mouthpiece for political opinion). Heini is especially broad: his streams of criticism rant on for paragraphs, and though his speeches are moving, the reader can feel the artifice, the soapbox.

The scenes of community folly and fear exacerbated by the Nazi ascension are effective, however. The reader becomes a bystander to the buildup of paranoia, denunciation, compromise—and the pliability of human character when safety and survival are threatened. Keun is admirable for plainly relating this frantic reality. Nonetheless, a truly effective work would not just report these scenes, but more fully form the individuals 
who endured these trials.

09/02/09 4:00am

Available Now

Kate Christensen’s Trouble commences with an epiphany at a Christmas party. Emerging lucidly and decisively out of a boozy moment, 40-something Josie has a sudden realization that she wants to divorce her husband. Deciding to start anew, she takes proactive steps to restructure her life.

Her rush of anticipation to meet the future is wonderfully contagious for the reader. The reconsidering of life choices usually consists of bumbling, lengthy agonizing. Instead, it’s inspiring to watch Josie’s way: confident without being untouchable, ponderous without being tiresome. She’s sure that she’s ready to change her life, and proceeds accordingly.
After telling her stolid husband she’s leaving him, Josie accompanies her BFF Raquel on an adventure. Raquel too is attempting a new chapter, albeit a more haunted one. She’s a famous singer who’s fallen on troubled times, namely a very public, over-reported mess of a relationship. In need of escape, the two head to Mexico. The bond between the friends is perfectly felt — nuanced, intimate, believable to the point that you’d go for drinks with them in a heartbeat. Their friendship is the center of the book: witty repartee and I-know-you-better-than-you-know-youself advice.

Lasting but a few days, their trip sustains that indulgent thrill of traveling and of seeing anew. The Mexican specialty foods, historical sites, city topography, and regional art really color the setting. It’s a pleasure for the reader to vacation vicariously with Josie and Raquel’s companionship. When the escapade darkens, it’s a swift and stark change by comparison.

The forty-something woman can be awkward territory, since this age group seems to get all the wrong kinds of attention: ridicule (Real Housewives) or parody (enough, Carrie Bradshaw). It is a testament to Christensen that she has created a stable, intelligent yet lighthearted character. Christensen honors the phrase “ageing gracefully” — while flat-out ignoring the stuffy sense of decorum implied — by creating someone who is unwaveringly poised. While older characters tend to bask in regret and nostalgia, Josie lets her needs (sexual, psychological) play out more vibrantly than ever.

08/19/09 4:00am

Available now

Kate Walbert’s latest, A Short History of Women, may sound like a breezily reductive examination of the finer sex but, in fact, it’s a splendid, enrapturing novel with womanhood at its epicenter. The title is actually intended to undercut the condescension of “the woman question,” as it’s dismissively referred to at the turn of the 20th century.

Dorothy Trevor Townsend, an intelligent and revolutionary suffragette, is the entry point into this heritage story. A family tree diagram on page one acts as the literary map key, a useful reference tool for the reader, since the chapters shift frequently between different voices. The familial trickle down includes her daughter, Evelyn, an eventual science professor at Columbia University, and Evelyn’s niece, Dorothy, a mother of three, whose own daughters Caroline and Liz must deal with navigating motherhood and identity. As the narrative moves between generations, memories, thoughts, and conversations conflate and overlap. Initially a bit confusing to keep track of, the nuance with which the author has crafted each voice soon clarifies any muddle.

Walbert covers a wide scope — five generations — yet the minutiae of each life are carefully attended to. Her masterful zoom-in is never at the expense of the background. The First World War, Vietnam and gender inequalities are subjects that shape the experiences of the characters, but without eclipsing their rich inner lives. Lyrical, imagistic metaphors — “snow raw as beef,” “my [hair] coiled and hidden within [the hat] as a snake would be” — pepper the tale and give it added beauty.
Though the reader comes to know the various characters, so much remains undisclosed, in what is a brilliant narrative decision that keeps one yearning for more information. The hide-and-seek glimpses allow the reader to be privy to fascinating details yet, as with real life, much remains elusive.

The women presented are smart: they’re thinkers, they pursue knowledge and rigorous education, they’ve struggled without complaining, they have strength without being untouchable. Across a variety of historical circumstances, their melancholy and their disappointments unfailingly pull at the reader’s heartstrings.

