Author Archives

Dana Snitzky
Dana lives in Brooklyn.

This Month In Books: The Book Is an Escape Tool

Book tunnel in Prague library. Mirrors are used to create this effect.(vladj55/iStock/Getty)

Dear Reader,

“I had to write this book. I think any writer that finishes a book would say the same thing: they didn’t have a choice,” says Mark Haber to Adam Morgan in an interview about his slim novella Reinhardt’s Garden. Steph Cha, in her interview with Victoria Namkung, likewise talks about a compulsion to write, though not regarding her latest novel, Your House Will Pay, but rather her prolific output of Yelp reviews:

First and foremost, it is just a compulsion. I actually have a lot of these stupid compulsions. It’s like a completeness thing. I basically started writing Yelp reviews in 2009, and because of the way Yelp works, I feel like I have to do it until I die. I think now it probably doesn’t help with the book writing, but I do think writing Yelp reviews helped me figure out my voice in a way that blogging helps people figure out their voices because I’ve written millions of words on Yelp and I started around the same time as my first novel. It’s a low pressure, low stakes way for me to be writing almost every day.

In his review of Lafcadio Hearn’s newly reissued short story collection Japanese Ghost Stories, Colin Dickey writes about Hearn’s lifelong obsession with the supernatural, which began in childhood:

Alone at night in his bedroom he would become convinced ghosts were reaching out for him in the dark. He would scream ferociously until an adult would come to check on him, a disturbance that inevitably resulted in being whipped. But, as Hearn would later recall, “the fear of ghosts was greater than the fear of whippings — because I could see the ghosts.”

This obsession dictated the course of his writing career. As Dickey tells it, Hearn’s ghost stories are of a piece with his journalism in the U.S. and Martinique before his late-life move to Japan — “stories of murder and mayhem” and “interviews with undertakers and butchers.”  Taken as a whole, his full body of work is “a corpus around that thin line between life and death.”


Sign up to have this month’s book reviews, excerpts, and author interviews delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up


The compulsion to a narrative can be dangerous — it can twist the teller to conform to unexpected contours. In an interview with Jane Ratcliffe about her book This Is My Body: A Memoir of Religious and Romantic Obsession, Cameron Dezen Hamon says that she was drawn powerfully toward religion from an early age:

It felt like there was a missing piece, not just in my spirit, but in my community. I was always drawn to the mystery, drawn to spirituality. I wish I had a better word for it. I was trying to hypnotize my friends when I was nine and was always talking about ghosts. I felt this thing within me that was different from other people and it sought community, it sought to be around like-minded people. It felt like this question mark, that was driving me toward an answer.

But in adult life, within her chosen spiritual home, she realized that something was still missing — something different but still vital. Her church’s sexism, it’s denial of the part of her that was female, left her fractured in a new way:

I began to see that also my voice was being used. I thought all of me was needed for this goal of bringing God’s kingdom to Earth. That’s the evangelical goal, right? That’s what we say broadly, in that community. But it was really that I was being used in slivers and slices, and I wasn’t unified in my being. I wasn’t able to bring my whole self to the table.

Dezen Hammon’s memoir becomes a means for her to reconstruct herself:

I started to put myself piece by piece back together with writing. I started writing again in earnest in my late thirties and realized that the person I had left behind at twenty-seven was someone worth reclaiming. So I’m in a new golden era, where my voice and my body and my spirit, there’s no compromise going on here. I’m not tamping down parts of myself that are inconvenient.

The kind of narrative power, to deconstruct or reconstruct the teller of the tale, is something Dickey touches on when discussing Hearn. Trying to pinpoint the specific quality of Hearn’s ghost stories that make them so ineffable, Dickey writes that

What gives Hearn’s yūrei their strange aura, their sense of discomfort is his own uncertainty about the stories he’s telling. In Hearn’s tales, the eerie landscape is the voice of the storyteller itself — it moves under its own power, guided by some unknown and unseen motivation.

Indulging in his lifelong obsession with the divide between life and death, Hearn the narrator reaches a sort of sublime state of powerless, adrift in realms of fear beyond the point of his understanding: the book as immersion therapy.

Speaking to Hope Reese about her new memoir In the Dream House, Carmen Maria Machado describes how the story she tells in her book, that of the domestic abuse she survived at the hands of her partner, also has a certain power over the teller inherent in it. During the abusive relationship, Machado’s potential ability to tell the story was itself an avenue of her partner’s abuse: she would instruct Machado not to write about certain incidents.

She was always afraid of my voice. That was the defining factor of our relationship — fear of what I would say and write and do. She’s afraid of exposure. Of the narrative that I possess.

By telling the story, Machado is breaking free of it: the book as an escape tool.

Dana Snitzky
Books Editor
@danasnitzky
Sign up here

This Month in Books: ‘The Minor Figure Yields to the Chorus’

The sleep of reason produces monsters (No. 43), from Los Caprichos by Francisco Goya, 1799, etching with aquatint, 18.9 x 14.9 cm (7.4 x 5.9 in), private collection. (Photo by VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images)

Dear Reader,

I’m reading this book right now called The Manuscript Found in Saragossa; it was written in French during the Napoleonic Wars by a Pole named Jan Potocki. It’s a recursive story-within-a-story sort of thing, and it’s giving me nightmares. The stories are all subtly related; that’s kind of the source of the horror. Well, ok, no, not exactly: the actual source of the horror is that every time a new stranger tells him a story (which seems to happen to him a lot), the narrator of the “frame story” wakes up the next morning under a gallows in the embrace of two corpses! But also horrifying is that in each of the unrelated stories that this main narrator is being told by strangers, there is always a duo, a set of two people — sometimes the storytellers themselves are a duo — who seem to be eerily connected to the two corpses. Nothing ever tells you outright they’re connected; it’s just that they’re always introduced the same way, in pairs. So you start to get the feeling that it’s the same pair every time.

