Francine Prose is a Distinguished Visiting Writer at Bard. Her new novel, Mister Monkey, will be published in October. (May 2016)

Quality Lit: She Took Charge

Blanche Knopf at Blake’s Bookshop, London, summer 1946
In the opening paragraph of The Lady with the Borzoi, Laura Claridge provides a highly compressed and useful explanation of why one might want to read a biography of Blanche Knopf, who profoundly and permanently influenced the American public’s ideas about, and taste in, literature. In the early years of …

The Ballad of Slippin’ Jimmy

Bob Odenkirk as Jimmy McGill in Better Call Saul

The appearance of a sequel, prequel or spinoff often signals an attempt to wring the last bit of juice (or cash) out of a proven success. How unexpected and satisfying, then, that Better Call Saul—which features several characters from the popular AMC series Breaking Bad and which has just completed its second season—should offer us something so entirely new. The new season has proven to be even stronger, funnier and more focused than the first.

‘Beautiful and Horrible’

‘Window Shopping,’ circa 1930s; photograph by Eudora Welty
A startling shift in perspective occurs as we read—and remains with us after we have read—the title poem in Robin Coste Lewis’s first collection, Voyage of the Sable Venus and Other Poems, which received the 2015 National Book Award in Poetry. The poem is an incantatory compilation of the names …

Tough & Funny Tales

Aleksandar Hemon, Sarajevo, August 2003
For Joshua Levin, the hero of Aleksandar Hemon’s marvelous comic novel The Making of Zombie Wars, daily life is a source of inspiration, a succession of bruising encounters and near-continuous mortifications that can be mined for the premises of awful films that will never be produced. Scattered throughout the book …

The Accidental Beauties

Peter Fischli and David Weiss: Study for Honor, Courage, Confidence (from

If Peter Fischli and David Weiss’s “How to Work Better” offers us upbeat, cheerful, vaguely absurd advice on how best to perform our daily tasks, their work—like much of what is on view at the Guggenheim—could go under the rubric of “how to see better”—more appreciatively, more inquisitively, and with a more open and frank delight in the modest wonders of daily life.

The Passion of the Coens

George Clooney as Baird Whitlock in the Coen brothers' Hail, Caesar!, 2016

More than half a century after the era in which the Coen brothers’ Hail, Caesar! is set, Hollywood is still making pictures of the sort that the film parodies, but which will presumably lack the irony, the nuance, the humor—and the fun—which the Coen brothers have brought to this latest chapter in their ongoing exploration of how we live, or try to live, in the presence or absence of the divine.

Love Is the Plot

In so many films, especially Hollywood films, love either sets the plot in motion (Bonnie and Clyde meet and rob banks) or provides the punch line: after ignoring the obvious for two hours, the contentious pair finally embrace just as the closing credits roll. But in Carol, Todd Haynes’s film based on Patricia Hightsmith’s novel The Price of Salt, which tells the story of how Carol, a wealthy married woman, meets and then falls in love with a younger woman in 1950s Manhattan, love is the plot.

A Talent for the Low & High

Gary Indiana, New York City, 2000
In an epilogue to I Can Give You Anything But Love, the writer, actor, and artist Gary Indiana explains his decision to avoid the familiar form of the conventional memoir: At some point I began to prune away anything suggesting the sort of “triumph over adversity” theme that gongs through …

Wonderful, Bickering Ghosts

Joey Arias and Julie Atlas in Basil Twist's Sisters’ Follies: Between Two Worlds, 2015

In Sisters’ Follies: Between Two Worlds, puppeteer Basil Twist has devised two gravity-defying human marionettes, trussed up in harnesses and yanked about by mostly invisible strings. Watching it, one feels a giddy, childlike sense of wonder and awe—but without the terror that an actual child might experience at a play that features two extremely spooky and persuasive ghosts.

Totalitarian Love

Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz in Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Lobster, 2015

Yorgos Lanthimos’s strange and original films observe and reflect the culture in which we live. At the same time they create a parallel, fanciful world by taking our social institutions, our common experiences, and our deepest emotions—and pushing them to their illogical extreme. Lanthimos’s new film, The Lobster, takes on the subject of modern love. It posits a dystopian near-future in which it has become illegal not to be part of a couple.

