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Editors’ Reading Recs: Collectors’ Items

April 29, 2013

Guernica's staff recommends collections of essays, stories, poems, and more.

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Image from Flickr via ~Minnea~

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Just Looking: Essays On Art by John Updike

In Just Looking: Essays On Art, John Updike observes individual works of art, predominantly painting and sculpture, with reverent attention and an informed eye. He seamlessly translates the visual into words, not as a pedant but as a storyteller. Many chapters are divided by theme, such as “The Child Within” and “The Apple’s Fresh Weight,” others pause on one sole artist, such as Andrew Wyeth. The artworks are printed on the pages, so that we can shift from word to image, working through Updike’s associations as he makes them. Most of all, this delightful collection has served to remind me that we can always look at things a little more closely.
—Elisa Wouk Almino, Editorial Intern

Visiting Mrs Nabokov and Other Excursions by Martin Amis

Amis is primarily known for his novels, but non-fiction pieces are where his prose really fizzes and pops. Visiting Mrs Nabokov is a collection of articles first published in newspapers and magazines. He goes to China with an English soccer team, talks to Vladimir Nabokov’s widow about her marriage, interviews Salman Rushdie in hiding and indulges his fascination with nuclear weapons. Meeting John Updike and reflecting on his work, Amis writes that “the textural contrast between your first and second wife’s pubic hair is something that most writers feel their readers can get along without.”
—Jonathan Lee, Assistant Editor, Interviews

Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by ZZ Packer

I listened to a New Yorker Fiction podcast of ZZ Packer reading a Stuart Dybek story out loud. Her voice is smooth and measured, the words seem more emphatic, mysterious, almost coded. She says of the Dybek story (“Paper Lantern”) that it’s like “nested Russian dolls,” one plot line buried in the curve of another. Her story collection, Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, is a series of small subtle things couched in a big, aching truth. It’s more than nested dolls. The black women of the stories do see like larger and larger incarnations of each other—a young brownie scout, a prepubescent runaway, a lonely Yale undergraduate, a starving ex-patriot in Japan, a jaded high-school teacher, a stubborn born-again nurse—in some cases, they are the same character, reemergent, but in most, they are simply women (and in one story, a young man) all encased in their reality of death, rape, longing, poverty, race, love. After hearing Packer read, I could read in the narrative the measured pace of her voice, the weight of each word, I could hear behind the stories the essential mysteries of each person and place, and their emphasis.
—Susannah Maltz, Editorial Intern

Sum by David Eagleman

My imagination went limp this week when I heard our President admonish representative government for, well, failing to represent us, in the filibustered vote on gun regulation. It has felt whiplash with every punch thrown in Boston and deadened from the blast of the fertilizer plant explosion in Texas. Sum, a collection, by David Eagleman, of forty ruminations on the afterlife, may have been written for weeks strong in headlines and weak in wonder. Eagleman, a neuroscientist, began his career asking whether people experience time more slowly in near-death scenarios. His experimental apparatus was a drop-zone ride. Sum is a similarly energetic take on a simple question. The afterlife could be a time when life is relived, but reshuffled, with all like events are experienced at once: fifteen months looking for lost items, then eighteen months waiting in line. It could be an eternity of everything familiar and nothing new, devoid of strangers on park benches and the strange anonymity of a shared elevator ride. Eagleman doesn’t know, so he wonders.
—Sara Mich, Editorial Intern

The Complete Novels by Jean Rhys

Though Jean Rhys is best known for her postcolonial “prequel” to Jane Eyre—1966’s Wide Sargasso Sea—she also left behind a trove of lesser-read novels. When collected in The Complete Novels, her oeuvre reads almost as one larger work, which follows a number of heroines closely based on Rhys’ life and experience as a white Carribean woman in Europe. For example, Voyage in the Dark’s Anna Morgan—like many of Rhys’ protagonists—realizes that she remains a cultural outsider in both England and her native Carribean. For this reason, Rhys’ Collected Novels serves as a moving study of alterity. Rhys and her heroines inhabit no worlds and instead are defined by their inability to occupy the ground beneath their feet.
—Mikey Angelo Rumore, Editorial Assistant, Fiction

The Collected Short Stories of Katherine Mansfield by Katherine Mansfield

Katherine Mansfield’s collected short stories is the one book I’ve carted around with me as I’ve moved states, gone to school, started new lives. My mom’s friend (who later became the first female dean of English at a university in Utah) gave it to me in high school and it took me years to finally crack it, but once I did I had a rare urge not to read them all at once. Instead I save them for moments of crisis, when I really need them. Her stories are deceptively small; a favorite is “The Garden Party” where a girl’s ennui over her mother throwing yet another gathering transforms slowly as she notices the people on the periphery, fluffing the roses or setting up chairs on the lawn. She stumbles into their lives as though from a society column into a tragedy and it is only the slight tightening of Mansfield’s prose that reveals the girl has, for once in her blithe life, not come through unscathed. Mansfield’s short stories were celebrated in her time, influencing Virginia Woolf and drawing comparisons to Chekhov. Still, my own experience is echoed in contemporary readers, who seem to only discover her by accident (rather than in school). Maybe it’s because Mansfield does it a little too well, like the perfect host whose intellectual energy is invested in seeming to disappear.
—Tana Wojczuk, Nonfiction Editor

A Musical Hell by Alejandra Pizarnik

“Your secret popularity inhabits the balconies of the Latin Quarter,” wrote Julio Cortázar in a 1965 letter to his friend Alejandra Pizarnik. He goes on to mention a cocktail called the Alejandra among other honors. Here’s hoping that the poet’s fame reaches similar levels in the United States now that her final book, A Musical Hell, will appear in English for the first time. Translated by Yvette Siegert, this collection recalls a collusion of whimsy and gravitas apparent in Cortázar’s work while simultaneously presenting the poet’s own unique lyric sensibility. You can read an excerpt in our latest issue.
—Erica Wright, Senior Editor, Poetry

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One comment for Editors’ Reading Recs: Collectors’ Items

  1. Comment by Kennedy on April 29, 2013 at 1:39 pm

    The introduction to Sum (Eagleman) above is the worst I have ever read for any book. Its a long-ish paragraph that tells us practically nothing about what to expect. Stunningly unhelpful.

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