Author Archives

Julia Wick
Julia Wick is a contributing editor for Longreads.

Rainy Season

 Amy Parker | Beasts & Children, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt | February 2016 | 30 minutes (7,639 words) 

Our latest Longreads Exclusive is “Rainy Season,” a short story from Beasts & ChildrenAmy Parker’s acclaimed debut collection. The book’s interlinked stories unwind the lives of three families, casting a cool eye on the wreckage of childhood and the nuances of family history.

“Rainy Season” is nightmarish but entrancing—two young American sisters living in Thailand sneak out of their diplomatic compound and into the Chiang Mai night with a trio of Korean businessmen who have mistaken them for prostitutes. Parker’s sentences are lyrical and brutal, her gaze both kaleidoscopic and piercingly straightforward. 


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The Selling of ‘Valley of the Dolls’

Valley of the Dolls, Jacqueline Susann’s magnificently juicy 1966 novel, was released 50 years ago this week. In The Telegraph, Martin Chilton relays the story of the book’s promotion—essentially how Susann made it into a record-breaking best seller through sheer force of will (and savvy). “A new book is like a new brand of detergent,” Susann famously said. “You have to let the public know about it. What’s wrong with that?”

She and her husband criss-crossed America, dropping in on bookstores in every one of the 250 cities they visited. Susann would ask the head sales clerks if they had read her novel. If they hadn’t, or did not have a copy, she would give them one and autograph it. “Salesmen don’t get books free, you know,” she told Life magazine. “I tell them ‘be my guest’ and then they can recommend it honestly to their customers.”

The flattered bookshop staff would often change their window display to give a prominent slot to her novel, with its slick cover, showing coloured pills scattered against a white background. The only time she lost her cool in a shop was when she found out that the books department of the Carson Pirie Scott department store in Chicago was selling Valley of the Dolls under the counter, as if it were pornography.

Another factor in her favour was that she understood the power of television and made great efforts to appear on national and local stations during her PR tours. The former actress knew how to play the fame game. As the blurb on Valley of the Dolls proudly stated: “Miss Susann has been stabbed, strangled, and shot on every major dramatic show on the airwaves”. She was a canny guest star, giving around 30 televised interviews a week. “No matter what an interviewer asks, I can work the conversation back to the book,” she said.

And she wasn’t afraid of using any means possible, including her little “dolls”, to keep her energy levels up, “I took amphetamine pills when I was on tour,” she told Pageant magazine in 1967. “I felt that I owed it to people to be bright, rather than droop on television. I was suddenly awake, and could give my best.”

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Who Owns Tattoos?

Over at Vice Sports, Aaron Gordon has a fascinating piece up about intellectual property rights and tattoos. He opens with the case of the NBA2K video game series, which is currently being sued by a tattoo artist agency over the games’ digitally recreated tattoos, which appear on the virtual bodies of players such as Kobe Bryant and LeBron James. But copyright issues get murky when we are talking about tattoos. So just who exactly owns those inked images?

On the face of it, the answer seems obvious. Tattoo artists charge for their work, with a reasonable expectation that the art will be seen by others, according to Yolanda King, Associate Professor at Northern Illinois University College of Law and counsel at Advitam IP, an intellectual property law firm. For example, when Shawn Rome gives James a tattoo, he is giving James an implied license to display the tattoo in the arena, on television, and anywhere else a camera catches him. Rome owns the design, and James owns the right to display it on his body.

But when that tattoo is on the body of a celebrity, and the design gets copied, re-created and sold for profit by third parties, the ownership issue becomes much thornier. NBA2K publicly touts its ultra-realistic graphics and player design, specifically singling out tattoo recreation as an element of that realism. It features specific NBA player tattoos prominently in promotional materials. However, the game’s makers didn’t get permission from the legal rights holder of those designs, Solid Oak Sketches. So the basic question before the Southern District of New York courts is this: is what NBA 2K does with tattoos any different than if the game’s makers had used an unlicensed photograph to promote their product?

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The Art World Is Crazy

I have been mildly obsessed with freeports—the secretive, treasure-crammed warehouses where Picassos are stashed alongside stacked bars of gold, tax-free—since David Segal’s 2012 New York Times article on the Geneva Freeport. Freeports, Segal explained, “remain the closest thing to the Cayman Islands that the art world has to offer.”

