The sound of pencil on paper can be soothing. At least Robert Walser found it so. Early on, the Swiss modernist author abandoned all other writing tools, scratching out stories in a minuscule stenographic script. THE MICROSCRIPTS (New Directions, May) reproduces twenty-five of these engaging mini-masterpieces, crafted in the 1920s on envelopes, slips of paper, and even calendar pages, along with English translations by Susan Bernofsky of the large-hearted stories about schnapps and small-town life within.
As the narrator of Elias Khoury's WHITE MASKS (Archipelago, April; translated by Maia Tabet), says: "When the author's in the dark, the plot really does thicken." In this case, that's a journalist who records others' accounts of a man's murder. Through these voices, a jagged portrait of Beirut and its war-addled citizenry appears; the conflicting stories defy easy understanding. Khoury forgoes the plot twists and tidy resolution of a traditional mystery to perform a more enduring metafictional feat.
Spike Jonze recently purchased film rights to Shane Jones's debut novel, LIGHT BOXES (Penguin, May), a fable of perpetual February. But how to adapt for the screen such a self-consciously told story, with fairy-tale-like sections, numbered lists, prose poems, creative typography, and a few bouts of outright disjunction? I especially look forward to Jonze's handling of sequences like this one: "I looked at Selah and remembered the dandelions stuck in her teeth. I thought of a burning sun, an iceberg melting in her folded hands."
Looking up in idle moments, I see figures and scenes in the heavens' shifting shapes and ashy streaks, from the Charmin Bear unraveling toilet-paper rolls to billowy versions of Led Zeppelin's first album cover. It's decidedly lowbrow fare compared with Hans Magnus Enzensberger, who sees shapes that surpass "Patinir and Tiepolo. / The most fleeting of all masterworks" in A HISTORY OF CLOUDS: 99 MEDITATIONS (Seagull Books, April). The poems can be spare and wispy or rich and dense; Enzensberger daubs verse in contours suited to his subjects, some public ("'Peace Talks': Being offended is everything"), others intimate ("For the time being I have even / refrained from dying. / Forgive me, if you can"), but always radiant.
Ben Lerner's MEAN FREE PATH (Copper Canyon, May) takes its title from the tiny cosmos of colliding atoms, molecules, and photons, where measurements are only estimates. Lerner's poems delineate the inexact distances between self, subject, and language. Mindful of poetry's imprecision, he longs for a purer means of expression—"There must be an easier way to do this / I mean without writing, without echoes. . . . What if I made you / Hear this with your hands"—but still achieves moments of matchless clarity.
Mark Oppenheimer has always been a smart aleck. In WISENHEIMER: A CHILDHOOD SUBJECT TO DEBATE (Free Press, April), he recalls his precocious childhood, in which he exhausted teachers and embarrassed parents with his hyperarticulate quips and fulsome queries—until he found the debate team. In a nerd's paradise of rhetorical derring-do, Oppenheimer became an ace public speaker and traveled the world. His finely honed vocabulary—once deployed for show—is put to moving, humorous use in this astute coming-of-age memoir.
Those hoping for schadenfreude in Avis Cardella's autobiography SPENT: MEMOIRS OF A SHOPPING ADDICT (Little, Brown, May) will find mostly pathos, as the author conveys the miserable path of compulsive consumption: from Prada to nada.
ART, FILM, & MUSIC
In 2002, artist Marina Abramović spent twelve days on view in a New York gallery, pushing the limits of both art and endurance, in her performance The House with the Ocean View; in Dragon Head Number 1, 1990, she let snakes slither around her head and torso. WHEN MARINA ABRAMOVIĆ DIES: A BIOGRAPHY (MIT, March), by James Westcott, tracks the Yugoslavian performance artist's work from her formative years to the present.
In WHEN THAT ROUGH GOD GOES RIDING: LISTENING TO VAN MORRISON (PublicAffairs, April), Greil Marcus wrangles with the Northern Irish–born singer: "Morrison's music opened onto the road it has followed since: a road bordered by meadows alive with the promise of mystical deliverance and revelation on one side, forests of shrieking haunts and beckoning specters on the other, and rocks, baubles, traps and snares down the middle."
Michael Robert Evans's THE FAST RUNNER: FILMING THE LEGEND OF ATANARJUAT (Nebraska, May) draws on the author's nine-month stay with the crew for a behind-the-scenes chronicle of the film's creation, which was acted, produced, and made by the Inuit First Nation and is based on one of their legends. The movie was Canada's top-grossing picture of 2002 and is more gripping than its south-of-the-border box-office counterpart, Spider-Man, though Atanarjuat is nearly three hours long, takes place mostly in cramped igloos and on vast expanses of featureless snow, and has dialogue entirely in Inuktitut.
Recently, in search of synonyms on the cheap, I grabbed a galley of Peter E. Meltzer's THE THINKER'S THESAURUS: SOPHISTICATED ALTERNATIVES TO COMMON WORDS (Norton, May) from Bookforum's slush pile. The book asks: "Do you find that your regular thesaurus spits out the same old words[?] . . . Are the lists boring, repetitive, and generally unhelpful?" Indubitably, unquestionably, incontestably—yes! And the book fulfils its promise; however, the galley ends after the e's, with eyewitness (the Thinker suggests autoptic) as the last entry. Whether intended to discourage a thrifty reviewer from purloining words or to prevent resale, this quarter-length galley is surely a sign of the times—a book with a pay wall.
When I visit Paris (still an unrealized dream), the New Wave city is the one I hope to see, with the typical spots—the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame—piquing only mild curiosity. My Paris is the Champs-Élysées that Jean Seberg and Jean-Paul Belmondo stroll while she hawks the New York Herald Tribune in Godard's À Bout de souffle (Breathless, 1960), the Louvre's treasures glimpsed in a blur while the characters run and slide across its marble floors in his Bande à part (Band of Outsiders, 1964), the pool hall and alleys in his Vivre sa vie (My Life to Live, 1962). It is the twilight streets with their morning milkmen and darkened doorways in Truffaut's Les Quatre cent coups (The 400 Blows, 1959), and too many other filmic places to mention here. These flickering black-and-white locales constitute my current Paris psychogeography, but it's a city that continually inspires, and this spring brings a fresh crop of books that sharpen its appeal. There's YVON'S PARIS (Norton, April), a romantic metropolis of rambling arcades and misty riverbanks, as photographed by early-twentieth-century flaneur Pierre Yves-Petit, and the "Red Paris" chronicled by Eric Hazan in THE INVENTION OF PARIS: A HISTORY IN FOOTSTEPS (Verso, April) as he stalks the capital, fulminating about the nineteenth and twentieth centuries' artistic and political rebellions. Then there's the intrigue of Graham Robb's PARISIANS: AN ADVENTURE HISTORY OF PARIS (Norton, April), which synthesizes the city's history into a swashbuckling narrative. So as you read your way through Paris in April, cue up Thelonious Monk's wry version of the old standard and feel—as the song goes—"the charm of spring."