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Dana Snitzky

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

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Dear Reader,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dana Snitzky
Books Editor

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

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Dear Reader,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dana Snitzky
Books Editor

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Eleven Books to Read in 2019

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

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

The Reckonings by Lacy Johnson (Scribner)

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

The Longreads 2018 Holiday Gift Book Guide

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

Books about being alone and really owning it.

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

Books about family. 

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

Books for the women in your life who are mad. 

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

Books of investigations, inquiries, and revelations. 

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

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

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

Histories that challenge our understanding of the past.

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

Books about dating and marriage.

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

Follow the money.

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

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

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

Books of journeys, adventures, and migrations.

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

Books about faith.

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

Cultural studies and criticism.

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

Books that are about just one specific thing.

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


Happy holidays!
* * *

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

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Dear Reader,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dana Snitzky
Books Editor

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This Month in Books: ‘Everything That We Are and Ever Have Been’

Dear Reader,

This month’s books newsletter has a lot to say about identities — mistaken, misunderstood, transformed, false, fictional or as anonymous as the op-ed.

In his interview with Cooper Lee Bombardier, Thomas Page McBee says that when he transitioned, he “just felt so limited, so suddenly afraid of becoming the kind of man I’d grown up in fear of.” Becoming someone you don’t want to be, he realizes, happens when you have not come to terms with who you already have been, or who you’ve failed to be:

I’m of the belief that we all have to face our own rejected parts — what Jung calls our shadows — in order to genuinely make a cultural shift.

When identities shift, cultures will follow; there is political power generated by self-actualization. As Alana Mohamed writes in her review of Michelle Tea’s essay collection Against Memoir, “It’s a forceful thing, to show up in a world that doesn’t expect you to exist, and to say something it doesn’t expect you to say.” But Mohamed also warns of the erasure of triumph, the cleaning-up inherent in actualization:

[Radical queer women who fought for queer visibility in the ’80s and ’90s] were dying not of marriage inequality, but of addiction, trauma, and poverty. If we forget them and their stories, queer history becomes nothing more than a slogan.

She argues for a cacophony of viewpoints and conflicting definitions: a queerness that “seeks to make room for us to name ourselves,” that is “ever-expanding and ever-in-conflict with itself because of this.” Mohamed imagines a hopeful future for queer identity, for all identity, pointing to the powerful potential of memory and community, even as she probes a deep rift that has breached queer culture — the Rashomon-esque inability of people to remember the same stories or to honor the same heroes: “Who threw the first punch, or glass, or heel at Stonewall? Everyone has their version of what happened that night on June 29, 1969.” A huge feud has developed over the identity of who led the charge.

Preoccupied with this same interplay of history, memory and identity, Christian Kracht’s novel The Dead erases beloved heroes of the Golden Age of film and replaces them with ghoulish impostors, rank fascists and bloviating imperialists: Charlie Chaplin is no longer the crusading satirist who created The Great Dictator, but rather he is the dictator. In his review, J.W. McCormack says this restructuring of famous personalities is an incursion of history into identity, the reality of the 1930s reshaping its legacy, its art:

As cultural monuments in any of the arts prosper, the actual culture that produced them so often plummets — into tyranny, a defiant ignorance, and death.

It’s a startling assertion that who we are and the world we will leave behind are two not-particularly-connected things. Identity can look suddenly like nothing more than another peril in a life full of them, a treacherous path in a dangerous world. “A big part of toxic masculinity is to not question anything about being a man,” McBee says. “It felt to me very dangerous to do so, even in writing this book.” Tea reflects on how her warts-and-all approach to documenting her queer contemporaries was just another way of hurting them: “It’s one thing to discuss your family’s trauma with other family; it’s another thing entirely to release their stories to a world that doesn’t love them.” In Nick Drnaso’s Sabrina, when a man misstates a murdered woman’s identity, it provokes a mob of online harassers to cast doubt on his:


And, as Levi Vonk writes in his review of Mario Chard’s poetry collection Land of Fire, identity is a tool of state power, predicated on arbitrary qualities, such as through which entrance you entered a space. And “as soon it is determined that the bird has not entered through the door — the only legitimate entrance — everything unravels”:

How did the bird get inside the house?
Through the door I said.
No. Through a window. Listen they said How did the
bird get inside the house?

