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Dana Snitzky

This Week in Books: Farewell Longreads! I’m Taking This Rodeo to Substack.

This is how many books you'll be able to read about if you subscribe to my new substack. (Photo by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash)

Dear Reader,

It’s been a wonderful five years! But sadly after today I will be leaving Longreads.

Let me tell you about how you can read my “This Week in Books” newsletter going forward, since I know you would all surely be bereft without it.

I will continue this project at my new substack, which over the weekend, in a galaxy-brained mania, has… evolved… beyond a simple newsletter. I would like to unveil to you, dedicated reader, the wonder and ruin that awaits you at… The End of the World Review; a micro magazine and teensy tiny literary review that is deeply alarmed by the imminent end of the world, but meanwhile just vibing. The End of the World Review will feature some of my favorite writers from Longreads plus new voices, as well as my classic weekly books newsletter, as seen in your inboxes since time immemorial.

You can choose to receive just the books newsletter (it’s still free), or you can support my new aspirational apocalypse magazine! Either way, to subscribe, go here. To follow on twitter, go here.

If you are short on cash but want to be counted among the elect, DM me @endworldreview or email me endworldreview@gmail.com and I’ll give you a code for a $1/month subscription or a free one if you need it.

If you are long on cash, then you might as well subscribe; after all, it is the end of the world.

I want to thank Mark Armstrong, Mike Dang, and the whole wonderful team at Longreads. It’s been a great few years, and I’ll really miss it. I’ve really loved every minute of my Longreads career: working with brilliant writers to produce accolade-accruing essays; working with yet more brilliant writers to produce book reviews, author interviews, and reporting on important topics like the climate crisis; excerpting cool new books by yet more brilliant writers; writing this nerdy as all get-out newsletter. I’ve loved it so much that… I’m not stopping.

So long and see you soon,

Dana Snitzky
@danasnitzky

 

1. “From Woe to Wonder” by Aracelis Girmay, The Paris Review

This is an exquisite essay, all its bends elegant, its turns refined. Drawing on Gwendolyn Brooks and Kamau Brathwaite, Aracelis Girmay describes her careful attempts to shield her young son from being touched by the malevolent hand of Whiteness for as long as she can; it’s disturbing to read how his white classmates have already succumbed to its perverse logic.

It does not occur to us to talk to our kids about Whiteness just yet, but increasingly I think we must. For example, I am startled, in February, by my son’s White schoolmate who runs into the hall to announce to his parent that Martin Luther King Jr. was killed because of the color of his skin. These months later I am again startled by the very young White children who speak openly and, it seems, without fear about George Floyd’s murder.

We are on a Zoom call with my child’s class. One of his White classmates has gone to a march with her family, in the middle of a pandemic, to march for Black Lives. The power of this is not lost on me. I am moved by their family’s investment and risk, a risk I do not take. I study the child’s face. The baby still in her voice, her cheeks, the way she holds her mouth. She says, “George Floyd was killed because…” And I click the sound off. My youngest says, “I can’t hear, Mommy.” Just a second, I tell them both, just a second.

2. “The Celebration of Juneteenth in Ralph Ellison’s ‘Juneteenth’” by Troy Patterson, The New Yorker

Troy Patterson writes about the sermon at the heart of Ralph Ellison’s Juneteenth, which “exhort[s] worshippers to approach it as something like Passover—a day of deliverance on which to tell stories that keep history alive in memory.”

3. “Our First Authoritarian Crackdown” by Brenda Wineapple, The New York Review of Books

Brenda Wineapple reviews Wendell Bird’s Criminal Dissent: Prosecutions Under the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, a study of early American legal history which reveals that under the Adams Administration, the Alien and Sedition Acts were used to prosecute way more people than previously believed — not just newspapers and editors, but also regular people who spoke against Adams on the street. “When the very tipsy Luther Baldwin of New Jersey cried in a ‘loud voice’ (according to the indictment) that President Adams ‘is a damned rascal and ought to have his arse kicked,’ he was arrested for seditious speech. (He pled guilty and was fined $150 plus court costs.)”

4. “The History That James Baldwin Wanted America to See” by Eddie S. Glaude, Jr., The New Yorker

Eddie S. Glaude, Jr., writes about James Baldwin’s sympathy to the Black Panther philosophy and his dedication to telling an honest version of American history rather than one of triumphant progress. Glaude points to an impromptu speech Baldwin gave in 1968 — an introduction for Martin Luther King, Jr., at an S.C.L.C. fundraiser hosted by Marlon Brando: “By 1968, when [Baldwin] gave his speech [introducing King] in Anaheim, he saw clearly how the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, a few years earlier, might offer white America the sense of self-congratulation that Black Power was now denying it. He knew that the civil-rights movement could easily be conscripted into the story of how Americans, in their inherent goodness, had perfected the Union. The history being made could be bent in service of the lie.”

In July of 1968, just a few months after King’s assassination and against the backdrop of American cities burning, Baldwin gave an interview to Esquire. He set the tone of the exchange from the very start:

Q. How can we get the black people to cool it?

A. It is not for us to cool it.

Q. But aren’t you the ones who are getting hurt the most?

A. No, we are only the ones who are dying fastest.

5. Post-377: LGBTQ Literary Culture in India” by Saikat Majumdar, Los Angeles Review of Books

Saikat Majumadar writes about the explosion of queer literature in India after the decriminalizing of gay sex in 2018; Majumadar argues that after the legal victory, there was social pressure for writers to make celebratory and “out” narratives of queer life.

The celebratory narrative of post-377 India found clearest voice in the publication, by Penguin India, of Afghan-American journalist Nemat Sadat’s debut novel, The Carpet Weaver, a bildungsroman about a queer boy growing up in the masculinist, patriarchal culture of Afghanistan amid the warring currents of global ideologies. Sadat has been fond of telling the story of how his novel, rejected by US publishers, found ready acceptance in India, where the recent decriminalization of homosexual love made readers eager for this sort of narrative. Fiction was now expected to celebrate this newfound freedom and legitimacy, a fact that was brought home to me personally when the queer activist Chintan Girish Modi, in his popular column “The Queer Bookshelf,” gently accused my own novel, The Scent of God, of hushing queer love, pushing it back into the closet.

6. “Her Sentimental Properties” by Sarah Mesle, The Los Angeles Review of Books

Sarah Mesle reviews Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers’s They Were Her Property: White Woman Slave Owners in the American South, which I can attest is a deeply messed up read; the book is about white enslaver women’s tradition of “gifting” black people to one another on special occasions. It reads like a horror novel, not through any stylistic effort of the author, but just because the dry recounting of these things is freaky as hell. As Mesle writes, Get Out is a horror movie; They Were Her Property is historical scholarship. But when it comes to America’s racialized past, horror and history are hard to keep apart.”

7. “On Horseback” by Nell Painter, The Paris Review

Images of black protestors on horseback remind Nell Painter of her childhood rides with her father and bring her closer to her Western roots, which the whitewashed version of American history had made it difficult for her to claim. “Like so many facets of U.S. history, cowboy history has been lily-whited-out, via the movies’ exaltation of the cowboy as a white man. In so many ways, too much of U.S. history reads as a story of white men…. This is about to change. Although the current upheavals have begun with reforming policing, that’s only a start. History is being remade, including the history of the West. This new history, visualized in images of black women and men on horseback, brings me into more personal, more intimate connection with the political protests that demand wide-ranging, far-reaching improvements in our national life.”

*

This Week in Books: We’ve All Been Briefed

MANHATTAN, NY - JUNE 14: Hundreds of people pack into Columbus Circle to hear speeches of protest against police violence with one protester holding a painted portrait of Floyd George. (Photo by Ira L. Black/Corbis via Getty Images)

Dear Reader,

“Every Chicagoan is financing torture, every day,” writes Laurence Ralph in an excerpt from his book The Torture Letters: Reckoning with Police Violence. The excerpt is written in the form of a letter to any and all future mayors of Chicago, endeavoring to explain to the mayor—to really explain—police torture in Chicago. “You likely have been briefed about police torture,” Ralph writes to the future mayor, a statement that could just as easily apply to you, or to me. We’ve all been briefed.

“Perhaps you have gotten assurances from the superintendent of the police department. You might have even met with survivors of police torture. But what I have found in studying this issue for more than a decade is that…a strict historical approach, or a policy-oriented approach, doesn’t actually clarify the full extent of the problem. To do that, we need not facts but a metaphor.

