Author Archives

Dustin Kurtz
Dustin lives in Portland, Oregon. He's a former bookseller and currently works in indie publishing. You can find him on twitter at @theunread, though it's not clear why you might want to.

To Consider Myself a Human Being

Ji Xianlin | The Cowshed: Memories of the Chinese Cultural Revolution | New York Review Books | Jan. 2016 | 26 minutes (6,690 words)


What follows are three excerpts from Ji Xianlin’s The Cowshed, courtesy of New York Review Books. As the publisher notes:

In contemporary China, the Cultural Revolution remains a delicate topic, little discussed, but if a Chinese citizen has read one book on the subject, it is likely to be Ji’s memoir. When The Cowshed was published in China in 1998, it quickly became a bestseller. The Cultural Revolution had nearly disappeared from the collective memory. Prominent intellectuals rarely spoke openly about the revolution, and books on the subject were almost nonexistent. By the time of Ji’s death in 2009, little had changed, and despite its popularity, The Cowshed remains one of the only testimonies of its kind. As Zha Jianying writes in the introduction, “The book has sold well and stayed in print. But authorities also quietly took steps to restrict public discussion of the memoir, as its subject continues to be treated as sensitive.”

The Cowshed is invaluable in its own right as a harrowing story of how the Cultural Revolution played out on an urban campus, but perhaps even more importantly as a glimpse into how those years of turmoil are remembered in mainland China. Read more…

This Better and Truer History

J.M. Coetzee and Arabella Kurtz | The Good Story: Exchanges on Truth, Fiction and Psychotherapy | Viking | Sep. 2015 | 19 minutes (4,835 words)


The Good Story is a new book-length discussion between J.M. Coetzee—a nobel laureate renowned for the complicated treatments of morality, accountability and truth in his work—and Arabella Kurtz, a clinical psychologist with a background in literary studies. The following excerpt is the book’s sixth chapter, and appears courtesy of Viking Books.


In this chapter:

Stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, and their truth status. Postmodern ‘as if’ notions of the truth. What ‘as if ’ therapeutic solutions might look like. Treating reality, in literature, as simply one fiction among many. Delusions and the truth status of delusions: the case of Don Quixote. Quixote’s challenge: Is an invented ideal truth sometimes not better than the real truth? The truth status of memories. Historians and how they deal with past (remembered) events. Settler societies and unsettling memories of an often genocidal past.

The patient’s story as a subjective truth. Enacting that truth in the consulting room: a case history. Incomplete truths, and the therapist’s role in filling out the missing parts. Progression from subjective truth to fuller subjective truth. ‘Authenticity’ as an alter- native term to subjective truth. The importance of holding on to the notion of truth. Truth as process in psychoanalysis (Hanna Segal). The moment of recognition (recognising the truth) in therapy.

Read more…

The Story of Vicente, Who Murdered His Mother, His Father, and His Sister

Vicente Leon Chavez, 16 // Lucio Soria // El Diario

Sandra Rodríguez Nieto | The Story of Vicente, Who Murdered His Mother, His Father, His Sister: Life and Death in Juárez | Verso Books | Nov. 2015 | 19 minutes (4,857 words)

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The following excerpt appears courtesy of Verso Books. The passage—the book’s opening chapter—details a single terrible crime, which Rodriguez Nieto uses as an inroad to discussing Juárez’s emergent culture of crime. Verso writes:

Sandra Rodríguez Nieto was an investigative reporter for the daily newspaper El Diario de Juárez for nearly a decade. Despite tremendous danger and the assassination of one of her closest colleagues, she persisted. She didn’t want the story of her city told solely by foreign reporters, because, in her words, “I know what is underneath the violence.” This book traces the rise of a national culture of murder and bloody retribution, and is a testament to the extraordinary bravery of its author. Among other things, The Story of Vicente is an account of how poverty, political corruption, failing government institutions and US meddling combined to create an explosion of violence in Juárez.