I bring this up because it reminds me a little bit of writing the books newsletter. Not the waking up in the embrace of corpses under a gallows part. (Not yet.) But being told a bunch of unrelated stories by strangers, then seeing a thread of connection? Yeah, that pretty much sums it up. Especially this week, when the connections I can see are as thin as ghosts — recursion and repetition and doubling — things coming in twos. In an interview with Tobias Carroll about her new collection Screen Tests, Kate Zambreno talks about reading the same books over and over again, and how it has led her into a “ghostly correspondence” with long-gone writers and artists. Connected to this somehow, in my mind, is a startling point made by Will Meyer in his review of Joshua Specht’s Red Meat Republic, which is that everything terrible about the beef industry that Specht shows happened in the American West in the past — the dispossession and genocide of Native people in order to expand ranching — is happening again, right now, in Brazil. Or, maybe not again — maybe it’s always been happening, in one big beefy outward expansion? When the cowboys and saloons of the American West can be found in the Amazon in 2019, it’s also a kind of ghostly correspondence, is what I think I’m trying to get at.


Sign up to have this month’s book reviews, excerpts, and author interviews delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up


In an essay from Luke O’Neil’s Welcome to Hell World, he too is thinking about how the present is just one more layer of the past. “We build on top of ourselves,” he thinks while on a trip to an archaeological site in Vienna. “We live on top of the dead I thought while staring down into the ruins there snapping photos of the ancient culture’s bones on my phone so I could remember them some day in the future.” He also, like an archaeological dig or The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, tells many unrelated stories at once, and seems to wait with just as much curiosity as the reader to see how it’s all going to shake out:

Everything we do today comes at the expense of the future. That can be little things like how last night I basically ate an entire loaf of bread. You know the kind that sticks out of your shopping bag and you go like haha look at me I’m a French guy over here ayy forgetaboutit. Or it can be taking pleasure or comfort in all the things you know you shouldn’t do but nonetheless feel good right now in this moment and tomorrow is not your problem. Someone else is going to have to deal with it and even if that person is actually you it’s still you tomorrow and you don’t know that guy so let him figure it out.

It was about two years ago and there was a sadness inside of me I had been hoping to run away from and by chance an alcohol company offered to send me to Europe to go drink their specific type of alcohol there so I went and did that. Turns out though that for better or worse and no matter what this dude Marcus Aurelius might have said to the contrary sadness travels well across borders. Unlike hand lotion you can smuggle grief onto the plane and no one will know it. Pain doesn’t show up on the x-ray scanner at all it’s the perfect crime.

It is a very pretty piece of writing. I’ve been lucky to excerpt two (two!) exceptionally beautifully written books this past month; the other is Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, in which she takes an interesting tack. Instead of noticing recursion and repetition in the past, she seeks out continuity; and where she can’t see continuity, she invents it. Hartman sifts through the archives for whatever records she can find that indicate how black young women and girls lived in the second and third generations after slavery. She wants to understand how they lived free, how they invented what living free looked and felt like. But there is very little in the record, and most of what’s there is carceral: punitive records created by social workers and police. So Hartman turns the lack of recorded history on its head; instead of the repetition of thousands of erased black women and girls, she sees one young girl’s life playing out in the archive — Hartman sees this girl peaking out of a window in one photograph, sees her hurrying past on the street with her eyes averted in another.

Fragments of her life are woven with the stories of girls resembling her and girls nothing like her, stories held together by longing, betrayal, lies, and disappointment…

The names and the stories rush together. The singular life of this particular girl becomes interwoven with those of other young women who crossed her path, shared her circumstances, danced with her in the chorus, stayed in the room next door in a Harlem tenement, spent sixty days together at the workhouse, and made an errant path through the city.

By seeing continuity instead of repetition, Hartman creates a narrative that is powerful rather than weak, glorious even if it is tragic.

The only thing I knew for sure was that she did have a name and a life that exceeded the frame in which she was captured… Anonymity enables her to stand in for all the others. The minor figure yields to the chorus. All the hurt and the promise of the wayward are hers to bear.

Time is “too precious to be passed telling stories,” one of the mysterious duos tells the narrator of The Manuscript Found in Saragossa. Then the rest of the book, of course, is spent doing nothing else. Enjoy your reading!

Dana Snitzky
Books Editor
@danasnitzky

Sign up here

What Is Elizabeth Rush Reading? : Books on Antarctic Adventure, Ice, Motherhood

Map of Roald Amundsen's and Robert Falcon Scott's South Pole expedition routes; lithograph, 1925. (GraphicaArtis/Getty Images)

Dear Reader,

Take a listen to my recent conversation with Elizabeth Rush, author of the Pulitzer Prize finalist Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shoreabout what she’s been reading — the first in a series of talks I’ll be having with authors about what books they’re into lately!

