This Week in Books: Pale Horse on the One Hand, Pale Rider on the Other

Opening of the fourth seal : Death riding the pale green horse. Miniature from an Apocalypse of Cambrai illuminated by the French School of the 13th century. Ms. 422. Muncipal library, Cambrai, France (Photo by Leemage/Corbis via Getty Images)

Dear Reader,

The pandemic is a boundless set of small sad stories crescendoing into an incomprehensibly large and terrible story. Here’s one of the small sad ones: my nana’s coronavirus test came back positive on Friday. They quarantined her and the other residents who tested positive in their rooms at the assisted living center, but nana has short-term memory loss and couldn’t remember what was going on, that she was supposed to stay put, that she couldn’t go to the dining room and play cards with her friends. She kept leaving her room and walking through the facility, knocking on doors. She’s always been a sociable person.

The staff wanted to sedate her, but the doctor on call wouldn’t answer their phone; I find myself fixating on this detail, wondering why the doctor didn’t answer, wondering if my nana’s sad story is rubbing up against the edge of a different sad story. Perhaps the doctor was also sick. Perhaps the doctor was just afraid; that would be a sad story, too.

So they sent my nana, who has covid, to the hospital. But not to be treated for covid. To be sedated.

I tried to identify a silver lining to this. I said to my mom, “Well maybe it’s better that she’s in the hospital now? Shouldn’t sick people be in the hospital anyway?” Nana had a cough for several days before the test came back positive. She is a sick woman. But mom seemed certain that they would be transferring nana back to the assisted living facility soon. Maybe even today, as I write this, on Memorial Day. I guess that’s the plan. I guess that’s what they want. I don’t pretend to understand, or to believe that I know what’s best. It doesn’t sound great, but all I know for sure is that it’s sad.

I know other people who have covid too. The rest of them are young people, people in their 20s and 30s, who have recovered but are still suffering from unsettling neurological issues. Or who just started feeling sick and got tested this week. The everywhere-ness of the disease is astonishing. Difficult to comprehend. It’s as though I sometimes forget that it’s all the same thing. Pale horse on the one hand, pale rider on the other.

1. “My Lighthouses” by Jazmina Barrera, The Paris Review

In this dreamy excerpt from Jazmina Barrera’s On Lighthouses — a memoir of an obsession — she visits the little red lighthouse on the Hudson, the one made famous by the children’s book. “I have no memory of how I knew of the existence of this building: I woke up one day recalling that there was a lighthouse under the George Washington Bridge, with no idea of who had told me, or if I’d read about it somewhere. I had to find it.”

2. “The Rest Is Silence” by Mark Polizzoti, Bookforum

Mark Polizzoti reviews Félix Fénéon: The Anarchist and the Avant-Garde, a catalog of a recent exhibition at MoMA, which “tries heroically to craft an in-the-round picture of the man, [but] falls short of conveying just how deeply weird and singular Fénéon was, even for an age that produced its share of great eccentrics.” An art-promoter, critic, and anarchist bomber, Fénéon is probably known to English-language readers, if at all, for Novels in Three Lines, a collection of enigmatic unsigned police-blotter–style news fillers he wrote for a Paris daily.

3. “Pandemic Narratives and the Historian” by Alex Langstaff, The Los Angeles Review of Books

Alex Langstaff interviews “an international group of leading historians of public health, epidemics, and disaster science” and “ask[s] them to reflect on how history is being used in coverage of COVID-19, and how they themselves are responding to the virus in their research, reading, and work life.” It’s a long, dense, fascinating conversation that focuses in part on the way storytelling is shaping the pandemic; how certain narratives, once they gain a foothold, can direct the course of events.

4. “Death of a Radical Rewilder” by Joanna Pocock, Lit Hub

Joanna Pocock eulogizes Finisia Medrano, a radical rewilder who features prominently in Pocock’s Surrender: The Call of the American West. “Finisia traveled on foot, in covered wagon, and by horseback through Nevada, Utah, and portions of Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, Montana, California and Washington state. For 35 years she followed a lifeway practiced for millennia known as the Hoop, a seasonal migratory way of living by following one’s food source, hunting, gathering roots, fruits and nuts, while planting seeds and propagating en route….It is against the law to plant seeds on public lands, and Finisia was jailed twice for doing so.”


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5. “Picturing Climate Crisis in Miami” by Monica Uszerowicz, The New York Review of Books

Monica Uszerowicz reviews FloodZone, a collection of photographs by Anastasia Samoylova that revels in the beauty and precariousness of Miami. “In FloodZone, the ongoing destruction isn’t explicitly documented, only portended through signs of the porousness between our man-made world and the natural one surrounding it. It is always the calm before or after the storm: a child wading through a flooded garage, a bird stoically surveying an unusually high tide, the constant, always visible construction of condos for the wealthy—as familiar now in the city’s landscape as the water itself.”

6. “Waiting for Fascism” by Morten Høi Jensen, The Point

Morten Høi Jensen surveys recent arguments for and against analogizing Trump’s America to the Weimar Republic. “Sometimes, it can seem we are watching the historians’ version of Waiting for Godot, in which the fascist menace is expected at any moment but never arrives.”

7. “The Only Successful Coup in the US Began as a Campaign to Curb Black Voting Rights” by Lawrence Goldstone, Lit Hub

An excerpt from Lawrence Goldstone’s On Account of Race: The Supreme Court, White Supremacy, and the Ravaging of African American Voting Rights, in which Goldstone describes the events leading up to the Wilmington Insurrection of 1898. “Although the white press would later term the events in Wilmington a ‘race riot,’ it was in fact the only violent overthrow of a local government in United States history.”

8. “Sounding It Out” by Ryu Spaeth, The New Republic

Ryu Spaeth writes about teaching his daughter to read during lockdown, something he never imagined doing on his own. “All parents learn a lesson about good writing by reading aloud: Charlotte’s Web, for example, rolls beautifully in the mouth; Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, not so much.”

9. “Horace’s How-To” by Gregory Hays, The New York Review of Books

Gregory Hays reviews Jennifer Ferriss-Hill’s Horace’s Ars Poetica: Family, Friendship, and the Art of Living, in which she “argues that the Ars Poetica is not really about poetry at all. It may masquerade as a guide for would-be writers, but its real concerns are larger: human behavior, family relationships, friendship, and laughter.”

Stay safe,

Dana Snitzky
Books Editor
@danasnitzky
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