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Dana Snitzky
Dana lives in Brooklyn.

This Week In Books: A ‘Melancholia’ or ‘Take Shelter’ Situation

Aaron Foster / Getty

Dear Reader,

A thing about me is that I’ve been depressed for awhile. Staying inside a lot. And now, Melancholia-like, real life has begun to mirror my mental state: my outer and inner worlds are on a collision course, and it’s not as clear as I’d like it to be which is drawing in the other.

Last week I told my boyfriend I sometimes have this vertiginous feeling that I caused the pandemic by becoming too socially isolated. I was joking, but not really joking. Yesterday when we were looking out the window at the absolutely nobody going by, I said, “What if we imagined this? What if there is no pandemic, and we’ve just convinced ourselves we have to stay inside?” He responded that he does sometimes worry that we are in a Take Shelter situation. That I, like Michael Shannon in the 2011 thriller directed by Jeff Nichols, convinced myself a storm was coming and prepped our shelter for no reason (I was worrying about corona weeks ahead of the curve), but because I turned out to be right (a total fluke), I will become power-mad and lock my boyfriend inside forever!

Honestly, reader, it’s not out of the question. I told him so, and he said that’s fair because it really does seem like a bad idea to go outside, like, ever again. I hear that brave people are out there doing things like gathering PPE donations for frontline healthcare workers or taking groceries to the isolated elderly or just working their regular jobs at the grocery store, which it turns out are wildly dangerous. I keep trying to psych myself up to do something useful like that, but then another formless day peels off its skin, and I find I have achieved nothing. The best I can say for myself is that I am not one of those people at the park making things worse.

Most of this week’s book roundup is about the virus. The whole world is about the virus. I am so sorry.

1. “America Infected: The Social (Distance) Catastrophe” by J. Hoberman, The Paris Review

Film critic J. Hoberman points to political differences between Camus’ The Plague and Elia Kazan’s unacknowledged film adaptation Panic in the Streets as a demonstration of how pandemic response can inspire solidarity or descend into authoritarianism.

2. “‘Pale Horse, Pale Rider’: A Story of the 1918 Flu Pandemic” by Katherine Anne Porter, The New York Review of Books

NYRB has printed an excerpt from Katherine Anne Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider, a short novel (originally published in 1939) set during the influenza pandemic of 1918 and based on Porter’s own experience with the disease. It is an unsettling read for anyone contemplating dying in the Javits Center next month.

3. “The Anger of the Sick” by Davey Davis, The New Inquiry

Davey Davis reviews Blackfishing the IUD, a weaponized memoir which its author Caren Beilin hopes will destroy the IUD the way the documentary Blackfish destroyed Sea World; Beilin seeks vengeance against the IUD because her use of the device left her with an autoimmune disorder. Davis writes that what separates Beilin’s memoir from others in the ‘sick woman’ genre is her explicit call to action; to defeat the IUD, we must first overturn a medical system that doubts women’s pain. This review was published last month, but it seems prescient now, written at the cusp of the moment before the political anger of the unwell becomes everyone’s anger.

4. “What China’s Literary Community is Reading During the Coronavirus Pandemic” by Na Zhong, Lit Hub

One of the strangest consequences of the pandemic is that at any given time, you can have the uncanny realization that you know exactly what most of the people you know (and billions of others you don’t) are doing right now: sitting around at home, trying to figure out how to think about (or not think about) the coronavirus. Na Zhong has put together a list of books that a few members of China’s literary community are anxiety-reading right now. It’s weird to think that their motivations to anxiety-read about a) other plagues or b) World War II dovetail so perfectly with my household’s anxiety-reading compulsions this past week; I’ve been covering the plague angle while my boyfriend has World War II cornered for now.

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5. “The Dystopian Novel for the Social Distancing Era” by Joshua Keating, Slate

Joshua Keating writes that Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police is the book that’s been on his mind these days, because so far his experience of the pandemic has not been sickness but rather (reminiscent of Ogawa’s surreal novel) the erasure of items from everyday life. “The losses start small and insignificant. At the local coffee shop, the first thing that disappeared was the table holding the lids and the self-serve milk. Then half the tables vanished. Then all the tables. Then the whole shop closed. Then you hear that the employees were laid off … Perhaps you, like me, thought last Saturday that it would be OK to have a couple of friends over to the house as long as you were reasonably cautious … By Sunday, that was off limits. Today, the idea is unthinkable.”