A warning: the excerpt below contains graphic violence. Read more…

The Biblical Rheology of Deep-Dish Pizza

Matthew Gavin Frank | The Mad Feast: An Ecstatic Tour Through America’s Food | Liveright | Nov. 2015 | 11 minutes (2,839 words)

The following is the Illinois chapter from Matthew Gavin Frank’s exceptional new tour of signature foods from fifty states, excerpted here courtesy of Liveright Publishing.

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If frostbite is just another kind of scalding, then let’s imagine this earth as a dish, or—even better—a platter, something capable of containing the thickest of our dinners, the cold cut, as if geologically, with the orange grease of the mozzarella, the pepperoni’s fat char. Let’s pretend that all winters can be spatula’d into our mouths in easy triangles, that, if we take too big a bite, if we don’t blow the world cool, our mouths will fall lame, and we will make only weather sounds.

Uncle sprinkles crumbs of parmesan and crushed red pepper over his slice. Outside, on the window, a child leaves his hand in the frost, and the pizza whines as Uncle bites it. You think of crying, of fallow fields, of—just south of the city—some awful crow choking to death on some kernel of frozen corn. Here, in Illinois, our corn is better. Better even than the birds.

The crust uplifts the sauce. In this is some kind of offering, sacrifice. The pizza cries for its mother. The ovens gasp. This, Uncle says, tracing his pinky over the imprint of the child’s thumb, trying to measure up, is what your aunt and I used to call Baby-Making Weather. Read more…

By the Reflection of What Is

Plate 2. Unknown photographer, July–August 1843.

John Stauffer and Zoe Trodd | Picturing Frederick Douglass: An Illustrated Biography of the Nineteenth Century’s Most Photographed American| Liveright | Nov. 2015 | 22 minutes (5,654 words)

The following excerpt appears courtesy of Liveright Publishing.

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Frederick Douglass was in love with photography. During the four years of civil war, he wrote more extensively on photography than any other American, even while recognizing that his audiences were “riveted” to the war and wanted a speech only on “this mighty struggle.” He frequented photographers’ studios and sat for his portrait whenever he could. As a result of this passion, he also became the most photographed American of the nineteenth century.

It may seem strange, if not implausible, to assert that a black man and former slave wrote more extensively on photography, and sat for his portrait more frequently, than any of his American peers. But he did. We know this because Douglass penned four separate talks on photography (“Lecture on Pictures,” “Life Pictures,” “Age of Pictures,” and “Pictures and Progress”), whereas Oliver Wendell Holmes, the Boston physician and writer who is generally considered the most prolific Civil-War era photo critic, penned only three. We have also identified, after years of research, 160 separate photographs of Douglass, as defined by distinct poses rather than multiple copies of the same negative. By contrast, scholars have identified 155 separate photographs of George Custer, 128 of Red Cloud, 127 of Walt Whitman, and 126 of Abraham Lincoln. Ulysses S. Grant is a contender, but no one has published the corpus of Grant photographs; one eminent scholar (Harold Holzer) has estimated 150 separate photographs of Grant. Although there are some 850 total portraits of William “Buffalo Bill” Cody and his Wild West Show, and 650 of Mark Twain, no one has analyzed how many of these are distinct poses, or photographs as opposed to engravings, lithographs, and other non-photographic media. Moreover, Cody and Twain were a generation younger, and many if not most of their portraits were taken after 1900, when the Eastman Kodak snapshot had transformed the medium, bringing photography “within reach of every human being who desires to preserve a record of what he sees,” as Kodak declared. In the world, the only contemporaries who surpass Douglass are the British Royal Family: there are 676 separate photographs of Princess Alexandra, 655 of the Prince of Wales, 593 of Ellen Terry, 428 of Queen Victoria, and 366 of William Gladstone.

