A. N. Devers is a writer, editor, and teacher. Her work has appeared in Bust, Departures, Fine Books, Slice, The Southampton Review, Time Out, Tin House, The Washington Post and online at Electric Literature, Lapham’s Quarterly, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Salon, and Slate among other publications.
A.N. Devers | Longreads | May 2017| 9 minutes (2,206words)
When the first episode of Twin Peaks aired, I didn’t see it. It was the spring of 1990 and I was in shock. My grandfather and grandmother had just died unexpectedly of different causes less than twenty-four hours apart, on April 1st and 2nd, respectively. I was 12 years old and felt as if I was in a fever dream. Their deaths were ghastly and remarkable and strange and heart wrenching and I felt like for two weeks my body had left the earth, a pre-teen balloon, floating above their home of Ft. Worth, Texas watching streams of mourners as they arrived with potato salad and Ricky’s BBQ and chocolate cake. Read more…
Shirley Jackson celebrated her 100th birthday this month. We are publishing this post from A.N. Devers in her honor.
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Like so many readers, I loved and was gutted by Shirley Jackson’s famous New Yorker short story “The Lottery” from the first time I read it, and I have read it so many times since then that I don’t remember when I was first introduced to it. I was young. I have a couple of prime suspect English teachers who might have been the gift-givers. But until about nine years ago, I hadn’t read any of Shirley Jackson’s novels. I was only vaguely aware of one of them, her famous ghost story, The Haunting of Hill House.
Then I wrote a short story my MFA professor was enthusiastic about; it was full of domestic disturbance and the strange, and he assigned me to read all the Shirley Jackson I could get my hands on, which was difficult at the time, since not much was in print. So I read her collected stories, and two novels We Have Always Lived in the Castle and Hill House. I inhaled them and their contents, the cobwebs and fairy tales, the ghosts and talismans, the anxieties and fears. They are books written by a self-described witch who was also a tremendously gifted writer, and that makes them laced with a kind of special magic. I still can’t believe they aren’t better known or accepted as great American novels.
Since then, I’ve read nearly the lot of it, and done everything possible to get to know Shirley Jackson and her work, including staring up at her white columned house that was illustrated on the cover of Life Among the Savages, her bestselling memoir about raising four children. I wandered the backroads of Bennington, Vermont in my car looking for the inspiration of her haunted Hill House, before I learned it was inspired by a home far away from Vermont’s hills in California.
I’ve also been Jackson’s book pusher. Not too long ago, I dined with a table of smart, friendly, and incredibly well-read British book dealers and explained to them who Shirley Jackson was. They hadn’t read “The Lottery,” but it rung a faint bell. It’s worrisome, but I’m happy to report that they furiously wrote her name down. I once gave my copy of Castle to a stranger at a bar. And as a cherry on top, last year, I proposed and lead the first Shirley Jackson reading group at The Center for Fiction. We pored over her work, and read some of it out loud, and that is when I realized her fiction hasn’t aged. Her storytelling is incredibly modern. She is a writer to read right now. Read more…
Our latest Longreads Exclusive is the first chapter from The Queen of the Night,the second novel by award-winning writer Alexander Chee, as recommended by Longreads contributing editor A. N. Devers:
“In the opening pages of The Queen of the Night, we are transported to a celebratory night at The Luxembourg Palace in Paris, 1882, where a legendary opera singer, Lilliet Berne, is trying to avoid attention (self-conscious of a poorly-designed dress she must wear), only to step accidentally into an intimate conversation with a writer who wants to put her at the center of a new opera. The one trophy missing on her crowded shelf is an original role in a new work, and she throws caution away as the stranger flatters her with the offer. As the soprano with the delicate voice tempts fate, we learn of her long-kept secrets, deep ambition, quick wit, and keen powers of observation. In Berne, Alexander Chee has created a fully-formed diva from a glamorous age that has long since passed, yet her role as her own mythology builder is as contemporary as ever, as seen daily in tabloids and online, as actors, athletes, fashionistas, Kardashians, politicians, Real Housewives, and yoginis shape their stories for column inches and Instagram followers—some, like Berne, have true talent. Chee’s Queen of the Night is a spectacular and balletic historical novel, its intricacies offer insights not only about fame, but also about the Second Empire in France and its rich musical and literary history.”
WHEN IT BEGAN, it began as an opera would begin, in a palace, at a ball, in an encounter with a stranger who, you discover, has your fate in his hands. He is perhaps a demon or a god in disguise, offering you a chance at either the fulfillment of a dream or a trap for the soul. A comic element—the soprano arrives in the wrong dress—and it decides her fate.