6. “An Attentive Memoir of Life in Parma” by Patricia Hampl, The Paris Review

Patricia Hampl writes that a book she loved 25 years ago, Wallis Wilde-Menozzi’s memoir Mother Tongue about expatriate life in Italy, has taken on new meaning during the pandemic. “I’ve been in conversation with this book for many years. And now, yet again, with the undertow of the pandemic clutching Italy in its fierce grip, the book speaks.”

7. “Gimme Shelter” by Helena de Bres, The Point

Helena de Bres writes about the books that she turned to for comfort during a period of personal isolation she faced as a child, and how books (generally pessimistic, sad) aren’t really comforting her at all during this period of universal isolation. Instead it’s the unbridled optimism of those crazy people who keep going outside that she’s been motivated by, because she realizes how precious those ridiculous optimists are. We must preserve them.

8. “English PEN Calls for Release of Ahdaf Soueif After Coronavirus Protest Arrest” by Mark Chandler, The Bookseller

A brief note and harbinger: “English PEN has called for the release of Egyptian author Ahdaf Soueif, who was arrested during a protest about the treatment of prisoners during the coronavirus outbreak.”

9. “Capitalism’s Favorite Drug” by Michael Pollan, The Atlantic

This one is about coffee — the illustrious Michael Pollan reviewing Augustine Sedgewick’s Coffeeland — and honestly it isn’t supposed to be about coronavirus at all, but I read this line and I can’t stop thinking about the rich people who would rather send us back out to die than pay our bills for a little while: “The essential question facing any would-be capitalist, as Sedgewick reminds us, has always and ever been ‘What makes people work?’” On Salvadoran coffee plantations, the answer to that question was: a hunger crisis engineered by the upper class.

10. “Anna Kavan and the Rise of Autospec” by Gregory Ariail, The Los Angeles Review of Books

This one isn’t about corona either. It’s Gregory Ariail’s review of the Anna Kavan short story collection published by NYRB this month, and how Kavan’s style (she lived in the first half of the twentieth century) defined a genre Ariail calls “auto speculative fiction” (as opposed to “autofiction”), which he describes as “a truly combustive marriage of opposites: the searing confessions of the inner life on the one hand, and speculative narratives that systematically violate natural laws and reject normative discourses on the other.” I won’t tell you which lines of this review remind me of corona; you can pick those out for yourself.

Take care of yourself,

Dana Snitzky
Books Editor
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This Week in Books: This Moment Doesn’t Remind Me of Anything

Film kiss with protective mask to prevent infection during a flu epidemic in Hollywood, 1937. (Photo by Imagno/Getty Images)

Dear Reader,

I’ve been trying to think of what books this corona moment reminds me of. I don’t know why — uh, I guess I instinctively try to relate most things that happen in my real life to my reading life? What’s unsettling though is that — and this is something I’ve seen others saying already — this moment doesn’t really remind me of anything I’ve ever read. I started reading David K. Randall’s Black Death at the Golden Gate — a book about how a bubonic plague epidemic threatened to sweep through America in 1900 — a few months ago, but I didn’t get very far into it, and then I put my copy in a holiday gift box for my mom in Ohio. She read it last week while she was sick in bed with pneumonia. I don’t know what kind of pneumonia. (She didn’t get tested for flu; too expensive.) I don’t know if it was corona. I don’t even know how to know. There are, as you have heard, no tests.

And that’s what makes this coronavirus moment different from the little bit of Black Death at the Golden Gate that I read, and from the portions my mom described over the phone while she coughed and coughed and coughed. In that book, some American government officials and scientists heroically stop the plague from spreading. Which means the story being told in that book is more like the one in Singapore or South Korea today: the triumph of science.

So what’s the story here? What does the failure of science feel like? I listened to the latest TrueAnon podcast while I made dinner last night, and, as I recall, Liz Franczak described a sort of sensation she’s been having (out there in San Francisco) that there are visible particles of fear floating in the air. My boyfriend has reported something similar every time he’s come home from work for the past three days, after his 45 minute trek across Brooklyn — there’s something wrong out there, it looks weird. There’s something wrong with the air. (He works retail. There has been something wrong with his air.)