“The first thing you must know is that the torture tree is firmly planted in your city. Its roots are deep, its trunk sturdy, its branches spread wide, its leaves casting dark shadows. The torture tree is rooted in an enduring idea of threat that is foundational to life in the United States.”

Ralph goes on to give the mayor the raw numbers; numbers like this have been circulating since the protests began, and they have not lost their power to startle me.

“Police misconduct payouts related to incidents of excessive force have increased substantially since 2004. From 2004 to 2016, Chicago has paid out $662 million in police misconduct settlements, according to city records. Furthermore, there is no reason to believe that these figures will decrease. Hundreds of Chicago Police Department misconduct lawsuit settlements were filed between 2011 and 2016, and they have cost Chicago taxpayers roughly $280 million. When I was writing this letter in July 2018, the city had paid more than $45 million in misconduct settlements thus far, in that year alone. Keep in mind that misconduct payouts are only a fraction of what the city spends on policing. Chicago allocates $1.46 billion annually to policing, or 40 percent of its budget—that’s the second-highest share of a city budget that goes to policing in the nation. It trails only Oakland, which allocates 41 percent.”

Every Chicagoan is financing torture, every day. Or as New Yorker Molly Crabapple puts it in her dispatch from the protests, “we, the broke and beaten residents and taxpayers, will be paying for their abuse of us.” In between her accounts of beatings and pepper sprayings and arrests, she recounts similar numbers, nearly the same numbers: “Last year, the city paid out nearly $70 million to settle police misconduct cases, up $30 million on the previous year; that number will swell beyond comprehension in 2020. Yet none of this comes out of the police budget.” These numbers are so malevolent to me; they have a sorcerous energy; when things are unbalanced, it is unnatural and disturbing.

“In the end,” poet Cameron Awkward-Rich writes in his account of a protest he joined up with in Massachusetts, at which chants of “Black Trans Lives Matter!” rang out, “the Northampton cops pepper-sprayed a group of demonstrators who got too close to the station’s doors.”

“The station’s been cleaned. The Black Lives Matter flag no longer flies from its post. The demonstration will recur and this time the station will be barricaded hours in advance. A video has circulated online that depicts the brutal beating of black trans woman Iyanna Dior by a group of black cis women and men. Intracommunity calls to defend black trans life have been met with affirmation, yes, but also derision and accusations of unduly diverting attention away from the present struggle. We only get so much access to the feeling of freedom.

“It’s impossible to know what the other side of this will look like, how this unfolding situation will crystallize into a narratable event. Whether a stretched-out moment of insisting that black trans life matters will, in the end, matter. Whether ‘Black Trans Lives Matter’ will ever occupy the simple present tense. In the meanwhile, the Okra Project has begun and funded an enormously ambitious project to connect struggling black trans people with life-sustaining care. In the meanwhile, Dee Dee Watters of Black Transwomen Inc has raised nearly $10,000 to support Iyanna Dior. In the meanwhile, strangers and intimates alike have given Tony McDade’s family more than enough to put him to rest.

“In the meanwhile, the crowd is assembling again outside my window, louder this time, gathering force.”

1. “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free” by Cameron Awkward-Rich, The Paris Review

Poet Cameron Awkward-Rich, author of Dispatch, reflects on the intersection of blackness and transness while he protests outside a police station in Northampton, Massachusetts: “…transness, at minimum, is the insistence on the human capacity for once unimaginable change.”

2. “Letter From Brooklyn: Finding Justice in the Streets” by Pitchaya Sudbanthad, Lit Hub

Novelist Pitchaya Sudbanthad, author of Bangkok Wakes to Rain, wonders just how much the now ubiquitous low-flying police helicopters of Brooklyn are recording; but once he joins a protest, it no longer seems to him like the helicopters are the ones doing the watching. “The rebellion…refuses obfuscation. Too many cameras to count—like the one Darnella Frazier tapped on her phone to record Floyd’s last moments—now point at the true sources of violence and brutality. It’s our turn to shoot.”

3. “In New York, Protesters’ Pride Beats Police Brutality” by Molly Crabapple, The New York Review of Books

Artist and journalist Molly Crabapple, co-author of Brothers of the Gun, observes the protests in New York, drawing what she witnesses, and recounting stories others have told. “In the Bronx, while boxed in and waiting to be cuffed, former congressional candidate Andom Ghebreghiorgis witnessed a woman going into labor. Another convulsed in seizures. Blood dripped from the baton wounds police left in protesters’ skulls. Ghebregiorghis himself spent at least six hours with his hands agonizingly zip-tied behind his back. On another night, Jason Rosenberg, a programmer for the 92Y, emerged from jail covered in blood, with a broken arm and a head wound that required six staples to close. A source familiar with the situation in the holding cells told me of a woman who had miscarried after being arrested. Another pregnant woman was beaten, left handcuffed, and denied water.”

4. “An Open Letter to All the Future Mayors of Chicago” by Laurence Ralph, The Paris Review

An excerpt from Laurence Ralph’s The Torture Letters: Reckoning with Police Violence. Police torture, he writes, is best understood as a metaphor; a torture tree. And the nourishing roots of the tree are “this country’s enduring logic of threat.” Ralphs writes: “Frontier logic…is foundational…to modern-day policing. We can see it at work when one court after another acquits cops who gun down African Americans under the pretext that those cops felt threatened. In such cases, the violence enacted against Black people works to turn the police officers who actually committed the violence into the victims of those Black people. This is how the tangled and twisted logic of fear became rooted in the security apparatus of the United States.”

5. “On Charles Dickens’ Devious, Hypocritical ‘Nice Guy’ Cop” by Olivia Rutigliano, Lit Hub

Oliva Rutigliano writes that Charles Dickens, despite having little regard for authority or social elites, fell into the narrative trap, common in all sorts of media for decades, that transforms fascination with police detectives and undercover cops into admiration. Rutigliano calls Dickens’ “strangely giddy” account of a police ride-along, called “On Duty with Inspector Field,” shockingly hypocritical because, by his own account, most of what he witnessed was the intimidation of the poor. Rutigliano is echoing George Orwell, who wrote that “the only officials whom Dickens handles with any kind of friendliness are, significantly enough, policemen.” As Rutigliano puts it, “Dickens runs into what may be the biggest recurring hypocrisy in his career, as well as the history of popular entertainment: the insistence that police officers fighting crime provides exciting content, while avoiding that the vast majority of ‘crime-fighting’ is ultimately the continued oppression and convenient scapegoating of society’s most vulnerable people.” Rutigliano show how the multi-layered, formally complex book Bleak House finally allows Dickens to excavate his own misperceptions; many of the novel’s dizzying number of plotlines are touched by the same undercover agent, and only by gathering together the threads, and seeing the work of the police across many narratives, can one begin to glimpse the faulty machinations of justice.

6. “Look Who’s Watching,” Tracy O’Neill interviewed by Robert Lopez, Bookforum

Robert Lopez talks with Tracy O’Neill about how her new novel Quotients, which is structured around themes of surveillance and communication, relates to the pandemic and police brutality. “In the book I include several real events, one of which is the police slaying of Mark Duggan, a black man. After Duggan’s death, the Tottenham protests lit through social media. More protesters were caught using social media photos than CCTV, supposedly, and BlackBerry’s parent company gave the police information. So on the one hand, we can see how videos of police brutality have helped us in efforts to document police brutality and anti-blackness, yet the same devices that help hold law enforcement to account may be what provides the police with tools to identify and in some cases arrest protesters.”


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7. “‘The Down Days’ Is an Eerily Prescient Pandemic Novel” by Jennifer Wilson, The New Republic

Jennifer Wilson writes that Ilze Hugo’s novel The Down Days is so eerily predictive of even the tiniest aspects of the pandemic—down to funerals taking place on Facebook—that “one can’t help but wonder—if these times are really as unprecedented as the government leaders and insurance companies tell us they are, why was this moment so easy for Hugo to imagine?” Wilson goes on to say that The Down Days has implications for the much-feared inevitable “onslaught of Covid-based fiction”; she writes, “It is a strange thing to have a dystopian work of science fiction suddenly read like a realist novel in the vein of Balzac, but that is what makes The Down Days such a bizarre (but wildly addictive) book. It has the telltale formal qualities of genre fiction…But its content could hardly be called dystopian—since its publication date has rendered it familiar, mundane…It promises an opportunity to see what our response to this moment might have been like if we had never seen it coming, and yet ultimately refuses to give us that satisfaction. Any fiction that accurately captures our so-called new normal, this novel shows, will have to grapple with the old one.”

