This Week In Books: The New Lord and Lady of the Apartment

Me, doing the laundry. (OMIURI SHIMBUN/AFP via Getty Images)

Dear Reader,

This week I figured out that the best way to hang-dry our sheets is over the closet doors. From across the room they look like a pair of dangerously large jellyfish landing on a dead coral reef.

Is that a weird thing to think? Well, it gets worse. Because as I foisted those sheets unto their bleached white thrones, and regarded them as the new reigning lord and lady of our apartment, I felt a sudden terror not for myself (because I’m losing it) but the guys who work at the laundromat.

You see, I’ve been trying to think of everyone; to contact trace, as it were, the Danavirus, and catalog everywhere I habitually spread my (ew, this metaphor, what the hell) droplet$. And the laundromat, oh god, oh gods, oh gelatinous lords of the reef — I hadn’t thought of them yet! I’d been so fixated on developing a process for handwashing all our stuff in my kitchen sink that I had forgotten the dire economic impact that this, too, has wrought. The laundromat guys must be so worried right now! How can they possibly be making any money?? So, I worried a bit for them. I’m trying to figure out if they have a gofundme but I can’t find it. God, everything sucks.

I shudder to think of how much handwashing is happening in America right now. It’s not good. I am not good at it. Everything is stiff. It turns out washing machines have water filters in them, who knew! So now everything I own is hardened by the invisible minerals in the tap water (“We are learning much about the Invisible Enemy,” the soft, slug-like President of America whispers to me silkily from his hidey-hole in the crisped white reef), invisible minerals which I’m questioning whether I really should have been drinking straight from the tap for…. my entire…. life….

I know I sound like I’m spiraling, which is why I’ve decided this week to read A Distant Mirror, Barbara Tuchman’s classic work of narrative nonfiction about the Black Death. So far the book has taught me that everything is going to be fine!

Haha, sike, no it’s not. You know, at the time, they didn’t call it the Black Death. They called it the Great Mortality. I’ve been wondering what this whole corona thing is going to be called one day — or even what it’s going to be called next month. In my roundup below, one of the articles, featured on Lit Hub, is called “How Did Writers Survive the First Great Depression?” which caught me off guard when I read it. I thought to myself, with a noticeable chill down my spine, “Oh, are we already calling this the Second Great Depression?” Then I belatedly realized the article is an excerpt from a book about the Great Recession — making it unclear whether the “second” Great Depression presumed by the article’s title is a Lit Hub editor’s gesture toward the current corona crisis or the book itself making a statement about the severity of the Recession. It was jarring, this realization that I personally do not have enough data to say for sure, off the top of my head, whether the second Great Depression has already happened or not; that historical time has become so warped in our supposedly post-everything future that the scale and scope of things is somewhat beyond me. It was like looking into a mirror that’s facing another mirror and seeing my foremost reflection first, a half-second before I notice there are a dozen more just like it, going all the way back.

1. “From Now On, I Vow Only to Read Fiction” by Nausicaa Renner, N+1

“I admire those who are stable enough to keep reading essays,” Nausicaa Renner writes in this very good essay. “From now on, I vow only to read fiction.”

2. “Trout Fishing in America” by Greil Marcus, Bookforum

The great Greil Marcus interviews the great Percival Everett; it’s an unbeatable interview combo, beyond reproach. “I can’t look directly at a beautiful river—I find that I have to turn away and steal glimpses of it, because it’s too much for me.”

3. “I Love Paulette Jiles’s Novels. So Why Won’t She Talk to Me?” by Emily McCullar, Texas Monthly

I think at one point I was the kind of person who would have had some reservations about this kind of thing. I would have thought, maybe, that no matter how cranky and conservative and capricious Paulette Jiles is, it’s still sort of awkward to finish your profile of her once she’s cut off communication with you and insulted you on her blog. But now, in the Age of the Virus, I have shed many feelings and beliefs. My heart has been hardened (“by the minerals in the water,” the pale white President in the Reef whispers raspily to me while Lorrie Moore is soothed by the sound of it), and now, to me, it is noble and just to publish the profile of someone who has insulted you on her blog. News of the world, indeed.