Elizabeth is currently serving as the National Science Foundation’s Antarctic Artist and Writer, and just a few weeks before we spoke, she returned from a 55-day scientific cruise to the Thwaites Glacier in Antarctica. We spoke about polar adventures, ice, motherhood; how specific narrative structures and expectations can become attached to certain places over time; and how looking to different written forms, like poetry, can help us see beyond those narrative restrictions when telling important new stories, like the story of the climate crisis. Below is a list of all the books that Elizabeth brought up during our conversation.

Ernest Shackleton, South
Ursula K. Le Guin, “Sur,” collected in The Real and the Unreal
Sheila Heti, Motherhood
Angela Garbes, Like a Mother
Meaghan O’Connell, And Now We Have Everything (Read an excerpt on Longreads)
Anne Lamott, Operating Instructions
Ross Gay, The Book of Delights
Amitav Ghosh, The Great Derangement
Ilya Kaminsky, Deaf Republic
Jane Alison, Meander, Spiral, Explode
Kathleen Jamie, Surfacing
Craig Childs, Virga & Bone
Sarah Wheeler, Terra Incognita

Happy reading!

Dana Snitzky
Books Editor
@danasnitzky


Subscribe and listen now everywhere you get your podcasts.


 

This Month In Books: ‘Look at the World, and Not at the Mirror.’

Plate 3, French Fashions, Il Corriere delle Dame, 1831. (DEA / Biblioteca Ambrosiana / Getty)

Dear Reader,

This months books newsletter is about seeing the big picture. It’s about that moment when you glance around a corner to figure out what you’re missing, and how sometimes you don’t like what you find.

Try to see, Leonel had said. It was what he was always asking me to do,” activist-poet Carolyn Forché writes in her memoir, What You Have Heard Is True. “Try to see. Look at the world, he’d say, and not at the mirror.” Instead of looking at a mirror, Forché became one. As Melissa Batchelor Warnke points out in her review, Forché’s memoir is barely about Forché herself: it’s a record of what she saw and heard in El Salvador — the atrocities, the brewing war, and the resistance; it’s about her mysterious mentor and guide, Leonel; and, most importantly, it’s a facsimile of the conditions, the mood, the tense aura of censorship under which she saw and heard these things. Forché bears witness not just to the facts but to the feeling of living under dictatorship.

“When you are in a very controlling religion like this, one of the ways that they keep people inside is by painting the world outside as a very scary place,” Amber Scorah tells Jacqueline Alnes in an interview about her memoir Leaving the Witness. For Scorah, leaving the Jehovah’s Witnesses was simply a matter of not being able to pretend she believed anymore. When she looked in the mirror, she saw someone she didn’t recognize: “When you’re indoctrinated, your true self is secondary to the persona that you have to adopt to exist in the world in which you live.” Living as that second person became unbearable. She could not unsee herself.


Sign up to have this month’s book reviews, excerpts, and author interviews delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up


In Eve Ewing’s book of poetry, 1919, she attempts to see clearly events that happened very close to her in space, but far away in time: Chicago’s Red Summer “riots,” when whites terrorized blacks across the city. In an interview with Adam Morgan, she says, “I think of the people in this book as our neighbors, right? They happen to be our neighbors across the span of a century, but they’re our neighbors. They’re our fellow Chicagoans.” Ewing relates that she was consistently surprised by the fact that she did not already know the things that she was learning. “It shows how compressed history really is.”

Darcey Steinke was similarly motivated to write her new memoir, Flash Count Diary, by the idea that there was a fuller story that she had not been told. In an interview with Jane Ratcliffe, Steinke says that, once her menopause symptoms hit and she tried to educate herself about the process, she found that most menopause memoirs “end with this come-to-Jesus moment of, ‘Then I accepted hormones.’ I’m not against it, but when they accept hormones, they say all their menopausal symptoms go away, so then the journey through menopause kind of stops. … I wanted to hear what it’s like for other women.” Steinke had to write a book of her own just to find out what the natural process is like.

While writing a review of two recent books about, respectively, Jewish history in Canada and the history of antisemitic conspiracy theories, Jordan Michael Smith had a revelation about his past. In his youth, when his family lived in the exurbs of Toronto, he wanted to — and did — become friends with classmates who bullied him with antisemitic slurs. “One of the awful things about oppression is that sometimes you can’t bring yourself to hate your oppressors. You want them to like you too badly.” He had forgotten all about it — “It was strategic forgetfulness, acting like I remembered less than I did. It was more convenient that way, for them and me.” — and had likewise forgotten that he himself had also once bullied a fellow student with a racial slur, a horrifying revelation. “A few years later, the kid we bullied and I became friends, too. I wonder if he forgave me, or just strategically forgot about what I’d done.”

It’s always a good idea to remember the things you’d rather forget, to see the things you’d rather not see. As Ewing puts it, “These kinds of violent histories are all around us… We have to take the time to stop and seek them out…”

Dana Snitzky
Books Editor
@danasnitzky

Sign up here

This Month In Books: The Anxiety of No Influence

R.Tsubin / Getty

Dear Reader,

This month’s books newsletter has a lot to say about pasts and futures, and how lineages stretch across time. Reviewer Thea Prieto writes about how Sophia Shalmiyev, in her memoir Mother Winter, constructs a pantheon of women artists to fill the void left by her mother’s absence, calling them “the motherless future, the auxiliary mothers future.” She needs these women, Prieto says, not only to fill a hole in the past, but to prepare her to become a mother in (and of) the future; they are not so much models of parenthood as they are models of the act of influencing.