‘Satanic Seduction’—Online

The Geminoid-DK robot (left) with Henrik Scharfe, director of the Center for Computer-Mediated Epistemology, Aalborg, Denmark, March 2012
Joshua Cohen’s remarkable Book of Numbers begins by strongly suggesting that we not read the novel with one forefinger lightly skimming the screen of our portable electronic device: “If you’re reading this on a screen, fuck off. I’ll only talk if I’m gripped with both hands.” After this initial salvo, …

The Situation-Room Comedy

Tim Robbins as US Secretary of State Walter Larson in The Brink, 2015

Offhandedly mocking our inadequate, improvisatory foreign policy in Southeast Asia and the Middle East, The Brink, the little-known HBO series that aired this summer and has been renewed for a second season, is so funny, so inventive—and so fearless in what it has to say about geopolitics—that watching it would be pure pleasure were the events it depicts not so uncomfortably close to the perilous reality of the world in which we live.

Nazi Propaganda: Out of the Cage

Paula Wessely as Maria Thomas in Gustav Ucicky's Homecoming, 1941

Many propaganda films produced under the aegis of the National Socialist Party, including some forty movies made between 1933 and 194, are still illegal to show publicly in Germany, except in an approved academic setting. What Forbidden Films, Felix Moeller’s excellent documentary, seeks to answer is the question of whether these films are not only chemically but politically incendiary—and whether they should continue to be banned.

Fragments of a Family

Sydney Lucas as small Alison, Beth Malone as Alison, and Emily Skeggs as medium Alison in the Broadway adaptation of Alison Bechdel's Fun Home, 2015

Part of what’s fascinating about the Broadway adaptation of Fun Home is how closely it adheres to the outline and details of Alison Bechdel’s story—yet so differs from the book that it seems to be a related but entirely original work. Together, the memoir and the musical argue for the fact that plot and character are just a part of what affects us when we experience art. Our response is also determined by form, genre, setting—not only by the story but by the way the story is told.

Growing Up Too Black

Toni Morrison, Princeton, New Jersey, 1992
The title of Toni Morrison’s new novel echoes that of the sly, langorous Billie Holiday ballad “God Bless the Child.” But while the child in the song is blessed, or deserves to be blessed, because he’s “got his own”—something, presumably money, that will enable him to thrive regardless of what …

A Hollywood Exorcism

Mia Wasikowska as Agatha in David Cronenberg and Bruce Wagner's Maps to the Stars, 2014

What’s exciting about Maps to the Stars, David Cronenberg and Bruce Wagner’s new film about Los Angeles, is the inventiveness and ease with which it stakes out a dark corner of territory under the bright California sun. It’s Hollywood hell, populated by suffering souls: comic, sad, frightening characters, who are believable, more than slightly weird, and all, it turns out, connected.

The Case for Hollywood History

Robert Taylor as Ivanhoe and Elizabeth Taylor as Rebecca in Richard Thorpe's Ivanhoe, 1952

Perhaps my skepticism about holding movies like Selma, The Imitation Game, and The Theory of Everythingto rigorous standards of veracity has to do with the fact that I grew up during an era in which “historical” films routinely departed so far—and often so comically—from reality.

Building Anne Tyler’s World

Anne Tyler’s twentieth novel is set, like most of her work, in a version of Baltimore that is less like the inner-city war zone mapped in The Wire or the jolly freak shows of John Waters than the paintings of Norman Rockwell and the films of Preston Sturges. Tyler’s white, …

A Nightmare on Broadway

Michael Keaton as Riggan Thomson in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman, 2014

In Birdman Alejandro González Iñárritu has taken his cinematic nightmare to the Great White Way, illuminated it with Broadway footlights, located the pathos—and the hilarity—in the New York stage, and given us a cast of nuanced and beautifully acted minor characters.

They’re Watching You Read

A commuter reading D. H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover with fellow passengers surreptitiously watching, London, November 3, 1960

In an age in which our email messages can be perused by the NSA and our Facebook posts are scanned for clues to our habits and our desires, what joy and a relief it is, to escape into a book and know that no one is watching. But now it turns out that I haven’t been quite as alone as I’d imagined.