07/22/09 4:00am

The Answer Man
Directed by John Hindman

Remember As Good As It Gets? (Refresher: hostile recluse improbably convinces normal lady with a kid to fall for him even though she deserves much, much better.) If you recycle that storyline but use schmaltzy dinner theater music to heighten the drama and watch actor talent go to waste because of a brittle script you get… The Answer Man. Jeff Daniels plays Arlen Faber, whose book, Me & God, has been a successful spiritual touchstone for 20 years. In reality, Arlen is far from enlightened ; he’s antisocial and irritable, communicating with no one but his agent. Until: he throws out his back and has to venture into the world, landing at the office of chiropractor/healer Lorelai Gilmore (sorry, Lauren Graham; is there really a difference?). She manages to fix his back and, of course, capture his heart.

The predictable plot is made worse by Arlen being about as legitimate a prophet as the tattered guys who sweep through the A train and try to convince commuters to “bask in the light of the Lord” between express stops. Which becomes evident when a young recovering alcoholic Kris (Lou Taylor Pucci) seeks Arlen out for haloed wisdom and gets counsel that’s neither revelatory nor helpful. When Arlen later makes a rare bookstore appearance and finds a devoted rapt audience of disciples like Kris, he is unable to continue his guru charade. But his moment of clarity comes long after the audience’s: we’ve never found someone as sour and charmless as Arlen to be believably spiritual or knowledgeable.

While the theme of grasping at straws to find hope is a very relatable concept, debuting writer-director John Hindman overplays his hand, presenting indiscriminate people, desperate enough that they’ll swallow whatever is presented to them for guidance. The same lack of discernment cannot be attributed to the moviegoing public.

Opens July 24

07/20/09 4:00am

Gingko Press
Available Now
Related exhibit on view at Click through August 30.

Store Front is a visually compelling tome filled with photographs of stores that have maintained the I’ve-been-on-this-corner-since-your-ancestors-came-over-from-the-old-country look. Photographers Karla and James Murray intentionally selected places that “look like they’ve been around forever” — though, ironically, the stores may only exist forever in photographic form, since they’re becoming ephemera so quickly. Organized by borough and further subdivided by neighborhood, the book encyclopedically chronicles the shops that have (or had) outlasted the onslaught of aesthetic and commercial homogeneity.

The project, while evoking all kinds of politicized issues about commerce, is ultimately about art. Always interested in fonts, it was in scavenging the city for graffiti that led the Murrays to Storefront. Returning multiple times to a particular neighborhood, the couple noticed how sharp the local turnover was between one trip and the next. Without photography, these marginalized subjects would have faded into the ether, unremembered. It became their quest to counter the vanishing of old-world New York.

Their archival project, carried out with near-exhaustive zeal, is in the vein of Bernd and Hilla Becher (a German couple who photographed neglected industrial architecture from a firmly objective point of view), with an August Sander-level scope. The Murrays shot with a traditional 35mm manual camera, and the old-school apparatus serves as an apt mirror of the time-honored authenticity of the subjects. The un-manipulated approach wholly preserves the vintage aesthetic of the stores.

The extinction list for small businesses is swiftly growing as the contemporary city shifts. A certain manic pursuit was necessary to archeologically capture these venues before they were lost in the constant palimpsest that is New York. The Murrays note in their introduction that a third (a third!) of the businesses photographed no longer exist, which imbues the photos with a mournful feeling.

Small-scale business survival is rooted in endurance, with signs often making proud declarations of longevity (Yonah Shimmel Knish Bakery, original since 1910; Russo’s Fresh Mozzarella & Pasta, since 1908). Embedded in these dates is a confirmation of successfully maintained tradition that is tried and true and unflappable in the face of passing trends. These long-standing guys are the real New Yorkers, with street cred as caked into their reputation as the stains into their decades-old signs. It is they who have witnessed gentrification firsthand — not just of populace, but of branding, of visual grammar. They have refused to wither in the face of trademark. The signs’ missing letters, the rusted corners — they are a badge of individuality. Their ramshackle aesthetic dates them as much as their actual histories, and proudly so.

07/08/09 4:00am

Commencement, by J. Courtney Sullivan, is a tale of female
experience spliced four ways. Celia, April, Sally and Bree come from
diverse backgrounds and befriend one another the way people often do in
their first year of college: courtesy of dorm-room proximity. Enrolled
at all-girls Smith, their college community is a singular one: it fuses
gleeful summer camp girlishness with cerebral feminist awareness.