Speaking to Zan Romanoff about her new fantasy novel The Raven Tower, Ann Leckie talks about how women artists have been so consistently and thoroughly erased from the canon that every new woman writer lacks a sense of “writer ancestors” and “feels like she’s starting over without any guides.” Leckie says she now tries to be conscientious of her writer ancestors; she considers it an act of dissent and criticizes the privilege inherent to “the anxiety of influence.”

Who was it who talked about the anxiety of influence, how you feel like you couldn’t be better than anyone else if you couldn’t be original? Well, there’s also the anxiety of not having any past … I think that whole ‘anxiety of influence’ thing is such a privileged way of thinking. ‘Oh poor me, I have to try so hard to be original because I have all of these supporting ancestors.’

In his review of two new books by economists who hope to ‘save’ capitalism with even more capitalism, reviewer Aaron Timms points out that capitalism’s future, if it has a viable one, will almost certainly require the same things it needed to survive in the past — a big dose of socialism and a huge effort of political will — rather than some of the more dystopian-sounding market solutions proposed by the economists. There is nothing wrong, Timms is saying, with turning to our ancestors for guidance.


Sign up to have this month’s book reviews, excerpts, and author interviews delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up


Sometimes, though, we have to adapt to new realities, and recognize that the future is going to be different than what we have come to anticipate based on what our forebears faced. Speaking with Laura Barcella about her new book Handbook for a Post-Roe America, Robin Marty says she thinks it’s extremely likely that Roe will be overturned soon, and that we need to prepare — but not in the ways we think. The danger of outlawed abortion in the future will not be one of health, or of life and death, as much as a carceral one. Women who have abortions outside of the increasingly narrow window allowed by the legal system will face arrest and imprisonment. The future could very likely be one in which people who have abortions become political prisoners, and that unimaginable world is the one we need to prepare for. (Of course, the future is already here for the many women who have been sent to jail for self-inducing abortions because they lacked access to care.)

In her review of Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go, Went, Gone, Ankita Chakraborty writes that the past is something bloody and dangerous that Erpenbeck’s characters try to protect each other from, but this desire to protect transforms into an act of harm when we refuse to listen to refugees’ stories, to the history of the violence perpetrated against them. Erpenbeck’s main character engages in acts of radical listening, because he seeks out stories that his government would rather he didn’t hear. In his book Notes on a Shipwreck about how his home island of Lampedusa is at the epicenter of refugee arrivals — and refugee deaths — Davide Enia writes that “History is sending people ahead, in flesh and blood, people of every age.” Listening to those refugees’ stories, writes Chakraborty, is every citizen’s obligation. Listening to other people’s difficult histories is sometimes the most important thing we can do for the future.

Dana Snitzky
Books Editor
@danasnitzky

PS: Listen to Tori Telfer and me talk about all the wacky books of Ripperology she read to get to the bottom of whether Jack the Ripper could have been a woman.

Sign up here

This Month In Books: ‘This Is Really Not What I Want To Be Reading’

Jon Tyson / Unsplash

Dear Reader,

I spent a while thinking about what the theme of this month’s books newsletter ought to be. Should it be state censorship, like the kind experienced by both Denis Diderot, the French philosopher, and Mikhail Sholokhov, the Soviet Nobel Laureate? Or, should it be (apropos of nothing, of course) all the scammers that popped up this month in our books coverage, like … well, also like Diderot (defrauder of priests) and Sholokhov (plagiarist)? (For an account of Diderot’s youthful pastime of scamming priests, I’ll have to refer you to the book itself — sadly, our excerpt doesn’t cover that side of him.) Then I realized the theme couldn’t be more obvious if it was lying face down on my coffee table, propped open like that (and ruining the spine) in order to save my page — books! The books this month are all about books!

For instance, starting with our two bad boys Diderot and Sholokhov: As Andrew Curran tells it in his new biography The Art of Thinking Freely, Diderot, along with his Enlightenment pals, wrote/edited the massive multi-volume Encyclopédie as, basically, a prank on the theocratic regime they lived under; the encyclopedia format, especially the radical potential of — I kid you not — cross-references, allowed the authors to subtlety undermine notions of absolute and divine authority. Meanwhile, as you can read in Brian J. Boeck’s biography Stalin’s Scribe, Sholokhov wrote/plagiarized a massive multi-volume novel, And Quietly Flows the Don — a genuine masterpiece — that he couldn’t finish for years. The main problem, other than a lack of additional material to plagiarize, was that if he had finished the book during the Terror, and all the characters hadn’t convincingly turned into Communists by the end, then Stalin would certainly have killed him. So, better to wait it out.

A little closer to our own time, in a conversation with interviewer Adam Morgan about Black Leopard, Red Wolf, the first installment in his own massive multi-volume endeavor, Marlon James points to Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast series as a book that “continues to rule his life.” Gormenghast, says James, taught him “how the fantastical grows up,” and paved a path forward for his latest project, a literary fantasy epic based in African mythologies and histories. David Treuer, in the prologue to his new history of Native America since the Wounded Knee Massacre, The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee, points to a book that “ruled his life” in a very different way: Treuer explains that his own book was conceived of as a “counternarrative” to Dee Brown’s classic Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. When he read Brown’s book in college, Treuer says he had felt deep “dismay” at the fact that “Brown’s narrative relied on — and revived — the same old sad story of the ‘dead Indian’” (as in, spiritually and culturally dead, as well as having suffered through many massacres and tragedies) and invoked the squalor of the reservations. Treuer felt compelled to present an alternate narrative, “to communicate what it was that [he] loved” about his home and his history, to change what had so alienated him as a young Native reader of Brown’s book.