Courts Without Reporters

Alfred Bendiner: Sweet Innocence, 1936

It was only partly a coincidence that my students have been reading two essays about trials, when so much national attention was focused on the Michael Brown and Eric Garner grand jury decisions. I wondered how different things would be if a writer of Rebecca West’s or William Finnegan’s stature had been present to tell us what exactly transpired during the deliberations in both cases.

The Luck of Women in Love

Sarah Waters, London, 2014
As The Paying Guests opens, its heroine, Frances Wray, is trying to slow the alarming rate at which her standard of living is declining. Her disagreeable father has died of apoplexy; both of her brothers were killed in World War I; and without the financial support of male relatives and …

Manhood Against Marriage

Johannes Bah Kuhnke, Vincent Wettergren, Clara Wettergren, and Lisa Loven Kongsli in Ruben Östlund’s Force Majeure

What do males expect of themselves, and what do women want from them? In Ruben Östlund’s engrossing and perceptive film Force Majeure, as in life, questions of masculinity collect around blunt manifestations of bravery and fear, and confrontations with nature.

Seeing Our Selves

Amy Landecker and Jeffrey Tambor in a scene from Transparent

Most viewers, I’d assume, might hesitate to identify with the appealing, but maddeningly solipsistic Pfeffermans of the new Amazon series Transparent. At its center is the balding, thickset Mort/Maura, not exactly a wildly attractive exemplar of either gender. And yet I finished each installment eager to spend more time with the Pfeffermans, whose individual and collective predicaments seem at once entirely unique and universal.

Romantic & Scary

Drawing by Edward Gorey
In her acknowledgments at the end of Stone Mattress, Margaret Atwood distinguishes between stories and tales, and explains that—as the collection’s subtitle suggests—the short fictions we have just read belong in the second category: These nine tales owe a debt to tales through the ages. Calling a piece of short …

The Shy Clumsy Lover

Andrea Canobbio, 2005
Andrea Canobbio’s remarkable novel Three Light-Years begins with the sort of metaphor, the kind of sweeping statement that, in the work of a less gifted writer, might warn readers to brace themselves for the onslaught of something sententious and bogus. But the paragraph that follows is so artful and intriguing …

Czech Winter

Lukáš Černoch as Czech student Jan Palach dousing himself in gasoline in Agnieszka Holland’s Burning Bush

Agnieszka Holland’s brilliant, ambitious, and moving new film, Burning Bush, begins at a violent and traumatic moment in Czech history, five months after Soviet tanks had brought an end to the Prague Spring. Part of what makes the film so affecting is the pace and patience with which it documents the gradual change undergone by its protagonists as they come to realize how unlikely it is that anything will change.

Two Women Who Dared

Félix Vallotton: La Salamandre, 1900
The historical novel that offers a surfeit of period detail—books such as Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring and Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha—can make us feel very distant from the men and women (however much we may sympathize with them) who dress and sound and live so …

Enamored Magicians

Jess: The Enamord Mage: Translation #6, a portrait of Robert Duncan, 1965

Visiting “An Opening of the Field: Jess, Robert Duncan, and Their Circle,” it’s hard not to feel nostalgic…but for what? Perhaps for a time before young artists and recent MFA graduates were accustomed to droning on, with soporific self-seriousness, about their “art practice”; before the dictates of the art market had leached so much of the fun out of art; and before artists aspired to live in homes that closely resembled those of their wealthiest collectors.

Hunting Diane

Diane Johnson, San Francisco, 1987; photograph by Dominique Nabokov. More than fifty of Nabokov’s photographs of writers, editors, and others are collected in Dominique Nabokov: The World of The New York Review of Books, the catalog of a recent exhibition at NYU’s Maison Française. It includes an introduction by Ian Buruma.
Early in Diane Johnson’s new memoir, Flyover Lives, she reports on a house party in Provence, a gathering so fraught with social discomfort and mannerly hostility that it could be a scene in one of her witty, sharply observed novels. En route from Paris to Italy, Johnson and her husband …