The questioning continues until it has abstracted all qualities of the bird:

The bird is nameless. Who named the bird?
I said No one. The bird is nameless.
What is your name? They said.
I am nameless I said.

In her interview with Bridey Heing, Olivia Laing says she wrote her sort-of-autofictional novel Crudo to interrogate such rigid categorizations, to ask “How does one learn to be less selfish? How does one learn to soften one’s borders?” She says:

It’s a personal question, but it’s also a political question. That’s the same force that leads people to say “I don’t want immigrants in my country.”

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On the other hand, in her interview with Ryan Chapman, novelist Ling Ma asks, more or less, what has identity got to do with anything? Her protagonist, she says, became exasperated with her when she wrote an immigration narrative for the character’s family. The character refused to even tell the story, thinking it pointless:

That was really difficult to write because I feel like any time a character is a minority, their narrative is automatically an immigration narrative. Growing up I used to get asked the question where do you come from? I grew up in Utah, Nebraska, and Kansas, so you would hear that a lot.

I was just like, Can we just not have a character who needs to explain how she got to the U.S.? I think my difficulty with that came through. With chapter sixteen, there’s no first person. I couldn’t get Candace to talk about it. When I was writing it she was going, This is really cheesy, I’m not a part of this. So I had an omniscient narrator and then let her take over that chapter gradually.

Catherine Lacey, in an interview with Tobias Carroll, doesn’t get into debates with her characters about identity. Instead, she inhabits their identities so thoroughly that she marvels at how she has ended up writing something she would never say herself:

I don’t know. I don’t even remember quite where I was when I wrote that [story] to be honest. I think that one just came like from that character. I’m not sure if I would ever say that. In my life, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t use that description, at least in an honest way. But that character, he just said that….

I feel like when I’m writing in a place that’s really authentic and honest, it does feel a little bit like acting in a way. And then, I’m creating some sort of character, and then I’m just performing that character, and typing what they say.

This slipperiness of self isn’t just for fiction writers; you really never can know quite who you are going to become — you might die before it happens. As Susan Hand Shetterly writes in Seaweed Chronicles: A World at Water’s Edge, the British algae scientist Kathleen Drew-Baker never set foot in Japan, and yet, years after her death, her discoveries “revolutionized the harvest and consumption of seaweed in that country.” Now she is revered in Japan as the Mother of the Sea. You can visit her shrine. In death we become godlike, our small achievements in life having profound, ripple-like effects on the future; we take our exalted place in the grand human story.

(Kracht, of course, takes a different position: “The dead are profoundly lonesome creatures, there is no solidarity among them, they are all born alone, die, and are reborn alone as well.”)

So how to proceed? Be careful, Lacey warns. Remember your identity is porous:

I feel like I’m always making language out of the language that’s around me… I’m very careful. I don’t really watch a lot of series. I pretty much only watch a TV series if I’m on a plane, and I’m like really careful about what I read and when I read it. And I’m careful about who I talk to and who I spend my time around. I think it’s true for everybody, but I can’t really say it for everybody, but for me, it’s definitely true that I’m always writing a story out of the language that I surround myself with.

And as McBee points out, there is one upside to identity — most of who you are is in the past:

I’ve come to realize that everyone passes. Most of us aren’t walking around with our souls out all the time, being everything that we are and ever have been.

Dana Snitzky
Books Editor

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This Month In Books: ‘Name the Very Specific Situation Around You’

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Dear Reader,

This month’s books newsletter has a lot to say about truth and lies, fact and fiction.

In his new book Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics, Stephen Greenblatt tells us Shakespeare was constantly asking himself the question, “Why do large numbers of people knowingly accept being lied to?” — plus a whole host of follow-up questions:

Why would anyone… be drawn to a leader manifestly unsuited to govern, someone dangerously impulsive or viciously conniving or indifferent to the truth? Why, in some circumstances, does evidence of mendacity, crudeness, or cruelty serve not as a fatal disadvantage but as an allure, attracting ardent followers? Why do otherwise proud and self-respecting people submit to the sheer effrontery of the tyrant, his sense that he can get away with saying and doing anything he likes, his spectacular indecency?

