In which we recommend our favorite NYRB Classics read over the past year and take a moment to plug something entirely unrelated to the series (an idea shamelessly lifted from the "endorsement" segment of Slate's Culture Gabfest).
Pick: Stefan Zweig, Beware of Pity. I was halfway through Bolaño's admirably sprawling 2666 when I chanced to fall into the hands of the Austrian master Zweig, a writer of almost inhuman delicacy and control who nonetheless has so much to show us about errant passions and self-deception. 350-odd feverish pages later, I stumbled back, equal parts devastated and exhilarated, into "The Part about the Crimes."
Sing it: I would like to recommend an old song that some friends recently put on a mix CD: "Don't Touch That Thing" by Sylvia Hall, from the compilation Cult Cargo: Grand Bahama Goombay. It may be a strange comparison, but something in the languidness of her voice reminds me of Neutral Milk Hotel, along with a kind of we're-celebrating-as-we-drive-over-the-cliff-vibe (the respective horn sections certainly help here). And given that the NMH song that's perhaps most exemplary in this regard is "Song Against Sex," there's a thematic connection as well. Hall's refrain, based apparently on an indigenous children’s rhyme and intoned over the fuzzy blare of raucous mid-seventies funk, is
Don’t touch that thing, your momma gonna know.
Don’t touch that thing, your momma gonna know.
If you touch that thing, your momma gonna know, girl.
How's she gonna know? Your belly gonna show.
Has been on a prison-novel kick this year. Her picks, listed in order of preference are:
Picks: Nightmare Alley by William Gresham. Thoroughly guilty pleasure, from its tarot-themed chapters to the carnival slang laden dialogue. The novel's best summation could be "Booze and mentalism don't mix" spoken by Zeena the fortune teller (p. 29).
Contents may be hot: Counter Culture Coffee's Espresso Apollo. Sometimes, I just want to inhale the beans, and forgo this whole boiling water business. So good.
As far as he could make out she was older than he had expected and wore a fatigued air. Though apparently too exhausted to rise she held out a thin hand to be squeezed . . .”
‘Have you been well, Angela?’
‘Ah, I’ve been dying’—a fit of weary coughing interrupted her—‘of boredom,’ she added peevishly.
Twinkle twinkle: A story by Davis appears in the second issue of my favorite new literary journal, Little Star (edited by The New York Review's own Ann Kjellberg), along with poems and translations by the brilliant Eugene Ostashevsky (among others) and excellent stories by writers including April Bernard, Jamaica Kincaid, and Ingrid Winterbach—whose latest novel, To Hell with Cronjé (Open Letter, 2010), is next on my reading list.
Another story by Davis appears in My Mother She Killed Me, My Father She Ate Me (Penguin, 2010), Kate Bernheimer's fabulous collection of fairy tales by contemporary writers—including the playwright Neil LaBute, who collaborated with the photographer Gerald Slota on one of my favorite gallery exhibitions of 2010: Home.Sweet.Home.
Picks: My favorite NYRB Classics of 2010 are both new translations from the French—c'est bien normal. I think by now my love for Jules Renard's Nature Stories has been established (laughing, crying, pants charmed right off). So we can move right along to The Jokers by Albert Cossery, a hilarious novel about government corruption. Or, rather, about the best style of confronting institutionalized corruption. Which is more effective in the end? Levitating the Pentagon or lobbing a bomb at it? Passing out phony copies of The New York Times with the headlines you want to see on the front page or writing indignant letters to the paper's editor? After seeing the fun Cossery has with his band of misfit rebels, who start a campaign of mockery against the governor of their city, I'm pretty sure I know how he would answer.
Lyrics are weird, they're cryptic, they don't make sense: In keeping with the francophone theme of my picks, I thought I might tell everyone to take a listen to Amadou & Mariaam's "Je pense à toi"—a love song that even I, with my public-school level French can comprehend. But then I remembered a bit I heard on The Sound of Young America that made me laugh like nothing else did in 2010. In it, the men of Team Submarine attempt to write an advertising jingle for a pizza place, and utterly, absurdly, fail.
Team Submarine, Summer Jobs (begin listening at the 10:47 mark)
Semi-retraction: Todd McEwen's "Living in the Country"—a rant against Los Angeles and a warning about the dangers of reading too much Thoreau, published in issue 4 of The Paris Magazine—made me laugh as much as Team Submarine's baby-eating pizza. More McEwen in 2011, please!