Author Archives

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.

When Your Grandparents Are Intellectuals: A Family’s History Through Books

Shelves containing Communist histories, including Chimen and Henry Collins’s book on Marx. This bookcase was just to the right of the bed. Photo courtesy of Sasha Abramsky and his family.

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 Books is a tour of Chimen and Miriam Abramsky’s massive book collection of Jewish history and socialist literature.

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‘Barbados was Bimshire’: Naomi Jackson’s Debut Novel

From the cover of The Star Side of Bird Hill

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.

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Hygge: The Dark Side of Danish Comfort, a Story by Dorthe Nors

Dorthe Nors | Longreads |  August 2015 |  8 minutes (1,904 words)

 

Our latest Longreads Exclusive is a previously unpublished short story by Danish writer Dorthe Nors, translated into English by Misha Hoekstra, and chosen by Longreads contributing editor A. N. Devers, who writes: 

“I first came across the intriguingly sparse work of Dorthe Nors in the pages of the literary magazine, A Public Space. And then the magazine went on to publish her first short story collection translated into English, Karate Chop, in partnership with Graywolf Press, and it became one of my favorite books last year. Although her stories are quite short, they are flashes of sharp and bright light into the otherwise obscure and dark corners of life. Last winter, a particularly cold and brutal season for New York, I helped curate a reading series for a temporary exhibition space called Winter Shack, themed around the idea of exploring the concept of “coziness.” In Denmark, I’d learned the pursuit of being cozy is a particular philosophy with its own rules and traditions, undertaken to beat the winter doldrums. We were lucky that Nors was game to send along an introduction to the Danish custom of cozy as well as an original short story that demonstrates the dangers of pursuing its creature comforts. Longreads is proud to be the first publisher of this eye-opening story about the happiest people in the world.”

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Who Killed Dolly Wilde?

Dolly Wilde, photographed by Cecil Beaton

Megan Mayhew Bergman | Almost Famous Women | Scribner | July 2015 | 36 minutes (6,383 words)

 

Our latest Longreads Exclusive is a short story from Almost Famous Womena collection by Megan Mayhew Bergman, as recommended by Longreads contributor A. N. Devers, who writes: 

“In her vital and poignant themed story collection, Megan Mayhew Bergman explores the interior lives of women who lived on the precipice of notoriety before falling into obscurity. The story here, ‘Who Killed Dolly Wilde?,’ delves into the unusual life and mysterious death of Oscar Wilde’s niece, Dorothy Wilde, building a rich portrait of a witty and wild bon vivant who dated both men and women (but mostly women), drove an ambulance in World War I, and fell prey to dangerous addictions. Bergman daringly imagines Wilde’s last days suffering with cancer and her addictions as something other than what history has recorded, which leaves a unsettling and dangerous aftertaste in the reader’s mouth—if we write women out of history, we never know the truth of things.”

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Death Made Material: The Hair Jewelry of The Brontës

Portrait of Anne, Emily, and Charlotte Brontë, by their brother Branwell (via Wikimedia Commons)

Deborah Lutz | The Brontë Cabinet: Three Lives in Nine Objects | W.W. Norton | May 2015 | 42 minutes (6,865 words)

Below is an excerpt from the book The Brontë Cabinet, by Deborah Lutz, as recommended by Longreads contributing editor A. N. Devers.

* * *

Long neglect has worn away

Half the sweet enchanting smile

Time has turned the bloom to grey

Mould and damp the face defile

But that lock of silky hair

Still beneath the picture twined

Tells what once those features were

Paints their image on the mind.

—Emily Brontë, Untitled Poem

If the Brontës’ things feel haunted in some way, like Emily’s desk and its contents, then the amethyst bracelet made from the entwined hair of Emily and Anne is positively ghost-ridden. Over time the colors have faded, the strands grown stiff and brittle. Charlotte may have asked Emily and Anne for the locks as a gesture of sisterly affection. Or, the tresses were cut from one or both of their corpses, an ordinary step in preparing the dead for burial in an era when mourning jewelry with hair became part of the grieving process. Charlotte must have either mailed the hair to a jeweler or “hairworker” (a title for makers of hair jewelry) or brought it to her in person. Then she probably wore it, carrying on her body a physical link to her sisters, continuing to touch them wherever they were. Read more…

When Blondes Go Wrong

(Photo by jerebu)

After I found out about the Blonde Fury, I thought I’d better colour my hair again. I bought the dye at the same drugstore where I’d bought the pregnancy test, only this time its shelves were half vacant. There was an inventory girl with dark blueberry hair who stood in front of the selection with a clipboard. She had loaded all of the Blondissima and Super Blonde into a shopping cart, presumably to be trucked away into some back warehouse, out of customer eyesight. I reached out a finger and ran it along the remaining choices, as if touching the boxes would help me. When you get to know me, you’ll find out I have to touch everything to convince myself it’s real. I touch everything except people. Your father, an exception.

Brown Sugar, Toffee, Pecan, Cedar, Acorn, Walnut. In the cardboard panel on the boxes that showed the results, and on the dingy hair loops attached to the shelves below, they all looked the same shade.

“I went for the darkest,” the employee said. “Don’t take chances.”

—From Emily Schultz’s satirical novel The Blondes, a wild and smart look at cultural theory, gender roles, and societal expectations, against the backdrop of a curious and dangerous new rabies-like disease that only turns women with blonde hair into cold-blooded killers.