I have not been outside in over a week. I don’t know what it is he’s describing. (But whatever it is, there is a very good chance he has brought it in here with him. In his air.)

I thought of and dismissed a few other books that this moment might be like. For awhile — a few days ago? — coronavirus was a looming, impending crisis that I knew would lead to ruin and death, but which many people around me seemed oblivious to. That brought to mind books written in Germany in the 1930s, like Hans Fallada’s Little Man, What Now? or Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin — books in which many people seem oblivious of society’s imminent doom, even the authors themselves, no matter how canny they try to be. I also thought of Anna Kavan’s Ice — a book I’d previously associated with climate change — in which a natural or perhaps supernatural force, a malignant and almost sentient ice, is engulfing the world, and no one is able to stop it.

But the thing is, someone could have stopped coronavirus. A lot of someones, up and down the various chains of command and control. They just … didn’t. And no one is oblivious to it anymore. We all know about it now. We’re all just sitting around, waiting to find out if we have it.

Honestly, the book I’ve been dwelling on the most these days is Mario Bellatin’s The Beauty Salon. It is a book about AIDS. It is a slight and brutal novella about a beauty salon in which gay men are dying of AIDS because hospitals will not take them in. It is a very grim book. I think it comes to mind so much mostly because I am cowardly, and I fear the overcrowded sick room: I fear being one among many stranded in beds lining hospital hallways or neglected in quickly converted conference halls or gymnasiums. I am childishly afraid of dying in the Javits Center.

But perhaps there is also a thread of connection here beyond my overwhelming cowardice. Covid-19 could very well be one of the few emergent diseases of the 20th or 21st centuries to become endemic, like HIV. People in cities across the country are sheltering in place, waiting to see if they are infected, because our country, unique among countries, does not have the tests to ease our minds. Failures of science like this are more frightening than just the diseases they fail to cure. Like with the malicious mishandling of the HIV epidemic, we know it is people, not gods, who have caused this thing. We look out our windows and we can see there’s something wrong in the air, something wrong in the world, besides the virus. 


1. “Lawrence Wright’s New Pandemic Novel Wasn’t Supposed To Be Prophetic” by Lawrence Wright, The New York Times

This is the second time Lawrence Wright has done this.

2. “I’m Not Feeling Good at All” by Jess Bergman, The Baffler

Jess Bergman notices an emergent new genre and criticizes its implications. “With this literature of relentless detachment, we seem to have arrived at the inverse of what James Wood famously called ‘hysterical realism’ … Rather than an excess of intimacy, there is a lack; rather than overly ornamental character sketches, there are half-finished ones. Personality languishes, and desire has been almost completely erased…”

3. “Escaping Blackness” by Darryl Pinckney, The New York Review of Books

In a review of Thomas Chatterton Williams’ latest memoir, Darryl Pinckney surveys the history and literature of resisting and ‘transcending’ race. “Even when you’re done with being black and blackness, it seems that you cannot cease explaining why.”

4. “I called out American Dirt’s racism. I won’t be silenced.” by Myriam Gurba, Vox

Less than a month after Myriam Gurba wrote the essay that triggered a wave of well-deserved backlash against American Dirt, she was put on administrative leave at the high school where she teaches.

5. “Frequently Asked Questions About Your Craniotomy” by Mary South, The White Review

Mary South’s short story collection You Will Never Be Forgotten published this past week. One story from the collection, excerpted in The White Review earlier this year, is told in the style of a brain surgeon’s FAQ for patients.

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6. “Heroic Work in a Very Important Field” by David Gelber, The Literary Review

A book review of a book about book reviews. “Uncertain why you are reading this? Good, because I’m not any more certain why I’m writing it.”

7. “How Shakespeare Shaped America’s Culture Wars” Sarah Churchwell, The New Statesman

A review of Shakespeare in a Divided America, James Shapiro’s account of the uses and abuses of Shakespeare in American political history.

