What Our Contributors Are Reading This Summer

By The Paris Review August 7, 2020

THIS WEEK’S READING

Contributors from our Summer issue share their favorite recent finds.

Recently, I was inspired by the poet Solmaz Sharif to revisit June Jordan’s collection of essays, Civil Wars (1981). At a time when courting sickness and death is described by the president as “opening up,” or else framed as a concern about the education of children, when the attorney general defines peace as submission to police force, and when some voices, in the midst of a genuine emergency, are petulantly and nebulously complaining about “forces of illiberalism” and “cancel culture,” it’s been refreshing to revisit Jordan, who cuts through all the nonsense to show what is truly at stake with the politics of language and calls for polite civility. If you’re interested, maybe begin by checking out this excerpt from “White English/Black English: The Politics of Translation”:

They all—all them whitefolks ruling the country—they all talk that talk, that “standard (white) English. It is the language of the powerful. Language is political. That’s why you and me, my Brother and my Sister, that’s why we sposed to choke our natural self into the weird, lying, barbarous, unreal white speech and writing habits that the schools lay down like holy law…

See, the issue of white English is inseparable from the issues of mental health and bodily survival. If we succumb to phrases such as “winding down the war,” or if we accept “pacification” to mean the murdering of unarmed villagers, and “self-reliance” to mean bail money for Lockheed Corporation and bail money for the mis-managers of the Pennsylvania Railroad, on the one hand, but also, if we allow “self-reliance” to mean starvation and sickness and misery for poor families, for the aged, and for the permanently disabled/permanently discriminated against—then our mental health is seriously in peril: we have entered the world of doublespeak-bullshit, and our lives may soon be lost behind that entry.

Or maybe this, from the titular essay:

Most often, the people who can least afford to further efface and deny the truth of what they experience, the people whose very existence is most endangered and, therefore, most in need of vigilantly truthful affirmation, these are the people—the poor and the children—who are punished most severely for departures from the civilities that grease oppression.

If you make and keep my life horrible then, when I tell the truth, it will be a horrible truth; it will not sound good or look good or, God willing, feel good to you, either.

Jamel Brinkley

STILL FROM VIDEO OF PERFORMANCE PAJÉ ONÇA HACKEANDO A 33ª BIENAL DE ARTES DE SÃO PAULO © DENILSON BANIWA

Reaching for my mask along with the standard phone-wallet-keys when I venture out for groceries or remember that it’s healthy to go outside (mostly), I keep thinking of artist Denilson Baniwa’s series “Ritual Masks For a World In Crisis,” part of a quarantine-era commission of 125 artists by the Instituto Moreira Salles in Brazil, with an essay translated here by Tiffany Higgins. In these eight self-portraits, Baniwa mixes the surgical or hand-sewn pleated masks and bandannas that have become our new everyday around the world with woven crowns, feather headdresses, baskets, and jaguar heads that evoke Indigenous forms of protection and communication with the invisible world. These ritual masks are a way to negotiate with the God of Maladies, the code name he offers so as not to give away the Amazonian Baniwa people’s name for the spirit who takes the form of a sloth. The bright headdresses and face coverings with cheerful patterns like potted succulents and diamonds with stars morph from photo to photo, while Baniwa wears the same white T-shirt with his own silk-screened design, a stylized roaring jaguar with the words, “Floresta de pé, fascismo no chão,” a slogan seen and heard at Indigenous rights protests, which translates roughly to, “Up with the forest, down with the fascists.” Some of the headdresses trade the usual feathers and thread for electrical wire and the jagged teeth of long, thin hacksaw blades broken in pieces to form crowns and a halo. These unexpected juxtapositions shape the playful, absurdist, and activist tone of Baniwa’s work, which mixes memories of his people’s traditions from the Rio Negro region of the northwestern Amazon with the modern-day artifacts and practices of an artist based in Rio de Janeiro. Before the pandemic, Baniwa walked the streets and museums of São Paulo and sites like the Biennale of Sydney with a mask and cape as the Pajé Onça, a powerful shaman who takes the form of the spotted jaguar, a figure that appears throughout Baniwa’s street murals, wheat-paste posters, museum installations, and performances, displayed on his site and on InstagramCOVID-19 has hit communities in the Amazon especially hard, with the widespread loss of loved ones, elders, artists, healers, and shamans, like Feliciano Lana, the Desana artist whom Baniwa cites as a major influence, and Vó Bernaldina, a spiritual and political leader of the Macuxi people. For Baniwa, it brings up memories of plagues brought by past colonizers, and the ways Indigenous people had to update their sacred rituals to include vaccines, antibiotics, and other medicines that intervened with the unseen world. The present mask and hand-washing rituals are yet another update. He writes, “May the God of Maladies see that we are fulfilling all the rituals, and soon be soothed. May our people survive this, one more end of the world.” —Katrina Dodson