Sam Knight takes coverage of international freeport intrigue to the next level in this week’s New Yorker, with “The Bouvier Affair.” His story delves into the machinations of the Geneva Freeport and describes how one Swiss shipper saw the potential of the freeport as an adjunct to the art market, ultimately transforming himself into an under-the-radar dealer and bilking a Russian oligarch out of a billion dollars. It would not be an overstatement to call the story completely bananas. It is also a magnificently fun read—a delicious rollercoaster of a narrative, undergirded by a foundation of detailed, careful reporting. Of particular note are Knight’s nuanced insights into the bonkers world of art, like this description of the relationship between dealer and collector:

The relationship between art dealer and collector is particular and charged. The dealer is mentor and salesman. He informs his client’s desires while subjecting himself to them at the same time. The collector has money, but he is also vulnerable. Relationships start, prosper, and fail for any number of reasons. It is not always obvious where power lies. Over time, each one can convince himself that he has created the other.

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See Also:
“Swiss Freeports Are Home for a Growing Treasury of Art” (David Segal, July 2012, The New York Times)

How to Drop Out of a Presidential Race

Adlai Stevenson (left) at a 1952 AFL convention. Photo: Kheel Center, Flickr

This is not an idle consideration. Dropping out of the presidential race can be more important—and can have a more lasting impact—than entering it. Departing the right way can help a candidate built a lasting “brand” and set him or her up for speaking fees, TV contracts, a book deal and, who knows, maybe another run for the top prize one day.

Of course, some candidates go out with more grace and style than others. One of history’s best dropout lines came from Democrat Adlai Stevenson, who, after losing to Dwight Eisenhower, confessed, “It hurts too much to laugh, but I’m too old to cry.” Richard Nixon, after he lost his race for governor of California in 1962, chose a different tack, famously proclaiming he’d quit politics forever and snapping to reporters, in words that would haunt him the rest of his life, “You won’t have Dick Nixon to kick around anymore.” Ronald Reagan fought Gerald Ford all the way to the convention in 1976, and spent the next four years giving speeches and addresses that set up his frontrunner status in 1980. In 2008, when Hillary Clinton left the presidential campaign after a long, bitter struggle against Barack Obama she proclaimed herself a “glass ceiling” breaker—and made it pretty clear she’d be back to try to shatter the glass again.

—Matt Larimer, writing for Politico. Larimer’s piece offers an excellent guide for the losers of Iowa and New Hampshire and armchair analysts alike.

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Talking to Alice Driver About Violence Against Women in Juárez

Schoolgirls walk in front of a mural painted with the faces of disappeared girls. Local artists and families of the disappeared have been working together to raise awareness about disappearance in Juárez; they paint the faces of missing girls on the donated walls of schools, churches, and homes around the city. Photo: Alice Driver

Ciudad Juárez, Mexico was once known as the global murder capital. It’s no longer the world’s most dangerous city, but violence still haunts the town just over the border from El Paso, Texas. Alice Driver, a filmmaker, writer and photographer whose work focuses on human rights, feminism, and activism, has written extensively about Juárez.  Her searing 2015 book More or Less Dead: Feminicide, Haunting, and the Ethics of Representation in Mexico deals specifically with the disappearance and murder of women in Juárez. The work, which grew out of her dissertation, blends theory with stories and interviews to explore not just the violence against women in Juárez, but also how that violence has been represented in media and culture. As Driver writes:

“To talk about feminicide is to talk about violence against women in all its manifestations, and in Juárez one of the most visible of those is disappearance. When women are murdered, their bodies don’t always appear. Often they disappear, and so the violence becomes unregistered, unrecorded, and seemingly invisible. This book is about the ways in which those bodies, whether identified or nameless, have been represented in literature, film, and art.”

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Stories Make Us Human

They say language makes us human. That notion is being challenged as we discover that apes have language. Whales have language. I welcome them into our fold. I’m not threatened by them, quite frankly, because I think that stories make us human. Only by telling them do we stay so.

