hg0088

When you purchase something using affiliate links on our site, The New Yorker may earn a portion of the sales revenue, which helps to support our journalism.

What do you want to do?

hg0088Our staff and contributors share their latest enthusiasms in books, music, podcasts, movies, TV, and more.

  • If you’re sitting at home—and you are—gazing dully out the window, half-reading half of whatever’s open on your Web browser and thinking how weary, flat, and unprofitable all the uses of this world seem to be, then click on over to YouTube and watch Michael Urie reprise his 2013 performance of “,” Jonathan Tolins’s one-man show about an actor who takes a job staffing a fake mall in Barbra Streisand’s basement. Yes, it’s digital live theatre—Urie performed the show, which was produced by Broadway.com, Rattlestick Theatre, and the Pride Plays, in his living room on Monday night, to raise money for the Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS’s COVID-19 Emergency Assistance Fund—and, yes, it’s good. In fact, it’s great: frothy and hilarious, satisfyingly seasoned with treachery, bitchery, idolatry, and punctured celebrity hero-worship. Here I’ve been scouring the Web for works of theatre that seem suited to the moment and have been coming up with sombre, worthy stuff that I in no way want to watch. I lasted five minutes into a three-hour-plus recording of a Krzysztof Warlikowski play, in Polish, with English subtitles, billed as a commentary on sacrifice and the Holocaust, which opened with a man and a woman voicing stiff-armed mannequins the size of small children, and I tapped out early from the great Billie Whitelaw’s of Samuel Beckett’s monologue “Rockaby,” whose depiction of isolation and decay seemed, for once, just a bit too on the nose. But I was delighted to stay with “Buyer & Cellar” for its full hour and forty minutes, because that’s what we all need right now: to be trapped in Barbra’s Malibu dream house instead of our own.

    As Tolins, who briefly appears at the start of the video stream, explains, the play sprang from an unlikely source: Streisand’s 2010 coffee-table book, “” (it seems important to note that she did the principal photography for it herself), in which Babs displayed the frankly terrifying , complete with an antique store and “Gift Shoppe,” that she built in her basement to show off her costumes and possessions to—herself. What if, Tolins wondered, Streisand hired an employee to work down there? Enter Alex, a struggling actor—he can’t even hold a job at Disney World—who lucks into the gig and soon shows a talent for catering to the lady of the house. As he haggles over the price of an antique doll (Barbra wants a discount) and stays late, while Barbra entertains guests upstairs, to man the mall’s frozen-yogurt machine, in case anyone wants to come down for a scoop, Alex falls under the diva’s spell. He becomes her confidant and encourager. She’s wily; he outfoxes her. She’s needy; he affirms her. Alex is living the American fantasy of proximity to fame and fortune, and, though he thinks he’s protected by a jaded attitude, he’s as susceptible as anyone to the promise of intimacy with a star.

    Over at Vulture, the critic Helen Shaw that, in technical terms, “Buyer & Cellar” should be the model for digital theatre going forward, and she’s absolutely right. I don’t know what Urie’s living room usually looks like, and I don’t care to. He’s pulled the shades down over his windows and moved his furniture somewhere else, making the space a blank slate; the lighting is clean and bright. Three directors are credited: Nic Cory, who directed the digital production, Stephen Brackett, who directed the original show, and Paul Wontorek, who directed the live stream, which featured—miracle of miracles—a second camera angle, a thrill in the age of the relentless Zoom closeup. (The totally adequate camerawork was done by Urie’s partner, the actor Ryan Spahn.)

    And then there’s Urie, with his antic charisma, consummate pacing, and endearing, confessional manner, amplified by direct addresses into the iPhone camera. He plays not only Alex and Barbra but also Alex’s boyfriend and Streisand’s jaded property manager. One pleasure of the show is seeing him move. He leaps around his living room, and gives Streisand a special slouching walk, part sexy panther, part Hunchback of Notre-Dame. Watching him work his way through Tolins’s pleasurably digressive and cannily structured script is like listening to a story being told by a slightly hapless, hugely entertaining friend. Go watch, and, if you feel so inclined, donate to a worthy cause—you have until midnight on Wednesday.

