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Books (#110 of 181)

Chasing Ghosts David Grann’s The White Darkness

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Chasing Ghosts: David Grann’s The White Darkness
Chasing Ghosts: David Grann’s The White Darkness

There’s a ghostly quality to much of David Grann’s nonfiction. It manifests variously, trailing annihilations both concrete and abstract. He’s written about seekers who became phantasmal figures, to differing extents, in the lives of their loved ones. In Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI, he details a murderous conspiracy that targeted the Osage Nation in the early 20th century. In his New Yorker essay “Trial by Fire,” he reports on a man who, after being placed on death row through flimsy evidence, sensed “that his life was slowly being erased.” And there’s also, among other examples, “A Murder Foretold,” Grann’s piece about a Guatemalan lawyer’s response to the murder of his fiancé and her father. We learn that the lawyer pored over surveillance footage of the moments preceding the crime. At one point, he longingly “touched the television screen—she was there but not there.”

That gesture is faintly echoed in Grann’s latest book, The White Darkness. In 2003, Henry Worsley, the book’s subject, traveled to the gravesite of Ernest Shackleton, the polar explorer. Upon arriving, he extended his hand toward the tombstone. Worsley, who served in the British army and completed two tours with the Special Air Service, regarded Shackleton as a hero. In order to reach the gravesite, he traveled to the far shores of South Georgia Island in the southern Atlantic Ocean. And he would, in the years that followed, travel farther still. In 2008, after much preparation, he began his first expedition across Antarctica. And he later decided to attempt two more.

Echoes from the Void José Revueltas’s The Hole

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Echoes from the Void: José Revueltas’s The Hole
Echoes from the Void: José Revueltas’s The Hole

In the visitors’ lobby of a Mexican prison, a mother secretly wishes death on her incarcerated son. He’s got a wish of his own: getting his hands on a feverishly anticipated bag of drugs. Smuggling the stuff past the prison guards—so-called “apes”—will no doubt prove difficult. But a plan has been worked out—and the mother has agreed to help. She remains, after all, bound to “this son who still clung to her entrails, where he watched her with his miscreant’s eye.”

We’re only a short way into this 1969 novella by José Revueltas, the Mexican writer and political activist. Entitled The Hole, it concerns three cellmates awaiting their next fix. The son, the most detested member of this trio, is dubbed the Prick, and the narrator hatefully insists that he’s indeed “a useless prick, blind in one eye, dragging himself around with the shakes and a lame leg.” Holed up alongside him is Albino, who throttles the Prick from time to time. Polonio is no less violent, and he intends to kill the Prick, but only after that bag of drugs is delivered to them.

As I Lay Surrendering Édouard Louis’s History of Violence

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As I Lay Surrendering: Édouard Louis’s History of Violence
As I Lay Surrendering: Édouard Louis’s History of Violence

Much like his earlier The End of Eddy, Édouard Louis’s History of Violence is an autobiographical “novel” in which the events that form the frame of the story are true and other parts have been imaginatively reordered. The narrative is divided into two components: Louis’s first-person experience of being raped and nearly killed on Christmas Eve 2012 in Paris, and the same story as retold by Louis’s sister to his brother-in-law when the character/author returns to his small hometown after the incident. Reda, his hookup-turned-rapist, is a character who makes Louis alternately uneasy, excited, protective, and fearful.

At its best, History of Violence is about the tension between desire and danger, between passion and destruction, and about how individuals heal from trauma without allowing themselves to remain perpetual victims. Against expectations, Louis’s novel is an act of empowerment in a time when too many encourage responses that disempower. Throughout, the author wrestles between liberalized notions of how the world should be and conservative ones of how the world is. Throughout, we see him strip away the liberal tendency to empathize with criminals as victims of social failures.

The Emperor Has New Clothes Jon Robin Baitz’s Vicuña

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The Emperor Has New Clothes: Jon Robin Baitz’s Vicuña
The Emperor Has New Clothes: Jon Robin Baitz’s Vicuña

In 1960, Gore Vidal wrote The Best Man, a play about two politicians vying for their party’s nomination for president, in addition to the sitting president’s endorsement. Both men can be seen as stand-ins not only for the political figures of Vidal’s day (John F. Kennedy and Adlai Stevenson in this case), but also for the political archetypes that American voters have come to expect. Watching (or reading) The Best Man today reveals the timelessness of Vidal’s perspective on American politics and the familiarity of the style of politics he portrayed.

Jon Robin Baitz’s Vicuña is populated with characters even more thinly veiled than Vidal’s were 60 years ago. Although Baitz wrote the play during the 2016 election—and later appended it with a new prologue and epilogue after the results—if he’d written it even five years ago, it might have seemed too outrageous and farcical in certain parts to be believable. The line between the familiarly louche brand of politics Vidal portrayed in Best Man and the brow-furrowing shock of Vicuña is only navigable by the map 2016 laid out.

Re-Imagining Grief George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo

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Re-Imagining Grief: George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo
Re-Imagining Grief: George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo

George Saunders is one of the most democratic of great modern writers. His story collections concern disappointed Americans stuck in thankless stations of life, and can be appreciated by such Americans, as the stories are written in satiric, empathetic, tightly coiled prose that sails off the page, propelled by hidden rhythms that are outwardly heartbreaking and inwardly brilliant and vice versa. To paraphrase Ratatouille, the author is implicitly saying that anyone can cook or, in this case, experience the transcendent illumination and sense of understanding and purpose that’s provided by art. (Last summer, Saunders even wrote a stirring and perceptive portrait of Donald J. Trump’s supporters, taking them on their own terms while rejecting said terms, somehow simultaneously.)