8. “Hervé Guibert: Living Without a Vaccine” by Andrew Durbin, The New York Review of Books

Andrew Durbin writes about novelist and photographer Hervé Guibert, author of To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life, “a stark autobiographical book about his desperate effort to gain access to an experimental ‘AIDS vaccine.’”

To the Friend made Guibert both wealthy and famous, especially after an appearance on the French TV show Apostrophes. Posters of his handsome face went up around Paris, transforming him into a symbol of the intense suffering of seropositive men and women at the time. Though he promises in the opening section of his book to become “one of the first people on earth to survive this deadly malady,” he would die the following year, on December 27, 1991, only a few days after his thirty-sixth birthday, author of an additional five extraordinary books, all of which would be published posthumously.”

9. “DREAMer memoirs have their purpose. But that’s not what I set out to write.,” Karla Cornejo Villavicencio interviewed by Lucas Iberico Lozada, Guernica

Lucas Iberico Lozada speaks with Karla Cornejo Villavicencio about her book The Undocumented Americans, “a series of dispatches from what we might call undocumented America: a country within a country, one that overlaps and undergirds the other.” Cornejo says she was looking to rebut the DREAMer memoir:

“…I felt like… a crazy person who was able to articulate what her experiences had been would be a pretty good canary in the coal mine to talk about the American Dream. The way I define crazy is not just ‘mentally ill.’ It’s a radical term…When this Administration started comparing us to animals, it coincided with a moment when I started undergoing intravenous ketamine treatment for depression. For the first time in my life, I started noticing my surroundings. I noticed—in a purely unsentimental way—certain plants around me. I developed a relationship with this group of crows that lived in my neighborhood, and I began feeding them. I learned that my brain had had a lot of damage because of the traumas related to migration.

“In my interviews and research, I realized that the stories that came out and had become sort of popular about immigrants, undocumented or not, were stories from people who were pretty grateful to America. It seemed like the point in a lot of these narratives was to change racist white people’s minds about us. And that didn’t feel right with me, so I thought, what would it look like if a crazy person wrote this?”

Cornejo also talks about the insidious “memoirization” of women’s writing, especially women of color’s writing, that came up in the newsletter a few weeks ago. “My book is a serious work of literature. When I’ve done interviews, people don’t ask me about literary things, people don’t ask me about formal things, people don’t often ask me about my influences or whether I have any training in writing or who I studied under or things like that. People just ask me about my parents leaving me in Ecuador, or what I do for self-care, things like that. It’s very clear that I’m being seen through a sociological lens.”

There’s a lot more that’s worth pull-quoting from this interview but I suppose I should stop. Wait, there’s this: “I’ve always felt a telepathic connection to Stephen Miller. I wrote an article once in the New York Times, and immediately afterward I became aware that he became aware of me.”

10. “A Different Civil War in the Southwest” by Sam Kleiner, The Los Angeles Review of Books

Sam Kleiner reviews Megan Kate Nelson’s The Three-Cornered War: The Union, the Confederacy, and Native Peoples in the Fight for the West, which “explore[s] the undertold story of the war in the deserts and mountains of the New Mexico territory (modern-day Arizona and New Mexico). The evocative title of her book comes from a soldier’s observation that what was playing out in New Mexico was, in fact, a ‘three-cornered war’ between Union, Confederacy, and Native peoples.” Nelson draws on diaries, letters, and other first-person accounts to resurrect the despicable reality of the conflict: that the antislavery forces were also genocidal exterminators.

11. “How Yusuf Idris’s Stories Upended Respectability Politics in Egypt” by Ezzedine C. Fishere, Lit Hub

In his forward to a new Penguin Classics collection of Yusuf Idris’s short stories, The Cheapest Nights, novelist Ezzedine C. Fishere writes that as young reader, his first encounter with a story by Idris “showed me what probably every good story can show: things fall apart for no particular fault of individuals who are just trying—and failing—to keep it together.”

12. “Say Thank You Say I’m Sorry” by Jericho Brown, The New York Times

A new poem from Jericho Brown, author of The Tradition. “It is early. It is late. They have washed their hands. / They have washed their hands for you. / And they take the bus home.”

Stay safe out there,

Dana Snitzky
Books Editor
@danasnitzky
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This Week in Books: Pain and Power

Protesters demonstrate the death of George Floyd at the Lincoln Memorial on June 9, 2020, in Washington, DC. (Photo by JIM WATSON / AFP) (Photo by JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)

Dear Reader,

In an essay about W.E.B. Du Bois’s apocalyptic short story “The Comet,” Saidiya Hartman pries at the edges of the plot; Du Bois, she writes, depicts black life in America as entailing a “wounded kinship” and “precarity” that results in what can seem like almost a “lack of feeling.” Summarizing the story’s bitter end, Hartman writes that Du Bois’s black survivors “are not able to live as others live, nor are their children. This rapport with death, this life-in-death, challenges any taken-for-granted aggrandizement of life and its distinction or separation from death.”

In an essay about the bordering-on-miraculous healing properties of wild lettuce, which transforms into a meditation on black pain, Harmony Holiday writes that challenging this enforced “lack of feeling” is a vital revolutionary project.

“…we outsource our pain…Black pain for sale as song, film, scream. Black people are the Western world’s Christ consciousness. We have been sacrificed, made sacred, so that the rest of the society can play dumb and numb and profane, enacting the sad fairy tale demanded of consumers under capitalism, wherein happiness and comfort are the apotheosis— rooted in the material, in accumulation of commodities and clout while the soul flails and atrophies….The supreme commodity here is numbness. From its vantage Blackness is cannibalized and treated as evil, pain, sorrow, exegesis.”

She exhorts her reader, again and again, to ask the question: “what hurts?”

“When we who have Black bodies learn to be ruthless with our testimony, to weaponize our honesty about what hurts, when we decide to live as if we do not deserve constant dull aches and pains and traumas and phantoms, when we stop being the willing unconscious scapegoats for all the brutalization this culture harnesses as fuel, the whole construct will crumble. And it will hurt, but we won’t be the ones doing all of the feeling, finally.”

Naming what hurts requires an expanded vocabulary; new tools for fighting power: “defund” instead of “reform.” In an essay ruminating on the Wounded Knee Massacre and the murder of George Floyd, Layli Long Soldier writes that once, when she was in pain, “without the words to define and make sense, there was no revelation, no epiphany, no shimmering thought to release me from the pain and let go.” She goes on to say that without words, she can always trust instinct: “[Instinct] is all I have sometimes and it is always, enough… Instinct tells me when danger is here, even when everyone tells me it is not.” Presenting fragments of the archival records of the Wounded Knee Massacre, she asks the reader to read carefully, to rely on their instinct. She asks, again, for us to reread the passages about the day of the massacre, to linger on certain turns of phrase. She writes,

…you may sense an old, yet very present energy when you read, “A herald cried out that the soldiers would take us to the agency and take good care of us.”

You may taste that present energy in, “They gave us rations of sugar, coffee, crackers and bacon.”

You may see it in, “While we were doing this, the soldiers guarded round our camp. Then they put Hotchkiss guns where the cemetery is now. There were so many guns all around us I could hardly sleep.”

Hear it in, “The guns seemed to get quiet. In the meantime, we moved to the north, and a child was asking for water […] there were wounded crying out.”

Feel it in, “It was very cold when the storm came on.”

This is instinct.

I felt a spike of this dreadful instinct when I read about protestors being kettled by police — surrounded and brutally beaten; and when I read again this week about Vincent Bevins new book The Jakarta Method, which is about the largely suppressed history of the global massacre of communists in the 60s and 70s. This kind of thing seems far away, but it is not. It is closer than I like to think. Find words for your pain that disarm power; but when words fail, trust your instincts.