  • When a Twitter acquaintance put out a call the other day for followers to “Describe Your Taste in 10 Female Voices,” I was game, because it was as much a chance to learn from others’ choices of noteworthy artists as to share enthusiasms of my own. ranged from Mary Lou Williams and Dawn Powell to Marguerite Duras and Gena Rowlands, and also included one lesser-known artist whom I similarly revere: Eunice Norton, a classical pianist (who was born in 1908 and died in 2005), whose work I’ve become familiar with almost exclusively from YouTube clips, of which there are more than a hundred.

    hg0088, her YouTube channel, carries listeners straight to an astounding performance, one that, had it been well known in its time, would likely have been history-making: ,” which the site calls the first ever done on a piano rather than a harpsichord. (Claudio Arrau’s recording of it on piano was made in the same year, but it wasn’t released until 1988.) Norton plays the vast and intricate composition with glittering angularity and tactile intensity, intellectual grandeur and joyful energy that make it, from the start, no less bracing and imaginative than Glenn Gould’s celebrated 1955 recording. It should have made her a name to reckon with, rather than one of the thrilling obscurities of artistic history.

    The site offers , too (fans of the podcast format will delight in Norton’s voice and reminiscences), as well as written interviews, such as one with Bernard Jacobsen, from 1997. A child prodigy, Norton was whisked from her native Minneapolis to London when the great pianist Myra Hess arranged for the young Norton study with Hess’s own piano teacher, Tobias Matthay. While still a teen-ager, Norton launched her concert career; in 1932, she heard Artur Schnabel play Beethoven (he was in the midst of an epochal project, the first complete recording of Beethoven’s thirty-two piano sonatas) and spent the next three years studying with him. But then she married a British chemist, Bernard Lewis, and, as one , “settled in . . . to raise a family” and “shifted her emphasis to teaching.” gives the rest of the story, which is depressingly exemplary of many great female artists’ trajectories: “Ultimately it was Norton’s management, Columbia Artists, who dealt the decisive blow when they took her off their roster of represented artists.” The piece adds that her many acclaimed concert performances with major orchestras “did not protect her from the idea that a woman should not have a career and a husband simultaneously.”

    Norton nonetheless continued to perform and to record (including privately—Lewis himself made sure that her playing was preserved), as in a pair of spectacular, idiosyncratic recordings from 1949. One features , the last sonata , a composer whose music (including this piece) she performed (as Schnabel did) obsessively and audaciously throughout her life. This early recording is unique—brisk and pugnacious, a stormy, bitter Schubert raging against his earthly fetters and then distilling his passions, in the last movement, into headlong lunges, dazzling whirls, and delicate pirouettes. (Its boldness is matched, four decades later, by the reckless thrust and the chorale-like rapture of her 1987 concert performance of , from Pittsburgh’s Frick Auditorium.)

    Two other early recordings indicate the power and range of Norton’s art. The , is a modernistic, whirlwind interpretation of the composer’s fiery romanticism and visionary complexities. (She sustained this ardent view of the composer throughout her career, as in a 1979 recording of .) And Norton’s devotion to twentieth-century music is seen in her 1950 recording of transcriptions ,” where she brings out the dissonances and abruptness that characterize his later work. But the center of Norton’s career, like the center of Schnabel’s, was Beethoven. In one of the discussions featured in the archive, Norton cites and demonstrates what she deemed “the most unique feature of Schnabel’s teaching,” namely, “to think in shapes.” She adds, “When you think in shapes, you’re getting very close to the process of the composer, you feel that you’re entering into his imagination and his creativity.” Other analysis, she says, is “too abstract,” whereas “when you think in shapes, it’s not abstract at all.”

    hg0088Norton and Lewis had a summer house in the small town of Peacham, Vermont, and , teaching small groups of students there, launching a summer music festival, and giving concerts in the town church. Many of her later recordings come from Peacham, and they make clear both the ferocious spiritual devotion and the ruggedly physical intensity that she derived from Schnabel’s insights. This 1977 performance , has a terrifying, apocalyptic fury to match its celestial wonder. Her last recording , his ultimate piano masterwork (a vast and comprehensive work that bookends Bach’s Goldberg Variations), spans the hushed momentousness of the occasion—a private 1989 concert at her home after her recovery from surgery and injury—and the titanic essence of Beethoven’s creative power.