These days I have been enfolded in Adeeba Talukder’s beautiful collection of poems, Shahr-e-Jaanaan, City of the Beloved. Like a graceful arabesque the collection soars into Urdu poetry and swerves back into English. Lines like these leave me breathless: “Longing, air spent / travels the length of age, then receives / a faint reply: / You have a conquered a curl, at last.” Talukder’s poetry captures the exquisite pain of the lover; the Urdu ghazal glimmers behind the English and invites me to dwell in both worlds. Walking alone in empty streets, I’m drawn to her contemplations on loneliness and companionship, “Come walk with me / by the lake’s empty benches. / Tell me, dressed in roses / we need some air.” Her collection of poems has been my companion and my lover, the one I reach out to when I need a place to breathe. — Krupa Shandilya

Possibly out of a desire (or need) to escape the modern, COVID-ridden world, I’ve been revisiting Jane Austen. With no happy ending to our current situation in sight, I’ve found her novels enormously reassuring, knowing that everything will come right and love will triumph. I’ve also been luxuriating in her prose, so witty and so wise, and taking particular pleasure in the most awful of her characters: the vain, snobbish Sir Walter Elliott, the splendidly egomaniacal Mrs. Elton, and, of course, the obsequious Mr. Collins. There is something so delicious and, yes, so unflinching, about her depiction of these fools, and I found myself wishing she were alive today to sharpen her quill on some of our present-day and all-too-present imbeciles. A thought to savor. And which novel to choose as a starting point? For no particular reason, I started with her last novel, Persuasion, and ended with her first, Northanger Abbey, as if reading her work on rewind, from the more sober tale of twenty-seven-year-old Anne Elliott reencountering a lost love to seventeen-year-old Catherine Morland discovering love for the very first time. And not a mention of viruses.

And still safely in the past, but at least in the twentieth century, I’ve been watching the thirties Marseilles Trilogy based on the plays by Marcel Pagnol. Many of the actors had already appeared in the plays on stage, which gives the movie a real ensemble feel. Just superb. —Margaret Jull Costa

There were two problems with the Great War’s dead on the Western Front: how to handle the bodies and how to handle the absence of bodies. The number of Great War dead was so enormous that a decision was made to bury them where they had fallen. Families could not bring their soldier home. The Imperial, and now Commonwealth, War Graves Commission, was founded in 1917 to locate and record the last resting places of fallen soldiers. After the Armistice, it cleared the battlefields of the dead and designed and built hundreds of cemeteries and memorials. By 1921 records indicated that hundreds of thousands of bodies were still missing—drowned in mud or vaporized by artillery shells. These missing continue to haunt families, historians, and, for some reason I don’t fully understand, me. They lie at the center of my recently published long poem, Salient. Every year some emerge, one by one or in small clusters, when a new building needs a foundation or a highway needs a new off-ramp.

In 2008 hundreds of them, mostly Australian, were found in mass graves just south of Pheasant Wood near Fromelles, France. The fierce fighting at Fromelles on July 19–20, 1916, was just a sideshow in the Battle of the Somme. But for the efforts of a retired and persistent Australian schoolteacher, clear documentation of these graves would have remained lost in German and British archives. Hundreds is a big number. For the first time in decades the CWGC had to build a whole new cemetery. How could no one have found these men for ninety years?

In support of my disbelief, I offer you the British trench map below, from late July 1916. I have marked the location of the graves:

THE GRAVES ARE LOCATED AT 36 SW 2 RADINGHAM N.17.C.3.1 ON BRITISH TRENCH MAPS OF THE TIME.

Maps were constantly updated from intelligence reports. Doubtless the map revision had been based on aerial photos like this one, below, from September 1916, showing that five of the eight large pits have been filled in:

The Lost Legions of Fromelles is Peter Barton’s highly granular answer to my question and reads like a detective thriller filled with courage, tragedy, politics, good intentions, prisoners, spies, and evidence hidden or overlooked, all in the context of unimaginable and now invisible carnage. Barton also includes a gripping description of the July 1916 battle, and its predecessor of 1915, pushing back against parts of the classic Australian narrative using German sources. Fromelles was a catastrophic defeat, seared, like Gallipoli, into Australia’s psyche. Now we have a clearer picture of what happened, and, in 2010, two hundred and fifty of the men who went missing at Fromelles were interred with full military honors. Through DNA tracing, many families have been reconnected with a grandfather or great uncle. There are still another fourteen hundred men missing on that ground. The Fromelles Project continues its work. — Elizabeth T. Gray, Jr.