1. “The End of White Supremacy, An American Romance” by Saidiya Hartman, Bomb

Saidiya Hartman is the author of the lyrical and inventive Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments (you can read an excerpt on Longreads). In Wayward Lives, Hartman seeks out the fragmentary bits of information available about the lives of black young women and girls living free and revolutionary lives in the second and third generations born after slavery; crucial to her story are several historical figures, including W.E.B. Du Bois. In this essay for Bomb, Hartman visits with Du Bois again, strolling through his short story “The Comet,” about a black man who finds himself the only survivor in a post-apocalyptic New York, and which is the penultimate chapter of Du Bois’s 1920 collection Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil, “written after the pandemic of 1918, after the Red Summer of 1919, and in the context of colonial expansion and atrocity”; it is “an ur-text of afropessimism, but its mood is more tragic.”

2. “A Little Patch of Something” by Imani Perry, The Paris Review

Imani Perry, author of Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry, reflects on the sustaining power of a small patch of earth. “Black people gave birth in the cane, died in the cotton, bled into the corn. But out of little patches of something, carefully tended to because beyond survival is love, came reward. The earth gave moments of pleasure: Latching onto a juicy peach—your teeth moving from yellow to red flesh. Digging up a yam, dusting off its dirt, roasting it so long the caramelized sweetness explodes under your tongue.”

3. “An Artist’s Guide to Herbs: Wild Lettuce” by Harmony Holiday, Bomb

While expounding on the remarkable and easily accessible healing properties of wild lettuce, poet Harmony Holiday, author of Hollywood Forever, returns over and over to the root of the problem: “what hurts?

“We need to learn how to notice pain before it becomes morbid and desperate and bitter and inconsolable. This will mean addressing generational pain too, not to roil in it like victims, but so that naming what hurts becomes as common as pretending nothing does. Naming pain means not being afraid of it, not running from it and allowing it to abuse and hunt us, it takes away its power over our imagination and makes us braver in our vulnerability, and more alive, because you can’t be completely present if you’re pretending to feel nothing…We need to know about the remedies that are so simple they seem unreal, because those are the ones that usually help break chronic cycles….”

4. “On Wounded Knee and the Murder of George Floyd” by Layli Long Soldier, Lit Hub

“This country, the structure—if it were a dinner table, I’d flip it,” writes poet Layli Long Soldier, author of Whereas, in this reflection on the Wounded Knee Massacre, ancient star maps of Minneapolis, family, and instinct. “I must do something, that elder-instinct says. But I don’t know what, I answer. Forgive me, elder, the only way out of my desperation is to write. And forgive me for the gaps in this essay, there’s so much I don’t know and much more to include. Though I believe the adage that ‘the pen is mightier than the sword,’ I also believe that words are meager. For my paradoxes and contradictions, forgive me. But I empty my pockets—here are personal memories, something from our ancestors words and Lakota history, knowledge about this land, a nod to our modern-day AIM warriors, love for my daughter and family, mention of a pitiful love life, my experience as a woman—it’s all that I have. Even if it’s meager, I give it to Mr. Floyd, his family and anyone affected.”

5. “Policing Won’t Solve Our Problems” by Alex S. Vitale, The Paris Review

An excerpt from Alex S. Vitale’s The End of Policing, which has now been made available as a free ebook. “…reforms must be part of a larger vision that questions the basic role of police in society and asks whether coercive government action will bring more justice or less. Too many of the reforms under discussion today fail to do that; many further empower the police and expand their role. Community policing, body cameras, and increased money for training reinforce a false sense of police legitimacy and expand the reach of the police into communities and private lives. More money, more technology, and more power and influence will not reduce the burden or increase the justness of policing. Ending the War on Drugs, abolishing school police, ending broken-windows policing, developing robust mental health care, and creating low-income housing systems will do much more to reduce abusive policing.”

6. “The Spirit of St. Louis” by Elias Rodriques, Bookforum

Elias Rodriques reviews Walter Johnson’s The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the Violent History of the United States, which is both the story of white settler violence (a long history of “eviction and extraction”) in St. Louis as well as the city’s legacy of revolutionary resistance. “In the decades before the Civil War…the city’s proximity to Illinois and the states of the former Northwest Territory, all of which had outlawed slavery, made it the site of ‘low-intensity open war’ against enslaved and freed black people…The vanguard opposing slavery was a coalition of white immigrants and enslaved people. In St. Louis, the new Republican Party, founded on an antislavery though pro-settler platform in 1854, was radicalized by German immigrants arriving from Europe after supporting the 1848 anti-monarchist revolutions….When a Confederate militia gathered to seize St. Louis’s arsenal (the second largest in the nation), the Union army deployed several regiments, one led by Henry Boernstein, a publisher of Karl Marx….The coalition of the war years reemerged in the city’s 1877 general strike, when a railroad strike in the East set off work stoppages all across St. Louis. Black and white workers took over the city government and demanded an eight-hour workday and an end to child labor. Strikers reopened the flour mill to provide bread for the people. ‘It is wrong to call this a strike,’ complained the Missouri Republican, ‘it is a labor revolution.’ ”

7. “Where America Developed a Taste for State Violence” by Andre Pagliarini, The New Republic

Andre Pagliarini reviews Vincent Bevins’s The Jakarta Method, about the vast global anti-communist massacres of the 1960s and 70s. I shared an excerpt of the book in the newsletter a couple weeks ago; this review gives an overview of the whole book, and really reinforces the horror of it all—both the scale of the massacres and the fact that Americans are almost entirely unaware of them. “By the early 1970s, the name of the Indonesian capital was being used as a chilling shorthand for political violence, painted on walls and typed in anonymous postcards to left-wing government officials and members of the Communist Party—‘Jakarta is coming,’ they proclaimed.”

8. “I Am a Willow Tree” by Can Xue, Lit Hub

A story from Can Xue’s latest collection in translation, I Live in the Slums. Can Xue is a pseudonym; the name, as I understand it, means something like “leftover snow,” which could mean either the dirty snow on the ground at the end of winter, or the snow that never melts on a mountain peak. The story, like many of Can Xue’s stories, is told from a non-human perspective: a willow tree trying to understand the arbitrary whims of authority. “The gardener’s face was expressionless. None of us could figure out what was going on in his mind. The grass, flowers, and shrubs all had a high opinion of this man. I was the only one whose views about him wavered. For example, one day when he was near me he suddenly brandished a hue and excavated. He dug deeper and deeper. With one blow, he chopped off part of my roots. I shook violently from the pain. Guess what he did next? He filled in the hole he had dug and evened it out, and then went elsewhere to dig. He often engaged in this puzzling excavation. Not only did he injure me, he also hurt other plants in the rose garden. The strange thing was that as far as I could tell, none of the other plants complained about him. Rather, they considered their injuries badges of glory. I heard all kinds of comments at night.”

Stay safe out there,

Dana Snitzky
Books Editor
@danasnitzky
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This Week in Books: Bullets and Gas

A protester reads a book with the title "Why i'm no longer talking to white people about race" during a spontaneous Black Lives Matter march at Trafalgar Square to protest the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and in support of the demonstrations in North America on May 31, 2020 in London, England. (Photo by Hollie Adams/Getty Images)

Dear Reader,

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,

Dana Snitzky
Books Editor
@danasnitzky
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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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This Week in Books: Anarchist Ice Cream and Other Dairies

Belen Bardon, owner of Bardon bookstore, waits for costumers at her shop in Madrid on May 18, 2020. (Photo by OSCAR DEL POZO / AFP)

Dear Reader,

When compiling the reading list this week, I was struck harder than I have been so far by the sensation that time has compressed, or flattened, or leveled out, or I’m not entirely sure what the right spatial metaphor is here, but what I mean is that the time I inhabit feels in no way appreciably different from other times that other people have inhabited. When I read about George Washington fleeing Philadelphia to escape the yellow fever, that doesn’t feel meaningfully different from now. When I read that Emma Goldman co-owned an ice cream parlor in Worcester, Massachusetts, it doesn’t feel uncanny, it just sort of feels like, “Yeah, well, one has to make a living! Anarchist or not, the rent is always due!” Or when I read in A Distant Mirror about the general dismay caused by the corruption and dumbing down of the clergy that resulted from the selling of church appointments to the highest bidder in the 14th century, I feel like I am on the exact same wavelength as Henry of Hereford, who wrote, “Look… at the dangerous situation of those in their charge, and tremble!” They had child bishops; we have Jared Kushner. It’s all one; it’s all bad.

And it seems like a lot of critics are in a similar headspace. Over the weeks, I feel like I’ve watched essayists dig deeper and deeper for “moments to which this moment compares” and what they’ve inadvertently proven is not just that this moment can be compared to so many others, but that all those moments can also be compared to each other as well! George Washington’s enlightened 18th century, Camus’ disastrous 20th, Barbara Tuchman’s calamitous 14th: they’ve all got one thing in common. The secret history of the world rears its ghastly head to reveal what we almost forgot: disease is king.