8. “‘Minor Feelings’ and the Possibilities of Asian-American Identity” by Jia Tolentino, The New Yorker

Jia Tolentino on Cathy Park Hong’s essay collection Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning. “Hong is writing in agonized pursuit of a liberation that doesn’t look white—a new sound, a new affect, a new consciousness—and the result feels like what she was waiting for.”

9. “What Happened to Jordan Peterson?” by Lindsay Beyerstein, The New Republic

The self-important self-help guru seems to have suffered a severe health episode and his daughter has made some very peculiar statements about what happened.

10. “Pigs in Shit” by Hunter Braithwaite, Guernica

Hunter Braithwaite reviews Jean-Baptiste Del Amo’s Animalia, a disturbing multi-generational pig-farming novel. Animalia will come as no surprise. It does not speculate. It doesn’t offer warnings. Which is fine, because if climate change has taught us anything, it’s that warning signs don’t mean shit.”

11. “Woody Allen’s Book Could Signal a New Era in the Publishing Industry” by Maris Kreizman, The Outline

Hachette employees staged a walk-out to protest the house publishing Woody Allen’s memoir. Surprisingly, it worked.

12. “What’s So Funny About the End of the World?” by Rumaan Alam, The New Republic

Rumaan Alam writes about Deb Olin Unferth’s Barn 8, another recent novel that revels in its disgust for industrial farming (this time chickens, not pigs) and views its violent practitioners as a doomed species. As Alam notes, “We might be sad about the end of humanity, but the chickens are probably relieved.”


Happy reading! Stay inside if you can!

Dana Snitzky
Books Editor
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This Month in Books: The Decameron Is Online

John William Waterhouse, A Tale from the Decameron, 1916. (Wikimedia Commons)

“The pestilence was so powerful that it was transmitted to the healthy by contact with the sick, the way a fire close to dry and oily things will set them aflame. And the evil of the plague went even further: not only did talking to or being around the sick bring infection and a common death, but also touching the clothes of the sick or anything touched or used by them…” —Giovanni Boccaccio, The Decameron

“At the beginning of the plague, when there was now no more hope but that the whole city would be visited;…you may be sure from that hour all trade, except such as related to immediate subsistence, was, as it were, at a full stop.” —Daniel Defoe, A Journal of the Plague Year


Dear Reader,

When the pandemic comes, the usual thing is for people to stop talking to one another. I’ve been consulting my small collection of plague books (a normal thing to own), and I’m getting the impression that this has always been the case. Talking and touching are, after all, biologically indistinguishable; to communicate, you have to get close to someone. Close enough to catch whatever it is they’ve got.

Or anyway that used to be how it went. It used to be that, when a plague came around, if you were worried you couldn’t live without other people and their stories and all their little habits and funny dances and things, you had better secure a few charming young noblewomen to take with you into seclusion at your country villa for the duration of the epidemic. Nowadays the script has been flipped. Clubbers can go to “cloud raves,” bored teens can post funny videos, and I can write and publish this month’s books newsletter from the comfort of my living room — I can communicate myself to thousands of you even though I haven’t left my house in like 90 hours, having been a little too spooked by the specter of “community spread” in New York to see First Cow at the Angelika this weekend even though I already had tickets.

(Not, to be honest, that I don’t always write the newsletter from my couch! But it’s a little different, obviously, working from home as opposed to actively avoiding other people.)

The coronavirus is “the first pandemic in history that could be controlled,” said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on Monday. What he meant is that it’s the first pandemic for which we’ve had a whole host of technologies at our disposal that can allow society to screech to a grinding halt without totally collapsing — arguably the most important of which is the internet. Solitude without loneliness is, incredibly, achievable on a wide scale. We can all quarantine alone, together, in one big villa in the cloud. No need to recruit the noblewomen. The Decameron is online.

With that in mind, here’s a round-up of nine not-to-be-missed book-related stories from all around the web this past month, communicated from me to you with zero physical contact. And, while reading, if you happen to get tempted to go out into a big crowd and breathe other people’s air and feel the heat from other people’s bodies, remember this important piece of advice: don’t.


1. “Sex in the Theater: Jeremy O. Harris and Samuel Delany in Conversation” by Toniann Fernandez, The Paris Review

A remarkable conversation on sex, art, and so much more between acclaimed playwright Jeremy O. Harris and sci-fi legend Samuel Delany, whom you may or may not know is also, in the vein of his childhood inspirations Henry Miller and the Marquis de Sade, a writer of erotic novels, such as the “unpublishable” Hogg.

