• print • Dec/Jan 2019

    Higher Grounds

    “Of all the modern stimulants, coffee had the greatest hold over Balzac,” Kassy Hayden writes in the afterword to her new translation of Honoré de Balzac’s Treatise on Modern Stimulants (Wakefield Press, $13), which situates this small, wild book firmly in the social, political, and medical scenes of nineteenth-century France. “Coffee helped him sustain his rigorous writing schedule, and he maintained that it gave him inspiration and fired up his intellect. . . . At times euphoric about his drink of choice, he was more often tormented by the knowledge that, although it contributed to his ill

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  • print • Dec/Jan 2019

    The Root of All Evil

    Five years ago, I edited an anthology of crime stories by women originally published between the early 1940s and the late 1970s. Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives carried the subtitle Stories from the Trailblazers of Domestic Suspense for a specific reason: “Domestic suspense,” as I defined it—though I did not originate the term—referred to a category of crime fiction that did not rest easily within the largely male, American, hard-boiled school created by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, or in the largely female, British “Golden Age” of detective fiction best represented by Agatha Christie

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  • print • Dec/Jan 2019

    Artful Volumes

    James Turrell’s dynamic experiments with light, space, color, and landscape can only be hinted at on the page. Even so, Extraordinary Ideas—Realized (Hatje Cantz, $85) manages to convey much about the artist’s intentions, if not the experience of the work. The volume’s retrospective account begins in 1967 and includes projection pieces (those created by a single beam of light), skyspaces (chambers whose ceilings are open to the sky), ganzfelds (installations that suppress depth perception), and plans and images devoted to the Roden Crater in Arizona, an Earthwork sculpture in which Turrell

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  • print • Dec/Jan 2019

    Courtly Love

    In film, no long shot is more iconic, precise in its intention, disturbing, and startling than Alfred Hitchcock’s of a tennis match in Strangers on a Train. The camera looks at the crowd looking intently at a game in action; the crowd mirrors the audience watching the film (the meta Hitchcock loves). In a full grandstand, multiple heads move left, right, left, right, back again, synchronized, following the ball like cats do a swinging object. But only one head, among so many, remains absolutely still, staring straight ahead at the camera. It is that of the malicious mastermind, played by Robert

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  • print • Dec/Jan 2019

    States of Grace

    It’s probably Elaine Pagels’s fault I’m a Christian, if I am. When I was in college, one of my professors quoted the Gospel of Thomas in class. I don’t remember which passage he recited, but I remember that it sounded nothing like the gospels I had grown up with. If anything, given my limited repertoire at that time, it reminded me of Kafka or Beckett—terse, enigmatic, wry, gnawing at the edges of the mystical. I lit up like a pinball machine. I needed to hear more. One thing puzzled me: I hadn’t been the most diligent or devout catechumen, but I knew the Bible contained no Gospel of Thomas.

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  • print • Dec/Jan 2019

    How Does It Feel?

    Late in his memoir, Casey Gerald watches a video of George W. Bush fumbling his way through a story about meeting an underprivileged black youth from South Dallas. The former president’s tale is a version of a familiar narrative, one that Americans trot out as evidence of our society’s fundamentally meritocratic structure: Despite a dead father and an imprisoned mother, despite growing up in the inner-city neighborhood of South Oak Cliff—“you know, on the other side of the Trinity River,” Bush informs us, assuming, correctly, that we all understand the black urban abjection that stems from

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  • print • Dec/Jan 2019

    Shill Your Darling

    After decades of obscurity, Eve Babitz—the marvelous polymath of pleasure and gifted annalist of the delights and despair of Los Angeles, where she was born in 1943 and still resides—was suddenly everywhere. The Babitz revival began in early October 2015, with the reissue of her first book, Eve’s Hollywood (1974), the celebrated eight-page dedication of which is dotted with the names of various SoCal demiurges of the 1960s and early ’70s who made up her milieu. They included, among many others, several artists associated with the Ferus Gallery (including Ed Ruscha; Babitz is featured in his

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  • print • Dec/Jan 2019

    Prime of Life

    Heike Geissler, the German novelist and translator, ran out of money in the winter of 2010 and took a temporary job at an Amazon warehouse in Leipzig to support her two children. As she tells us in the opening pages of her book about that experience, she was not intending to write a book about that experience. But intention is one thing and canniness another; a real writer’s canniness never deserts her. “Though the work was physically and mentally exhausting,” her translator explains, Geissler “managed to take notes on Post-its” during her six weeks at the warehouse, and write more detailed

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  • print • Dec/Jan 2019

    Dance Dance Evolution

    WHEN WAS the last time you picked up Sweet Charlatan, Frost in May, Is She a Lady?, or The Departure Platform? Do the names John Heygate (author of Decent Fellows), Inez Holden (Born Old, Died Young), or Jocelyn Brooke (Mine of Serpents) ring a bell? One side effect of reading Anthony Powell: Dancing to the Music of Time, Hilary Spurling’s biography of the long-lived (1905–2000) British novelist, is realizing how many writers in his various circles have passed entirely out of civilized memory. Doubly sobering, for some of us, is the possibility that his books might be joining this invisible

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  • print • Dec/Jan 2019

    Between Worlds: The Art of Bill Traylor by Leslie Umberger

    The detective work in Between Worlds is so engrossing that one may be forgiven for forgetting that the book is also an exhibition catalogue. It accompanies an extensive retrospective, now at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC, of Bill Traylor’s paintings and drawings. Traylor, who died in 1949, is considered one of the most important “folk” or “self-taught” American artists. But this project demonstrates in magisterial manner how his work exceeds these limiting categories.

    Born into slavery, probably in 1853, Traylor was a farm laborer in the area between Selma and Montgomery,

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  • print • Dec/Jan 2019

    Henry Taylor: The Only Portrait I Ever Painted of My Momma Was Stolen

    Henry Taylor painted an impressive range of subjects that included close friends and total strangers, the famous and the unknown. It’s a gallery that includes Miles Davis and Eldridge Cleaver; the children of fellow artists; and anonymous figures (a panhandler, a child modeling a new dress) caught in scenes of daily life. He ranges through African American achievements and grievous injustices to depict, for instance, Alice Coachman (above), the first black woman to win an Olympic gold medal, as well as a lifeless Philando Castile in a 2017 work, The Times Thay Aint A Changing, Fast Enough! Like

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  • print • Dec/Jan 2019

    Two Mississippi

    The tragedy of the formative opening episode in Kiese Laymon’s memoir, Heavy, is an American one, never more identifiably so. I’m writing this on the first day of October 2018, and last week millions of us watched the hours of retraumatizing and indignant testimony concerning an episode nearly identical to Heavy’s opening scenario. A fifteen-year-old girl, wearing her one-piece bathing suit under her clothes, is tricked into a bedroom with boys who are seventeen and bigger than her. There is laughter, among other sounds. They close the door. She cannot leave. Across from the closed door is a

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