Stories are our prayers. Write and edit them with due reverence, even when the stories themselves are irreverent.
Stories are parables. Write and edit and tell yours with meaning, so each tale stands in for a larger message, each story a guidepost on our collective journey.
Stories are history. Write and edit and tell yours with accuracy and understanding and context and with unwavering devotion to the truth.
Stories are music. Write and edit and tell yours with pace and rhythm and flow. Throw in the dips and twirls that make them exciting, but stay true to the core beat. Readers hear stories with their inner ear.
Stories are our soul. Write and edit and tell yours with your whole selves. Tell them as if they are all that matters. It matters that you do it as if that’s all there is.

—Journalist Jacqui Banaszynski, in Telling True Stories: A Nonfiction Writers’ Guide from the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University. The book’s essays are derived from presentations given at Harvard’s Nieman Conference on Narrative JournalismRead more…

The Ever-Shifting Definition of ‘Progressive’

Bernie Sanders’ campaign website categorizes his platform as “progressive”; Hillary Clinton has recently started describing herself as “a progressive who likes to get things done.” And Beverly Gage has a fascinating piece over at The New York Times Magazine about the shifting definition of the word “progressive,” particularly in relation to its similarly left-leaning lexical cousin “liberal.”

According to Gage, “progressive” came into widespread use in the early 1900s, during “a moment when many Americans believed democracy was failing.” The time period doesn’t sound so dissimilar to today: the richest of the rich—robber barons like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller—controlled enormous wealth, while millions of Americans (many of them immigrants) lived in poverty. The first round of progressivism was a response to this massive income inequality, as the middle class “went in search of a new politics that would enable both the government and the citizenry to rebalance this distribution of power.”

The ‘‘progressive’’ movement was, at first, a big-tent enterprise, a ‘‘remarkably good-natured effort of the greater part of society to achieve some not very clearly specified self-reformation,’’ in the words of the historian Richard Hofstadter. The general impulse to do something inspired a bewildering array of social movements that had little in common by today’s standards. At its height, progressivism produced moralists, cynics and social engineers, with some progressives seeking to liberate humanity from its benighted superstitions as others sought to impose strict rules about sex, alcohol and racial intermingling. Urban reformers and pacifists and trustbusters and suffragists all called themselves ‘‘progressives.’’ So did prohibitionists and segregationists and antivaccinationists and eugenicists. Historians still refer to the first two decades of the 20th century as the Progressive Era, a time when the nation enacted its first federal income tax and food-safety regulations and women won the right to vote. But during that period, progressivism’s darker side emerged, too: the creation of the Jim Crow system and the passage of viciously exclusionary immigration restriction.

And if you think the currently squabbling over the true definition of “progressive” is confusing, 2016 has nothing on 1912, when both Democrats and Republicans simultaneously embraced the term. Former Republican president Theodore Roosevelt was running for office under the newly minted “Progressive Party,” with his two main opponents (Woodrow Wilson and William Howard Taft, one a Democrat and one a Republican, respectively) also self-describing with the term.

But the real narrative of the word “progressive” seems to be that of a shifting pendulum: it fell from favor in the aftermath of World War I, and Great Depression-era reformers abandoned it completely, instead identifying as “liberals.” As Gage writes:

This word [liberal] set them apart from the prim moralizing of some of their predecessors; one of Franklin Roosevelt’s first acts as president was to allow the nation to drink beer. It also suggested a growing respect for civil liberties, rejecting the progressives’ tendency to favor social control over individual freedom. When Washington reformers became ‘‘liberals,’’ ‘‘progressives’’ in turn became more radical. In the parlance of the 1930s, to be a ‘‘progressive’’ was suddenly to be a ‘‘fellow traveler,’’ someone who never joined the Communist Party but who felt that the Communists might have a point.

The pendulum shifts continued throughout the 20th century and, it now seems, will keep swinging well into the 21st.

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Seven Takes on Obama for the Final State of the Union

Call me an optimist, but I have high hopes for tonight’s State of the Union—and not just because the White House will be live-annotating it on Genius. We’ve been promised that President Obama’s seventh and final State of the Union address will depart from convention—and the usual laundry list of legislative priorities—in favor of “a grander call to arms on the major challenges facing the nation.” What that may mean is anyone’s guess, but here are six stories about Obama and one speech, for those who like to scroll while they watch. You can livestream the State of the Union here, starting at 9pm ET.