  • Most of us who love film noir and have seen all the classics are tantalized by the hard little gems that turn up now and then—lost or forgotten noirs that are sometimes as atmospheric as the better-known ones. In his essay “,” from 1972, the director Paul Schrader argues that, measured by “median level of artistry,” the noir cycle of the nineteen-forties and fifties represented Hollywood at its most creative: “Picked at random, a film noir is likely to be a better made film than a randomly selected silent comedy, musical, Western, and so on.” When a noir obscurity shows up on TCM, or is restored under the auspices of the indispensable Film Noir Foundation and screened at one of its Noir City festivals around the country, chances are it will be well worth seeing. It’s likely to be a B movie—so many noirs were—but that won’t mean it’s any less appealing. Noirs were ideally suited to low budgets and low lighting, tight editing and short running times, stolen shots on city streets.

    hg0088Led down some meandering Internet path not long ago—I’ve since forgotten what I was searching for—I came upon a nifty little suburban noir from 1951, “Cause for Alarm!,” which is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video. Directed by Tay Garnett (“The Postman Always Rings Twice”), it stars the excellent Loretta Young as a housewife, Ellen Jones, tormented by her sadistic invalid husband (Barry Sullivan). Though it was written and directed by men, “Cause for Alarm!” feels like a work of accidental feminism—a cry for help sent telepathically from the fifties. (Maybe the uncredited writing contribution from Dorothy Kingsley helped.) The film takes as its subject a husband’s sinister campaign to undermine his wife’s perception of reality, but the setting is more conventional and ostensibly benign than that of, say, “Gaslight”—not a crepuscular Victorian mansion but a neat, tidy house in a sun-bleached California suburb. In that bright, smug milieu, Ellen is trapped and watched—by the nosy neighbor, the officious postman, even the cute but insistent little boy who keeps dropping by with his toy TV and six-shooters. Like the men in other noirs who’ve been accused of crimes they didn’t commit, Ellen’s reasonable actions attract suspicion, but, in her case, a maddening condescension, too. A notary who comes to the house to see her husband tells her, “He warned me that I’d get some resistance from you” but that “I wasn’t to take you seriously.” It’s a tense, suspenseful movie, with a wry twist at the end, but it’s also, in its way, a sharp-eyed study of the feminine mystique.

  • “He was a renaissance man,” the late Gil Scott-Heron once said, of Langston Hughes. “He wrote songs; he wrote poetry; he wrote columns; he wrote essays. And as a writer myself, I knew that you couldn’t use just one form and get every idea across.” This spirit animated Scott-Heron’s career, and it allowed him to loom, in the cultural consciousness, as something more than just a musician or a poet. The same energy informs a few recent reimaginings of Scott-Heron’s final album, “I’m New Here,” which was released by XL Recordings in 2010. In 2011, the British rave-music revivalist Jamie xx recorded “We’re New Here,” splicing Scott-Heron’s words and rearranging them into a meditative dance record. Some of Jamie xx’s remix, in turn, was used by Drake and Rihanna, as the seed for “Take Care,” the pair’s mournful Top Forty hit. Scott-Heron, who died in 2011, resisted appeals to commercialism, but in listening to that track one got the sense that he could compete with any hit musician of today’s generation.

    hg0088The latest artist to remake “I’m New Here” is Makaya McCraven, a jazz drummer and producer from Chicago. Whereas Jamie xx’s take was spacious, even anxious, McCraven adds a shagginess to Scott-Heron’s album, layering in live instrumentation and old jazz recordings that his parents produced. Much of “I’m New Here” ’s original power flowed from its confessional side; Scott-Heron used the album to explore his addictions and family history. McCraven gives those elements a new frame, returning again and again to the theme of matriarchy. “Womenfolk raised me, and I was full grown before I knew I came from a broken home,” Scott-Heron says on the opener, “Special Tribute - (Broken Home Pt. 1),” repudiating the stigma of single parenthood. Scott-Heron spoke often of his all-knowing mother and grandmother, and in McCraven’s hands those figures emerge in the foreground while political ruminations recede. You can’t help but think that Scott-Heron would have been pleased with how McCraven fulfills the Hughes credo—that art and writing are never finished, and that both can continually deepen our perspective.