2. “A Dirty Secret: You Can Only Be a Writer If You Can Afford It” by Lynn Steger Strong, The Guardian

Novelist Lynn Steger Strong examines the damning economics of authorship.

3. “The Post-Traumatic Novel” by Lili Loofbourow, The New York Review of Books

“What I have found myself hungering for, in short, is literature that stretches past legal testimonies and sentimental appeals toward what, for lack of a better phrase, I’m calling post-traumatic futurity.” Lili Loofbourow reviews three recent books reflective of the Me Too moment and outlines a new approach to the survivor’s story.

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4. “Jericho Rising” by Allison Glock, Garden & Gun

A profile of the incredible Jericho Brown. “In person, Brown is an explosion of life, magnetic, boisterous, a one-man carnival ride. Simply put, there is no scenario where one would be unaware that Jericho Brown is in the room.”

5. “Fan Fiction Was Just as Sexual in the 1700s as It Is Today” by Shannon Chamberlain, The Atlantic

Get this: Henry Fielding made a smutty fanfic of Samuel Richardson’s Pamela and he called it… Shamela.

6. “Killing the Joke: On Andrea Long Chu’s Females” by Elena Comay del Junco, The Point

Like pretty much everyone, I take perverse delight in a good takedown. There have been a lot of spicy takedown reviews already this year— Lauren Oyler on Jia Tolentino, Emily Gould on Meghan Daum, Jennifer Szalai on Katie Roiphe — and I suppose that, technically, this not-exactly-positive review of Andrea Long Chu’s Females could be seen as something like a takedown; but in the end Comay del Junco’s approach is so thoughtful that it just makes me more interested in the book. Sometimes disagreement is not discouragement.

7. “Behind the Green Baize Door” by Alison Light, The London Review of Books

A review of Feminism and the Servant Problem, a history of the political tension between the suffragettes and their maids: “Employers protested against interference in the relations between mistress and maid. Some believed that their servants had it easy — novel-reading was a particular irritant. One cautioned against leaving the suffrage paper lying around the house: it was too sexually explicit and political discussion might give servant girls the wrong idea.”

8. “Opportunity Costs: On Work, Idealism, and Anna Wiener’s Uncanny Valley” by Eryn Loeb, Guernica

Eryn Loeb reflects on her own work history while reviewing Anna Wiener’s Uncanny Valley, a memoir of selling out in Silicon Valley.

9. “The Beats, the Hungryalists, and the Call of the East” by Akanksha Singh, The Los Angeles Review of Books

Singh reviews Maitreyee Bhattacharjee Chowdhury’s The Hungryalists, a book that explores the connection between Allen Ginsberg and the eponymous group of radical Bengali poets. “Their name is in reference to Geoffrey Chaucer’s use of hungry in in the sowre hungry tyme in his translation of The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius.”


Happy reading, and good luck! Stay inside if you can!

Dana Snitzky
Books Editor
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This Month In Books: What Did We Miss?

Jessica Ruscello / Unsplash

Dear Reader,

The end of the year is a time for regrets. What are all the things I didn’t do? What are all the books I didn’t feature?

For the past two years I’ve compiled a gift catalog for our readers in December, to remind you of some of the books we’ve covered this year in time for your holiday shopping; but it always puts me in a strange mood, and I begin to think about the books I couldn’t seem to find a way to tell you all about. These books are like my little ghosts of Christmas past, reminding me that time is short. So let me present them to you now: all the books we didn’t feature in 2019.

This one still haunts me: Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman’s Sounds Like Titantic. I really should have found a way to spread the word about this book, it’s just so perfectly weird. When I was reading it, I kept closing the book to carefully scrutinize the jacket copy, asking myself: Is this actually a true story? Hindman, an admittedly not very accomplished violinist, was hired during a desperate job hunt to play in a famous schlocky composer’s traveling orchestra (his fans say that his music sounds like, you guessed it, the theme from Titantic) and soon she realizes it’s all… a scam! As in, the orchestra isn’t really playing; the musicians are just miming playing their instruments over a recording. That’s right, Hindman goes on a multi-city tour fake-playing the violin, in a fully fake orchestra! It’s… perfect. And the way Hindman writes about her experience is really striking — a sort of lyrical resignation to being part of it, all of it, this scam, all the scams, the grand American scam.