Sign up to have this month’s book reviews, excerpts, and author interviews delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up


On the other hand, when beginning work on her latest novel, Lost Children Archive, Valeria Luiselli tells interviewer Lily Meyer that she didn’t have a book in mind with which hers could be set in conversation, or which had laid a path that hers could follow. So, being a self-described “documenter” — as opposed to a fabulist, who could sit down in a “vacuum” and invent — she needed to hunt for one:

I read tangentially, obliquely, not reading about the child refugee crisis or even the crisis in migration from Syria. I read Marcel Schwob’s The Children’s Crusade. I read about orphan trains, ships during slavery, lots of historical documents, and just archive, archive, archive. Then I read a book called The Gates of Paradise, written by Jerzy Andrzejewski and translated by Sergio Pitol, and I thought, This is exactly it. This is the way in.

Luiselli describes the ephemeral euphoria of finding The Gates of Paradise, which was a kind of moment every reader knows well, the kind we’re always aching to hit on again — that realization that you’ve finally found the book you want to be reading:

It’s so hard to find a book that you absolutely want to read in that moment. I begin a lot of books and then realize, This is really not what I want to be reading. Not the atmosphere, not the tone, not the voice. I don’t want to be in this world. When you find one that is exactly what you want to be reading, it’s like a miracle of some sort.

Devi S. Laskar wrote her new novel, The Atlas of Reds and Blues, in dialogue with yet another type of book — neither one that has been haunting her since young adulthood, nor one recently discovered after a long search, but one that is irrevocably lost. Years ago, her finished novel disappeared when her home was raided by law enforcement and her laptop seized as evidence. Her new novel is born of Laskar’s efforts to come to terms with the grief of that bereavement, and move past it, finding new ways to carry the work forward:

I started writing this story back in 2004, and then I was relying heavily on my previous experiences as a reporter, trying to be factually accurate. By the time I returned to this story about a decade later, I had hard choices to make because of what had happened, how I’d lost most of my work [in the raid]. First I had to come to terms that I’d probably never see my laptop again. Once I got through that… I jettisoned a lot of the facts that I’d previously held dear. I took a lot of similar “beats” or inflection points in the story and I made them composite, basing them on several people’s experiences, not just my own. I am not the narrator.

The loss of the first draft changed the structure and perspective of the final work. It’s as if reality inside the books shifts with all our troubles and griefs here on the outside. It reminds me of Edward Gorey, and his protestations to a long-ago interviewer. As Bridey Heing writes in her review of Mark Dery’s new biography of Gorey, Born To Be Posthumous:

When questioned on whether or not his books are a reflection of reality or fantasy, Gorey responded, “No one ever lets me explain what I mean about the reality of my books! Everyone always thinks, ‘Isn’t that amusing that this is his idea of reality!’”

Dana Snitzky
Books Editor
@danasnitzky

Sign up here

This Month In Books: ‘How Thick Was the Cane?’ and Other Questions About Things

Photo by Lysander Yuen on Unsplash

Dear Reader,

“The Senate committee asked as many questions about the cane as they did about Brooks,” Jason Phillips writes regarding the aftermath of the famous incident in which Congressman Brooks caned Senator Charles Sumner on the Senate floor in 1856. Questions such as,

“‘Do you know anything of the relative specific gravity of a gutta percha cane or of a hickory cane?’ ‘How thick was the cane used by Mr. Brooks?’ Witnesses who owned pieces of the cane brought them to the Senate investigation in their pockets. They asked the doctor who attended to Sumner if repeated blows to the head with a stick ‘from one half to five-eights of an inch in diameter’ could kill a man. ‘It would depend upon the character of the stick’ the doctor replied.”

This fixation on the character of the stick, on the parameters of what is possible with the stick, becomes a cipher for Phillips’ entire project in The Looming Civil War, which is to understand how people thought about the Civil War before it happened — as it turns out, their thoughts are often most legible through how they regarded material things.

In a review of Heike Geissler’s Seasonal Associate, an autobiographical novel of Geissler’s time spent working at an Amazon warehouse, Rebecca McCarthy asks her own set of questions about things: “Who is buying these mugs, stamped with George Clooney’s face? Who needs these pre-distressed Iron Maiden hats, already rags at point of purchase?” The answer, of course, is “Amazon customers, which is to say, all of us.” Or, as Geissler puts it, “It’s because of all the things that are here, which someone or another wants to buy, that you’re here in the first place.” Stare long into the shopping cart, and the shopping cart stares back into thee.

It bears remembering that Amazon started as a way to sell a lot of, and undercut the market for, books. “Everything exists, in case you were going to ask. Absolutely everything exists, and people can buy it all,” Geissler writes. But the ‘everything store’ started as a bookstore, and ‘everything exists’ sounds like something people would used to say about the limitless realities open to us when we read books, rather than about a bunch of actual stuff. It’s as though Amazon is the Borgesian library run amuck. Somehow, on his way to amassing an infinite collection of books in which everything possible is written — ultimately making it all unreadable and useless — Bezos ended up with an an infinite collection of junk in which every possible desire is rendered pathetically visible, making it all… well, I don’t know. Is a George Clooney mug useful? Can that desire ever be usefully satisfied? This, regrettably, seems to be the defining question of our time.