  • hg0088Don’t be fooled by the straightforward title of the lively new book “.” A better description of Barbara London’s indispensable and enticingly personal history arrives two pages in, when she writes, “This book describes the madcap trajectory of a pliable medium.” Few guides are more qualified to lead readers through the rapid rise of the once renegade art form, which is now so ubiquitous that screens and paintings share walls in museums—London was the very first curator to introduce video to the Museum of Modern Art, where she championed tech-based experiments for forty-three years. (She retired in 2013.) What makes her book such a fun read is that it’s not exactly the comprehensive survey its title implies. Instead, it’s as much memoir as exegesis, an idiosyncratic front-line report from a deeply informed, intrepid, and passionate pioneer who is still in the trenches. (London now teaches graduate students at Yale, and her exhibition on is about to commence a five-year tour.) Even her curatorial path was unconventional: the native New Yorker was pursuing a graduate degree in Islamic art when she traded the classroom for downtown haunts, like Max’s Kansas City, which was the Cedar Tavern of the electronic avant-garde—or “scenester intermedia mavericks,” in London’s words.

    So, although readers won’t learn about, say, Christian Marclay’s iconic twenty-four-hour video installation “The Clock,” from 2010 (the artist merits a mention, but not regarding his most famous work), they will travel with London to meet Chinese artists in Beijing, Shanghai, Hangzhou, and Guangzhou, in 1997. (Full disclosure: I was part of a team in New York that produced London’s daily online of that visit for MOMA, a blog before the word existed.) Any history of video must begin with the wizardly Korean innovator Nam June Paik (1932-2006), who is widely acknowledged as the medium’s founding father. Paik plays a major role in London’s story, but, in addition to contextualizing him as a towering historical figure, she shares personal anecdotes, including this vivid description of his studio: “I would crawl over and through a maze of electrical wire, tubes, and old circuitry to find Paik often standing in rubber boots, so as not to be electrocuted.”

    Similarly, an in-depth account of the work of the influential New York artist Joan Jonas—who has been combining performance with technology since the late sixties and whose bewitching room-sized installation “Mirage” (conceived in 1976), a six-part game of drawing and erasure, is a highlight of the new MOMA—includes the astrological tidbit that both the curator and the artist are Cancers. (London writes, of this cosmic affinity, “Once we met, I identified with her tenaciousness, imagination, and loyalty as a sympathetic friend.”) One special merit of London’s perspective is her emphasis on the role of women in the medium’s evolution, from familiar names like the pop-culture crossover artist Laurie Anderson to equally important but lesser-known figures like Dara Birnbaum, whose deliriously feminist spin on a DC superhero is also now on view at MOMA, in the five-minute video “Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman.” Not a bad label for the pathbreaking insights of London herself.

  • hg0088“,” Rona Jaffe’s best-seller from 1958, is what you would get if you took “Sex and the City” and set it inside “Mad Men” ’s universe. A novel about three young women who meet while working in the typing pool of a publishing house, it has the white-gloved, Scotch-swilling aesthetic of the fifties but also an unflinching frankness about women’s lives and desires—a combination that makes it feel radical, prescient. In order to write it, Jaffe interviewed fifty women about “the things nobody spoke about in polite company”: losing their virginities, getting abortions, being sexually harassed. “I thought that if I could help one young woman sitting in her tiny apartment thinking she was all alone and a bad girl, then the book would be worthwhile,” Jaffe wrote, in the foreword to the 2005 reissue of her novel. Put simply, she wanted it to say, “Me, too.”

    hg0088“The Best of Everything” centers on Caroline Bender, April Morrison, and Gregg Adams. Caroline is a self-possessed Radcliffe graduate who was engaged until her fiancé took a six-week trip to Europe and left her for the first familiar girl he ran into on the ship. She has professional aspirations, which immediately earns her suspicion from her bosses. April is a starry-eyed girl from Colorado who just wants to meet a nice boy but instead falls in with a handsome upper-crust cad who works at Merrill Lynch. And Gregg is an actress who becomes infatuated with an emotionally unavailable theatre director. “Some people are made to be hurt,” Caroline says at one point. “Gregg is that type.” The three become close, search for love, and navigate the indignities of being a woman in the workplace.