In Shakespeare’s view, Greenblatt goes on to say, the answer is pretty basic: because when tyranny is ascendant, everyone, from the counselors to the mob, is complicit, a complicity brought on by maliciousness, fear, or a total failure to come to terms with what is happening — and maybe even a bit of enjoyment of the spectacle.  

In her new book The Death of Truth (reviewed by Bridey Heing), Michiko Kakutani says the answer is perhaps more postmodern, citing this moment as emblematic of our times:

“When called out for claiming FBI statistics were only “theoretically true,” Newt Gingrich responded, “What I said was equally true. People feel it.”

The truth is what we feeland, conversely, anyone who describes how we feel seems to be telling the truth. In her critical takedown of Jordan Peterson’s work, Laurie Penny writes:

In times of angst and confusion, anyone who accurately describes how you feel will briefly seem like God’s own prophet. This, as any half-decent writer can tell you, is a talent that is extremely easy to abuse.

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Storytelling looks, suddenly, dangerousa way of creating truth through feeling rather than fact. In an interview with Hope Reese, Alice Bolin addresses this not as a practice of a single demagogue or huckster, but a whole society:

I think we need to take into consideration what stories have been told before, what stories have been told to death, and the kinds of messages that we’re sending by reusing these same tropes over and over.

In the detective stories we all love, in which a Dead Girl is discovered and her death is mysteriously unexplained, the tropes take on the status of myths, and the myths obfuscate two important truths about Dead Girlsthat normally their deaths are totally explainable, even predictable:

When we frame these murder stories as mysteries, we have to excise that part of the story that makes who did it obvious. If you watch Dateline or whatever, they say, “Oh, we always have to eliminate the people closest to the victim.” And they don’t exactly say: men are always murdering their wives.

And that when many Dead Girls turn up in one place, it’s not because one person is killing them, but because everyone is:

I feel like, often, the truth — like in the stories of the Juarez murders or the Highway of Tears in Canada — is that those are a lot of different murderers. The truth is that… the murderer is almost a collective of violent misogynists.  

Bolin is discussing the misrepresentation of truth in fiction — in an interview with Naomi Elias, Ingrid Rojas Contreras talks about the disintegration of truth in reality:

Your biggest worry when you’re living in a violent country is that you are not fast enough or smart enough to detangle what’s going on around you. You feel at all times like “maybe this is a dangerous situation, but I don’t have the power to know.”

She’s talking about the situation in Colombia during her childhood, under the thumb of Pablo Escobar. Stephen Greenblatt, speaking of Richard III, says the confusion cultivated by a dictator, the inability to know what is happening, causes many people living under tyranny to be unable to process facts or contemplate the obvious, even if their lives are in danger:

Then there are those who cannot keep in focus that Richard is as bad as he seems to be. They know that he is a pathological liar and they see perfectly well that he has done this or that ghastly thing, but they have a strange penchant for forgetting, as if it were hard work to remember just how awful he is. They are drawn irresistibly to normalize what is not normal.

The tyrant, the liar who spreads confusion in order to prop up his own position, can, of course, exist on a much smaller scale. In fact, the tyrant can often be found in the home. Rafia Zakaria enumerates Hemingway’s emotional abuses of his wives and mistresses. He wrote the novel Across the River and Into the Sea while married to Mary Welsh Hemingway and conducting an affair with the much younger Adriana Ivancich. The book is dedicated to Mary, but is clearly a chronicle of his relationship with Adriana. His deceit snakes into the book and worms out as a revisionist history, fiction becoming a means to assuage a guilty conscience, to perpetuate and simultaneously reveal a lie, to gaslight some women:

When memorable moments with Adriana were not enough material, he borrowed them from moments that belonged to Mary, “an absolutely perfect present” selected and purchased for the latter becoming in the book an offering to the former.

Rojas Contreras addresses the dictator or strongman’s ability not just to use language for spreading confusion — such as, say, writing a novel in which he steals his wife’s memories and gives them to his mistress — but to warp the language of others around himself:

In the novel I call him the “King Midas of words,” and that’s true. If he had a lawyer in the news, they would call that lawyer a ‘narco-lawyer,’ and if he had an estate or farm they would call that the ‘narco-estate’ and they wouldn’t even reference Pablo Escobar, but it was understood by all the people watching the news that he had a hand in it somehow.

