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Dana Snitzky

This Week in Books: A B-Movie Storytelling Moment

English actor Robert Shaw (1927 - 1978) as Quint, viewed through a set of shark jaws, in a publicity still for 'Jaws', directed by Steven Spielberg, 1975. (Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)

Dear Reader,

We’ve been watching a lot of movies lately — uh, just like everybody else on the entire planet — and there’s this particular kind of moment that I get really excited about (like, I start poking my boyfriend really hard and I say “It’s happening!!” a bunch of times, which I’m sure he loves) that is only ever guaranteed to happen in low budget movies, though it can happen in any movie. I call it the B-movie storytelling moment. It’s that moment in a B-movie (duh) when there is clearly something totally insane the filmmakers want to film, but they don’t have the budget for it, so they just have a character describe it at length instead.

Of course, sometimes this is simply done on purpose, for the effect. (Which, in my opinion, is a very awesome effect; awesome enough to make me just absolutely bother my boyfriend every time it happens, which, again, I am certain he adores.) But sometimes you can tell that the director clearly would rather have just filmed it. The fun part is guessing which moments are intentional and which are born of budgetary necessity — and realizing that maybe, functionally, there is no difference!

One of the most effective instances of a movie storytelling moment, to give an example pretty much everybody remembers, is when Robert Shaw spends an uncanny, uninterrupted several minutes giving a firsthand account of the (true!) story of the 1945 mass shark attack on the crew of the U.S.S. Indianapolis right before the climactic final shark-battle of Jaws. It’s such a memorably unsettling moment because the story Shaw’s character tells is a thousand times scarier and more messed up than anything dramatized in the movie. It compels the audience to imagine something way worse than the movie has the ability to show us.

So, yeah, I’ve been on the lookout for storytelling moments in all the movies we’ve been watching during lockdown. My favorite so far is in Night of the Living Dead, when, not long after Duane Jones and Judith O’Dea meet up in the farmhouse, Jones’ character gives a not-at-all-paying-attention O’Dea a long, detailed account of an encounter he had earlier that day with zombies at a gas station. The story he tells is noticeably, almost comically, beyond the scope of the lowtech flick — it involves, as I recall, zombies jumping onto a careening gas tanker truck (that is also being driven by a zombified guy? sorry I can’t find a clip but I think that might be what happens) that bursts into flame, after which Jones steals a pickup truck and mows down dozens of zombies in order to escape. It’s by far the most action that happens in the movie, and it’s all off-screen.

Lockdown is, of course, an uncanny time to become obsessed with the uncanniest moments in film. Although, to be fair, stories-within-stories have sort of always been my thing — like, give me a Bolaño novel that starts with a guy walking into a bar, and then another guy starts telling him a story, and the rest of that novel is just the second guy telling that story and you never even hear from the first guy again, and I’m blissed out, I’m happy. That’s the good stuff, to me. But this film thing feels, right now, sort of different from that. It’s not just a wacky way of taking a narrative delightfully off the rails. It’s a dispatch. It’s usually addressed nearly head on toward the camera, as an unbroken monologue, as though it’s being delivered directly to the viewer: a dispatch from outside the edges of the movie.

I don’t know what it reminds me of, exactly. Is it that I have been receiving little dispatches just like that? People in little boxes on these Zoom calls. Snatches of sound passing on the streets. A photo of corpses being piled up on the bed in a sleep study room in a hospital in Queens. Horrifying stories, from outside my narrative, way worse than anything this B movie life of mine has shown me, so far. Or something else altogether; is it more like, I am longing for that uncanny moment in a (real-life!) conversation when the other person suddenly tells a startling story? Honestly, there’s nothing like it; nothing like how weird things can get, sometimes, surprisingly, when you’re just talking to someone else, someone you don’t know very well.

I guess I miss the way other people can be surprising. Doing your own thing all day, you can start to forget that about them? I’m lucky I have my boyfriend here. I can tell he tries to come up with something new for me everyday. I am very lucky. I guess that’s what I’m thinking of, today.