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Here’s another one I regret not featuring: Lucasta Miller’s L.E.L.: The Lost Life and Scandalous Death of Letitia Elizabeth Landon, the Celebrated “Female Byron.The key word here is scandal— and plenty of it! This poetess’s life had some serious twists in it. I could not put this one down. I’ll be honest, I cheated: I started skipping ahead to figure out what was going on with L.E.L. A lot was going on with L.E.L.! I won’t spoil it but suffice to say, poetry is involved.

And how about this one: Marcus Byrne and Helen Lunn’s Dance of the Dung Beetles: Their Role in Our Changing World. I actually can’t believe I didn’t feature that one on Longreads. I just sounds like something I would try to make everyone read. Did you know dung beetles navigate using the stars? I bet you did not know that.

Though I talked about it a bit with Ibram X. Kendi in an a episode of our What Are You Reading? podcast earlier this year, I feel this book deserves another mention: Maurice Carlos Ruffin’s We Cast a Shadow is a riveting novel — on its surface a dystopian nightmare of the future of racism in America, Ruffin’s debut functions as a kind of ghastly dissection of race in America today that lays bare too many of the bleeding raw parts. It’s difficult to look away from this book.

And of course there are many more! There are always so many books that we haven’t read. Good luck trying to keep up in 2020!

Dana Snitzky
Books Editor
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The Longreads 2019 Holiday Gift Book Guide

Tiina & Geir / Getty

Let Longreads help you with your holiday shopping! We’ve made a catalog of books we featured in 2019 that we think would make great gifts for everyone on your list.


Books of friendships & feuds.

Yuval Taylor’s Zora & Langston is a lavishly detailed account of the friendship, literary collaboration, and epic falling out of Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes; Dylan Jones’ Wichita Lineman tells the parallel life stories of Jim Webb and Glen Campbell in the years after they came together to create the enigmatic eponymous song; and Andrew Curran’s Diderot: The Art of Thinking Freely chronicles Diderot’s intellectual sparring with Rousseau, Voltaire, and Catherine the Great.

Books of conspiracies, coincidences, & cover-ups.

Tim O’Neill’s Chaos lays out the evidence he collected during his 20-year investigation of the Manson family murders; Anna Merlan’s Republic of Lies takes a tour of some of the major conspiracy theories haunting the American psyche today; Evan Ratliff’s Mastermind pieces together a vast criminal network that is astonishingly controlled by just one man; Kate Brown’s Manual for Survival examines the extent to which the aftereffects of Chernobyl were covered up by world governments; Brian J. Boeck’s Stalin’s Scribe  hypothesizes that one of Russia’s most beloved classic novels was plagiarized; and Erik Davis’ High Weirdness is a study of the symbolic “synchronicities” that seem to have recurred during three famous psychedelic experiences of the 1970s.

Books about family.

The bonds of family bend and break across vast distances in Ocean Vuong’s novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous and Nicole Dennis-Benn’s novel Patsy; Mira Jacobs’ graphic memoir Good Talk meditates on mothering in a mixed-race family in America; Grace Talusan’s The Body Papers and T Kira Madden’s Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls are memoirs that celebrate family while also reckoning with legacies of neglect and abuse; and Sarah Broom’s The Yellow House is a 100-year history of her family’s New Orleans home, which was lost during Hurricane Katrina.

Books of investigations & revelations.

Nicole Weisensee Egan’s Chasing Cosby details how the case against Bill Cosby unfolded and why the story took so long to gain traction in the media; Arthur Holland Michel’s Eyes in the Sky reveals that drone surveillance has become widespread in American cities without much public awareness; Ronnie Citron-Fink’s True Roots investigates the real cost of hair dye to humans and the environment; Reniqua Allen’s It Was All a Dream chronicles black millennials’ experiences of income and racial inequality in the 21st century, and explores how this black generation is persevering in transformative new ways; Emily Bazelon’s Charged explores how the power of prosecutors has grown out of control in many American cities; and Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women provides an almost painfully intimate window into the romantic lives of three women who have recently been deeply, obsessively in love with a man.