The book shifts between the four perspectives, charting how
interpretations of selfhood and womanhood diverge and converge within
the foursome. As they grow from teens to adults, the characters face
the fact that the billowing idealism of their youth rarely translates
to reality. It’s the harsh lesson that recent graduates have to absorb
— a lesson which readers can relate to all too well.

The female cloister of Smith heavily influences and heightens the
analysis of gender roles and sexual orientation. Where other books
often exacerbate clichés or stifle progressive attitudes about
what it means to be a modern femme, here, women’s issues are admirably
woven throughout. And yet, the characters themselves, as embodiments of
female power, can be somewhat disappointing. Among the quartet, some
follow generic paths, and even those who don’t seem to represent
conceptions of womanhood, rather than existing as nuanced
individual characters. The broad strokes, ostensibly trying to be more
inclusive, end up alienating the reader.

Amid references to Gloria Steinem and Andrea Dworkin, Sullivan
herself never musters a truly radical point of view with her writing.
Being cognizant of the complexities of womanhood and being critical and
active against the sexism that still pervades daily life are important
issues to promote and confront. There is no question that it is
satisfying to see this articulated. However, Sullivan hasn’t quite
integrated these issues into a novel format: instead, doctrine and real
life operate as disparate strands — which is a shame, because had
they been melded together more craftily, the book might have really
delivered something powerful.

Sarah Moroz

06/29/09 11:39am

9b3a/1246285834-zinefest.jpgUpon mention, the ‘zine tends to conjure up high school leaflets, juvenile manifestos. This is not to undercut it: saying that a ‘zine is something even the young can make between classes emphasizes that it’s the most democratic of creations. Makeshift, scrappy and impromptu, it’s the hustler of printed matter.

This past Saturday and Sunday, NYC Zine Fest presented a wider interpretation of what the ‘zine actually can be, broadening notions of both physical construction and symbolic interpretation. A host of one-hour workshops were held, including “Stitched on the Spine: Bookbinding for Zinemakers” and “A Century of Self Publishing: Zine and Mini-comic History 1900-present”; there was also a daily screening of the documentary $100 and a T-Shirt.

Amongst the clusters of tables filling the Brooklyn Lyceum, one came across all kinds: ‘zines printed upon graph paper or decorative Japanese paper, fastened with yarn or hand-sewn with string, scribbled-upon or neatly typed, a slip of paper or a folded accordion leaflet. The formats included comics and poetry and coloring books and Xeroxed photos and compiled emails and — my favorite, most unexpected iteration of a ‘zine — the mix tape.

Delightfully primitive, hands-on in exact opposition to the Kindle, ‘zines are made by touch first and foremost, formulated by drawing and cutting and tying and binding. Flashbacks of classroom tactics — the doodle, the note ripped raggedly from the bottom quadrant of a lined piece of paper, the stack of paper stapled unevenly — reemerge, making the simple, the intuitive, the artisanal glorious again.

The effect is, of course, variable. With the topics ranging so enormously – from the mundane (i.e. 7 things you did this afternoon, notes while on riding the A train, a reprint of the email your friend sent you) to the political (the usual hot buttons: politics, sexuality, gender) — the output can be anywhere from relatable anecdote to eccentric visual cacophony to agenda-verging-on-agit-prop. The intimacy of the handmade medium combined with the intimacy of the content can, at times, be almost claustrophobic in its voyeurism — some things feel TMI. When you’re literally perusing someone’s diary excerpt in their own handwriting, or witnessing someone’s odd visual experiment with a photocopy machine, the intimacy can be alienating. Then one feels guilt-ridden for not necessarily appreciating the effort; it feels bourgeois to not herald the work.

But for every experiment that fails to make you want to reach for the scissors and scrap paper, there are so many that do. The unbridled visual and narrative expressions are what make the ‘zine so interesting as a form; its lack of polish and predictability and regularity makes it triumphant by the very fact of its existence. In today’s publishing climate, experimentation and independence in the realm of printed matter is, on the one hand, more essential than ever. Yet, on the other hand, the DIY ‘zine is completely unrelated to the state of the publishing (or any other) industry. It’s the antidote to the lament about publishing; it’s the combat tactic and the creative outlet to change what should be said and made.

Some favorite finds:

Purgatory Pie Press

Karen Lederer

Amy Burchenal

Miniature Garden

Wrecked Tangle