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.
If you are short on cash but want to be counted among the elect, DM me @endworldreview or email me email@example.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,
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.”