1. “Obama, Explained” (James Fallows, The Atlantic, March 2012)

Written as Obama campaigned for a second term, Fallows analyzed the first chapter of his presidency, in historical context.

2. “The Obama Memos” (Ryan Lizza, The New Yorker, Jan. 2012)

A look at hundreds of pages of internal White House documents, and what they reveal about the president’s decision-making process

3. “Inside Obama’s War Room” (Michael Hastings, Rolling Stone, Oct. 2011)

The late Michael Hastings on Obama’s decision to intervene in Libya, and what it says about his evolution as commander in chief.

4. “For a Look Outside Presidential Bubble, Obama Reads 10 Personal Letters Each Day” (Eli Saslow, Washington Post, March 2010)

The black binder arrived at the White House residence just before 8 p.m., and President Obama took it upstairs to begin his nightly reading. The briefing book was dated Jan. 8, 2010, but it looked like the same package delivered every night, with printouts of speeches, policy recommendations and scheduling notes. Near the back was a purple folder, which Obama often flips to first. “MEMORANDUM TO THE PRESIDENT,” read a sheet clipped to the folder. “Per your request, we have attached 10 pieces of unvetted correspondence addressed to you.”

5.“Barack Obama’s Work in Progress” (Robert Draper, GQ, Nov 2009)

Robert Draper on Obama, the writer.

6.“The Obamas’ Marriage” (Jodi Kantor, New York Times, Oct. 2009)

How can any couple have a truly equal partnership when one member is president? Jodi Kantor paints a rich portrait in this New York Times Magazine cover story.

7. “A More Perfect Union” (Speech delivered by then-Senator Barack Obama on March 18, 2008).

Who else sat around a computer and watched Obama’s race speech and felt like something big was about to happen? Seems apt to revisit it before he takes the stage tonight, especially if you are feeling hopeful.

Haruki Murakami on the Weirdness of His Birthday as a Public Event

Photo: Pablo, Flickr

In the introduction to Birthday Stories, a 2004 anthology edited by Haruki Murakami, Murakami writes about the particular weirdness of having his birthday become a public event. January 12 has come around again, so in honor of Murakami’s 67th birthday it seemed apt to revisit the introduction, which  also ran as an essay in The Guardian:

Early one birthday morning I was listening to the radio in the kitchen of my Tokyo apartment. I usually get up early to work. I wake between four and five in the morning, make myself some coffee (my wife is still sleeping), eat a slice of toast and go to my study to begin writing. While I prepare my breakfast, I usually listen to the radio news – not by choice (there’s not a lot worth hearing), but because there’s not much else to do at such an early hour. That morning, as I waited for my water to boil, the newsreader was announcing a list of public events planned for the day, with details of when and where they were happening. For example, the emperor was going to plant a ceremonial tree, or a large British passenger ship was due to dock in Yokohama, or events would be taking place throughout the country in honour of this being official chewing-gum day (I know it sounds ludicrous but I am not making it up: there really is such a day).

The last item on this list of public events was an announcement of the names of famous people whose birthday fell on January 12. And there among them was my own! “Novelist Haruki Murakami today celebrates his **th birthday,” the announcer said. I was only half listening, but, even so, at the sound of my own name I almost knocked over the hot kettle. “Whoa!” I cried aloud and looked around the room in disbelief. “So,” it occurred to me a few minutes later with a pang, “my birthday is not just for me any more. Now they list it as a public event.”

A public event?

Oh well, public event or not, at least at that moment some of the people throughout Japan – it was a nationwide broadcast – standing (or sitting) by their radios may have had at least some fleeting thought of me. “So, today is Haruki Murakami’s birthday, eh?” Or, “Oh, wow, Haruki Murakami’s ** years old, now too!” Or, “Hey, whaddya know, even guys like Haruki Murakami have birthdays!” In reality, though, how many people in Japan could have been up at this ridiculous pre-dawn hour listening to the radio news? Twenty or thirty thousand? And how many of those would know my name? Two or three thousand? I had absolutely no idea.

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See Also:

“Haruki Murakami, The Art of Fiction No. 182” (The Paris Review, Summer 2004)

“The Fierce Imagination of Haruki Murakami” (Sam Anderson, The New York Times, 2011)