Yet we can turn to these greats to recover the “aim of art”—which is to “ask the big questions,” such as “how are we supposed to be living down here?” Although I cannot assent to a number of Saunders’s answers to that question, I am grateful for his reminder of the goal of art. In an era diseased by “facile, shallow, agenda-laced” information (“as you may have noticed,” Saunders says, tongue-in-cheek), A Swim in a Pond in the Rain is especially welcome.
Sure, Byrne shares a few Hollywood tidbits — lying about knowing how to ride a horse to land a part in John Boorman’s “Excalibur,” getting scolded by Laurence Olivier for merely asking him for the time (“you should buy yourself a watch”). But Byrne, who turned 70 last year, has written something more introspective and literary: an elegiac memoir that explores the interior life of a Dublin boy who finds himself almost accidentally — and incidentally — famous. It’s a story about Ireland and exile and carrying the ghosts of family and home through time.
The late Roger Ebert once wrote that “the movies are like a machine that generates empathy.” Great fiction comes off a similar production line—its many parts and widgets are often designed to engender identification and empathy from the reader, to get them deep inside the head of a stranger. The short stories of Argentine author and journalist Mariana Enriquez are seeing machines—lenses that throw the uglier side of the human condition into uncomfortably sharp focus. She shows us horrors (both historical and otherworldly) that the naked eye doesn’t want to see.
You didn’t need to be a pubescent boy (or his father) to fully appreciate the charms of Maila Nurmi — a.k.a. Vampira — when she first appeared on late-night KABC-TV in the spring of 1954. But it didn’t hurt. She was tall, beautiful and frightening and she screamed like a banshee, climaxing each howl with a lewd lick of her full lips, which even in black-and-white glistened bloodily. Her pale body was almost a caricature of an hourglass figure, like one of those inexplicably bountiful women featured in the pinups of Joaquin Alberto Vargas, for whom Nurmi had modeled only a few years earlier. But what made Vampira most memorable was the jokes she slyly delivered at machine-gun speed: pop, pop, pop. She came heavily armed with oodles of sexy, macabre puns and she wasn’t afraid to use them.
There is a common saying not to speak ill of the dead, but what about glorifying them? Can complications arise from such reverence? For 28-year-old Nadia Owusu, her father, who passed away from cancer when she was 14, was exempt from criticism. “For my father, over the years, I wrote several elegies,” she writes, now 39, in her new memoir, Aftershocks. “In them, he was canonized. I needed to believe in something big and pure and godlike. Because I could not bring myself to believe in a god I had never met, a god my father hadn’t believed in, I chose to believe in my father.”