Can I recommend my friend, Bill, the Shakespeare professor from Chicago? Two years ago he came to Jersey City to see his new granddaughter. Afterward I met him over at the piers. “What’s new, Bud?” he asked. For half an hour, I told Bill some lame bullshit about my construction job and he kept laughing and slapping his knee. Finally I said, “What’s new with you, Bill?” He looked at me seriously, “I had a stroke.” He’d collapsed in his kitchen three weeks before, couldn’t reach the phone and his wife had just left in the car. So Bill made peace with death. Luckily his wife had forgotten the grocery list and she came back and found Bill on the floor and called an ambulance and he got to the hospital and made a complete recovery. Thank God. On the piers that day Bill then gave me a literary intervention. Drop everything, read Don Quixote, and Madame Bovary, and all of Virginia Woolf and on and on. “You can’t just read junk food, Bud. You have to read the best to see where the ceiling is.” Since it sounded like the man’s dying wish, I lied and said I would read these “better” books. Well, the next month he called my bluff and I received a huge box in the mail, random classic paperbacks, marked up and dog-eared. Thanks Bill, I loved the books so much I’m recommending everyone who reads The Paris Review should become your pal. Recently, I made the mistake of posting a picture of a Nabokov novel I liked (which Bill hadn’t recommended, by the way). He commented, “LIFE IS TOO SHORT FOR BAD BOOKS!” Maybe it used to be, but now we’re in a pandemic. There’s nothing but time. Last month I binged six whole seasons of Columbo (my favorite show) starring Peter Falk (my favorite actor). Bill saw one of my social media posts about that and commented I should read Crime and Punishment. “Go right to the source!” Shit, why did the source have to be a doorstop Russian novel? Anyway, I read it and loved it. Turns out Columbo is a thousand percent based on Crime and Punishment. It’s structured just like the novel, and inspector Porfiry Petrovich is the nearly same character famously played by Falk, right down to the mannerisms and the way he antagonizes the murderer. Just amazing. Thanks again, Bill. Hope you’re doing good today. Miss ya, man.

But Bud, wait, what are you recommending? Be more specific, please.

Hey! Start with these these five episodes of Columbo—“Suitable for Framing” (1971); “The Bye-Bye Sky High IQ Murder Case” (1977); “Étude in Black” (1972); “A Stitch in Crime” (1973); “The Most Crucial Game,” (1972) and then read Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.  —Bud Smith

INSTALLATION VIEW, WHY IS IT HARD TO LOVE?

What I would like to recommend is what most of you will not see. Vilnius has a new museum for contemporary art: MO, the brainchild of Danguolė and Viktoras Butkus, scientists turned art collectors. The building was designed by Daniel Libeskind, opened in 2018, and the collection is devoted to contemporary Lithuanian art. Located in the center of the city, on the edge of Old Town, the building has a bright white edifice that juts like the prow of a ship over Embankment Street (as Robert Hass translated the name of Pylimo Street in Czesław Miłosz’s poetry, so I leave the literary connection). Underneath this majestic bow, a staircase climbs to an amphitheater that hosts regular readings of contemporary Lithuanian poetry. There is a sculpture garden to the side, providing pleasant green space. The present exhibition (on view into January 2021) is the first curated by international artistic celebrities: the British filmmaker, Peter Greenaway, and his wife, the Dutch artist, Saskia Boddeke. They have created an immersive experience in the third-floor primary exhibition hall where the sound and lighting effects spill out from their two video installations and envelop the selection of paintings branching through the space, all to the theme of Why Is It Hard to Love? The visitor turning from the winding stairs is greeted by the two showstoppers: Monika Furmana’s three-meter-high painting in oil and spray paint, The Tree of Life, and then, through a dark cleft, the curators’ video installation, Number 34 is Missing!, replete with dark reflecting pool and stacked chairs arcing through the air. (A limited look at various pieces is available here.) The exhibit answers “Why is it hard to love?” in many different ways, with alienation, inequalities, social differences, and prejudices all having their say, and yet, as those first pieces make clear, the struggle to love is also a path to both self-discovery and greater meaning. You would do well to have MO Museum on your itinerary when you are able to visit Vilnius. —Rimas Uzgiris

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