    Chief among them is Mr. Shalimar, the editor-in-chief of one of the imprints at Fabian Publications and a serial abuser who would fit right in at Leslie Wexner’s Victoria’s Secret. He asks April, on a night when he requested she work late, “Tell me, what kinds of things do the young boys do when they make love?” and later tries to kiss her in his office. He teases Caroline with the possibility of a promotion and then puts his hand on her knee at after-work drinks. And, most memorably, at the office Christmas party, Mr. Shalimar asks Barbara Lemont, an assistant editor at one of the publisher’s magazines, whether she has nice legs, and, when she doesn’t answer, he crawls under the table to appraise them. “You have beau-ti-ful legs,” he concludes. When he reëmerges, he leans in to kiss her, but she dodges him. “What did you think I wanted to do, rape you?” he cries. “You’re fired. Don’t you dare come into this office on Monday.”

    Refreshingly, Jaffe doesn’t treat this episode with cheerful permissiveness, doesn’t present it as having a kind of louche glamour. Instead, she stays close to Barbara. “For the first time that evening her feelings were revealed completely on her face—resolution, fury, and desperation. ‘I needhg0088 this job,’ she said. ‘He’s not going to take it away from me if I have to go to Mr. Fabian himself.’ ”

    hg0088It’s no better outside of work, either. On dates, which Barbara describes as “hand-to-hand combat,” men force themselves on the women. At a wedding, the bride’s drunk uncle pinches their cheeks and squeezes their waists as they try to politely signal that they’d rather be left alone.

    hg0088Yet “The Best of Everything” imparts this vision with sly humor, top-notch banter, and a sudsy plot that made me gasp out loud. The book still reads like a romance, still gets its propulsiveness from the question of whether the characters will find the love they desire and happiness therein. Will Caroline’s fiancé come back to her? Will April’s socialite boyfriend commit to her? Will the married man whom Barbara Lemont is in love with leave his wife for her? And do we even want them to? Or are they all bad news? In fact, Jaffe uses the badness of men to raise the stakes for finding a good one; love becomes a heroic quest rather than a doomed endeavor. In this sense, “The Best of Everything” cunningly enacts a tragic irony: the worse men behave, the more fervently the characters turn to men to find exceptions to the rule.

  • If you’re going to traverse Antarctica on cross-country skis, it’s advisable to go in a group, ideally with psychologically sturdy comrades in preternaturally good shape. You might bring kites, to harness the propulsive power of the wind, or arrange to have caches of food deposited along your route. The continent has seen sixteen such successful crossings. Four years ago, Henry Worsley, a retired lieutenant-colonel in the British Army, made the first attempt at an unassisted solo expedition, dragging a sled of provisions weighing more than three hundred pounds at the journey’s start. (Worsley died; David Grann wrote about his endeavorhg0088 for this magazine.) Not long after, Ben Saunders, another British polar explorer, set out on the ice, but he misjudged how much food he’d require and was forced to abandon his mission at the South Pole. Finally, in late 2018, a thirty-three-year-old American endurance athlete named Colin O’Brady pulled it off: an unsupported, nearly thousand-mile hike across one of the most unforgiving landscapes on the planet.

    In O’Brady’s new memoir, “,” he describes the undertaking less as a matter of grit than as a “brutal math problem,” the main variables being “miles, calories, hours, days.” Pack as much nutrient-dense food as you can carry—enough to sustain you but not so much that it’s impossible to haul—and make it to the other side before the twenty-four-hour sunshine of Antarctic summer gives way to the unbroken darkness of winter. O’Brady had budgeted for a daily intake of seven thousand calories, but he ended up burning more than ten thousand a day—a starvation diet, unsustainable for much longer than the two months he had planned for the trek. Even the pace at which energy is expended in subzero temperatures is a careful balancing act: too little exertion and hypothermia sets in, but too much will result in sweat-dampened clothes, which can rapidly freeze against the body. One veteran explorer advised O’Brady on how to use plastic bags to keep the insides of his footwear dry. “A frozen boot never thaws in the deep cold,” he warned. “That’s it. Frostbite. Toes goodbye.”