Douglass’s passion for photography, however, has been largely ignored. He is, perhaps, most popularly remembered as one of the foremost abolitionists, and the preeminent black leader, of the nineteenth century. History books have also celebrated his relationship with President Lincoln, the fact that he met with every subsequent president until his death in 1895, and that he was the first African American to receive a federal appointment requiring Senate approval. His three autobiographies (two of them bestsellers), which helped transform the genre, are still read today. Yet, because his photographic passion has been almost completely forgotten, historians have missed an important question: why would a man who devoted his life to ending slavery and racism and championing civil rights be so in love with photography? Read more…

Just Below the Surface

Summer Brennan | The Oyster War | Counterpoint Press | August 2015 | 20 minutes (5,042 words)

The following is an excerpt from Summer Brennan’s excellent The Oyster War: the True Story of a Small Farm, Big Politics, and the Future of Wilderness in America, appearing courtesy of Counterpoint Press. Buy the book here.


The road to the oyster farm is paved with the moon-white grit of pulverized oyster shells. There is a gleam to it, and to drive it in the dusk of the dry summer months is to see the dust-coated leaves of the ditch plants take on the powdery luminosity of white moths.

Hugging the edge of the estuary’s northernmost inlet, the narrow lane rises a little above a lush wetland dotted with egrets and blue herons, and then winds down again to the edge of a vast and shining body of water. This is Drakes Estero, what’s been called “the heart of the park.” The air feels different here. In winter or summer, heat or cold, there is an enlivening bite of freshness.

I was at the farm one evening in the late summer of 2013 to look for Oscar, one of the farm’s workers. He had given me an unauthorized tour of the planting sites the month before, and I was worried that allowing him to do so had accidentally gotten him fired. Word on the street was that it had. I was initially shocked to hear this, but considering how contentious things had gotten, what with the legal battle and all the national media attention, I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised at all. For owners Kevin and Nancy Lunny, who by some estimates had already sunk more than a million dollars into their efforts to restore the farm and keep it open, the stakes could not have been higher.

Like many of the oyster workers, Oscar lived in one of the rundown buildings that made up the farm’s small land-based component—a smattering of sheds, cottages, trailers and pre-fab homes. At least, that is what he told me, though I didn’t know if he still lived there. The buildings were scattered over just about an acre and a half, so I figured it wouldn’t take too long to look.

I pulled up and parked my borrowed, mud-splattered 1991 Toyota station wagon in front of a weatherworn white building. A brightly painted sign exclaimed it to be the “Oyster Shack.” No more than 600 square feet in total, it housed the retail portion of the business in front and the tiny hatchery in back, where the oysters were grown from spat (or “seed”) the size of sand grains. On the wall of an adjacent shed was pinned a large American flag.

The pop radio station I’d been listening to on the drive out had turned to white noise. I switched it off and got out of the car. Read more…

Well-Aimed and Powerful

John C. Houbolt at blackboard, showing his space rendezvous concept for lunar landings. // NASA // Wikimedia Commons

Margaret Lazarus Dean | Leaving Orbit | Graywolf Press | May 2015 | 21 minutes (5,246 words)


The following is an excerpt from Leaving Orbit by Margaret Dean Lazarus, winner of the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize, appearing courtesy of Graywolf Press.

* * *

The astronauts walked with the easy saunter of athletes. . . . Once they sat down, however, the mood shifted. Now they were there to answer questions about a phenomenon which even ten years ago would have been considered material unfit for serious discussion. Grown men, perfectly normal-looking, were now going to talk about their trip to the moon. It made everyone uncomfortable.
—Norman Mailer, Of a Fire on the Moon

Southern Festival of Books: Nashville, Tennessee, October 10, 2009

Maybe you’ve seen it. Many people have—at least 800,000 have clicked on various YouTube iterations of the same moment. It looks like nothing at first. The video is fuzzy, amateur, handheld. We hear the muffled verité sound of wind against the microphone, of the excited breath of the camera operator. People are standing around, their postures reflecting boredom, their faces and movements obscured by the shaky camera work and low resolution.