1. “Pandemics Go Hand in Hand with Conspiracy Theories” by Frederick Kaufman, The New Yorker

Frederick Kaufman writes that when yellow fever hit the newly united States in the 1790s, it led to the development of a new literary style — the American gothic, pioneered by the grieving Charles Brockden Brown in “a million words [that] poured from his pen” from 1798 to 1800, including Wieland, a book about a disembodied voice that drives people insane — as well as a new political style, the much written about “paranoid style” of American politics. Just after the fever ravaged New York in the late 1790s, conspiracy theories about the Illuminati, which had formed in Bavaria in 1776 and been officially banned in 1784, began to proliferate, building into a sort of public panic. Charles Brockden Brown likewise contributed to this new trend; his novel Ormond; or, the Secret Witness, sounds like a Bourne Identity for the 18th century, with the Illuminati playing the global-conspiratorial role of the CIA — or, in this year’s paranoia parlance, the WHO.

2. “Graciliano Ramos and the Plague” by Padma Viswanathan, The Paris Review

Padma Viswanathan writes about coming to the realization that Graciliano Ramos, the giant of Brazilian letters whose novel São Bernardo she recently translated, was motivated to return as a youth from Rio to his remote hometown of Palmeira dos Índios not by disappointment in his lackluster career in journalism, as she originally assumed, but because plague had broken out at home, killing four of his family members in a single day. This insight led Viswanthan to consider how the rest of Ramos’ life’s work — in local government and in literature — was driven by notions of good hygiene, including his translation of Camus’ The Plague.

3. “The First State-Approved North Korean Novel in English” by Esther Kim, Lit Hub

Esther Kim interviews Immanuel Kim, translator of Friend by Paek Namnyong. Immanuel Kim made it his mission to find and translate a popular, non-propagandistic (as in not state-related) North Korean “bestseller” (as in widely read, not widely bought — in North Korea, print runs are limited, but worn copies of Friend, first published in 1988, continue to be passed from hand to hand). “When I started my PhD at UC Riverside in 2000, I was reading South Korean literature minus the colonial period [1910-1945]. All of my colleagues were doing the same, and I wondered, What more can I add to this field? What about North Korea? It was a crazy jump. All my friends were like You’re crazy, man….I started making a personal database of authors that moved me….Then I started looking for stories that were more relatable to the English-speaking world. I read almost a thousand.”

4. “The Fearless Invention of One of L.A.’s Greatest Poets” by Dan Chiasson, The New Yorker

Dan Chiasson writes about the life and work of poet Wanda Coleman. A new volume of her selected poems, Wicked Enchantment, was published last month. “Coleman…was one of the great menders in American verse: she found the extra wear in old forms like the sonnet and rummaged for new forms in everyday material, like aptitude tests, medical reports, and want ads. Poets sometimes brag about their fearsome powers of transformation; Coleman, beset by hardship for much of her life, kept her boasts closer to the bone. ‘I scrape bottom,’ she wrote…”

5. “Food for Thought: Ben Katchor’s Paradise Lost” by J. Hoberman, Bookforum

Ben Katchor’s books are exquisite in an old-timey way that books generally aren’t anymore, sometimes to the point of baroque bewilderment. In this review, J. Hoberman gamely attempts to explain what this latest one, The Dairy Restaurant, is “about.” As with many of Katchor’s books, the gist is that Katchor uses his deep knowledge of niche histories — in this case, Jewish-owned dairy restaurants in New York City and all tangential topics (for instance, did you know Emma Goldman was in the ice cream business?) — to create an almost-alternate history: as in, you’re pretty sure everything Katchor says is true, but the emphasis, the rhythms of history, become fixated on something so deeply unusual — radical dairy consumption — that you become possessed by an alternate vision of what has already transpired.


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6. “At the Clinic” by Sally Rooney, The White Review

A perfect short story by Sally Rooney, which was originally published in The White Review in 2016, and features characters from her novel-cum-show-cum-thing-people-love-to-hate-for-clout Normal People. The Review made the story available online for the first time last week. “People love all kinds of things: their friends, their parents. Misunderstandings are inevitable.”

7. “Neofeudalism: The End of Capitalism?” by Jodi Dean, The Los Angeles Review of Books

Jodi Dean contemplates a question posed by McKenzie Wark in Capital Is Dead: “What if we’re not in capitalism anymore but something worse?” Welcome to neofeudalism, fellow serfs!

8. “We’re All Preppers Now” by Heather Souvaine Horn, The New Republic

Heather Souvaine reviews Mark O’Connell’s Notes from an Apocalypse, a book about prepper subculture, and finds herself understandably more sympathetic to the preppers than the author probably expected the reader would be when he was writing the book. “How do you decide what response is ‘too much,’ when everything we’re currently doing would have been considered too much a few months ago?”

9. “Bournemouth” by Andrew O’Hagan, The London Review of Books

A long, lovely, melancholy essay about the friendship between Henry James and Robert Louis Stevenson. “I was haunted indeed with a sense that I should never again see him,” James wrote after Stevenson’s death, “but it was one of the best things in life that he was there, or that one had him … He lighted up one whole side of the globe, and was in himself a whole province of one’s imagination.”

10. “How ‘Jakarta’ Became the Codeword for US-Backed Mass Killing” by Vincent Bevins, The New York Reviews of Books

An excerpt adapted from Vincent Bevins’ The Jakarta Method, which makes the argument that the mass murder of communists in Indonesia and Brazil in 1964 and 1965 was a decisive turning point in the Cold War (and a turn for the worse in the history of the world, laying the groundwork for many genocides to come) that is little remembered today because “the truth of what happened contradicts so forcefully our idea of what the cold war was, of what it means to be an American, or how globalization has taken place, that it has simply been easier to ignore it.”

Every week I make a list on our Bookshop page of all the books and authors mentioned in all of the readings in the newsletter this week. If you feel like taking a look-see, here is this week’s massive reading list.

Stay safe,

Dana Snitzky
Books Editor
@danasnitzky
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This Week in Books: (Terrified, aside to Cassilda.) No mask? No mask!

Theatrical masks of tragedy and comedy depicted in a Roman mosaic. (Photo By DEA / G. DAGLI ORTI/De Agostini via Getty Images)

[If you’d like to browse all the books mentioned in the newsletter this week, you can do it on our Bookshop page, because I enjoy lists, especially lists about other lists, so I spent a few hours making one. -DS]

Dear Reader,

On Mother’s Day my mom told me that, still, no one in her office is wearing a mask — not when the employees are alone together. She has a public-facing job at a cemetery; through the clientele, as well, calamity stalks her. Grieving families during an epidemic should arouse our empathy, but there is one family that has done its best to test the limits of my pity: a large family of seven, unmasked, who all at once entered the little cemetery office where my mother works, and grew belligerent when asked to leave, and spoke angrily, and spread pestilence and decay upon her, the woman helping them grieve.

Alone together, the cemetery workers don’t wear masks; they do not wear masks unless customers enter; the customers who enter are often unmasked. The masks come on and off like sock and buskin in a Greek play. When it ends, I will know for sure whether it’s been a tragedy or a comedy.

In these inconstant times, I have been thinking of giving up on all these measured scientific and sociological studies of plague times that I ordered a few weeks ago, and which rest on my desk in a talismanic pile to ward off disease, and instead reading only comedies of suffering; well, I guess all comedy derives from suffering, but I mean the very blackest humor written about the very worst of times. It seems to be the only mood that fits as the virus spreads through the White House and the states “open” and my mother masks and unmasks at the cemetery. I could reread Mario Bellatin’s Beauty Salon, which I’ve mentioned before in the newsletter, although I didn’t mention that it’s funny. (Maybe then it didn’t seem so funny.) I could reread Tadeusz Borowski’s This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, which is about exactly what it sounds like it’s about. You could read them, too, if you’re in the mood to laugh at something that isn’t funny.

Or if not comedy, then horror. A phrase from a book occurs to me when I think of my mother and the mourners at her cemetery. Or when I see anyone without a mask. In R.W. Chambers’ seminal work of cosmic horror The King in Yellow, four of the stories are interlocking; they each reference a play called The King in Yellow that, rumor has it, drives readers insane when they get to the second act. Only two brief excerpts from the play appear in the book, which makes sense: in the book, the play is banned all over the world, but spreading nonetheless.