    Beyond the physical perils lies an even greater danger. Marching twelve or thirteen hours a day, often in a sensory void, O’Brady felt “the quiet erosion of judgment and reason and sanity.” His thoughts would race, descending into “that place of obsessive what-if fears.” He contemplated the probable outcome should a freak squall send his tent flying: “I’d die alone, in the cold, my body temperature falling. I’d grow sleepy, then increasingly irrational, and finally I’d just lie down.” At times, he’d stare absently at his compass and feel as though he were falling into it, relinquishing “the sense that it was separate from me.” One night, while he was setting up camp, everything went blank. He stood there, shovel in hand, unsure of what he was doing or why, “as though my mind had just sort of walked off the field.”

    The obvious question is: Why do this to yourself? A charitable reading would credit O’Brady for testing the limits of human potential and furnishing us with a rich metaphor for chasing our dreams. A cynic might see naked ambition and a competitiveness verging on the colonial. (Louis Rudd, the second person to complete the crossing, along a parallel route, two days after O’Brady, had told the Telegraph: “It’s really important it’s a Brit that cracks this journey first.”) For the last seventy-seven miles, O’Brady gave up on sleep entirely and trudged on for thirty-two straight hours. “I was a reduced man, stripped to his essence,” he writes. “Everything unnecessary in the universe was gone.” After fifty-four days of severe cold and isolation, and having lost twenty-five pounds, he reached a solitary wooden post, set into the frozen ground by the United States Geological Survey, marking the end of the continent and the beginning of the Ross Ice Shelf. In itself, O’Brady’s story is neither cautionary nor inspirational; it’s a Rorschach test for one’s own character and aspirations. To what extremes would you go, and how much punishment would you endure, in the service of a single goal? If there is a lesson, it’s that the path of the reduced man can lead to triumph, or madness, or both.

  • The documentary “” begins with shots of archives—boxes and boxes of old letters and photos—and a voice-over saying, “This isn’t really a story about a man. It’s about what his life was allowed to mean.” That isn’t aggrandizement; the movie really isn’t about the four-time Oscar-nominated actor Montgomery Clift, at least not in the way you might expect. The voice belongs to his youngest nephew, Robert Clift, who was not yet born when the actor died, in 1966, and who made the film with Hillary Demmon. The popular image of Monty is one of gay tragedy—that he was a self-hating, love-starved closet case who drowned himself in liquor and solitude. (He died of a heart attack, at the age of forty-five, but a colleague called it “the longest suicide in Hollywood history.”) Robert takes a closer look at his uncle’s legacy, finding friends—including Jack Larson, who played Jimmy Olsen on the TV show “Adventures of Superman”—who attest to his joy and humor. He may have been closeted to the public, but he appears to have had fulfilling love affairs with both men and women. Maybe he wasn’t so tortured after all?

    It’s an intriguing idea, but the documentary takes a sharp turn toward a more niche subject: the ethics of biography. In the seventies, two books appeared about Clift—one , by Robert LaGuardia, and the other , by Patricia Bosworth, who had the coöperation of Monty’s brother (and Robert’s father) Brooks Clift. Bosworth became the “de-facto family historian,” Robert says. But, as the filmmakers discover, Brooks ultimately felt betrayed by Bosworth and begged her to make changes in later printings. Her research archives reveal that she may have unfairly suggested that Monty was arrested for picking up a young boy, rather than a grown man—playing into a homophobic trope.

    Why get into sentence-by-sentence analysis of a forty-two-year-old biography? Partly because the filmmakers have a trove of material to draw on. Brooks, who died in 1986, compulsively recorded his phone conversations—with Bosworth, with Monty, and even with his wife, the journalist Eleanor Clift, during their divorce. Anyone versed in Janet Malcolm’s trenchant observationshg0088 about journalists and their subjects will recognize the uneasy dynamic between Brooks and Bosworth. Of course, family members can be just as agenda-driven as biographers (often more so), and Robert Clift has his own emotional stake in his uncle’s legacy. But the film asks pointed questions about how even small extrapolations can have distorting effects—was Monty really “more loved than loving,” as Bosworth infers from an anecdote?—and about our reductive understanding of the pre-Stonewall era.

