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Good morning, and welcome back to The Daily’s Sunday culture edition, in which one Atlantic writer reveals what’s keeping them entertained.
Today’s special guest is Gal Beckerman, our senior books editor and the author, most recently, of The Quiet Before: On the Unexpected Origins of Radical Ideas. Gal recently wrote about a 1933 novel that depicts the arrival of fascism in Germany, and the combative 50-year relationship between the biographer Robert Caro and his editor, Robert Gottlieb. He is enjoying Wednesday with his daughters but shielding them from the sight of M3GAN, and, on Rumaan Alam’s recommendation, he finally gave in to the French writer Patrick Modiano.
But first, here are three Sunday reads from The Atlantic:
The Culture Survey: Gal Beckerman
What my friends are talking about most right now: We’re talking about how terrified all of our children are of M3GAN! I took my kids to see a movie the other day, and the trailer came on—and I knew, as soon as I saw that creepy face and that creepy body dancing, where this was all headed. I leapt over the seats to cover their eyes before she invaded their nightmares. Too late. [Related: M3GAN’s killer-robot doll is just what 2023 needs.]
The upcoming event I’m most looking forward to: I recently moved back to New York City after a few years in the cultural wasteland of Los Angeles (yes, I said it). And I’ve got a long list of theater I’m dying to experience—in particular, some revivals of shows I’ve never seen performed, such as August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson, Suzan-Lori Parks’s Topdog/Underdog, and Funny Girl. And as long as we’re talking about anticipated cultural happenings, I’m very much looking forward to visiting the Alex Katz retrospective at the Guggenheim. [Related: The unconscious rebellion of August Wilson]
An actor I would watch in anything: Michelle Williams. She blew me away in The Fabelmans. I’d always loved her work in Kelly Reichardt’s films, but this role demanded such a careful and difficult balance: a mother who loves her family fiercely but is not willing to sacrifice her own personal happiness. [Related: The Fabelmans is Steven Spielberg’s most honest movie yet.]
My favorite blockbuster and favorite art movie: I grew up in the 1980s, and nothing will ever match for me the blockbuster thrill of the Indiana Jones movies. Just hearing the John Williams score reminds me of being 8 years old and completely rapt. As for my favorite art film, the most recent one that comes to mind is Paweł Pawlikowski’s gorgeous, moving 2018 movie, Cold War. [Related: Cold War meditates on exile, nationalism, and love.]
Best novel I’ve recently read, and the best work of nonfiction: This might be unfair, because both of these books were ones I read as galleys and aren’t coming out for a few months (and yes, this is what we in the books biz call “galley bragging”).
The novel is Catherine Lacey’s Biography of X, which is a fictional biography by the widow of an elusive artist whose career has been defined by shape-shifting (think a mashup of David Bowie and Cindy Sherman). The whole story also takes place in an alternate United States that has been divided into three separate territories, with the entire South existing as a fascist theocracy. If it sounds weird, it is. But in the best way.
In a very different register is my nonfiction pick, Jonathan Rosen’s The Best Minds, which explores Rosen’s relationship with his childhood friend whose brilliance was interrupted by his schizophrenia. After years of amassing achievements, including graduating from Yale Law School, this friend ends up killing his pregnant fiancée. It’s a beautifully written meditation on society’s inability to cope with the problem of mental illness. [Related: Catherine Lacey on Gwendoline Riley’s haunted heroines]
An author I will read anything by: I’ll limit myself to two European writers whom I love. One is Emmanuel Carrère, the French author, who writes these strange genre-bending autofictional books—if you’re new to him, I’d start with Lives Other Than My Own. And the other is the German novelist Jenny Erpenbeck, whose Go, Went, Gone is among my favorite books of all time. [Related: You can read any of these short novels in a weekend.]