The phrase that recurs to me is from this fragment of the play:

Camilla: You, sir, should unmask.
Stranger: Indeed?
Cassilda: Indeed, it’s time. We have all laid aside disguise but you.
Stranger: I wear no mask.
Camilla: (Terrified, aside to Cassilda.) No mask? No mask!

I’m sure you can guess the part that strikes a nerve. But anyway that’s just me. I’m sure we all have one. Some strange little phrase that keeps coming back, again and again, to our growing horror.

1. “Cooking with Giovanni Boccaccio” by Valerie Stivers, The Paris Review

Valerie Stivers prepares a fascinating spread from The Decameron and consults The Black Death: A Turning Point in History? to find out exactly what kind of turning point one could expect a global pandemic to be. “‘The Decameron’ loathes sanctimony, tramples sacred cows, and punishes corruption. It takes elites less seriously and celebrates a cast of characters much more diverse than would previously have been allowed. By observing humanity and the world more realistically, it ushers in a new era of scholarship and reason—the Renaissance, no less.”

2. “Sleight of Hand: On Meena Kandasamy’s ‘When I Hit You’ and ‘Exquisite Cadavers’” by Stephanie Sy-Quia, The Los Angeles Review of Books

A review of two novels by Meena Kandasamy. The first, When I Hit You, “reveal[s] abusive homes as the absurdist performance sets they are: where everyday objects drift loose from their original uses …. where the players know their parts are a matter of life or death”; the second, Exquisite Cadavers, as reviewer Stephanie Sy-Quia writes, is a clever critique of how the first book was received. Reminiscent of Suki Kim’s complaint that her excellent Without You There Is No Us was labeled a memoir rather than a work of journalism, rendering it ineligible for certain journalism prizes, among other concrete consequences, Exquisite Cadavers reacts to the delegitimizing way in which When I Hit You was received as a memoir rather than a novel; “its content was valorized over its form… all too frequently, the fate of women and people of color.”

3. “When James Baldwin Wrote About the Atlanta Child Murders” by Casey Cep, The New Yorker

In light of a new HBO documentary about the Atlanta Child Murders, Casey Cep revisits James Baldwin’s writing on the case, The Evidence of Things Not Seen. Cep looks at how the piece came to be (it was no small feat for a black editor at Playboy to lure Baldwin back to the American South) and how prescient, as always, Baldwin’s argument was. He did not believe that the police’s suspect, a young gay black man, was guilty; he wasn’t sure there was a serial killer at work at all. Instead “Baldwin…. used his coverage of the child murders to argue that the crimes were representative of the way that the city and the country still failed to protect black lives. In the eyes of David Leeming, Baldwin’s biographer, ‘The Evidence of Things Not Seen’ is ‘to the aftermath of the “civil rights” movement what “The Fire Next Time” had been to its heyday.’”

4. “Making a Mess of the World: On Hao Jingfang’s ‘Vagabonds’” by Virginia L. Conn, The Los Angeles Review of Books

Virginia L. Conn writes that Hao Jingfang’s Vagabonds may be the first work of Chinese sci-fi marketed in the West that has incorporated the fact that “Chinese sci-fi” is now being marketed in the West (ever since the runaway success of Liu Cixin’s Three-Body Problem) into its social commentary; the story features “an aggressively communitarian Mars” and an Earth defined by “insularity and possessive intellectual property laws,” and it revolves around the ways in which characters from each world seem to misunderstand the alien world as well as their own. Conn says this bifurcated effect makes Vagabonds a genuinely Sino-Western work of sci-fi, written with both audiences in mind.

5. “Annie Ernaux’s Object Lessons: Braiding Identity Through Time” by Mary Hawthorne, Lit Hub

Mary Hawthorne’s review of Annie Ernaux’s The Years seems a little late out of the gate, since the book was first published in translation several years ago, but I found its reflections on consumerism to be really interesting during this time. Like all of us, I’ve been shocked by the spectacle of some (mostly white seems like?) Americans claiming they have a dire need to consume remarkably trivial things (and to be served, but I think that’s a separate, particularly racialized aspect of this uniquely American madness), a need which feels so urgent to them that they think it must be a human right. Hawthrone writes that, in The Years, a novel about a family’s evolution over the course of the 20th century, consumerism is a mechanism which erases the past and the family members’ connection to one another. “….objects, especially long-held ones, contain memories, grounding us implicitly in reality; once discarded, so, too, are the memories, along with the reality. [Ernaux] writes: ‘The increasingly rapid arrival of new things drove the past away. People did not question their usefulness, they just wanted to possess them and suffered when they didn’t earn enough to buy them outright.’” Strange to think that being surrounded by their own memories for too long is driving my countrymen insane.


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6. “The Weight of Certain News” by André Naffis-Sahely, Poetry

Garous Abdolmalekian’s Lean Against This Late Hour “is a page-turner,” writes André Naffis-Sahely, which is always a promising epithet for a collection of poetry. “‘One-Way Ticket,’ for instance, is prompted by the discovery of a bunch of one-way train tickets inside the speaker’s pocket. At first, the poem focuses on the lyricism inspired by this unexpected find: ‘Oh, all the one-way tickets! / I haven’t found anything / more sorrowful than you / in the pockets of the world.’ But then it concludes with this arresting image: ‘—You pound the windowpanes of this train to no avail. / In vain you hurl your voice to the other side of the window. / We / are the actors in a silent film.’”

7. “‘Unless We Make Some Place’: On Andy Croft’s ‘The Years of Anger: The Life of Randall Swingler’” by Robert Chandler, The Los Angeles Review of Books

Robert Chandler reviews Andy Croft’s The Years of Anger, a biography of Randall Swingler, a British poet who Chandler writes has long been erased from the British canon because of his commitment to communism. Swingler is best remembered for the poetry he wrote as a soldier in WWII. Shortly after the war was over, he wrote:

It is only the bone that is dead. The earth is their flesh
And every year grows green in the sloughing of grief.
All they have lost is fear and the crooked bone.

But in me only the bone is alive, must watch
The slow decay of the will, the inch by inch
Retreat of the nerves, the death by shame.

8. “The Defender of Differences” by Kwame Anthony Appiah, The New York Review of Books

A lively review of recent books about or featuring Franz Boas, the father of cultural anthropology. It begins, “Franz Boas fought his first duel in 1877, when he was nineteen,” and then the reader discovers, delightfully, that the father of cultural anthropology was more or less ritually scarified all over his face. Because apparently the point of duels was to just slice the other person’s face up. Oh, also he was dueling proto-nazis! (Thought I’d try to end on a positive note this week.)

Stay safe,

Dana Snitzky
Books Editor
@danasnitzky
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This Week in Books: Several Nihilistic Frenchmen

Portrait of the French writer Joris Karl Huysmans (1848-1907). (Photo by Leemage / Corbis via Getty Images)

Dear Reader,

I feel like most of my reading this past week was preoccupied by power: who has it, who can get it, and what it looks like. The overall arc of the revelation seems to be that no matter how acutely we are aware of the answers to the first and second questions (1. the rich; 2. the rich), the answer to the third can still feel surprising: what power looks like, in the end, is nothing more or less than the ability to keep buying food at jacked up prices during a food shortage. “Profiteers were taking a hand and purveying at enormous prices essential foodstuffs not available in the shops,” writes Camus in The Plague. “The result was that poor families were in great straits, while the rich went short of practically nothing.” “We’re all in this together” becomes a pipe dream for Camus in The Plague almost as quickly as it did for us in 2020; it turns out maintaining normalcy during a crisis is the ultimate show of elite strength — even, or especially, at the expense of the rest of us. In that vein, I found Samuel Rutter’s manual for living a 19th-century decadent lifestyle, as described in the writings of Joris-Karl Huysmans, to be particularly bonkers and provoking; a perfect covid read. After all, a morose eccentric living alone in the countryside and indulging in simple pleasures may feel relatably disheveled and melancholy during quarantine, but of course by the very fact that he can afford not to work, we know he must be quite rich. Only the rich get to drop out of society with everyman style. Sooner or later, for most of us, the other shoe will drop.