But Rojas Contreras also says that language will change to protect its users, to help them navigate a treacherous world:

As a writer I pay very close attention to words… There’s a way in which a very specific atmosphere of tension will give rise to new language in order to be more exact about where you are safe and where you are unsafe, in order to name the very specific situation around you.


Dana Snitzky
Books Editor

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This Month in Books: ‘What Used To Be Me Before the World Buried It’

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Dear Reader,

Ottessa Moshfegh, in an interview with Hope Reese, says the through line between her first novel, Eileen, and her new one, My Year of Rest and Relaxation, is isolation:

The book was challenging because of the essence of it being a woman in an apartment. You know, it’s like writing about someone being in jail, which is my first book…. I needed to write that book [My Year of Rest and Relaxation] to give myself a chance to look at the things that are difficult about being a person alone.

One of those difficult things, as the former Slits guitarist Viv Albertine writes in her new memoir To Throw Away Unopened, is how what’s “worse than… being alone forever is the thought that I’ll grow to love a person very much and won’t have them for very long. Finding another person to love is finding another person to lose.” Isolation can become self-perpetuating; it can be easy to convince yourself, once you are experiencing it, that it is inevitable.

Being forced to be alone is a form of torture, and (as I remember from the anthology Hell Is a Very Small Place, a book which I excerpted on Longreads a few years ago) it has always been recognized as such. In their 1833 report on the new practice of solitary confinement in U.S. “penitentiaries,” Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont wrote:

This absolute solitude, if nothing interrupts it, is beyond the strength of man; it destroys the criminal without intermission and without pity; it does not reform, it kills…. The unfortunates on whom this experiment was made fell into a state of depression so manifest that their keepers were struck with it; their lives seemed in danger if they remained longer in this situation…

In a world in which a form of torture like solitary confinement exists and is so widespread, it can seem callous to talk about loneliness. But there are other kinds of forced loneliness, even if they don’t result in total solitude. A prison, for example, also causes loneliness on the outside. In his interview with Tori Telfer, Issac Bailey talks about how his beloved oldest brother’s incarceration scarred his childhood psyche. His brother’s absence was an open wound which still hasn’t healed:

I was a nine-year-old boy when this happened. I had nothing to do with it but have been punished, in a very real way, nonetheless. It’s one of the reasons I’m convinced I still speak with a stutter all these years later.

And there are other kinds of prisons. Your own body, for instance. In his memoir Inward Empire, Christian Donlan grapples with the effects of MS. He describes the quotidian robbing of his selfhood and the disconcerting isolation he experiences inside the vast emptiness of his failing synapses:

Day to day, I sometimes feel I am chasing a little pool of nothingness around inside me, the way I might tilt an air bubble up and down through a spirit level. Sometimes this nothingness seems to gather in the fingers, a lack of sensation that feels implausibly, paradoxically, raw. Sometimes it pools in the brain, a wordlessness, a theft of language…

In the face of this horror, Donlan jokes: “I have never really liked the fact that I have a brain,” a sentiment with which, incidentally, Moshfegh wholeheartedly agrees:

I am acutely aware of how much I do not like my own mind. When I’m not distracted by my imagination or by something external, time passing feels like I’m just waiting for the time to pass until I die.

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Luckily, there are a few voices in this month’s books newsletter who point out the upsides of being alone. In her book dedicated to the subject of solitude, Alone Time, travel writer Stephanie Rosenbloom mentions writers and artists who have been both for and against the practice of eating alone. Nathaniel Hawthorne once called it “the dismallest part of my present experience,” whereas Fran Liebowitz said, “My idea of a great literary dinner party is Fran, eating alone, reading a book.” Rosenbloom comes down heavily in favor of the practice, somehow managing to make being alone sound simple, pleasurable, and not at all terrifying: “When you’re not sitting across from someone,” she says, “you’re sitting across from the world.”

In her interview with Ryan Chapman, Chelsea Hodson says she finds it intriguing, rather than, say, disturbing, to be acutely aware of inhabiting a specific, lone self — because it gives her the ability to just make it up, to pick and choose her “self,” and to let a version of herself walk away from her:

There’s something about that difficulty — curating the “I,” deciding what to include, deciding what that eye “sees” — that’s really interesting to me. [The “I” in the book] feels very distant actually. It’s this weird thing that’s happened… Somehow, when it’s on my computer it’s still accessible to me. And now that I can’t touch it, it feels far away from me.