1. “Don’t Look For Patient Zeros” by Scott W. Stern, The New Republic

A recent episode of the New York Times podcast The Daily about the supposed corona “Patient Zero” of New Jersey prompted pushback from several public figures, most notably Richard A. McKay, author of Patient Zero and the Making of the AIDS Epidemic, who responded by writing an essay debunking the entire “Patient Zero” concept. In this review, Stern fleshes out the history of the idea of “Patient Zero,” explaining how McKay’s book, which came out in 2017, served as rebuttal to Randy Shilts’ classic work of nonfiction about the early years of the AIDS epidemic, And the Band Played On, which notoriously vilified Canadian flight attendant Gaétan Dugas as the “source” of HIV in the U.S.

2. “Joyelle McSweeney’s Poetry of Catastrophe” by Dan Chiasson, The New Yorker

When reviewing Joyelle McSweeney’s devastating two-part book of poetry, Toxicon and Arachne — part one written during her pregnancy and part two written after the death of the baby — Dan Chiasson encounters a sickly aesthetic fit for the Age of the Virus, in which “nature is ‘poisoned, mutated, aberrant, spectacular, full of ill effects and affects.’ The words of the living commingle sickeningly with those of the dead… prior language takes hold of a poem by seepage or contamination, in the stealthy way that ‘bugs, viruses, weeds and mold’ do, going about their relentless work.”

3. “Like No One They’d Ever Seen” by Ed Park, The New York Review of Books

Ed Park writes about the “ghostly” place held in the American canon by Younghill Kang’s East Goes West, an autobiographical memoir first published in 1937, which was rereleased yet again by Penguin Classics last year.

4. “The Elephant” by Chan Chi Wa, Lit Hub

A story about a missing elephant. Excerpted from That We May Live, an anthology of Chinese dystopic fiction.


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5. “As Clean as Rage” by Nadja Spiegelman, The New York Review of Books

Nadja Spiegelman surveys the work of the radical French writer Virginie Despentes, whose Vernon Subutex trilogy is in the midst of being released in the U.S. To give you a taste of Despentes’ iconoclasm, Spiegelman writes that, after her first sensational novel Rape Me was published in French, “The French press hurled themselves at Despentes … They tried to cast her as the girl who’d been saved from sleaze by the grace of her talents, but she refused the role, insisting that the best years of her life were the ones before she’d been ‘discovered’ … When a journalist asked her if turning her first trick had felt like violating the ultimate taboo, she responded, ‘Much less so than my first television appearance.’”

6. “The People Who Profited Off the Trail of Tears” by Caitlin Fitz, The Atlantic

Caitlin Fitz reviews Claudio Sant’s Unworthy Republic: The Dispossession of Native Americans and the Road to Indian Territory, a book about the bankers who profited from the theft of Native homes. “[Sant] follows the money, exhaustively researching company correspondence and government records to show how bankers in Boston and London financed the dirty work of dispossession in collaboration with southern speculators. The result is a haunting story of racialized cruelty and greed, which came to define a pivotal period in U.S. and indigenous history alike.”

7. “The Rise of the Lurker” by Adrian Daub, The New Republic

In a review of Joanne McNeil’s Lurking: How a Person Became a User — which imagines the lurker as a kind of twenty-first century flaneur — Adrian Daub writes that now, in the Age of the Virus, many of us, the inessential us, have become real-life lurkers.

Stay well and sanitize your groceries,

Dana Snitzky
Books Editor
@danasnitzky
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This Week in Books: An Everlasting Meal

The False tomb of the child of Akbar in the Tomb of Akbar the Great in Agra on an overcast day. Robert Ruidl/Getty

Dear Reader,

The book that’s been the most help to me during lockdown is a book I’ve never read; I didn’t need to read it for it to save my life. I just needed, just one time, from a review or maybe from simply reading the jacket copy, to absorb its premise and go “huh that makes sense” and then to lock that information away deep in my nether-brain where it would be reserved for the occasion when I would really, really, really need it.