Power didn’t only come up this week in reviews of books by dour Frenchmen, either! It’s there in Maisy Card’s description of the way she felt, while conducting archival research for her debut novel, when she read accounts of enslaved women and girls who found ways to rebel against servitude and sexual violence (“They were victims of course, but it was also comforting to know that, as brutalized as they were, many of them still found the strength to disobey”); it’s there in Louise Erdrich’s latest novel, which explores the twisting violence enacted by “federal language” against Native people during the Termination era, a time when the government tried to eliminate tribal existence through bureaucracy and mandates; and of course it’s the constant thread woven through a New Yorker review of the latest book by Mike Davis, whose City of Quartz and Ecology of Fear seemed to presage the Rodney King Riots and the Woolsey Fire respectively, and whose The Monster at Our Door, about the potential for an avian flu pandemic, apparently scared him so badly that he couldn’t keep a copy in his house. Davis’ latest, the memoir-ish Set the Night on Fire: L.A. in the Sixties, is intended as a guide for young radicals, although its lessons are somewhat crushingly framed as a tutorial on failure: “I realized eight years ago… that the experience of that generation had to be recovered, and recovered in a way that would provide lessons and balance sheets to the current generation of activists… To understand what people fought for and what strategies they used and why, at the end of the day, we were defeated in every important sense.”

The fact that nearly every article in the newsletter this week seems to be about power could of course just be my own preoccupations at work, but I also can’t shake this feeling that a leaf has been turned, and we are on a crash course with something brand new — or perhaps very, very old. So much of what has happened lately has been completely unfathomable (even at the same time that it was totally predictable, if that makes any sense at all) but I simply can’t wrap my head around this thing where people are forced to go back to work when the virus is still widely circulating and untraced. This seems untenable? I know Americans are a surprisingly meek people when it comes to doing the bidding of our bosses, but it seems like a bridge too far, even for us.

I think something’s going to happen to stop it. Or maybe I just hope it does.

1. “A Dandy’s Guide to Decadent Self-Isolation” by Samuel Rutter, The Paris Review

Samuel Rutter scours Joris-Karl Huysmans’ classic of French decadent literature Against Nature for advice on how to live the way we must now — that is, like we are eccentric recluses “[taking] pleasure in a life of studious decrepitude.”

2. “Pointing the Finger” by Jacqueline Rose, The London Review of Books

Jacqueline Rose revisits Camus’ The Plague and re-examines old arguments about whether it is lax in assigning blame. “Each of us has the plague within him; no one, no one on earth is free from it. And I know too that we must keep endless watch on ourselves lest in a careless moment we breathe in somebody’s face and fasten the infection on him.”

3. “Artforum” by César Aira, Lit Hub

An excerpt from César Aira’s Artforum. And yes, the entire excerpt is about how one man’s copy of Artforum magazine has gotten very, very wet.

4. “Holy Simplicity: On Louise Erdrich’s ‘The Night Watchman’” by Thomas J. Millay, The Los Angeles Review of Books

This review of Louise Erdrich’s latest novel The Night Watchman situates the book in its historical context of the Termination era, when the federal government attempted to erase Native identity and nationhood by “giving” Native Americans citizenship. Reviewer Thomas J. Millay writes that the novel draws a purposeful contrast between the plainspoken language of the story’s protagonists — members of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa or Ojibwe Indians — and the deceitful speech of the federal government. “Federal language twists and turns, appearing good on its surface but in fact initiating great evil.”


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5. “Maisy Card: ‘There is this hazy quality to my family history that no amount of research can clarify.’” by Mickie Meinhardt, Guernica

Mickie Meinhardt interviews Maisy Card about her novel These Ghost Are Family, which is based on 12 years of archival research about her family’s history in Jamaica and the legacy of slavery. “I can easily make a character’s anger my own, and I’ll find myself walking around with those feelings after working on the book, as if I forgot that I was writing about fictional people.”

6. “We’re All Living in the Bathroom Now” by Annabel Paulsen, Electric Literature

This reflection on what Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s The Bathroom (an incredible novella about a man who lives in his bathroom and refuses to ever leave it) can teach us about quarantine is, you may have noticed, the THIRD time a sort of nihilistic Frenchman has appeared in the reading list this week. Which is pretty remarkable considering I haven’t even mentioned the Houellebecq thing.

7. “Mike Davis in the Age of Catastrophe” by Dana Goodyear, The New Yorker

Dana Goodyear reviews Mike Davis’ movement history Set the Night on Fire: L.A. in the Sixties and asks him, the oracle of L.A. apocalypse, what to worry about next. The answer is less than reassuring for Angelenos, I assume: “Davis kept worrying it over, the alternative ending that might reorder everything again. ‘What if the big one happened now?’ he said. I’ve already plundered my earthquake kits for face masks and hand sanitizer. And now Davis has said my midnight fear out loud.”

8. “The Stages of Not Going on T” by Danny M. Lavery, The New Inquiry

A gorgeous piece of writing excerpted from Danny M. Lavery’s Something That May Shock And Discredit You. “Oh, I don’t want to go on T. That’s not what this is. I can see where you got the idea, I suppose, but I’m afraid hormones simply aren’t for me. I don’t even want the ones I have! I’ll never go on testosterone, but it’s simply wonderful for you. You look great. Better than ever, honestly. If I were stuck in a room for the rest of my life and could only look at one thing for some reason, it would be you (I hope that’s not weird to say), but that’s really not the same thing. I just want you to go on hormones and for me to be able to watch you do it.”

9. “Making My Moan” by Irina Dumitrescu, The London Review of Books

Irina Dumitrescu reviews a very scholarly sounding book of absolutely incredible medieval smut, Obscene Pedagogies: Transgressive Talk and Sexual Education in Late Medieval Britain. “Gloriously, the poem ‘I pray yow maydens every chone’ features a merchant offering his podynges (‘sausages’) to a group of young women. ‘Will ye have of the puddings come out of the pan?’ he asks, and they reply firmly: ‘No, I will have a pudding that grows out of a man.’”

10. “Are We Seeing a New Movement to Organize Publishing?” by Corinne Segal, Lit Hub

An interview with Amy Wilson, who runs the Twitter account Book Worker Power, which she made as a more direct-action oriented response to the emergence of the popular satirical Publishers Weakly account. (You can read an interview with the anonymous people who run that account on Electric Literature. I believe they gave this interview just before their first two cancelings, which came in kind of admirably quick succession.)

Stay well,

Dana Snitzky
Books Editor
@danasnitzky
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This Week In Books: I Bought Some Books

Soldiers read books while maintaining social distancing due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic at Foca Transport and Terminal Unit in Izmir, Turkey on April 29, 2020. (Photo by Mahmut Serdar AlakuÅ/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Dear Reader,

My concentration is pretty much shot. So I have to confess I haven’t gotten very far into A Distant Mirror. I’ve mostly been playing Unciv on my phone and watching Devs and making curry and cleaning out the closet and periodically tweeting at A24 that I would really like to watch First Cow now and feeling slightly removed from my body. But that hasn’t stopped me from ambitiously and somewhat compulsively ordering even more plague books: The Great Mortality (about the black death) and The Great Influenza (about the 1918 flu, of course) from The Book Table in Oak Park, Illinois; Asleep (about the mysterious pandemic of “sleeping sickness” that followed on the heels of the 1918 flu) and The Ghost Map (cholera) from The Bookstore at the End of the World; Pox Americana (smallpox) and Epidemics and Society (all of them!) from Community Bookstore in Brooklyn. (I also ordered Joan of Arc In Her Own Words from Split Rock Books in Cold Spring, New York, but that’s related to an entirely different phase I’m going through.)

I’m not sure what I feel like all these plague books will achieve. Will I read them all? Probably not. Will they all sit on my desk talismanically protecting me from getting sick? Of course, but that goes without saying. Will they make me feel more or less anxious? TBD, I’ll let you know.