On YouTube, of course, this poor video quality, combined with a high hit count, contains an inverse promise: something is about to happen.

We can make out a white-haired man in a blue blazer, partially obscured by a sign. He seems to be talking to another man, in a black jacket, whose back is to the camera. Out of any context, the white-haired man would be unrecognizable because of the bad video quality, but if you know to look for him—and you do, because of the title on the YouTube page—the man is recognizable as astronaut Buzz Aldrin, lunar module pilot of Apollo 11, one of the first two men to walk on the moon.

The muffled audio obscures the voice of the black-jacketed man, who is speaking now. Passion or nervousness makes his voice waver.

“You’re the one who said you walked on the moon when you didn’t,” the man says. He is holding an object out to Buzz. A subsequent Google search reveals that it’s a Bible—he is trying to make Buzz swear upon it.

Overlapping him, Buzz Aldrin’s voice says, clearly and unwaveringly,
“Get away from me.”

“—calling the kettle black. You’re a coward and a liar and a thief—”

At that moment Buzz’s arm comes up and cracks the black-jacketed
man in the jaw. Even with the poor video, we can see that it’s an impressive punch, well-aimed and powerful. We can’t see the punched man’s face, but we see his head recoil backward. The camera recoils too, as if in sympathy. Something has changed in the scene, you can sense it. One public figure’s image has been complicated, another person now has a story to tell, a video to put on YouTube. Read more…

How Apple’s Transcendent Chihuahua Killed the Revolution

Wreckage of the Zeppelin LZ4 after the crash in Echterdingen. Photo: Wikipedia Commons

Ian Bogost | from The Geek’s Chihuahua | University of Minnesota Press | April 2015 | 22 minutes (5,539 words)


The following is an excerpt from Ian Bogost’s book The Geek’s Chihuahua, which addresses “the modern love affair of ‘living with Apple’ during the height of the company’s market influence and technology dominance,” and how smartphones created a phenomenon of “hyperemployment.”


Think back to 2007, when you got the first iPhone. (You did get one, didn’t you? Of course you did.) You don’t need me to remind you that it was a shiny object of impressive design, slick in hand and light in pocket. Its screen was bright and its many animations produced endless, silent “oohs” even as they became quickly familiar. Accelerometer-triggered rotations, cell tower triangulations (the first model didn’t have GPS yet), and seamless cellular/WiFi data transitions invoked strong levels of welcome magic. These were all novelties once, and not that long ago.

What you probably don’t remember: that first iPhone was also terrible. Practically unusable, really, for the ordinary barrage of phone calls, text messages, mobile email, and web browsing that earlier smartphones had made portable. And not for the reasons we feared before getting our hands on one—typing without tactile feedback wasn’t as hard to get used to as BlackBerry and Treo road warriors had feared, even if it still required a deliberate transition from t9 or mini-keyboard devices—but rather because the device software was pushing the limits of what affordable hardware could handle at the time.

Applications loaded incredibly slowly. Pulling up a number or composing an email by contact name was best begun before ordering a latte or watering a urinal to account for the ensuing delay. Cellular telephone reception was far inferior to other devices available at the time, and regaining a lost signal frequently required an antenna or power cycle. Wireless data reception was poor and slow, and the device’s ability to handle passing in and out of what coverage it might find was limited. Tasks interrupted by coverage losses, such as email sends in progress, frequently failed completely.

The software was barebones. There was no App Store in those early days, making the iPhone’s operating system a self-contained affair, a ladleful of Apple-apportioned software gruel, the same for everyone. That it worked at all was a miracle, but our expectations had been set high by decades of complex, adept desktop software. By comparison, the iPhone’s apps were barebones. The Mail application, for example, borrowed none of its desktop cousin’s elegant color-coded, threaded summary view but instead demanded inexplicable click-touches back and forward from folder to folder, mailbox to mailbox. Read more…