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What We’re Reading

 

Masie Cochran (Associate Editor, Tin House Books): A few birthdays ago, my dad gifted me a subscription to The New Yorker. And even though I have a subscription, when he reads an article or essay he really likes, he will photocopy it and mail it to me. I was recently embarrassed when I opened a package and found a pristinely folded copy of Paige William’s wonderful profile, Composition in Black and White from the August 12-19th issue signed Love, Dad. This came to me in October and I hadn’t read it yet. Over Thanksgiving, I sat down to read and I’m so glad I did.

The stars of the profile are Bill Arnett, a seventy-four-year-old collector of Outsider Art, and Thornton Dial, an untrained artist and one of Arnett’s greatest discoveries. Arnett bet on Dial early in his career—offering the financial backing to let Dial focus on art full-time. And Dial has been successful. Two of his pieces were included in the 2000 Whitney Biennial, though no major museum owns a large number of his works. Sadly, Dial’s hundred-pound paintings have yet to breakout into the mainstream. But Arnett holds out hope: “It is my nervous and trembling, but history-based and always optimistic, prediction that great culture will outlast corrupt bureaucrats and their heavy-handed abuses of power, and the greed-driven, callous, and destructive tactics of bloodless profiteers. So, metaphorically speaking, I am betting on Art.”

Lance Cleland (Director, Writers’ Workshop): “There is nothing like winter in the company of a keg of brandy and the complete works of Simenon.” So says the Chilean artist Luis Sepúlveda, and while I am not going through the complete catalog, I have recently been reading a few of the early Maigret novels (along with a nip of the hard stuff). For those that have never be on a case with the famed French detective, Maigret Stonewalled is an excellent jumping off point. You get all the trademarks of the portly master sleuth: astute psychological observations that have nothing to do with the murder, smoking, exclamation points at the end of every sentence of dialog, and melancholy stops in the pub for a pint and solution to the most seemingly mundane, yet often baffling cases. And here is what sets Stonewalled apart; there is an actually mystery to be solved! Part of the charm and frustration of Simenon’s Maigret novels are the sloppiness and utter disregard the author sometimes has for the case at hand. Facts are rearranged on a whim, logic is disregarded in favor of aesthetic, and solutions are sometimes an afterthought. Stonewalled though is Maigret’s locked room mystery and as such, it offers the reader the perfect blend of a jigsaw puzzle and roman dur. Throw in a keg and you have the perfect winter afternoon reading experience.

Thomas Ross (Editorial Assistant, Tin House Magazine): I thought Irmgard Keun’s After Midnight would be a good novel with which to ease back into German—I remember it as a straightforward narrative, with a simple cast of characters, and language that is accessible and immediate. What I forgot was how gripping it is, or rather how it embraces the reader (the German word is umarmen, which fantastically translates to around-arms-ing), and how unforgiving its intensity and humor is to the kind of slow double-half-reading I was giving its German text, referring every other line to Anthea Bell’s English translation in the beautiful Neversink edition from Melville House. Eventually, I stopped relearning German and started redevouring Bell’s translation of Keun’s chilling, heart-sinking story.

Prewar Frankfurt is cold and dark and dangerous. With Sanna, the young woman at the center of the novel, we take a trip from one deathtrap conversation to the next; through barrooms full of alternately affable and terrifying fascists; train stations, apartments, and Nazi motorcades. Sanna and her friend Gerti are preoccupied by preoccupations so typical they defy danger: friendship, fun, infatuation, wondering what love is and where and when it comes. Keun delivers their youthful exploits with as much warmth as can be afforded in 1937 Germany, and with endless hope. It’s hard not to read with an extra chill of historicity, though. Keun had the prescience to leave Germany in 1937, the same year she wrote this book, before the war and the Holocaust. But After Midnight is hardly prophetic. Rather, it’s so of its time that those horrors are felt as a shapeless, crushing atmosphere of fear, rather than a distinct memory.

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