A song I’ll always dance to: “Hava Nagila”
The last museum show that I loved: I took my daughters to see the Brooklyn Museum’s Thierry Mugler retrospective. I wouldn’t say haute couture is exactly my thing, and I’m often skeptical of museum shows that lean on spectacle to pull in the masses (as much as I understand this impulse). But I was totally dazzled by Mugler’s creations—just the array of materials, from rubber tires to chrome; the crazy extravagance of it. I loved the operatic ambition, and most important, my daughters’ mouths were agape almost the whole time.
Something I recently revisited: Throughout college, I had five Tom Waits albums pretty much on regular rotation, and I recently went back and listened to them again after a long hiatus. Franks Wild Years stood out as the one that captured what Waits does so well: Underneath the raspiness is that smack of nostalgia. I’m a sucker for the crackly sound of a vinyl record and church bells pealing in the distance. He’s timeless.
My favorite way of wasting time on my phone: Twitter, but I just deleted it (again).
Something delightful introduced to me by kids: This is very recent, but my daughters sat me down and made me watch Wednesday, the new Netflix show about the Addams Family character, now a teenager. They were so taken with Wednesday’s sangfroid, her monochrome fashion, and, of course, that dance. “I love dark humor!” my 10-year-old exclaimed.
The last debate I had about culture: Not so much a debate as a quandary: how to understand the wild sales figures for Prince Harry’s memoir, Spare. The book sold more than 1.4 million copies on its first day. With all of its major revelations already pretty well aired, why were so many people interested in buying Spare? Because they actually wanted to read it? [Related: Prince Harry’s book undermines the very idea of monarchy.]
A good recommendation I recently received: The novelist Rumaan Alam has long pushed the French writer Patrick Modiano on me, and I finally gave in and read one of his many slim, twisty, noirish books, So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighborhood. It totally grabbed me.
The last thing that made me cry: The last episode of the series Fleishman Is in Trouble, based on Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s novel and adapted by her, had me completely verklempt for an hour. I don’t want to ruin anything, but there is such an emotional payoff when you’ve seen these characters who have reckoned with feelings of ennui and emptiness finally grasp enough meaning and purpose to go forward. It’s enough to make a middle-aged man cry. [Related: ‘What is Jesse Eisenberg doing here, saying these things I wrote?’]
Read past editions of the Culture Survey with Kate Lindsay, Xochitl Gonzalez, Spencer Kornhaber, Jenisha Watts, David French, Shirley Li, David Sims, Lenika Cruz, Jordan Calhoun, Hannah Giorgis, and Sophie Gilbert.
The Week Ahead
The Writer’s Most Sacred Relationship
By Lauren LeBlanc
Making a living as a writer has always been an elusive pursuit. The competition is fierce. The measures of success are subjective. Even many people at the top of the profession can’t wholeheartedly recommend it. The critic Elizabeth Hardwick, Darryl Pinckney recalls in his evocative new memoir, “told us that there were really only two reasons to write: desperation or revenge. She told us that if we couldn’t take rejection, if we couldn’t be told no, then we could not be writers.”
In spite of these red flags, countless people set out on this path. One lifeline, if you’re lucky enough to find it, is mentorship. Literary mentors offer the conventional benefits: perspective, direction, connections. But the partnerships that result are less transactional and more messy and serendipitous than those that tend to exist in other industries. While many people might think of such arrangements as altruistic or at least utilitarian, Pinckney’s book, which chronicles his tutelage under Hardwick, shows that artistic mentorships, especially literary ones, are far more fraught. Together, he and Hardwick weathered two intersecting careers, each with fallow periods and moments of success. This can be a challenge for creative, fragile egos—leading to a fair amount of projection, blame, and tension. And yet, the mentorships that endure allow for unpredictability and evolution.
More in Culture
Catch Up on The Atlantic
A nighttime parade at the Santiago a Mil arts festival, in Santiago, Chile, on January 10. See the rest of the week’s notable snapshots here.
Kelli María Korducki contributed to this newsletter.