    I first saw “Making Montgomery Clift” last summer, at the Provincetown International Film Festival, and was rapt. So I was surprised to see, months later, that it had been quietly released on demand. One wonders whether a more conventional film—one that upheld the image of gay self-loathing—might have had wider distribution. But the documentary is fascinating on its own peculiar terms, especially for anyone who loves or writes Hollywood history. In the end, it’s a good portrait of Montgomery Clift as well. At one point, we hear Monty on a phone call with a journalist, who seems to imply that he leads a “murky life.” “That sounds so fucking dismal, I must say,” Monty replies. “I can’t say I am just melancholy or I am just sad or I am just anything.”

  • A friend of the late Uruguayan writer Juan Carlos Onetti once that he had muy buena salud frágil—excellent fragile health. Mainly, it was a reference to the last twenty years of Onetti’s life, when he lived in Madrid and spent much of his time in bed. In photos from the period, he’s propped on pillows, reading, next to piles of books, a bottle of whiskey, and an ashtray the size of an overturned umbrella. This life style made his death, in 1994, at the age of eighty-four, seem like a special feat of longevity. Yet Onetti’s “excellent fragile health” made even more sense in relation to his work. One of the greatest Latin-American writers of the twentieth century, he published six novels and dozens of stories and novellas, most of which are set in a fictional town called Santa María, which is populated with jaded eccentrics, castaways, and addled dreamers. In Onetti’s fiction, characters are forever in limbo, between the world they actually inhabit and the one they’d prefer to imagine for themselves.

    hg0088Onetti never received the international recognition of his peers, such as Julio Cortázar, Gabriel García Márquez, and Mario Vargas Llosa, who all admired him. Some of that was the result of his inscrutable personality. Onetti was taciturn and recessive, and he avoided political causes. But there was a literary reason for his obscurity, too. His novels can be hard to read, and harder still to translate. The sentences are dense and layered, evoking comparisons to Faulkner; his characters routinely drift into existential reveries. His most famous novels—a trilogy published in the fifties and sixties—are entrancing, but not especially inviting to the uninitiated. The first one, “,” tells the story of Juan María Brausen, who glumly dreams up the alternate reality that becomes Santa María, where the next two novels (“,” “”), about a grizzled pimp named Larsen, take place.

    Onetti thrived in shorter forms, and the first major English translation of his collected stories, “,” brings the author’s talents into full view. The book, which was published, in November, by Archipelago, and translated by Katherine Silver, shows Onetti’s usual darkness brightened by a hint of tenderness for his characters, who are lost but still trying to find their way. The volume’s title comes from one of Onetti’s trademark stories, in which a sardonic theatre impresario is approached by a woman who wants to pay him to stage a mysterious dream that she’s had. The director acts like money is his primary motivation, but something else impels him to take the job, an understanding he comes to grasp “as clearly as if it were one of those things one learns forever as a child and words are later useless to explain.” Another classic—and a personal favorite—is “Welcome, Bob,” a character study of an aging lover wracked by guilt about who he’s become. He grows obsessed with his younger girlfriend’s judgmental brother, Bob. The story is devoted to him, like a deranged love letter, and the narrator counts the days until Bob, too, will get older, fall short of his own expectations, and spend his hours nursing the continual ache of disappointment.

    hg0088Onetti published sporadically in his later years, and the stories in this volume span roughly six decades of his writing, from his early published fiction to the final years before his death. Aging and senescence are frequent themes, as they let Onetti explore the world of frustrated dreams. You’d think this would make the stories slow and meditative, but the effect is the opposite. Some of them have a special power of suspense; you’re never sure whether a person’s interior or exterior life will win out. (In fact, it’s often not clear what divides them.) “Presencia,” which was published in 1978, a few years after Onetti arrived in Madrid as a political exile, is a case study in this suspense, and one of the sharpest pieces of fiction ever written about the disappearances of the seventies and eighties. In it, a man hires a private investigator to locate his former lover, who was arrested in a military crackdown. But the investigator is a drunk and a scam artist. The man knows this, and pays him anyway, clinging to the hope that his lover can be found. By the end, he’s commissioning the investigator to invent stories he can believe in, and even be bothered by, as long as they come up short of the more painful truth. “On my world map,” he says, at one point, “there were twenty centimeters between Santa María and Madrid.”