Of course, it’s the act of writing that gives her this ability to create a separate self — a revelation shared by Pearl Curran, who, in the early twentieth century, was possessed by the prolific and critically acclaimed novelist, poet, playwright — and, notably, ghost — Patience Worth. In Joy Lanzendorfer’s profile of Curran and Worth, she writes that:

When confined to writing from her own experiences and thoughts, Curran found herself bored by the “conscious effort of the ordinary manner of writing,” adding, “My own writing fatigues me, while the other (Patience Worth’s) exhilarates me. That’s a queer mess of a statement, but quite true.”

The “other” self doesn’t feel like a prison. The “other” is a treasure, a friend who keeps her company, maybe even the truer version of her. Lanzendorfer goes on to tell us that:

In [Curran’s] short story, “Rosa Alvaro, Entrante,” the character Mayme, like Curran, had a drab life until she discovered a beautiful spirit, who, for a time at least, brings her excitement, money, and a sense of purpose. Or, as Mayme says of Rosa: “Oh Gwen, I love her! She’s everything I want to be. Didn’t I find her? It ain’t me. It’s what used to be me before the world buried it.”

Dana Snitzky
Books Editor

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This Month in Books: ‘We Have Nothing to Weigh Our Hearts Against’

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Dear Reader,

When I look at this month’s Books Newsletter, all I can think about are borders, crossings, the terrible distances between people who have been separated….

Of course, that’s almost certainly because those things are already on my mind. To read the news now is to be made aware of the perils and punishments reserved for people who have their heart set on something remote, who have faith in the faraway.

Qiu Miaojin, the first openly gay woman in Chinese literature, migrated halfway around the world, from Taiwan to Paris. In her second novel she writes of a character who has done the same, in a bid for self-actualization which ultimately fails. The character invents a non-binary imaginary friend to live out an idealized version of her life after she ceases to exist. As our reviewer Ankita Chakraborty says of this narrator, “She is willing to cross boundaries that define reality from imagination, woman from man, landscape from landscape, and life from death.” A profound sense of alienation, brought on by stigmatization, lies as the heart of Qiu’s queer classics — a breach that opens up between the self and others. The narrator crosses borders in order to become her true self, but ends up feeling like nothing more than a foreigner in a foreign land.

Of course, there’s feeling like a foreigner in a foreign land, and then there’s feeling like one in your homeland. Our reviewer Brittany Allen writes about two new short story collections that explore the inner lives of black Americans. The characters in these stories, “who tremble on the faultlines, and struggle to inhabit comfortably their impossible bodies,” suffer from the lived experience of “Otherhood,” which compels them to wage endless war inside their own heads, with their own selves.

In his interview with Hope Reese, Michael Pollan advocates for ditching the self altogether. He describes the healthy and grounding experience of seeing his own self “spread over the landscape like a coat of paint.” In his experiments with hallucinogenic drugs, he discovered that:

I wasn’t necessarily identical to my ego, which I had always assumed was the case. And that, you know, your ego is this interesting character. I mean, it really is a character. It’s a projection of someone who sort of stands for you and looks out for you and patrols the borders between you and others, and the border between you and your subconscious.

In his interview with Tobias Carroll, Sergio De La Pava expresses the opposite sentiment, a niggling fear that he might ever be mistaken for someone else, even the person most nearly identical to him who could possibly exist — a “Sergio De La Pava” in another dimension:

If there’s something in another universe that looks like me, has my name, that other people call Sergio De La Pava and is doing something, that’s great, but whatever that thing is, it’s not me… Whatever you want to say my physical body or whatever you want to call it — a mind, you want to call it, a soul, whatever you want to call it — it feels indivisible.

I suppose I’ve drifted from the subject of borders and crossings to the subject of selves and others. Maybe that’s because when I think about borders, I don’t think about the gaps between places, I think about the spaces between people. Nowadays, a border isn’t a division between two pieces of land, it’s a border between two people, repeated and repeated until every small trauma of division becomes a national one. It’s a way of dictating who gets to visit whom, who gets to live with their family and who gets their family taken away. It’s a global parole system, the prisonification of the planet….. The border is everywhere. The border is between you and the pizza delivery guy, you and your high school classmate, you and your child….