4. “The Provincial Reader” by Sumana Roy, The Los Angeles Review of Books

Sumana Roy remembers growing up as a provincial reader in rural West Bengal, which reminded me a little of growing up in Ohio, back when most of my favorite books were garage sale paperbacks with the covers mysteriously ripped off. “In pre-liberalization India, everything arrived late: not just material things but also ideas … This temporal gap turned journalism into literature, news into legend, and historical events into something akin to plotless stories. But like those who knew no other life, we accepted this as the norm.”


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5. “How Did Writers Survive the First Great Depression?” by Jason Boog, Lit Hub

In an excerpt from the The Deep End: The Literary Scene in the Great Depression and Today, Jason Boog writes about becoming obsessed with authors who struggled to survive the Great Depression while he himself struggled through the Great Recession. “I paid 50 dollars to get a copy of Newhouse’s out-of-print novel so I could show it to everybody I knew. Like some misguided missionary, I’d show it to people and say, ‘See? See? He’s talking about us!’ His book felt like a bomb with a busted timer that had stalled back in the 1930s and had been stuck on a dusty shelf for 80 years, losing none of its dangerous potency. I wanted to fix the timer and blow something up all over again.”

6. “Lunar Phase” by Kamran Javadizadeh, The Point

Kamran Javadizadeh ruminates about what kind of book he would ideally like to be reading right now, and lands on the moon. “I find now that what I want out of reading is both contact and distance … I want something that makes me feel like I do when I listen to those lunar audio loops. Which is to say, both close to a voice and far from its source; securely connected, as though by an invisible cable, to a distant but steady point in space.” He writes that the only thing really doing the trick is James Schuyler’s 1974 poetry collection Hymn To Life. In an address to an inaccessible and distant beloved, one poem reads: “In / moon terms, you’re / not so far away.”

7. “‘Chronicle of a Plague, Revisited’ and the Inner Life of Catastrophe” by Garth Greenwell, The New Yorker

In light of the recent tendency to compare the coronavirus pandemic to the HIV pandemic, Garth Greenwell revisits Andrew Holleran’s 1988 Chronicle of a Plague, Revisited (originally published under the title Ground Zero). “[Henry] James, Holleran writes, ‘claimed the raising of a woman’s eyebrow across the dinner table was more dramatic to him than the fall of Rome.’ The question of many of Holleran’s columns in the eighties was what such a writer can do when Rome actually falls.”

8. “Complex Messiah” by Ratik Asokan, Bookforum

An invigorating read about Heinrich von Kleist, a sort of batty early 19th century Prussian romanticist whose novella The Duel is lowkey one of my favorite books. I’ve always wanted to read his best known work, Michael Kohlhaas, and in this review Ratik Asokan writes that New Directions has just given us a robust new translation. “…The tales unfold with a wild, almost savage intensity, which contemporary readers found disturbing; infamously, Kleist’s hero Goethe dismissed the younger writer as diseased.”

9. “A Detrimental Education” by Zaina Alsous, The New Inquiry

Zaina Alsous interviews Eli Meyerhoff about his book Beyond Education: Radical Studying for Another World, an examination of how the older concept of “study” has been superseded by the more recent, capitalism- and colonialism-inflected idea of “education.” “With the formal end of slavery, racial capitalism shifted to wage labor contracts … So, in order to enable arbitrage of humans as capital, capitalists needed to create distinctions in the category of ‘the human.’ Stratified and hierarchical education produces differences among humans that, in turn, create arbitrage opportunities in fractured labor markets.”

10. “The Phony Warrior” by Yoshiharu Tsuge, The Paris Review

In an excerpt from The Swamp, a new collection from Drawn & Quarterly of work by the 20th-century comics artist Yoshiharu Tsuge, a samurai is disappointed to learn that a traveling ronin he meets on the road is both more and less great than rumor has it.

Stay well,

Dana Snitzky
Books Editor
@danasnitzky
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