  • “,” the new book by the food writer Alison Roman, makes the case that nobody should be too daunted by etiquette to have people over for a meal. “For anyone looking for tips on how to fold linen napkins or create floral arrangements, I am not your girl,” she writes. Instead, Roman teaches her readers to make “unfussy food”: homey meals that can be thrown together and snacks to hold you over when the throwing runs long. Roman gives cooks “permission to be imperfect.” It doesn’t matter if you don’t own wine glasses and your guests drink out of mugs, or if some people have to sit on the floor. What matters—and this is the core of Roman’s vision—is that a roomful of people can share food without pretense.

    Roman is no ordinary food writer. Given the viral success of and the popularity of her book “,” from 2017, she’s more like a phenomenon. When “Nothing Fancy” came out, it jumped to the top of the Times best-seller list, and, when Roman announced a book tour, she sold out events in all thirteen cities. Like high-waisted pantshg0088 or Sally Rooney novels, she’s now a style signifier for the creative class—a part of a shared vocabulary. Part of the appeal is her grasp of her audience: the financially unsteady millennial generation, which has turned “nothing fancy” into an aesthetic choice. Her cooking also mirrors a shift in thinking about nutrition. The culture has reëmbraced fat, and Roman uses it with gusto: butter, chicken fat, ricotta, labneh, coconut milk. She flavors her food with tastes from across the spectrum—earthy turmeric and tahini, bright citrus and fresh herbs—and then adorns everything with flaky Maldon salt. But her signature is accent ingredients, such as anchovies and preserved lemon, that are briny, tangy, funky, and polarizing. Without prohibitive costs or cook times, Roman makes food more interesting.

    “Nothing Fancy” has served me as Roman intended. At a Sunday dinner that started two hours later than planned, I put out her labneh dip with sizzled scallions and chili, and everyone declared it “bomb.” On a weeknight, I made her “Casual Apple Tart with Caramelized Buttermilk” for my roommates (the people I’m always “having over”), and they called it the best apple pie they’d ever had. But my favorite discovery is her “Perfect Herby Salad”: half lettuce and half herbs (parsley, cilantro, tarragon, mint), drizzled with lemon, olive oil, and, of course, Maldon. Like many of her best ideas, it has a why-didn’t-I-think-of-that simplicity.

    The accessibility of Roman’s food is matched by the accessibility of her persona. On her Instagram Stories, she answers questions from her followers (What if I don’t have this ingredient? Is it O.K. if I skip this step?), and in “Nothing Fancy” she writes with chatty informality and self-deprecating humor. But her friendliness toward her readers is less convincing—and less interesting—than her annoyance at her guests, which she cloaks in recipe tips. About her D.I.Y. Martini bar, she writes, “Since making individual ’tinis for everyone who walks through the door is not on my agenda for any evening, I like to make one giant batch.” Or, on “Smashed Eggs and Fancy Fish on Crackers,” she writes, “Not to be rude but if you’re coming over, I am already doing a lot of work and I don’t feel like I need to assemble a cracker for you.” These moments lend her a queen-bee charisma. Whereas Ina Garten and Martha Stewart are prim and gracious, Roman, with her crackling chicken skin and red lips and nails, is libidinous and a little bit mean. Lots of cookbooks promise to help you entertain with ease, but “Nothing Fancy” makes that idea briny, tangy, funky, and a little polarizing: Why play hostess when you can be the life of the party?

About The New Yorker Recommends

The New Yorker Recommends is where our critics, editorial staff, and contributors share their enthusiasms in the worlds of books, music, movies, TV, and the Internet. The page is updated regularly, and the picks range from new releases to revisited favorites. For more, sign up for The New Yorker Recommends newsletterhg0088, which culls from both this page and the magazine’s wider cultural coverage. To stay on top of our culture and news coverage every day, and the magazine each week, . You can for access to the full contents of the magazine, as well as the entirety of its archives.