Like any border — the ones between nations, the ones between ourselves and others, ourselves and the landscape — even the boundary between our bodies is not a natural phenomenon, but an imagined one. Our bodies are porous. In novelist Christie Watson’s memoir of her nearly 20 years as a nurse, she remembers her awe at the special privilege of surgeons, who can reach a hand into another person’s body and touch that person’s heart. When caring for a boy who has received a heart transplant, whose beating heart she watched be removed and replaced with another child’s, the boy tells her that now he loves a new flavor of ice cream, strawberry, because he believes the previous owner of his heart had loved it. It seems to me like he was welcoming the stranger inside of him, by trying to love with the stranger’s heart — something we all fail to do at our own peril. In the next life, we may find ourselves wanderers on the wrong side of another type of border. As Watson goes on to say:

Ancient Egyptians believed that the heart symbolized truth; after death, they would weigh the heart against a feather of truth, to be eaten by a demon if the scales did not balance, leaving the person’s soul restless for eternity. In this post-truth world, I wonder what will happen to our souls. We have nothing to weigh our hearts against.

Dana Snitzky
Books Editor

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This Month in Books: ‘How Do We Stay the Right Distance Apart?’

Ladder on library bookcase
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Dear Reader,

At first glance, there’s a pretty stark divide in this month’s books newsletter.

In one corner, we have the isolationists. In her book The Art of the Wasted Day, Patricia Hampl writes about the Ladies of Llangollen, who became famous in the late 18th century for their intense desire to live a life of quiet “retirement” and “delicious seclusion.” They eschewed marriage, ran away from home, and, once they settled down, rarely traveled. They just wanted to be left alone. So too do the Patriot Movement-esque insurrectionists in Maxim Loskutoff’s new short story collection Come West and See, who rail against the federal government’s incursions.

In the other corner, we have the systematic thinkers, the big picture people, who are making impassioned calls for us to work — together — to change the system before the system’s collapse engulfs us all. Although, to be fair, William Vollmann, in an interview about his new book No Immediate Danger, tells us he’s pretty sure it’s already too late to stop climate change. The afrofuturist and activist adrienne maree brown, in an interview about her planet/self-help book Emergent Strategy, feels slightly more hopeful; she thinks it’s possible that we are on the cusp of a radical reckoning in self- and collective awareness. Through changes in perception and practice, her thinking goes, we will redirect our collective fate.

This same juxtaposition becomes the centerpiece of Rachel King’s review of two new books about the workplace: David Graeber, in his new book Bullshit Jobs, begs us to change the system, while Alison Green, in Ask a Manager, gives us sound advice about how to survive it.

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I think, though, that the two sides of this coin have a lot to offer one another. “I try not to have a schedule,” Vollmann tells us — useful advice for a polymath, but not so much for a regular person hoping to avert climate change, which, as adrienne maree brown rightly points out, likely requires us to engage in a new kind of “intentional” living. Meanwhile, the Ladies of Llangollen — oh, the Ladies! — lived by what they called “Our System,” managed down to the minute, exquisitely engineered to foster a productive life of the mind, healthful eating, and light exercise. For all their bourgeois moralizing (they were aghast at the French Revolution), their System was, unbeknownst to them, radically environmentalist, and, fully known to them, radically emotionally fulfilling.

And it turns out that Come West and See’s insurrectionists — or not the insurrectionists themselves, not the true believers, but rather those sympathetic to their protest — might be less interested in being left alone by the system than being recognized by it. Tori Telfer notices this in her review, pointing to the mother of one of the Cliven Bundy-like protesters, who insists, “We’re real people,” and to an angry young man envious of college athletes whom he thinks are destined to be become not only “bosses,” but “the boss’s bosses.” This is not a desire for freedom from a system, but a desire for inclusion within it.

Perhaps what I’m noticing is this: we can’t survive alone, not really. (Even the Ladies had a constant stream of visitors and volumes of correspondence. They also read books — which are, after all, just another way of talking to people.) But we won’t survive at all if we don’t each — individually — change how we live; if we don’t each become, in practice, survivalists. “This is what [we] learn from flocking,” adrienne maree brown says. “How do we stay the right distance apart and the right distance in touch with each other in order to actually move together as a unit and stay alive and make it as far as we can?”

Dana Snitzky
Books Editor

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