The year was 1882. The palace was the Luxembourg Palace; the ball, the Sénat Bal, held at the beginning of autumn. It was still warm, and so the garden was used as well. I was the soprano.
Our latest Longreads Exclusive is the second chapter from the novel Alena by Rachel Pastan, as chosen by Longreads contributing editor A. N. Devers, who writes:
“Sometimes a book that is wonderful and well-told and riveting is overlooked. I believe this is the case with Rachel Pastan’s Alena. This novel, about the art world and its ghosts, came out quietly to great reviews last year, was called “a brilliant takedown of the self-serious art world” by Alex Kuczynski in the Times Book Review, and was published in paperback earlier this year. Inspired by the ghost-filled mega-bestseller of its day, Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, Pastan’s ode tells the story of a young art curator who takes a position at a small Cape Cod art museum that is left mysteriously vacant by her predecessor, a woman named Alena who has vanished under mysterious circumstances. Pastan trades the aristocracy of manor house for the aristocracy of the art world, but keeps all the hauntednesss one expects to find oozing from a haunted house’s drafts and flues. In this chapter, we meet our narrator, as she works to make art her life, and we see a glimpse of the fraught future she has in store.”
Sara Majka | Longreads | October 2015 | 23 minutes (5,561 words)
Our latest Longreads Exclusive is a previously unpublished short story by Sara Majka, as chosen by Longreads contributing editor A. N. Devers, who writes:
“This short story, about a woman who decides to travel to from city to city, working and eating in soup kitchens, is the previously unpublished title story from a collection I have been wishing and longing for for almost a decade. I first met Sara Majka in a fiction workshop at the Bennington Writing Seminars, where we both were enrolled as students. At the time, I was a new assistant editor at A Public Space and I brought Majka’s work to the attention of editor Brigid Hughes. If I recall correctly, her story was the only story I brought from my workshop directly to the magazine for consideration. It was a quiet and considered story with a singular voice. I was struck by how certain and precise the language was—how unusual and full of unspoken yearnings. She was able to convey so much disorientation, doubt, and pain through small observations and deceptively simple memories. Majka’s characters read as if they are feeling their way through a room with their eyes closed even though the lights are on—the reality of what is in front of them is difficult for them to process, the choices they are faced with confusing—despite their sincere attempts to find their way.
The story I showed Hughes ultimately did not end up in the magazine, (I later found it a home at Pen America), but she was more than intrigued, and later published another story and began a working relationship with Majka that led to the forthcoming publication of Cities I’ve Never Lived In, as a part of A Public Space Books, their imprint with Graywolf Press. These stories are a marvel and will break your heart. Majka’s debut is breath-stopping.”
The President: How do you reconcile the idea of faith being really important to you and you caring a lot about taking faith seriously with the fact that, at least in our democracy and our civic discourse, it seems as if folks who take religion the most seriously sometimes are also those who are suspicious of those not like them?
Robinson: Well, I don’t know how seriously they do take their Christianity, because if you take something seriously, you’re ready to encounter difficulty, run the risk, whatever. I mean, when people are turning in on themselves—and God knows, arming themselves and so on—against the imagined other, they’re not taking their Christianity seriously. I don’t know—I mean, this has happened over and over again in the history of Christianity, there’s no question about that, or other religions, as we know.
But Christianity is profoundly counterintuitive—“Love thy neighbor as thyself”—which I think properly understood means your neighbor is as worthy of love as you are, not that you’re actually going to be capable of this sort of superhuman feat. But you’re supposed to run against the grain. It’s supposed to be difficult. It’s supposed to be a challenge.
The President: Well, that’s one of the things I love about your characters in your novels, it’s not as if it’s easy for them to be good Christians, right?
At The New York Review of Books, President Obama interviews Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Marilynne Robinson, a conversation he requested to have after becoming a fan of her novels. As a companion to this interview, read her recent essay, “Fear,” a rumination on American history, religious history, guns, violence, war, and her deeply held Christian beliefs.