Sign up to have this month’s book reviews, excerpts, and author interviews delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up


The weight of the meaning of the things around us, of our material environment, becomes disturbingly apparent when reading Dorothy Butler’s Gilliam’s memoir Trailblazer. Butler Gilliam was hired as the first black woman journalist at The Washington Post, at a time when the city was inherently segregated; so racism manifested itself most obviously as the denial of access to things. Each deprivation would magnify the one that came before it, transforming everyday assignments into uncertain quests:

“My editors would assign me a story for the next day’s edition, and, like other reporters, I had only a few hours to get the story, return, and write it before deadline…. I would wave frantically for a taxicab, mostly driven by white men, but all would whiz past me…. When I eventually got to my assignment, I did my reporting, and I would again try to flag a cab to get back to the paper to type my story. As time passed, deadlines neared and no taxi stopped, I would start writing my stories out in my reporter’s notebook….”

And that was just the taxis! Many of the lunch places, the coworkers, and the subjects of her stories were racist, too. What a hellish job. “Many years later,” Butler Gilliam writes, “I discovered I had turned a lot of my anger inward in what became depression, and someone close to me at that time later told me, ‘you didn’t know how much bondage you were in at The Washington Post.’”

The ramifications of another type of material segregation are apparent in Rafia Zakaria’s review of The Sensational Life and Death of Qandeel Baloch, Sanam Maher’s biography of the slain Pakistani YouTube star. “Qandeel was not my daughter but she was my son. She provided us financial and emotional support,” her father lamented after her death. He accused her brothers of killing her for her money, or perhaps more accurately over the money, which it was unusual and unseemly for a woman to have so much of — especially so much of it that she was the child supporting her parents. One of the brothers confessed to killing her for ‘honor,’ blaming, among other things, some sexy selfies she took with a cleric. But Zakaria knows the score: “A woman’s economic empowerment can be anything from an existential threat to an inconvenience, but in any case, men believe they are entitled to stop it by stopping her life.” What’s lost in the telling of the story of Qandeel Baloch, Zakaria is saying, is that she was killed for doing her job.

Overall, it’s obviously the bigots who are the problem, but there’s something about the jobs, too, that stinks: “You’ll soon know something about life that you didn’t know before, and it won’t just have to do with work,” Geissler writes. “But also with the fact that you’re getting older, that two children cry after you every morning, that you don’t want to go to work, and that something about this job and many other kinds of jobs is essentially rotten.”

So this month, I offer you a blessing that is only a blessing until it actually happens, like for the furloughed federal workers, in which case it becomes curse: as Geissler puts in, “May every day be a day when shifts are terminated, ideally right after they begin.”

Dana Snitzky
Books Editor
@danasnitzky

Sign up here

Eleven Books to Read in 2019

Utamaru Kido / Getty

We asked eleven authors to tell us about an amazing book that we might have missed in 2018.


Kiese Laymon
Professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Mississippi; author of several books, including most recently the memoir Heavy.

The Reckonings by Lacy Johnson (Scribner)

I read, reread and loved Lacy Johnson’s new book, The Reckonings. I was shocked by how Lacy really complicated my understandings of justice, disaster and just art. In a way that hopefully sounds sincere and not sentimental, Lacy made me think, and actually believe, justice was possible, and art must lead the way. The flip is that the book subtextually forced me to reckon with the roles art and artists have in sanctioning suffering, which forced me to reconsider justice as this clearly demarcated destination. I actually think The Reckonings, Eloquent Rage, and No Ashes in The Fire are in this radical three-pronged conversation with each other in 2018 about where we’ve been, and what we do with where we’ve been. They are masterfully conceived projects and generously constructed. At the root of all three are warnings, rightful celebrations, and lush ass uses of language. Read more…

The Longreads 2018 Holiday Gift Book Guide

Getty Images

Let Longreads help you with your holiday shopping! We’ve made a catalog of books we featured in 2018 that we think would make great gifts for everyone on your list.

Books about being alone and really owning it.

Patricia Hampl on the Ladies of Llangollen, who were famous for wanting to be left alone; Stephanie Rosenbloom on eating alone; and an interview with novelist Ottessa Moshfegh in which she strongly advises against leaning in.


Books about family. 

Meaghan O’Connell and Juan Vidal on the surprise and profundity of becoming new parents; Nicole Chung and Laura June on the complexities of family connection across the generations when grappling with adoption or estrangement; Christian Donlan on the grief and joy of parenting while gravely ill; and Issac Bailey on his family’s resilience in the wake of his brother’s imprisonment.


Books for the women in your life who are mad. 

Gemma Hartley on emotional labor, Brittney Cooper on black women’s eloquent rage, and Rebecca Traister on the political power of women’s anger.


Books of investigations, inquiries, and revelations. 