Ordering the books was a circuitous choice for me because I’ve been having some trouble coming to grips with the fact that the American lockdown fell so short of what it should be; that we began talking about reopening before we ever, it seems to me, fully closed. All these bookstores I ordered from are places I used to work or are owned by friends of mine, and I know they’re doing their best to keep themselves and all their employees safe and paid (though The Bookstore at the End of the World is a Bookshop site begun by a group of bookstore employees who were covid-furloughed by their employers). What that means, practically, is that because none of these stores have employees on site, all of these orders were fulfilled “direct,” which, in the rarefied parlance of bookselling which I know from my years in the business, means they were shipped directly to me from one of the wholesaler’s warehouses (the bookstores get a cut of the sale, although a smaller cut than normal). The wholesaler in this case — in all cases, as far as I know, including orders placed through Bookshop — is Ingram, the behemoth book distributor rivaled in reach only by Amazon and owned by the billionaire Ingram family. Early on in the pandemic, as lockdown began rolling across the country, I thought for certain that the warehouses themselves would soon close — not just Ingram and the smaller regional wholesalers, but the publishers’ warehouses as well, not to mention the printers! I thought the whole industry would have to, at least momentarily, pause. But while many publishers have pushed back the release dates for their spring titles and laid off employees (so that’s not going well) and one major printer has closed (while another has filed for bankruptcy, so that’s not going well), the major publisher warehouses themselves, as far as I can tell, have stayed open — with social distancing measures in place, of course. (The situation at the Big Five publishers feels a little opaque to me, but smaller publishers/distributors such as Small Press Distribution, a longtime distributor of micro presses, have been clear about their need to raise money.) Ingram, meanwhile, has been considered essential throughout the country during the pandemic and its warehouses have remained open and shipping direct to customers (as well as, of course, to stores in states where things like curbside pickup and receiving/shipping in and out of the store are still allowed — Point Reyes Books in California made an excellent video of what that looks like).

And so, what I’m trying to get at is that in the beginning of the pandemic I thought the best way to support bookstores was to order gift cards and donate to fundraisers (special shout out to Unnameable Books in Brooklyn and The Seminary Co-op Bookstores in Chicago) or maybe order audiobooks or ebooks if that is your thing (though independent bookstores earn somewhat slim percentages of those sales, when they are able to offer them at all), convinced as I was that any sort of physical shopping would be tantamount to forcing warehouse and postal workers to endanger themselves, and that those warehouses would soon close down anyway! But I suppose that lately, despite few if any tangible signs that the spread of the virus has begun to decline in America, I let the growing narrative that “corona is nearly over now” and “the country is reopening soon” seep into my brain. And so, to be frank, I ordered some extremely nonessential stuff.

I guess I stopped expecting that the book warehouses would shut down. I stopped expecting the peak and have settled for the plateau.

But I’m sitting here staring at this copy of Epidemics and Society, which has already arrived and which I have set in a “decontamination pile” because we’re running low on disinfectants in my apartment, and I’m wondering, if I’m afraid to touch it, should I really have had someone send it? It’s a ghoulish feeling.

When the pandemic was starting, my feed was full of people tweeting about buying Nintendo Switches, so I mean, I’m aware that I’m not the only person in the world to buy something nonessential during the pandemic. I guess it’s possible I’m just being overwrought, here.

But it still seems like something is fishy about all this. I still feel like a ghoul. I feel like we have settled for a rolling epidemic until (purely theoretically!) herd immunity is reached, but we are doing it without admitting that that’s what we are doing— or acknowledging who will suffer for it (prisoners, warehouse workers, grocers, nurses!). And business owners are being forced into this mass casualty scheme because federal and local governments refuse to provide financial relief.

So, yeah, I have no idea where I’ve landed here. Am I ghoul for buying all these plague books? I mean, ok, yes; we all know the answer is yes.

I’m a ghoul with just enough plague books to tide me over until the second surge.

1. “The Pre-pandemic Universe Was the Fiction” by Charles Yu, The Atlantic

Sci-fi writer Charles Yu weighs in on reality. “Years ago, I started writing a short story, the premise of which was this: All the clocks in the world stop working, at once. Not time itself, just the convention of time. Life freezes in place. The protagonist, who works in a Midtown Manhattan high-rise, takes the elevator down to the lobby and walks out onto the street to find the world on pause, its social rhythms and commercial activity suspended. In the air is a growing feeling of incipient chaos. I got about midway through page 3 and stopped. I didn’t know what it meant.”

2. “What Rousseau Knew about Solitude” by Gavin McCrea, The Paris Review

Novelist Gavin McCrea writes about Rousseau’s lonely years, noting that the thinker’s Reveries of the Solitary Walker are haunted by the society they seek to avoid. “Looking at himself through the eyes of society, he is ‘a monster,’ ‘a poisoner,’ ‘an assassin,’ ‘a horror of the human race,’ ‘a laughingstock.’ He imagines passersby spitting on him. He pictures his contemporaries burying him alive. Rumors about him are, he believes, circulating in the highest echelons: ‘I heard even the King himself and the Queen were talking about it as if there was no doubt about it.’” This version of Rousseau sounds, to me, pleasantly like a morose Twitter poster. It just feels very familiar. I feel like I could scroll through Twitter right now and see some defeated soul posting that if they ever walk in public again, they will be spit on and the Queen will hear about it.

3. “Creation in Confinement: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration” by Nicole R. Fleetwood, The New York Review of Books

An excerpt adapted from Nicole R. Fleetwood’s Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration, in which she surveys art created by incarcerated people or made in response to incarceration. Fleetwood describes the unique challenges of documenting prison art: “…many of the artists, whether currently or formerly incarcerated, do not have possession of their art, nor any documentation of their work, nor knowledge of how and where their art has circulated… art made in prison may be sent to relatives, traded with fellow prisoners, sold or ‘gifted’ to prison staff, donated to nonprofit organizations, and sometimes made for private clients. There are people I interviewed who described their work and practices to me but had nothing to show.”

4. “The Exclusivity Economy” by Kanishk Tharoor, The New Republic

Author Kanishk Tharoor reviews Nelson D. Schwartz’s The Velvet Rope Economy: How Inequality Became Big Business, an exploration of the byzantine hierarchies that have emerged in all manner of consumer-facing industries to separate the wealthiest customers from the chaff. “What these changes augur, in [Schwartz’s] view, is the crystallization of a caste system in the United States and the birth of a new aristocracy.”


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5. “Gay Literature Is Out of the Closet. So Why Is Deception a Big Theme?” by Jake Nevins, The New Yorker

Jake Nevins surveys recent queer fiction and finds that deception is a major theme, even when it’s not explicitly the deception of the closet. “For much of the 19th and 20th centuries, from Dorian Gray to Tom Ripley, the lie of the closet was the hinge upon which queer literature would pivot, reflecting what were then the often judicial or mortal costs of being openly gay. Insincerity, ‘merely a method by which we can multiply our personalities,’ as Dorian Gray put it, was the mode of congress gay men had been taught to adopt for the sake of self-preservation…”

6. “The Surreal Stories of ‘Lake Like a Mirror’ Show How Power Distorts Reality” by YZ Chin, Electric Literature

YZ Chin interviews Chinese Malaysian author Ho Sok Fong about her short story collection Lake Like a Mirror, recently translated from the Chinese by Natascha Bruce. Ho says her stories try to reflect the way the exercise of power distorts reality. “I think a surrealist style can twist the surface of a reality that presents as neutral. Then we can see reality as a screen that has been yanked askew, and its seemingly solid surface starts to be pulled apart. Through this we realize that reality can be distorted by power. This isn’t something realism can achieve.”

7. “What if, Instead of the Internet, We Had Xenobots?” by Garth Risk Halberg, The New York Times

In his review of the long-awaited second novel from Adam Levin (author of the 1,000-page widely lauded high school bildungsroman The Instructions), Garth Risk Halberg writes that “Levin can make the kitchen-sink ambition of (mostly white, mostly male) midcentury postmodernism feel positively new.” His latest book, Bubblegum, is about “a novelist-cum-memoirist-cum-unemployed schlub named Belt Magnet, of the fictional Chicago suburb of Wheelatine, Ill.” who can “hear the suicidal pleas of certain inanimate objects through a telepathic ‘gate’ above his right eye” and was one of the first patients therapeutically paired with a “botimal” aka “a mass-produced… velvety soft, forearm-length, ‘…flesh-and-bone robot that thinks it’s your friend®!’”

8. “No Sleep till Auschwitz” by Jeremy M. Davies, The Baffler

New fiction from Jeremy M. Davies, author of The Knack of Doing, presents a fictionalized publishing industry that is — purely fictionally speaking, of course! — terrible. “Drucksteller saluted the long con of literature by way of the time-honored method of stealing a ream of copy paper and not flushing the toilet on his way off the estate.”

Stay well,

Dana Snitzky
Books Editor
@danasnitzky
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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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