Review: Karl Schoonover and Rosalind Galt’s Queer Cinema in the World

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Review: Karl Schoonover and Rosalind Galt’s Queer Cinema in the World
Review: Karl Schoonover and Rosalind Galt’s Queer Cinema in the World

In a famous essay on Dog Day Afternoon, Fredric Jameson argues that the bank robbery at the film’s core, along with its assortment of characters from different class backgrounds, forms an allegory for late capitalism in which the rebellious actions of Sonny (Al Pacino) appeal to the “manifest sympathy of the suburban movie-going audience itself.” However, as Karl Schoonover and Rosalind Galt claim, Jameson’s narrative doesn’t account for the film’s use of “queer intimacy” within its allegory, specifically a scene where Sonny, a queer man, phones his lover. The scene’s end reveals the couple’s conversation hasn’t been private, as others have been monitoring the call all along. Schoonover and Galt highlight that the scene’s depiction of “false intimacy” and its suggestion of a world organized by “inhuman terms” demonstrates how “queerness—and its relationships to publicness and privacy, intimacy and worldliness—transpires to be at the heart of Dog Day Afternoon’s allegory of late capitalism.”

Breaking Down Barriers Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing

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Breaking Down Barriers: Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing
Breaking Down Barriers: Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing

Yaa Gyasi’s debut novel, Homegoing, is a lean epic that spans two continents and some 250 years of history, delving into the transatlantic slave trade, the Anglo-Ashanti wars, the convict leasing system, and Harlem’s heroin epidemic, to name just a few of its paths of historical inquiry. Gyasi, who wrote the novel over the course of seven years, condenses an overwhelming amount of incident into just over 300 pages. The result is a book that’s dense yet accessible, precisely structured yet refreshingly open-ended, intellectually rigorous yet grandly emotional.

Homegoing opens with Effia, a beautiful but “cursed” girl born in the mid 1700s to a noble family in a Fante village. Though her beauty makes her a prime candidate to become one of the wives of Abeeku Bade, next in line to be chief, she’s instead married off to a white British soldier who takes her away to the Castle, a British fortress on the Gold Coast of Africa (now Ghana), which, unbeknown to Effia and the other Ghanaian “wenches” married to British soldiers, serves as a major outpost for the slave trade. Women and men, among them Effia’s half-sister, Esi—most of them prisoners captured by warring tribes and sold off to the British—are kept in the Castle’s dungeon, waiting to be transported to America where they’ll be sold into slavery.

A Disarmingly Humanist Vision Don DeLillo’s Zero K

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A Disarmingly Humanist Vision: Don DeLillo’s Zero K
A Disarmingly Humanist Vision: Don DeLillo’s Zero K

Late in Don DeLillo’s latest novel, Zero K, an unnamed operative of the Convergence, a cultish institute offering the promise of immortality via cryogenic freezing, tells a group of soon-to-be-frozen patients, “You are completely outside the narrative of what we refer to as history.” Adherents of the Convergence’s quasi-religious ideology are attempting to outrun not just death, but language, geography, even humanity itself. In the hallways of the Convergence, video screens display montages of mass death (climate catastrophe, terror, war), reminders of the human horror they’re escaping. Once resurrected from their deep-freeze slumber, they’ll awake to a world liberated from horror and also freed from the banal strictures of daily life, the weight of the past, the limitations of human perception. They’ll even speak a new language, one that “will offer new meanings, entire new levels of perception.”

A Deadly Blessing Cult Cinema: An Arrow Video Companion

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A Deadly Blessing: Cult Cinema: An Arrow Video Companion
A Deadly Blessing: Cult Cinema: An Arrow Video Companion

A figure named Death dressed in black standing in front of the sea. A woman shot through her glasses with blood pouring down her face. A man huffing gas while stroking a garment made of blue velvet. These images—all iconic moments from watershed films—first presented themselves to me during my adolescence as I intensely perused a 1999 volume titled Entertainment Weekly’s 100 Greatest Movies of All Time. Most cinephiles surely have a comparable story, a moment when the local multiplex started to take a backseat to the larger scope of a cinematic past that seemed far more mysterious than anything Anakin Skywalker and the gang were getting into.

Swept Away by Connections Mark de Silva’s Square Wave

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Swept Away by Connections: Mark de Silva’s Square Wave
Swept Away by Connections: Mark de Silva’s Square Wave

Mark de Silva’s Square Wave is defined less by its plot, characters, or setting than by long essayistic excursions into historical, scientific, and artistic arcana. Its world is a blearily glimpsed dystopic future in which political factions are competing for power and violence is omnipresent, but no one quite knows who’s perpetrating it or what it means. After Carl Stagg, a kind of government watchman, discovers the beaten and bloodied body of a prostitute, he investigates this heinous act, the latest in a string of similar crimes. At the same time, Stagg pursues his true avocation, writing and researching a work on Sri Lankan history through the lens of his own family. Meanwhile, peripheral characters study atmospheric science, compose avant-garde music, and make their entry into the world of pornography.

De Silva spends whole chapters of his debut novel exploring 17th-century Sri Lankan power struggles, cloud-seeding experiments, microtonal theory, and ass smoothies, and ultimately the characters are subordinated to these ideas. Though these passages are clearly and sometimes beautifully written, it can be easy to get lost in the weeds. But this, it seems, is very much the point. De Silva forces the reader to make connections among these sundry topics, to leave oneself open to their prismatic meanings.