Karina Longworth reveals how Hollywood’s women were caught in Howard Hughes’ web of lies; Rachel Slade solves the sinking of El Faro; Alec Nevala-Lee unravels the joined-at-the-hip origin stories of Scientology and American science fiction; Susan Orlean investigates the mystery of the Los Angeles Public Library fire; Brantley Hargrove follows in the footsteps of a storm chaser killed by the largest tornado every recorded; and Tim Mohr chronicles the forgotten role of punk rock in the fall of the Berlin Wall.


Books that explore the bounds of physical and mental health, illness and medicine, mind and body.

Porochista Khakpour, in a searing memoir about surviving a misdiagnosed chronic illness, questions the possibility of total recovery; Terese Maire Mailhot, in a lyric memoir about PTSD as a result of childhood trauma, attempts to reclaim her narrative and reconnect with her people; Christie Watson remembers her twenty years as a nurse before becoming a novelist; Kristi Coulter meditates on her newfound sobriety and a culture of silence around women’s addiction; Marina Benjamin ruminates on insomnia, plumbing the depths of sleep and wakefulness; and Michele Lent Hirsch studies the invisible lives of young women with chronic illnesses


Histories that challenge our understanding of the past.

Colin G. Calloway‘s biography of George Washington conscientiously locates him in a very Indian world; Julia Boyd points out that the Third Reich was a popular tourist destination; Linda Gordon explains the sway the KKK held in state governments in the early 20th century; Shomari Wills chronicles America’s first black millionaires; Peter Ackroyd reveals the history of gay London; and Stefan Bradley remembers the fight for civil rights in the Ivy League.


Books about dating and marriage.

Elizabeth Flock on the years she spent living with married couples in Mumbai to better understand their marriages; Kelli María Korducki on the feminist history of breaking up; Viv Albertine on dating again in her fifties. 


Follow the money.

Anand Giridharadas on the elite, Disneyfied world of Ted Talks and philanthropy as self-help for rich people; David Montero on the global corporate bribery network; Sarah Smarsh on growing up rural and working class. 


Fiction and memoirs that reflect on the way we live now, illuminating our present and hinting at possible futures.

Nick Drnaso‘s Sabrina is haunted by the menace of conspiracy theories and fake news; Ling Ma‘s Severance imagines a world in which office drones keep going to work and posting on social media even though it’s the apocalypse; Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah‘s Friday Black points out that being black in America already is a dystopian nightmare; Olivia Laing‘s Crudo was written in real time during — and is about living through — the collective traumatic experience that was the year 2017; Jamel Brinkley‘s A Lucky Man revolves around the lucklessness of black boyhood and manhood; Nafissa Thompson-SpiresHeads of the Colored People is a witty, darkly comic look at a supposedly post-racial America; Kiese Laymon‘s Heavy critiques a nation unwilling to come to terms with its traumatic past; Thomas Page McBee‘s Amateur tries to understand why men fight; and Sharmila Sen‘s Not Quite Not White explores how integral whiteness can be to our idea of Americanness.


Books of journeys, adventures, and migrations.

Laurie Gwen Shapiro on the scrappy New York teen who stowed away on a 1928 expedition to Antarctica; Laura Smith on vanishing as a way to reclaim your life; William E. Glassley on his geological expeditions to Greeland to uncover the world’s oldest secret; Lauren Hilgers on Chinese political dissidents building a new life in New York; Eileen Truax on Mexican immigrants living in fear of deportation in America; and Lauren Markham on Salvadoran teens seeking safety far away from home.


Books about faith.

Meghan O’Gieblyn‘s essays hinge on faith and feeling left behind in the Midewst; R.O. Kwon‘s novel The Incendiaries tests the fault lines of lost faith and violence; Jessica Wilbanks‘ memoir is a search for her childhood faith’s origins.


Cultural studies and criticism.

Maya Rao on the patriarchal mentality in the oil boomtowns of North Dakota; Elizabeth Rush on the first areas of the U.S. affected by rising sea levels; Elizabeth Gillespie McRae on the white mothers who violently opposed school integration in the South; Rowan Moore Gerety on daily life in Mozambique, one of the world’s fastest growing economies; Christopher C. King on Europe’s oldest surviving folk music tradition; Agnès Poirer on the intellectual life that flourished in postwar Paris; Alice Bolin on our obsession with dead girls; Michelle Tea on the perils of queer memoir; and Natalie Hopkinson on art as political protest.


Books that are about just one specific thing.

Susan Hand Shetterly on seaweed, Richard Sugg on fairies, Michael Engelhard on polar bears. 

 

Happy holidays!
* * *

This Month In Books: “Once You Can See the Pattern”

Photo by Paul Schafer on Unsplash

Dear Reader,

A lot of what you’ll read in this month’s books newsletter is about things not seeming to be what they really are.

In an interview with Hope Reese, Rebecca Traister talks about how women’s anger is not recognized as a politically valid form of expression, even though history tells a different story — that women’s anger has the power to start revolutions! Moreover:

“Women are punished for expressing their anger… their anger is discouraged, and part of this punishment is that your having expressed anger can be turned against you to discredit you.”

The power women feel is not recognized for what it is. And not just the power — also the pain. In an interview with Wei Tchou, Tanya Marquardt discusses the process of interrogating her memories of sexual assault, and explains how writing her memoir forced her to finally describe events as they really happened:

“I found myself struggling with the language around consent and really asking myself, ‘What was happening in that scene?’… I had to come to terms with the fact that I hadn’t consented, and more than that, I thought it was my job to endure whatever he was going to do to me.”

