The books newsletter seems a little irrelevant at the moment; it’s Monday night, and I’m pretty sure the president just pulled a reichstag. Ah, but ok, books, yes, that’s my job. So, first of all, I think you should read Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped From the Beginning and his follow-up How to Be an Antiracist. The former is a harrowing intellectual history of antiracism in America, and the latter is a how-to manual for antiracist living today.
Over at Jacobin, Robert Greene II wrote about how this moment feels like an echo of the Red Summer of 1919, which was a series of pogroms against blacks perpetrated by whites, and which also followed on the heels of a global pandemic. His article reminded me that we ran an interview with Eve Ewing last year about her book 1919, a collection of poetry written in response to the Red Summer attacks. “These kinds of violent histories are all around us,” Ewing said in the interview. “We have to take the time to stop and seek them out if we’re ever going to have any hope at social reconciliation.”
Another book that’s come to mind these last fews days is Anna Feigenbaum’s Tear Gas, which we excerpted a couple years ago. The book tells the story of the “full-scale multimedia marketing campaign to promote ‘war gases for peace time use’” that a few retired military grifters cooked up to pitch local governments on gassing their own citizens. And man did those local governments sure love the idea!
1. “What’s Happening?” by Elvia Wilk, Bookforum
Elvia Wilk surveys post-apocalyptic novels like Doris Lessings’ The Memoirs of a Survivor, Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, and Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker in an attempt to imagine the post-covid world. “What will ‘after’ the pandemic look like? In some ways it is the wrong question to ask, because… giving it an after implies that there was a true before. Yet as writers of dystopian novels know, there was no before, there was only a time when ‘it’ wasn’t quite so unavoidably visible.”
2. “Brit Bennett’s New Novel Explores the Power and Performance of Race” by Parul Sehgal, The New York Times
While reviewing Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half, Parul Seghal dwells on the “uniquely American” genre that is the “passing” story; she writes that Bennett subverts the narrative’s expectations. “Brit Bennett brings to the form a new set of provocative questions: What if passing goes unpunished? What if the character is never truly found out? What if she doesn’t die or repent? What then?”
3. “Wartime for Wodehouse” by Rivka Galchen, The New Yorker
I never realized that P.G. Wodehouse, author of the Jeeves novels, was persona non grata in the UK after the Second World War. Apparently he made a deal with the Nazis to do a little propaganda work for them in exchange for release from the camps. Rivka Galchen dives into the controversy, trying to get to the bottom of whether Wodehouse was just so irrepressibly upbeat that he couldn’t understand why his work for German broadcasters would be seen as propaganda.
4. “You Shall Also Love the Stranger” by Max Granger, Guernica
Max Granger effusively reviews John Washington’s The Dispossessed: A Story of Asylum at the US-Mexican Border and Beyond, a book that Granger says “reads like a novel… It is a beautiful and grievous tangle of history, reportage, philosophy, and testimony…” Focusing on the story of one migrant family, Washington also spins his tale outward and inward, touching on the history, philosophy, and future of migration.
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5. “Les Goddesses” by Moyra Davey, The Paris Review
A sly and delicate essay from photographer Moyra Davey that skips between the lives and letters of various literary luminaries, never quite settling before it hops again. “Sitting on the floor in sunlight and reading through eight small notebooks going back to 1998, looking for a phrase about Goethe… I never found the reference; it was something I had stumbled across on the internet, but it led me to The Flight to Italy, Goethe’s diary (recommended by Kafka, in his diary), in which G. abruptly takes leave of a turgid existence in Weimar and travels incognito to Italy for the first time in his life.”
6. “On the Many Mysteries of the European Eel” by Patrik Svensson, Lit Hub
An excerpt from Patrik Svensson’s charming Books of Eels. “This is how the birth of the eel comes about: it takes place in a region of the northwest Atlantic Ocean called the Sargasso Sea, a place that is in every respect suitable for the creation of eels. The Sargasso Sea is actually less a clearly defined body of water than a sea within a sea. Where it starts and where it ends is difficult to determine, since it eludes the usual measures of the world… The Sargasso Sea is like a dream: you can rarely pinpoint the moment you enter or exit; all you know is that you’ve been there.”
7. “A Brief History of the Codpiece, the Personal Protection for Renaissance Equipment” by Dan Piepenbring, The New Yorker
Dan Piepenbring reviews Michael Glover’s Thrust: A Spasmodic Pictorial History of the Codpiece in Art, which is, yes, a pictorial history of the codpiece. “Historians… not[ed] that it was ‘so voluminous it could serve as a pocket.’ And indeed it did, offering convenient storage for one’s hankie or a stray orange, in addition to ‘ballads, bottles, napkins, pistols, hair, and even a looking glass,’ as the scholar Will Fisher has written. With great size comes great decorative responsibility, and men of means rose to the occasion. They brocaded, damasked, bejewelled, embroidered, tasseled, tinseled, and otherwise ornamented their codpieces until they became like walking Christmas trees.”
Stay safe out there,