The Edge Effects editorial board brings you a handful of recommendations based on the most interesting stuff that’s come across our desks, screens, and speakers over the last month (or so). From books and articles, to podcasts, music, and film, we’ll keep you on the edge.
When I was little I would stay up late reading and re-reading Andrew Lang’s Fairy Books, engrossed in the somehow both horrifying and appealing world of princesses, truly awful stepmothers, and anthropomorphized animals of all kinds. One of my favorite stories was The Six Swans, a German fairy tale collected by the Brothers Grimm of six brothers-turned-swans by their (you guessed it) new stepmother, returned to human form only through years of their sister’s silent labor. The sister’s work is interrupted in the final hour, however, and the youngest brother is cursed to live forever with one swan wing—no longer animal, but never fully human. In this month’s Culture Issue of the New York Times Magazine, writer Michael Cunningham reimagines the tale with wry humor and a modern bleakness appropriate for a Halloween of the Anthropocene.
“Beware the aged advocate, the optician with too many coat pockets. Beware uncommonly beautiful women who seem too eager to know you; beware their daughters. Beware the odd policeman, the stranger who looks oddly familiar.” These are but a few of Marjorie Sandor’s admonitions rendered from “the uncanny,” experiences that de-center us by making the foreign seem familiar or the familiar foreign. Sandor has anthologized 31 stories that evoke the uncanny in The Uncanny Reader: Stories from the Shadows, released earlier this year. Although the collection is categorized as fiction, part of its charming magnetism is that it dissolves the lines between real and contrived, animate and inanimate, or life and death such that we feel the uncanny not only on its pages but also in our own lives. The collection is expansive in author, chronology, and genre, yet held together by the ineffable yet captivating experience of dissolved borders. The uncanny is, in short, a kind of haunted edge effect.
Autumn. Harvest. Honest hard work. For those of you with a seasonally-induced yen for hands-on labor, here is one good poem from Ellen Bass complicating any tendencies towards easy romance. “What did I love about killing the chickens?” she asks. “I loved … Slitting a fissure/ reaching into the chamber,/ freeing the organs.” This equally visceral recollection from poet Luis Alberto Urrea reminds us of the work—literally shitty—that makes fall camping possible for some of us. “We carried bag lunches for our three a.m. break, along with our collection of brooms, mops, buckets, rubber gloves, and squirt bottles of acid-based cleansers,” he writes of his job as a campground custodian. “Feces, in all their variations, were a central theme of the place.” What should we make of the work that ties us to the natural world? Chew a while on these two gorgeous answers.
During a recent trip to Canada, I visited the Musée d’art Contemporain de Montréal (MAC). In addition to a fantastical, vibrant exhibition by the American painter Dana Schutz, I was particularly drawn to the work of Montreal native Patrick Bernatchez, whose sprawling Les Temps inachevés (Lost in Time) employed sound, sculpture, drawing, and film. Bernatchez is obsessed with cycles of time and death, from a watch that measures millennia, to the exhibition’s remarkable namesake film, to his macabre, Halloween-worthy drawings called Chrysalides. Much of his work remains in process even as it is displayed: in the photo shown here, a mesmerizing, exquisitely designed machine slowly wrapped string onto a central spindle. All the while, faintly discordant music played in the background. Perhaps more than any artist I’ve yet encountered, Bernatchez is able to create a distinct place in the gallery—a place that is human-made, but feels, somehow, profoundly nonhuman.
“You can get paid a lot at Facebook to figure out who poked who, or you can use data science to understand water budgets to create a sustainable planet.” So concludes a report outlining moves toward “big data” collection and analysis in the ecological sciences. Pair it with this fascinating review of recent attempts to scrap traditional ecosystem models, the kind which might tell you how many fish are going to spawn next season. These new approaches supposedly ditch theory-informed equations in favor of letting the data “speak for themselves.” But whether they’ll work for policy-makers is another question. So too is whether ecologists are up for the interdisciplinary challenge at hand.
This week, historian Cindy Ott told us fascinating origin stories of America’s ubiquitous fall icon: the pumpkin. I’m a big fan of a great material culture and environmental history combo, and Ott’s piece sent me down a rabbit hole for cultural histories of other fall icons. With Halloween just a couple days away, this 2010 article from The Atlantic—How Candy and Halloween Became Best Friends—hit all the right chords. Like Ott’s pumpkins, those candy corns appearing at every turn (a different kind of seasonal food!) tell us something about America’s economic, cultural, and even environmental past.