As a regular book browser, or shelf stalker, and former employee of Community Bookstore in Brooklyn, I’ve recently watched several customers come in asking for recommendations of what to read next after finishing Italian novelist Elena Ferrante’s four-volume saga, The Neapolitan Quartet — a masterwork concerning issues of class, status, and the remarkable complexity of female friendship, set on the fringe of an economically depressed Naples. I also had been wondering what I myself would find to read and recommend to friends to quench the Ferrante Fever. As if the book gods heard my call, I nearly simultaneously received a long letter and gift from an old friend in the mail the other day. I’d recommended she read Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend. In return she sent along a beautiful recommendation of deceased Hungarian novelist, Magda Szabó’s The Door, a novel that also explores the complex and unsettling nature of friendship between two women who couldn’t be more different:
She was nowhere to be seen, either in the apartment when I awoke, or in the street when I set off for the hospital; but there was evidence of her handiwork in the section of pavement outside the front door swept clean of snow. Obviously, I told myself in the car, she was making her rounds at the other houses. I wasn’t distressed, or heartbroken. I felt that only good news awaited me at the hospital, as indeed it did. I was out until lunchtime. Arriving home, rather hungry, I was sure she’d be sitting there in the apartment, awaiting my return. I was wrong. I was faced with the disconcerting experience of walking into my own home, bearing news of life and death, and no-one to share it with. Our Neanderthal ancestor learned to weep the first time he stood in triumph over the bison he had dragged in and found no-one to tell of his adventures, or show his spoils to, or even his wounds. The apartment stood empty. I went into one room after another, looking for her, even calling out her name. I didn’t want to believe that, on this of all days, when she didn’t even know if my patient was alive or dead, she could be somewhere else. The snow had stopped falling. There could be nothing in the street requiring her attention. And yet she was nowhere to be found.
After a night in a motel I returned to the library the next morning and looked at images of Graham Greene. The man in my photograph did look a lot like Graham Greene, but also different. Regardless, I didn’t know where next to look. I decided to try the sheriff’s office.
The inside of the office was as nondescript as the outside and in fact so was the sheriff. He was a new sherif, though he was over fifty. I could tell because his clothes were so neat and crisp. His dispatcher was out sick and so he was manning the desk, he told me. I showed him the photograph.
Looks like that actor,” he said.
“What’s his name?”
“No, that’s not it. He was on that Chuck Norris television show.”
He scratched his head as he looked out the window. “Floyd something. Westerman. Floyd Westerman.”
“This man’s name is Davy Cloud. He’s Arapaho and he’s about eighty now.”
“Why do you want him?”
“I promised his hundred-year-old mother I’d find him.”
—From Percival Everett’s first short story collection since 2004, Half an Inch of Water, which is concerned with issues of race and identity, and family and community, and is set against the backdrop of the American West.
All of that mid-century Marxist devotional intensity was concentrated in Mimi and Chimen’s bedroom. There were Socialist and Communist books in Russian, German, Yiddish, French, English, Hebrew. There were old pamphlets so yellowed by time that one risked their disintegration simply by touching them. When Chimen and his close friend Henry Collins, who had collaborated on a number of articles about Marx beginning in the early 1950s—they had met through the Historians’ Group of the Communist Party—decided to write their book Karl Marx and the British Labour Movement: Years of the First International, the books and documents in Chimen and Mimi’s bedroom provided the nucleus for their research. It was, as Chimen had always intended it to be, a working library.
—From journalist Sasha Abramsky’s account of his grandparents’ intellectual lives, The House of Twenty Thousand Booksis a tour of Chimen and Miriam Abramsky’s massive book collection of Jewish history and socialist literature.
In Brooklyn, Barbados was bimshire, a jewel that Bajans turned over in their minds, a candy whose sweetness they sucked on whenever the bitter cold and darkness of life in America became too much to bear. Avril, while she reserved a healthy amount of disdain for Bird Hill and its people, still felt something like love for her country, and she wanted at the very least to keep up with what was going on there. Almost twenty years into living in the States, she had no illusions of moving home and starting over again like the other women she knew who went home every year, packed barrels and kept up with phone calls, went to the meeting of the old boys’ and old girls’ clubs of their high schools where fattened, impoverished versions of themselves showed up in the harsh lights of church basements in Brooklyn, picking over the grains of famous stories from the old days and new stories about who had done well or not well at all in what they liked to call “this man country.” In the same way that Avril had never been a good West Indian girl when she was home, she was not a good West Indian woman abroad, not given to cultivating a desire for and a connection to home that smacked of devotion. Still, she told Dionne and Phaedra that no matter what she felt about Bird hill, it was important that they spend time with their grandmother, and get to know the place without which they would still be specks in God’s eye.
—From Naomi Jackson’s debut novel, The Star Side of Bird Hill, about two sisters, ages ten and sixteen, exiled to Brooklyn from Bird Hill, Barbados, while their mother, a former AIDS nurse, stays back home due to a severe chronic depression.