This month’s recommendations will — I hope — encourage readers to reflect on the legacies of individuals and institutions. An already-classic study on eviction was apparently just a warm-up for a bombshell critical study of poverty in general, and who knew that one of America’s most iconic photographers is actually a brilliant filmmaker? Elsewhere, a novelist known for challenging what constitutes literature continues pushing the bounds, and a diligent radio host shows us that there is another way to conduct author interviews.
1. Poverty, by America by Matthew Desmond
Famed Princeton sociologist Matthew Desmond follows up his epoch-defining study of eviction to address poverty more broadly. For starters, everything you think you know about the topic is wrong. There’s the numbers — 18 million families in the U.S. live under the deep-poverty metric of $13,100 — and our misguided attempts at thinking outside the box (welfare “reform” has culminated in states hoarding and misappropriating block grants, with only $7.1 billion out of $31.6 billion actually going directly to families). But focusing on these statistics obfuscates what is in effect a moral argument. Desmond’s great contribution to the topic is asking why we as a society are willing to accept this. His answer — that it is in most people’s economic interest to accept economic arrangements that keep people poor — is likely to roil the classic debates about personal responsibility and the like. But be forewarned: His admonishments aren’t just lobbied at elites.
2. Poverty, by America by Matthew Desmond
Michael Silverblatt, the longtime on-air book critic for KCRW in Los Angeles, is widely read and deeply thoughtful, and as a result his program, Bookworm, is satisfying to both cultish and well-known tastes alike. Grace Paley, Octavia Butler, and David Foster Wallace are joined by the likes of John Ashbery, Toni Morrison, and Susan Sontag. Neither self-conscious about its influence nor overtly critical in its approach, this collection of author interviews is refreshingly deferential — each author’s voice and sensibility commanding the reader’s attention. Chronology is irrelevant, but documented — in one section it’s 1995, and you’re listening to William H. Gass explain The Tunnel; in another, Steven Sondheim and John Weidman are chatting it up about Road Show. The anthology cements Silverblatt’s legacy as a literary steward who’s welcoming and respectful of his listener’s intelligence.
3. Nan Goldin: This Will Not End Well
The first exhibition to collect the bulk of the iconic photographer’s film work, End Well is a collaboration with Hala Warde and Mark Davis of HW Architecture. The firm designed a “village of slideshows” in Moderna Museet, Stockholm, with each structure designed to best encompass each of Nan Goldin’s multimedia works. Even within the confines of the catalogue, the artist’s gift at narration and keen eye for unexpected moments is apparent. Readers will likely recognize P.AI.N., Goldin’s harrowing protest against the opioid industry, and her breakthrough, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, a meditation on intimacy and loss, but less-heralded works, such as Scopophilia and Fire Leap, mesmerize the reader as well. If that doesn’t sell it, Goldin also commissioned a Dream Team of commentators on her artistic practice, including Sara Schulman, Lucy Sante, Eileen Myles, Darryl Pinckney, and Patrick Radden Keefe.
4. Lone Women, by Victor LaValle
Victor LaValle’s voracious appetite for genre experimentation has taken him to the American West. Don’t mind the wagons and tumbleweed: By the time Adelaide, the book’s narrator, hits the road — fleeing a burning house with her dead parents inside — there are plenty more practical, plot elements to focus on. There’s whether she’ll make it in Montana as a Black woman — and coming from the mild winters of California, no less. Also, who can she trust there? (Her neighbor Grace? Sure. The Mudges? Ehh …) And then there’s the mysterious, heavy trunk that she carries with her on her journey (“My whole life … Everything that still matters”), which must remain locked at all times. The horrible secret both isn’t and is what you think it is, which makes the community’s response to it that much more terrifying.
5. Francisco, by Alison Mills Newman
This brilliant, long out-of-print novel was rescued by (who else?) New Directions. The book’s unnamed narrator, a Black actress tired of being typecast in the same stereotypical roles, is infatuated with the book’s titular character, a noble (but emotionally unavailable) filmmaker. Whether the narrator will invest as much into her own ambitions as she does into her lover’s is an open question, but their romp through bohemian California, fully realized right down to the color of a shared pair of trousers, is enough to make the journey worth it. Speakers stop abruptly and pop up in the next paragraph; snappy asides and transitions appear as enjambments — pushing the pace forward like the ding of a typewriter carriage. The sensuousness is the point. This latest edition of Francisco gives a new generation of readers the opportunity to think about how little has changed in the culture industry’s relationship of convenience with Black artists while riding the waves of Newman’s musical and minimalist syntax.
6. Minuit by Steve Spalding
This look at renowned French publisher Les Éditions de Minuit — which has worked with Samuel Beckett, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Marguerite Duras, and Jean-Philippe Toussaint, among many others, since its inception in 1941 — positions the house as a catalyst for a nation’s notoriously self-serious literary culture. Steven D. Spalding’s conceit is that by outlining Minuit’s history, he can provide insight into the value judgments placed upon literature within academic and, by extension, popular discourses. Aiming for a meta-literary theory risks backfiring, but Spalding’s work is saved by both the uniqueness of its subject’s origins (it got its start as a clandestine publisher disseminating censored texts during Nazi occupation) and its meticulous accounting of how the press’s New Novel evolved from an avant-garde foil to an expectation of the Establishment.