Frightening books for your fearless friends.

Sarah Moss’s Ghost Wall is a nailbiting novella of iron-age reenactors and parental abuse; Japanese Ghost Stories is a reissue of Lafcadio Hearn’s foundational collection of ghastly tales; and Mona Awad’s Bunny is a delightfully terrifying novel of sex, magic, and MFAs.

Histories that challenge our understanding of the past.

Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments reconstructs the free and experimental lives that black young women and girls were living in the second and third generations born after slavery; Amanda Kolson Hurley’s Radical Suburbs revises what the role of the suburb has been in American history, showing that they were sometimes havens for radicals; Robert MacFarlane’s Underland investigates the human underground world, revealing us to be a surprisingly subterranean species; Daniel Immerwahr’s How To Hide an Empire rewrites the history of the United States from the perspective of its imperial territories; Amir Alexander’s Proof! argues that the discovery of Euclidean geometry profoundly influenced social and political thought; and David Teuer’s The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee tells the history of Native America since the Wounded Knee Massacre, reclaiming Native history after the point of its so-called demise.

Compulsively readable fiction.

Bryan Washington’s Lot, by turns heartbreaking and hilarious, is a collection of interlocking short stories named after cities and streets in Houston; Mark Doten’s Trump Sky Alpha is a too-real satire of the world after Trump’s coming apocalypse; Mary HK Choi’s Permanent Record explores how modern lives and romances are mediated by technology; Kali Fajardo-Anstine’s Sabrina & Corina is a collection of interlocking short stories set in Denver, and in each one a woman has suffered violence at the hands of a man; Susan Choi’s novel Trust Exercise is a straightforward story of teenage romance that becomes more complicated with every twist of the narrative; and Téa Obreht’s Inland is a sprawling Western based on the true story of the U.S. Camel Corps.

Essays & Criticism.

Shapes of Native Nonfiction, an anthology edited by Elissa Washuta and Theresa Warburton, showcases the craftsmanship of contemporary Native storytelling; Luke O’Neil’s Welcome To Hell World is a vital and despairing collection of essays on modern American life; T Fleischmann’s Time Is a Thing the Body Moves Through uses the artworks of Felix Gonzáles-Torres to reflect on how the bodies we inhabit affect our relationship with art; Jenny Odell’s How To Do Nothing is a manifesto that calls for a radical winding down the attention economy; Hanif Abdurraqib’s Go Ahead in the Rain is a love letter to A Tribe Called Quest; and Jess Row’s White Flights is a literary dissection of whiteness in literature.

Minds & bodies.

Bassey Ikpi’s I’m Telling the Truth But I’m Lying reconstructs her experience of living with Bipolar II; Darcey Steinke’s Flash Count Diary is a philosophical meditation on menopause; Anne Boyer’s The Undying is a lyrical manifesto against the cancer industrial complex; Keah Brown’s The Pretty One is a lighthearted collection of personal essays that challenge the idea the idea that disability precludes self-love, romance, and happiness; Cameron Dezen Hammon’s memoir This Is My Body reflects on the painful contradictions of harboring deep Evangelical faith in a female body; and Andrea J. Buchanan’s The Beginning of Everything is a memoir of her marriage and mind falling apart.

Extraordinary memoirs.

Ahmet Altan’s I Will Never See the World Again was clandestinely written in the Turkish prison where he is being held as a political dissident; Marc Hamer’s How To Catch a Mole chronicles his rediscovery of the lost art of molecatching; Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House is the inventively told tale of how she survived domestic abuse at the hands of her partner; Carolyn Forché’s What You Have Heard Is True is the story of her experiences in El Salvador as during the civil war, which she famously recorded at the time in verse; Delphine Minou’s I’m Writing You From Tehran is her account of falling in love with the city from which her family had fled; and Matt and Ted Lee’s Hot Box is a whirlwind look at the fast-paced world of high-end catering in New York City.

Book about just one thing.

Semicolons, wind, and beef.

Happy Holidays!

* * *

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.”

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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
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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.

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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

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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

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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.

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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

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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.

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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

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.

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