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The Weirdness of Near-Future America

You, Little Sylvia, will come up knowing the truth, but to the rest of the world–to jellyfishes, crackers, finkies, and swells, to Bosom families and Consolidated alike–the stars are not real. The planets are not real. Astronomy, if spoken of al all, is regarded as a delusional cult scarcely more respectable than the Jesus Lovers. The Chiefs long back did the decent thing and decided to put both gangs out of business. The Jesus Lovers dug in; you will see their lowercase t scratched on fenceposts with a ten-dollar nail. But the Astronomers went off quietly without leaving a trace or sign.

They were easily dispatched because their ideas so nearly resembled fiction. You will learn better, Little Sylvia, but to the rest of the world Astronomy is nonsense, magic on par with weather-knowing and poetry cures.

The surest way to hobble any truth is to put it in a story-book. Smart Man Tolemy wrote The Lonesome Wanderer for children so that we would come up knowing Astronomy as a fairy tale. His Astronomers were pale, hairless mountain men who believed the bright flaws in the Night Glass to be distant Suns.  They believed the Wanderers to be other worlds like our own. In contradiction of common sense and observation, their Sun did not circle the Earth but the other way around.

–From Jeffrey Rotter’s second novel The Only Words That Are Worth Rememberinga chaotic romp following the much maligned Van Zandt family as they try escape the law in a near-future America, where astronomy has become a fairy tale, and Earth has returned to its pre-Copernican status as the center of the Universe.
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The Rediscovery of Diary-Keeping

Summer Days, Camden Maine By Leon Kroll (1884 - 1974), via Wikimedia Commons

Today I was so relieved to get a migraine. For the past thirty-plus years I’ve gotten migraines regularly; they were part of the whether that happened within and without. I would get a migraine after a manic jag. I would get a migraine before a blizzard. Now I rarely get them. I don’t want to say that I miss being in pain, but I do miss the excuse to not give a shit about all the big and small things I often care too much about and that a migraine eradicates. When I have a migraine I do not grieve the shirt that was put in the dryer by accident and its texture forever ruined; I do not feel undermined by the passive-aggressive person at my workplace; I do not blame myself for failing to be in better touch with my grandmother. My body used to have the good sense to give itself a regular break from my mind. It is no longer sensible.

I welcomed a migraine today because it permitted me to forget that it is the end of summer and we are about to leave until basically next summer, and I feel guilty for abandoning my house. I turned out the lights and sat in the dim living room. I thought, This is what it’s like in this house for other nine months of the year. Lightless and empty. I tried to put myself in the house’s position. I tried to feel what the house feels because this house is a people house. I worry, without people, what might become of it.

–From the August 31st entry of writer Heidi Julavits’s year-long diary, The Folded Clock,  a project she started in adulthood after rediscovering her childhood diaries, which, she found, read like they were were written by a “paranoid tax auditor.” In her review of The Folded Clock, Eula Biss writes in The New York Times Book Review, “This diary is a record of the interior weather of an adept thinker. In it, the mundane is rendered extraordinary through the alchemy of effortless prose.” The book came out this month from Doubleday.

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John Keene’s ‘Rivers,’ A Speculative Huck Finn-Inspired Short Story

Photo by Nina Subin. Courtesy of New Directions.

Huckleberry seized my hand, clasping it so tight he brought back in a quick flood of feelings those years with the Widow Watson, and whispered as if he wanted only me and not his friend to hear, “You take care of yourself, Jim, and keep out of all that trouble, please, cause this world is about ready to break wide open, and I sure don’t want to see you get swallowed up.”

From Vice, John Keene’s short story, “Rivers,” an ambitious and daring story that imagines Jim’s life forty years after his ride on a raft down the Mississippi River with Huckleberry Finn.

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Novelist Samantha Hunt Contemplates Her Obsession with One Direction, and Mortality, Too

One Direction, 2013 Fiona McKinlay)

I love it here. I love girls, my three girls in particular. But I also love the hormonal girls who fill the ranks of 1D’s fans, Directioners. They are unembarrassed by their extreme passions. They are honestly mad for love or whatever chemistry the band is brewing in their bodies. The documentary film Crazy About One Direction records one fan admitting she got braces put on her teeth not because she needed them but because Niall had braces. Another girl says that if the boys asked her to chop off her arm, she would. A third confesses she’d kill a cat, no, a goat, in order to meet the boys. These girls build galaxies out of whole cloth. They’d fight any battle for their seigneurs.

Tonight the mass of girls before me in the arena, swarming like insects, raises a question of economy. How many waitressing shifts, humid summer jobs, and hours babysitting does it take to hold these five boys aloft, to lard the fiefdom? How better might these girls’ energies be spent in humanitarian projects and education? And how best to understand their mania without dismissing it as a fault of their youth or gender?

It’s this last question that interests me most, because I, too, am here, willingly, happily, and I am not a girl. I’m a trespasser disguised as a “mum.” In truth, I’ve logged hundreds of hours listening to 1D without my kids. I consume 1D in huge, voracious doses as one might a bag of Cheetos. Sometimes I feel sick afterward but most often not. Most often 1D makes me feel light and lifted and full of gladness. Even as I write this piece, it is all I can do to not watch the video for “Steal My Girl” on a loop, as, you know, research. I love One Direction.

From Samantha Hunt’s New York magazine essay about a health scare and coming to terms with motherhood, mortality, and aging, set against the vivid backdrop of her and her daughters’ shared fandom of the boy band One Direction.

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