In an interview with Victoria Namkung, Nicole Chung talks about how difficult it was, as a grown-up adoptee, to let go of her “origin story,” which, although it had always felt safe, was not real:

“Even though it wasn’t the whole truth, I was so comforted and so attached to this origin story I was given. I remember how difficult it was to start challenging that.”

Mr. Rogers was deeply concerned about children who believe in stories that are comforting but not real. He thought it could be downright dangerous for them. According to his biographer Maxwell King,

“When Fred Rogers and David Newell learned about the child who hurt himself trying to be a superhero, they came up with an idea: a special program to help kids grasp just what a fictional superhero is.”


Sign up to have this month’s book reviews, excerpts, and author interviews delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up


On the other hand, in her book Travelers in the Third Reich, Julia Boyd describes how, in the 1930s, the British establishment had a striking lack of concern when it came to exposing children to false ideas. The well-off continued to send their young-adult children to be educated in Germany once the Nazi regime was in power:

“That the British establishment should have seen fit to prepare its offspring for adult life by sending them to such a vile totalitarian regime is puzzling, to say the least…. despite the Great War and growing awareness of Nazi iconoclasm, Germany’s traditional grip on British intellectual imagination remained as strong as ever. Here, in the midst of Nazi barbarity and boorishness, these gilded youths were expected to deepen their education and broaden their outlook.”

(From Maxwell King’s biography of Mr. Rogers: “One of the few things that could raise anger — real, intense anger — in Mister Rogers was willfully misleading innocent, impressionable children. To him, it was immoral and completely unacceptable.”)

Boyd goes on to say: “Ariel Tennant, another teenager in Munich at the time, studying art, was struck by how many people in England refused to believe her accounts of Nazi aggression.”

(This past weekend, I saw a video online of a proto-fascist gang beating some people in New York. The police did not arrest them. After the beating, the gang members posed for a photograph, all of them making similar hand signs for the camera.)

(In her novel Eleanor, or, The Rejection of the Progress of Love, Anna Moschovakis writes: “The feeling of closeness to a time before — the familiar melancholy that came from surfing the internet in the ways she used to — had receded and been replaced by the new feeling, the one she struggled to describe.”)

In her review of two recent books about immigrant families applying for asylum, Martha Pskowski writes about how, in her work with migrants, she would find that, the longer they talked to her, the more likely their stories were to change — because telling a story can be dangerous, and they were trying to keep people safe:

“Sometimes, migrants would tell me one story, and then as we talked over time, another story emerged. ….In Southern Mexico where I carry out interviews, coyotes and gang members often seek information about men and women on the migrant trail, to then threaten their family members. This doesn’t mean immigrants are unreliable sources, this means that as journalists we must work harder to earn their trust and prevent negative consequences of our work.”

Pskowski goes on to say: “Increasingly, and controversially, journalists are acknowledging and even embracing the concept that true ‘objectivity’ is both unachievable and undesirable.”

(This month a journalist named Jamal Khashoggi was murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. The story of how it happened has been revised many times. Changing stories are often a sign of danger — the journalist’s job is, sometimes, just to ask who is in danger for telling the story. Sometimes the answer is: the journalist.)

(Anna Moschovakis: “The new feeling: a flesh-eating virus expanding its appetite beneath the skin.”)

In her book How Does It Feel To Be Unwanted?, Eileen Truax writes about the re-categorization of asylum-seekers as threats to national security:

“Since the beginning of the Trump administration, policy changes in how immigration laws are applied indicate that authorities may use their discretion to qualify any violation of the law as a ‘crime,’ widely and arbitrarily broadening the spectrum of people who could be considered a ‘danger’ to the country. People like Yamil, who was charged with using false documents and has a previous deportation on his record, could be deemed a threat to national security.”

(Nicole Chung: “I’d been led to believe racism was something in the past. Even teachers at school presented racism as a thing we had conquered. It was very well-intentioned and wrong.”)

In his review of several new books about the opioid crisis, Zachary Siegel writes that the danger isn’t always where you think it is:

“A recent study out of Stanford that modeled public health policy shows that aggressively controlling the supply of prescriptions, in the short-term, is actually increasing overdose deaths by the thousands…. The fact is, injecting a regulated pharmaceutical of known dose and purity is less risky than injecting a bag of white powder purchased on the street. Bags of dope come with no proof of ingredients…. At the end of the day, an 80 milligram OxyContin is always 80 milligrams. It may not be pretty… but at least there was a measure of safety.”

And neither the heroes nor the villains are who you think they should be:

“A simplistic narrative yields cheap, simplistic solutions. America’s opioid reporting has the tendency to chronicle lengthy police investigations that feature cops, federal agents, and prosecutors high on the delusion that shutting down the right pill mill or locking up the right dealer will put addiction and overdoses to a grinding halt. They think they’re in an episode of The Wire.”

There are dire consequence for misunderstanding what the story is really about:

“Choking off the supply of prescription painkillers early on in the crisis, without first installing a safety net to catch the fallout, was a major policy failure that worsened America’s opioid problem by orders of magnitude.”

(Anna Moschovakis: “Or, the new feeling: a helixed grating, eternal return.”)

(Tanya Marquardt: “Once you can see the pattern and what you are repeating, you can see how it is abusive to you, and then you can change.”)

Dana Snitzky
Books Editor
@danasnitzky

Sign up here