I am, of course, talking about Tamar Adler’s (no doubt) incomparable An Everlasting Meal, a (if I’m not mistaken) wonderful book, the main thrust of which (as I have been led to believe) is that to properly run a kitchen, you have to be constantly planning how the leftover ingredients of one meal will seamlessly blend into the next. This (surely) is a way of thinking and strategizing your grocery shopping which Tamar Adler wrote an entire book about. And I used to be such a bad cook — a non-cook, if you will — that when I first learned oh so many years ago about this concept from the book’s jacket copy or (as I’m now recalling) from my friend Hannah, who described the contents of the book to me (yes, that’s it, she once described the book to me) on the phone (honestly I barely have interacted with this book) or perhaps as we rode together on the train, I was so struck by the powerful logic of it that I locked it away tight in my hind-brain, my deep and permanent lizard-brain. In fact, so stunned do I remember being by this tremendous insight of Tamar Adler’s which (I have reason to suspect) she laid out in detail in the book An Everlasting Meal, that I have got to believe it had an impact on my grocery shopping and meal-planning right away; but the effects weren’t all that pronounced for a very long time, since back then I (truly) did not know how to cook anything. I did not know how to cook anything until last year and therefore until last year I never had an everlasting meal; I never had much more than an everlasting sandwich.

Last year is when I started getting really into recipes. But, reader, I was still a mere “shopping for one recipe at a time” person, a type of person which I have, these past few weeks, come to regard as a very weak and inferior type of person when compared to this accomplished and frankly powerful “shopping for three weeks of meals at a time” person that I have become.

To be totally clear, I placed a Fresh Direct order 3 weeks ago and we have not left the house since. I am a god.

Not a day of lockdown has gone by on which I have not thought of Tamar Adler’s An Everlasting Meal, a book I have not read. Not a day has gone by on which An Everlasting Meal has not made me mighty.

I still have plans to make so many — so many different — curries that it would make your head explode. If I told you how many I’m afraid the information would hurt you.

I have never read Tamar Adler’s An Everlasting Meal, but, if I never get the virus, friends, I am attributing my survival entirely to the fact that I once merely heard about Tamar Adler’s An Everlasting Meal (a book so powerful that I am beginning to think that no one ever actually could read it without suffering some sort of permanent brain injury, or descending into madness, or raising up a creature from the Dark Pool Below the Tower in My Dreams and unleashing it on an unready world) and that, upon merely hearing of Tamar Adler’s An Everlasting Meal, I inscribed in my deepest and darkest most everlasting thoughts a message that will never leave me, that I cannot — that I will not! I refuse to! — forget: “Thus darkly and alone is the Way to everl

 

[Editors’ note: This draft of Dana’s weekly books newsletter, which we received in an email from a strange address that included several photographs in the attachments, each of which is labeled “the False tomb of the child of Akbar at the Tomb of Akbar the Great in Agra on an overcast day,” ends abruptly mid-sentence. We will update this post when we finally hear from Dana what the message of An Everlasting Meal is.]

 

1. “In ‘Afropessimism,’ a Black Intellectual Mixes Memoir and Theory” by John Williams, The New York Times

In an interview, Frank B. Wilderson III talks about his memoir-theory hybrid Afropessimism, which, true to its title, makes the pessimistic case that black suffering is “essential” and even “necessary” to the psychic life of society. It’s hard to read the coronavirus death statistics this week and not see his point.

2. “Beth Alvarado: Grieving in Dreams” by Kimi Eisele, Guernica

Two novelists discuss what it’s like looking back at the books about grief, mass death, and apocalypse they wrote before the coronavirus. “We had no idea then that the virus was there, waiting, and about to be so swiftly spread. Or maybe we did know, could sense, our own precarity. What could possibly sustain a world so stacked toward some and against others?”

3. “No One Disagrees With Rebecca Solnit” by Jennifer Wilson, The New Republic

Jennifer Wilson takes a turn touching the third rail of book criticism by pointing out that a widely lauded feminist author of many books is maybe a bit too easy to agree with.

4. “The Brilliant Plodder” by David Quammen, The New York Review of Books

Many years ago, I intensely read David Quammen’s extraordinarily gripping book about how pandemic viruses emerge. I liked his writing so much that I picked up his book about Darwin and read that, too. Ever since corona showed up, Quammen’s name has been popping up in my feeds a lot as various publications have asked him to weigh in, but I never click on those articles; in fact I feel alarmingly triggered by them, because that book was so terrifying that, honestly guys, the fact that David Quammen is weighing in means we are in terrible trouble. So, uh, here’s an article he wrote about Darwin instead. I read it; it’s delightful. Let’s all read this one and not the others; let’s not become paralyzed by fear when David Quammen says the Big One has come, as he foretold it would.


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5. “For the Union Dead” by Daniel Mason, The Atlantic

A short story from Daniel Mason’s forthcoming collection A Registry of My Passage Upon the Earth, in which the narrator discovers a startling aspect of his recently deceased uncle’s favorite hobby.

6. “Broken Pieces” by Cody Delistraty, Poetry

This is a really excellent profile of the poet Cynthia Cruz. “Throughout our afternoon together, Cruz earnestly asks me to help her interpret her poetry, as though she has located the lock to the deepest recesses of her mind but not the key.”

7. “Rereading Sanmao, the Taiwanese Wayfarer Who Sold Fifteen Million Books” by Han Zhang, The New Yorker

One of the world’s more popular writers has recently been translated into English for the first time. Han Zhang reflects on her girlhood fascination with Sanmao.

8. “from Hex by Rebecca Dinerstein Knight,” Bomb

An excerpt from Rebecca Dinerstein Knight’s novel Hex. After a lab accident, a disgraced toxicologist makes a choice. “I guess you could say that I like revenge and they like common decency. I guess you could say I don’t approve of myself enough to protect myself.”

9. “Season of the Witch” by Ana Cecilia Alvarez, Bookforum

A review of Fernanda Melchor’s Hurricane Season, a novel about a real-life murder which she wrote in lieu of an investigative report because “in Mexico… they kill journalists, but they don’t kill writers, and anyways, fiction protects you.”

 

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This Week In Books: Too Small For the Occasion

John Keats reading a book of poetry, after portrait by Joseph Severn. English poet, 1795-1821. (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)

Dear Reader,

I’m sitting here trying to write up my little “This Week in Books” list, and it’s a real problem, because the literary corona-articles I saved last week already seem… slight. As in, too small for the occasion; preposterously hedged with absurd little silver linings. Re-reading one article I’d saved for my list, I ended up having to ask myself, is it actually ok to conclude that the typhus scene in Jane Eyre demonstrates how pandemics can be beneficial unstructured time for children!? But this isn’t me being critical, ok, this is me saying: that Jane Eyre article is already 10 days old, and what’s happening now is, the exponential growth of the disaster has made all these corona-articles floating in its wake appear smaller and smaller at a similarly accelerated rate. Last week seems so tiny; last month is minuscule. I dare you to try reading anything from February about the coronavirus; it feels sort of like going insane!

The real problem with the literary corona genre, to be honest, is that as the days go by, and more “essential” workers sicken and die, I feel my interest in anything about corona not written by or about essential workers kind of fading. The travails of lockdown are real, of course, but the thing to keep in mind about lockdown is that it is safety. There’s only so much we can complain about this before we start to reveal something… unpleasant… about ourselves; before we begin to align ourselves with what’s being done to the “essential” working class in this country. The mass sacrifice. It’s like the government is sending soldiers into combat with no guns, or something; like the Battle of Stalingrad, but for no particular reason!? I saw a tweet by a garbage collector who said that a passerby yelled at him for wearing a mask because he doesn’t deserve it as much as a healthcare worker. I saw a tweet quoting a month-old Facebook post by a bus driver worrying that his job will endanger him, with an addendum that he has already died of the virus. I see photo after photo of “essential” workers with no masks or PPE of any kind and think to myself that this cannot possibly be okay. Two weeks ago, the FedEx guy was parked outside our apartment — and we were watching, because any time a truck or something pulls up in the street that’s entertainment for us now — when suddenly he screamed, and I mean really goddamn screamed, to no one and to every one of us who was peeking at him out our windows: “What are we even doing out here!!??” The silence that followed was profound.

Doctors and nurses need PPE desperately, but also, so does everyone who’s still at work! So demand not only that your governments provide PPE for your healthcare workers, but for your garbage collectors, too. Please!

That all being said, I’ve still got a few literary corona reads here for you. I’m not trying to, I don’t know, make a grand statement. Just a small statement. I’m voicing a concern — a tiny but exponentially growing concern — that in a couple weeks this will all seem insane. Read more…

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
@danasnitzky
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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
@danasnitzky
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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
@danasnitzky
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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
@danasnitzky
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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
@danasnitzky
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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
@danasnitzky

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